Grief, PTSD, and Empathy

It’s not about me. It’s not about me. It’s not about me … I chanted aloud when alone, silently while surrounded. The reasoning side of myself knew this grief wasn’t about my grief — no matter how much it felt like it was.

I didn’t know the man who died as last year ended and this one began, but his brother and sister-in-law are my friends.

Shortly after I heard the news, I spoke with my friend. With her was a woman I’d never met before, but my soul recognized her expression, an affect exuding the shock of sudden loss. Just a day and a half earlier, her beloved life partner had collapsed — without warning — in their bathroom. Died without reviving. (As did mine, six years earlier.)

I knew nothing I could say would make it better. How could words — any words — alleviate the agony of their loss?

They couldn’t.

But say something to this newly bereaved woman I must. Must. MUST. MUST. MUST! Must approach — even in her in her unapproachable grief. Must extend sincere condolences — even in her inconsolable situation. Must … say … something …

Yet I — after facing my own similar loss; after networking, conversing with, being befriended by multitudes of widowed and differently bereaved souls; after writing thousands and thousands and thousands of words on the subject of what to say when someone dies (and what not to say) —

I struggled for what to say (and what not to say).

So, I said very little.

“I’m sorry,” I told her, then listened.

After a while, when it seemed appropriate, I said, “My husband also died suddenly.” Remembering the widows who spoke similar words to me, I added, “I don’t know what you’re feeling, but I know it hurts. I’m here to listen.”

She held herself — and her grief — with a quiet dignity. She spoke of her faith in God and how she’s trying to rely upon Him. I admired her attitude even in her anguish.

I remembered similarly drawing strength from my faith during raw, early mourning. My absolute knowledge of God’s love kept (keeps) me functioning. Yet I felt unconsoled and discomforted by those who tried to preach away my sorrow, as if they implied Godly love should negate — rather than enhance — my love-grief for my husband.

I nodded and listened. When she asked me to pray for her, I did. Promised to continue. I still do.

When she apologized for crying, I reassured her she need not. I acknowledged that tears of grief are tears of love. That as she mourned, she need not be ashamed of showing her love in that way.

When we parted, she knew another person outside her family cared about her bereavement.

When I got into my car, I cried for her and all the pain I know she has yet to face. (And I cried for myself as my body and soul felt again the raw pain and shock that enveloped my life six years earlier.)

A few days later, the Saturday morning skies loomed gray the day of the funeral. (As they were for my husband’s, six years earlier.)

Three steps inside the church hallway, my feet slowed. My hands shook. Lungs shrank.

PTSD threatened to do worse if I continued. Empathy insisted I proceed.

I could have turned around. Left the building. Driven away.

The funeral setting felt too familiar.

Like six years ago.

Again.

But it felt like few attended my husband’s funeral.

And I’d gained emotional strength from those who did show up.

And I’d gained physical strength from those who provided food for our family after the burial.

So, I stayed to offer what little support I could.

Despite the uplifting, sometimes hilarious anecdotes shared in the public celebration of this man’s life, and despite the beautiful, spirit-soothing music, my body recognized this was a family’s final, physical farewell to one they cherished.

During the service, I sometimes shook so hard I wrapped my wide scarf around my arms to hide them. My body insisted these traumatic triggers were mine to feel again now (and seemingly forever), but I didn’t wan’t to draw attention to myself.

It’s not about me, not this time. It’s not about me.

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

After the funeral, while the family and closest friends attended the graveside service, several women from two congregations prepared and set out platters of donated food. Sometimes I worked alongside the others in the kitchen. Sometimes I stepped away, seeking solace in solitude.

In the multipurpose cultural hall, empty chairs waited around linen-covered tables. On each stood a vase of cut flowers, also lovingly donated.

I thought about the exhausted relief and despair and closure and uncertainty I felt after my own husband’s funeral. How feeding myself had felt irrelevant until then, but feeding my extended, gathered family after this event became both impossible and essential — and I couldn’t have done it without my church sisters stepping in and caring for us all …

… as my church sisters and I were now doing. When this grieving family returned, we had a buffet large enough to feed the extensive group.

I watched their expressions — grief, relief, exhaustion, hunger, shock, sorrow, fatigue, appreciation — and remembered seeing the same on the faces of my family six years earlier. Many expressed heartfelt gratitude.

Did I thank the women who served my family following my husband’s burial? I’d like to think I did, but much of that day blurs in memory — it’s possible I didn’t. (If so, I’m sorry. Belated thanks to you all, whoever you were that day.)

It would have been easier — emotionally and physically — to leave before the service or not show up at all. But empathy, as painful as it can be, is a wise leader when interacting with the bereaved.

When you have the chance to step forward to comfort your grieving friend, listen. Listen to your friend. Even if it hurts, because it’s not about you.

Friends and Grief

“Your address book will change,” another widow told me.

Will you write yourself into or fade away from your grieving friends' address books? (photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Will you write yourself into or fade away from your grieving friends’ address books?
(photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

“What do you mean?”

“Some of the people you thought would always be there for you … won’t. They’ll disappear.”

My mind replayed one of the most-heard phrases at and after the funeral: “Call if you need anything.” I’d known the people saying it meant the sentiment (or at least thought they did). But while I nodded acknowledgement of their intention, I also knew — really knew — I wouldn’t call. I couldn’t.

“It’s not their fault,” I told my widow friend. “They’d be here if I asked.”

As if she read my mind, she said, “And how many have you asked?”

My silence answered.

“I get it,” she said. “As much as you need people around you, it’s physically and emotionally impossible to reach out to gather them to you. It takes every bit of energy just to muster the have-to calls for paying the bills and tending to all the business-of-death matters.”

“You mean it’s not just me?” I’d thought I was especially weak and inept at dealing with the aftermath of my husband’s death.

“Teresa, it’s hard for everybody,” she said, “but this is still early for you.  I don’t know anybody who could call people back if they needed anything so soon. It took me a couple of years. You’re only a couple months out, still in shock.”

Two months, one week, and three days, I corrected in my head, incapable of turning off the infernal count ticking off the time since he died. “It seems like it’s been forever, but it also feels like it just happened.”

“Have any of your friends tried to make you feel like you should be ‘over it’ by now?”

Frustrating memories surfaced: The first time (a whole 36 hours after he died) when someone said, “Don’t worry about anything. You’re young enough to remarry.” The people who (the day of the funeral) pressed to know what my immediate, short-term, and long-term future plans were now. The woman who (about six weeks after he died) insisted, “I wish you wouldn’t cry anymore. I makes me feel sad to see your tears.” (To her credit, she apologized soon after.)

“After the funeral,” my widow friend continued, “your friends’  lives went back to normal. But yours will never be the way it was before. They can’t understand, not unless they’ve also lost someone as much a part of your life as your husband was to you. They’re not trying to shut you out. They’re just … getting on with their lives.”

I nodded. I’d learned to scroll past friends’ status updates about sweet marital bliss — or stupid squabbles — that sliced and salted my grief. How unfair. Don’t they know they should be grateful for what they still have? But it still hurt to see illustrations that “life went on” for them when it hadn’t for me. (Side note: Never say “life goes on” to anyone grieving. Just don’t.)

“And then there are the ones who step away because they’re too uncomfortable around your pain.”

I let out a brief, one-syllable bark-laugh, thinking of the neighbor who instead of waving hello now turned away at the sight of me.

“But you’re going to make some amazing new friends, too. And there will be people you didn’t know well who will reach out with compassion that makes up for the others’ neglect.”

“You’re right.” I smiled and nodded at thoughts of those who’d reached out, people I’d known only casually before: A note card in the mail. Text check-ins. Dinners (or desserts) dropped off. Emails. His angelversary date acknowledged. 

I’ve reflected on that conversation many times since. It reminded me of a song round I learned as a Girl Scout:

Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.

Dear new friends have shown up and written themselves into my life’s address book in gold and silver inks during the five-plus years since my husband died. My life now is richer for knowing them.

Among my friends who mourn, I understand why some have erased entries from their contacts. Rejection and neglect are painful at any stage of life, but they are brutal while grieving. If a trusted friend criticizes or ignores your bereavement, why continue to rely on them?

For my part, I didn’t trust my own grief-shrouded judgement enough to erase the time-worn entries from my contacts. Even when I was too wounded to reach out to them. Meanwhile, those who didn’t ink themselves into my widowed life have faded: gold to silver to ink to pencil.

In future, who knows? Maybe one of those barely legible names will tell me a story of my husband or let one of my kids know they remember their dad. If so, the faded lines will become traced over, easier to distinguish.

Even if they don’t ink themselves back into my treasured contacts, I’ll keep them written there.  If I could rewrite the world to exclude grief, I would. But I can’t. So I’ll try to remember when faded contacts’ time comes to join the ranks of those who “get” grief.

I’ll try to reach out, because there’s no such thing as too many friends — even faded, friendly acquaintances — when you’re grieving.

 

 

Anniversary after Death

Anniversaries are different after a loved one’s death. And there are more of them than there were before.

My first wedding anniversary after my husband died was/would have been our 25th. (Note my confused tense. Since he was gone, did I still count each new year as an anniversary? Or did the numbers freeze at 24, the last we spent together?)

Ten months into widowhood, I was “still” in shock. I remember only two things about my first widowed wedding anniversary:

  1. It hurt too much for “happy anniversary” greetings to be welcome.
  2. It hurt worse not having it acknowledged at all.

The kindest contacts let me know they were thinking of me — and of my loss. I read my friends’ support in texts, emails, Facebook messages, handwritten notes, and cards. Others left phone messages I heard later (because I didn’t feel inclined to answering the phone that day).

If you’re wondering whether (or how) to mention your friends’ wedding anniversaries after they’ve lost their spouses, here are some tips:

  • Say something before the anniversary if you can. For many bereaved, the days leading up to are as hard as (if not harder than) the day of. Even a belated acknowledgment is better than none.
  • Avoid cheery, cliché greeting-card greetings.
    Don’t say, “Happy Anniversary” as if this year is no different (even though you do wish them happiness).
    Don’t say, “Have a wonderful anniversary” (because without their beloved spouse that’s not likely).
  • Acknowledge the loss. Anniversaries after death are inextricably interwoven with that loss. Phrases like these are helpful:
    • I’m thinking of you as your anniversary approaches.”
    • You’re on my mind this week. I know this anniversary will be different.”
    •  “I know you’re missing your sweetheart.”
    • You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”

At the start of the post, I mentioned there are more anniversaries after a death than there were before. Death marks a family’s calendar with its own darkly circled dates.

All the “typical” commemorations are there — holidays and birthdays and, yes, wedding anniversaries.

But for anyone who has lost a loved one (parent, child, spouse, sibling, best friend …) the death-added days are there, too — the death date, the funeral date, the day the death certificate finally arrived, the day the cemetery marker was installed, and (in cases where death was expected due to illness) the dates of first symptoms, first diagnosis, hospice care, etc.  All are anniversaries of their own sorts.

Even when death was expected (and perhaps welcomed) at the end of a long, productive life (ultimately impeded by a painful, protracted illness), such “sadiversaries” or “angelversaries” carry pain for the survivors as much as they bring remembered relief for the release of the sufferers.

(A quick side note here: As “happy” as I was for my 54-year-old mother’s release from the cancer that entrapped her body, and as “grateful” as I was that my 47-year-old husband was no longer imprisoned by the premature deterioration of his mind, I was — and still am — neither happy nor grateful that either of them died so young. I’d have much preferred decades more together. So, please. Please don’t tell me — or anyone mourning — why we should be glad or thankful for our loved ones’ deaths. Grieving is not compatible with Pollyanna’s “glad game.”)

I’d say all such dates are difficult to get through during the first year, but that would do a disservice to everyone who has lost someone close to them. Love has no time limits. Neither does grief. I mentioned not remembering much about my first widowed anniversary, but I don’t remember the second one, either. The shock of widowed fog (and other grief) can — and often does — blur more than a single year’s worth of seasons. 

We will always mourn those we’ve loved, but we won’t always be consumed by that bereavement. Given time and encouragement, we learn to live with the grief. We learn to live in spite of it. We learn to live forward again.

But as anniversaries approach — even years later — we can always use expressions of loving help and caring encouragement from our friends.

"The language of love is expressed in countless caring ways."

Snapshot taken by Mom, tucked in a Hallmark card from my late husband. Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

 

 

 

 

When a Friend Is Grieving

What should you say to someone who is grieving the anniversary of a death that happened a year ago? What about two years? There’s never really a “good” time of year for someone to die, but the timing of any death can be hard on those left behind. Not just in the immediate days and months after the loss, but in the years ahead as well. Anniversaries of death (and other occasions) can make “old” grief feel newly raw again. There’s no time limit on how long a friend will grieve.

For the last week I’ve heard lyrics proclaiming “death and darkness gather all around me.(*See below.) I’m not living my life in gloomy obsession, but I can’t help but feel compassionate awareness. Too many friends (and family) have lost loved ones around this pre-Valentine’s Day time of year. These couple of weeks in my calendar mark days of deep significance — and mourning — to friends and family: Death and/or funeral dates of friends’ children, friends’ friends, and friend’s spouses. Wedding anniversaries of now-widowed half-couples. The day a friend’s beloved pet died.

It’s not only my friends whose grief is reinforced during this part of the calendar. These same weeks include the “angelversary” dates for my father-in-law and for one great-aunt.

At nearly 95 last last year, Aunt Ginny was still eager to try something new.

At nearly 95 last year, Aunt Ginny was still eager to try something new.

Now for two.

Last night, when I drafted this post and went to bed to sleep on it, the next line I wrote described that great-aunt’s sister, “another beloved great-aunt whose nearly ten decades appear to be … slowing.” When I woke up I learned my sweet Aunt Ginny passed in the early hours this morning. Part of me rejoices for the reunion she’s having with her parents and siblings and my mom and my husband! For her sake, I’m relieved her fragile, increasingly confused, and recently fractured nearly 96-year-old body isn’t hurting. But for me and for all of our family, and for all who knew her, having her gone — actually gone — leaves a painful, gaping hole of mourning.

The next words I wrote last night (immediately below) seem even more appropriate in the light of today’s sadness.

Three, four years — or however long — after a death, many of the right (and wrong) ways to support a grieving friend are the same things that apply in brand new bereavement:

1. Remember that grief is a by-product of love. Mourners have the right to grieve in their own ways and times. Grief doesn’t just “go away,” nor is it to be “gotten over.” Rather, it must be worked through, often over the course of a lifetime. Be patient and accepting of your friend’s grief.

2. Acknowledge the loss. Speaking the loved one’s name shows they aren’t forgotten. Their survivors need to know they aren’t the only ones who miss the deceased.

3. Listen — without curtailing or dismissing emotional outbursts or nostalgic reflections about dead loved ones. Ask if the bereaved would like to share stories of their loved ones. Ask if they’d like to hear your stories of their loved ones.

4. Do something. A kind gesture as simple as a text message or a handwritten note or a dropped off casserole or a quick run to the store…

5. Don’t minimize the loss. Avoid any statements including the words “at least” — they do not offer consolation when uttered to the bereaved. (If they say it themselves, that’s fine. Consoling mourners isn’t about you. It’s about them.)

___

*Because I’ve had this phrase on my mind all week, and because of the beautiful lives I wish to honor by actively remembering them, I’m adding this excerpt from a YouTube video featuring Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell.” (The lyrics at 2:00 and 2:45 have been especially on my mind.) [Added this morning: Aunt Ginny, “you are beautiful, and I have loved you dearly, more dearly than the spoken word can tell…”]

Grief Reboots after Holidays

(Please forgive the shouting capitals that follow.)

The tinsel and lights are down, the trees await recycling, and the yearly battle (or pretense) to lose holiday pounds has begun. Around the globe, people brush hands together in satisfaction (and relief) that “the holidays” are past while life slips back into normal routines. Except … In the post-holiday “normalcy” of decorations coming down and social calendars clearing, the emptiness of bereavement surges.

Have you ever unwillingly started over? Imagine access to NONE of your personal or professional contacts or calendars, property, medical records and appointments, project files, programs, passwords, accounts, or data? Multiply that by at least a thousand and you may begin to imagine the rewriting that occurs in the hearts and minds of the bereaved. (In many cases, when a loved one’s or business partner’s death left unknown account passwords or non-transferable titles, this rewriting is not only in emotional and mental processes but also in practical matters.)

For those whose loved ones have died, “normal” no longer exists. (So please, please, please, NEVER tell a mourning friend that “life goes on.” Never ever. It is NOT comforting! Ever.) It’s true that in the earliest months after my husband’s death, I observed that (A) other people’s lives “went on” exactly as they had before, and (B) I was more-or-less alive, so in some fragmented slivers of my soul I (eventually) saw for myself that life continued. I didn’t want (or need) to hear “life goes on,” because life for my family and me was FOREVER ALTERED. Our lives did NOT “go on.” They shut down without warning in an agonizing rebooting that left no backup files and required each of us to learn unfamiliar operating systems in a foreign language not compatible with our hardware.

I’d like to thank you if you were among the neighbors who dropped off casseroles, the friends who attended funerals, or the well-wishers who sent notes of condolences to coworkers, family, or even acquaintances who lost loved ones in the past year. Well done. (And on a personal note, I’m forever grateful to those of you who have comforted me and my family by mourning alongside us in both trials and triumphs through the years!) Thank you all for “being there” at the beginnings of friends’ grief journeys.

Now, whether you did or didn’t step up at that time, pardon me for sounding bossy, but GET BACK TO WORK at it. (Please.) Your grieving friends probably need your support more now than they did in the earliest days, weeks, and months after the deaths.

For those whose loss(es) occurred recently, the blurring fog of shock obscured traditional transitions from the old year to the new. As they reawaken to the disorienting world around them — life as they did NOT know it before — caring gestures of friendship and concern may help them reorder their surroundings. They won’t be ready to rebuild yet, but gestures of kindness (whether messages of ongoing awareness or invitations to interact) will help newly bereaved friends begin to feel the ground under their feet, even if they aren’t yet strong enough to stand upon it.

For those approaching anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths (whether in the first year or beyond), such demonstrations of caring and commitment are just as important. People need to know their beloved departed aren’t forgotten. Let them know that you know it has been a year (or two) since their dear ones died. Let them know that you are thinking of them on the birthdays their loved ones will not be present to celebrate.

Let your friends know you respect their grieving as acknowledgment that love lives on, even past death.