A Widow’s Thoughts on Father’s Day … and Star Trek

I’ve written and discarded more than a handful of pre-Father’s Day posts this year.* Early attempts gushed, dripping with enough emotion to make the Enterprise‘s empathic Counselor Deanna Troi  seem unfeeling. Later drafts evoked so little sentiment they could have been dictated by the most stoic members of the Vulcan High Command.

You might be asking, why the Star Trek references on a grief website about Father’s Day?

My three daughters — my next generation — grew up with the sounds and culture of Star Trek in our home. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com.)

I introduced my late husband to Gene Roddenberry’s world(s), and over the years he learned to love Star Trek and Star Trek The Next Generation as much as I did. (Well, almost, anyway.) The Next Generation debuted weeks before the birth of our first child, and he watched (at first) only to placate his very pregnant wife. It’s the series I most associate with him becoming a new father.

A few years (read: show seasons) later, I went into labor with our second child (during the first commercial break) while watching a new episode. I hid my increasing discomfort (read: pain and silent attempts at Lamaze breathing) until the end of that hour. I knew he and my mother (who’d come to help with the baby) would insist I hurry to the hospital the second they realized I was having contractions — but first, I had to see how The Next Generation episode ended! (Besides, the contractions started at twelve minutes apart. When they soon skipped to five, I couldn’t exactly call the doctor as instructed at seven minutes apart, could I?) Better to wait until the end of the show …

In early grief, I wished I could click a magic device and say, “Beam me up.” (Image from Bruce family photos, TealAshes.com.)

In these days of DVDs and streaming, its easy to binge-watch not just one installment but all the Star Trek spin-off series. Yet, in the nearly seven years since my husband died, I’ve probably seen fewer than seven episodes of the seven hundred-some spanning six series not to mention the movies. It took time to win my husband over to the sci fi shows, and it has taken time to win me back to that shared interest.

Grief takes time. Lots and lots of time. Moving forward with everyday life while mourning happens only one step — sometimes one inch — at a time. (So, please, be patient with your grieving friends.)

During the first couple of years after my husband died, sometimes I wanted to say, “Beam me up, please,” but I knew my children, my dad, and my dog needed me (not always in that order).

As it was, grief stresses kept me on 24-7 red alert: single parenting, mourning, shifted family resources, altered finances, revamped career moves, overturned short- and long-term plans, sleeping, eating, paying bills, doing home maintenance … Those around me may not have seen the red strobes flashing behind my eyelids, and they may not have heard the sirens blaring in my ears, but my body and brain could not turn them off. Relentless fight-or-flight feelings brought on by bereavement drained my reserves at warp speed.

The future — the unplanned-for future without my husband — seemed vast, cold, and dark as I explored the “strange, new world” of widowhood.

I feel more upbeat about this Father’s Day than I have in years. Maybe it’s just easier this seventh year. More likely, it’s because I’m about to enter a new frontier of my own as the cast and crew of my family expands to include our next generation — my first grandchild.

The original crew of the Enterprise expanded into multiple series — not counting the red-shirted extras. (Image from Bruce family photos, TealAshes.com.)

Do I still miss my husband and grieve over him? Yes. Will there be moments of sadness in Father’s Days to come when his grandchild grows up without ever meeting him? Doubly yes. Will I fall apart at church on Sunday when the children sing to their fathers? Yes, yes, and yes.

But I think (and hope) I’ll shed fewer tears this year.  Even as I “boldly go where no” husband of mine has gone before … from widowhood into grandparenthood.

* For specific things to do for and say to someone grieving this Father’s Day, please see Another Father’s Day — DANG IT!

(A few years ago I also wrote Father’s Day Non-Scents for the Segullah.org blog.)

Never Tell Mourners You Know How They Feel

Yesterday I heard the umpteen-hundredth expression of “I know what you’re going through.” I felt as angry this time as I have every time well-meaning people sympathized with the same sentiment over the last three and a half years. Equally infuriating is hearing “I know exactly how you feel.”

stop telling mourners you know how they feel, grief, teal scarf, hand stop, orange tree, TealAshes.com

Stop telling mourners you know how they feel — even if you think you do. (photo of and by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

No, you don’t.

I’ve attempted civility by biting my tongue. (Yesterday I bit my lips together, too.) When in person, I’ve tried to neutralize my facial expression and body language, and over the phone I’ve modulated my voice with care. Grief (and repeated experience over and over and over) can inspire Academy Award-worthy performances, I’ve learned.

Inside my head, though, each time someone tells me they “know” how I feel, my honest response is more visceral than a simple “No, you don’t.” Fight-or-flight takes over. My heart hammers as claws and fangs extend, my legs tense as if readying to spring, and my mouth screams, snarls, and spits the red-inked, italicized, underlined, highlighted, bold-faced, all caps reply: NO! YOU. DON’T. KNOW!

Even at my most feral moments, I acknowledge that most of those who say such things are trying to relate their pain to mine. They want to empathize, which is a good thing. Their claims, however, do the opposite. Asserting their acquaintanceship with my deeply personal pain and my struggles through grieving minimizes the unique nature of my loss, and minimizing a mourner’s experience is never a good thing. Never. Not ever.

Every relationship is unique, so no two losses are the same. When a person loses a loved one, that loss colors every aspect of life. It creates irrevocable change. It is devastating and overwhelming and pervasive and personal. When I was newly widowed, very few widowers or widows made such a claim to me. Instead, they acknowledged aspects of my loss that they didn’t share. Rather than minimizing my experience by comparison to their own, they validated the multifaceted components of my overturned, grief-ridden world.

Need an example of what offered helpful acknowledgement rather than hurtful comparison? Here are a few:

  • “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. It must be awful that you didn’t have the chance to say goodbye.”
  • “I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I know it isn’t the same, but I know how badly I hurt over my husband’s death.”
  • “I wish I could say something to make it better, but I know my words can’t help. I’m here to listen to you.”
  • “When my husband died we’d already raised our kids and retired. I can’t imagine what this is like for you.”
  • “I lost my [loved one of whatever relationship], but I know it isn’t the same. I’m so sorry.”

As I recalled and wrote the examples above, I thought, “How bleak they sound …” The truth is that in the bleakest of life’s circumstances — the loss of a loved one — the most easily absorbed consolation comes in compassionate yet dispassionate commiseration. There will be time for cheering and lightening in the weeks and months and years to come (so stick around to help provide that in its eventual time), but in the meantime, in the immediacy of the misery of the loss, acknowledging the darkness will help your friend adjust better than stories of how you made it through your own dark times — unless your friend asks for them.

You don’t know what a mourner is going through — even if you think you do. In fact, the same should be said of other sources of trial and bereavement in life. Death isn’t the only cause of grief; a true friend will acknowledge the unique, acute, life-altering nature of the bereaved’s pain.

Michelle L. wrote You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know for the Segullah.org blog on April 17, 2014. While her writing addresses other kinds of life trials facing “broken and struggling families,” her admonitions equally apply to comforting and supporting the bereaved. With her permission to share this, I’m quoting Michelle L.’s main points below, but please visit her post (http://segullah.org/daily-special/you-dont-know-what-you-dont-know/) to see the full text.

  1. If you read nothing else, remember this: extend love; refrain from judgment.
  2. Don’t even talk about taking sides. … When a family is destroyed, there isn’t a side to take.
  3. You don’t know what you don’t know. Don’t make assumptions. 
  4. Offer kindness to those who are broken. The very best words to say: “I’m so sorry you are hurting.”
  5. Avoid trite phrases. 
  6. Your experience doesn’t translate into mine. 
  7. Don’t make assumptions about anyone’s spiritual state. 
  8. Statistics don’t matter. 
  9. Don’t offer advice or chastisement. 
  10. Talk about other subjects. Look beyond the wounds to the whole person.