Mourning in the Holidays — How to Help Grieving Friends

What do you say to someone who’s mourning during the holidays? If your friends’ loss is recent, wishing them “happy holidays” — or happy anything from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day — might come across as if you don’t realize (or care about) the permanence of their grief. On the other hand, saying nothing at all speaks a louder message of indifference than shouted words.

grief, help friend, holiday, mourn, candle, TealAshes.com, smoke, wisp, teal,

Like the scent of candles, grief remains in the air of the holidays even amid the beauty and joys of the season (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Saying something is better than saying nothing. Here are ways to tell your friends you’re thinking of them and aware of their grief during the holidays:

  • “I’m thinking of you. I know this is your first Thanksgiving without [say the name of the person who died].”
  • “I’m keeping you and your family in my thoughts this second Hanukkah after [say the name]’s death. I realize you’re still adjusting to [his/her] absence.”
  • “Will you join us for Christmas Eve services? We realize you might not want to sit alone.”
  • “I’ve brought you this token as a symbol of [one of the seven principles] to share with you this first week of Kwanzaa without [say the name].”
  • “I know this New Year’s Eve will be hard without [say the name of the deceased] here with you.”
  • “Will you please join me for this holiday?”
  • “May I come visit with you during this holiday?”
  • “I’d love to hear stories about [say the name of the lost loved one].”

Did it seem odd that I repeated the admonition to say the name of the deceased? Most mourners need to process their losses by talking of their departed loved ones. Too often, well-meaning friends think they’ll “make” their friends sad if they mention the names of the ones being mourned. The reality is they’re already sad and would rather have others acknowledge their loss instead of pretending it didn’t happen. Remember, grief is a natural outgrowth of love.

Well-thought words can soothe wounded hearts. (Notice I said “soothe” and not “heal”? You can’t “fix” anyone’s grief, but you can offer consoling support that doesn’t deepen pain.) When talking about the holidays with the newly bereaved, be thoughtful and deliberate in your choices of words:

  • Plan to commemorate instead of celebrate.
  • Invite grieving friends to a gathering rather than a party.
  • Acknowledge awareness of your friends’ ongoing grief rather than assuming they should already feel or do anything expected by others.
  • Avoid “at least” statements, which diminish the importance and impact of mourners’ losses.

There’s no good time of year to grieve, but the holidays can be especially difficult. Whether death takes place in the middle of the busiest holidays or in the least-scheduled month of a family (or corporate) calendar, it’s going to hurt. And it’s going to hurt not just now, when the loss is new, but also in the weeks and months and years to come. (Yes, I said years.)

Holiday traditions and expectations sometimes fan the embers of grief back into flames. You can’t restore what grief’s flames damage, but you can offer the balm of kindness and understanding as your mourning friends’ adapt to their altered lives.

What to Say to a Widow or Widower

When you learn a friend or co-worker is newly widowed, what do you say? What can you do?

Think first. 

Listen to widowed friends. TealAshes.com, Teresa TL Bruce

When you learn a friend or co-worker is widowed, reach out — and listen. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Are you rushing to say the first (clichéd) thing that pops into your mind?
    • Most trite sayings sting rather than soothe, but sincerity reaches hearts.
    • Avoid phrases like “in a better place” and “better off” in your attempts at consolation.
  • How will your words sound to the person grieving their life partner?
    • Are you offering validation of their pain and showing you recognize the unique nature of their loss? Great. Proceed.
    • Or are you rushing to minimize the loss in the misplaced hope of making the mourner feel better? Think again.
    • Avoid saying “at least” about anything related to the death or what preceded it.
  • Are you adding to or draining from the strength of the bereaved?
    • Avoid asking, “How are you?” — because when acutely grieving, they’re not doing well enough to know how to answer — unless you’re tying the question to a solution for your friend (“How are you getting your family from the airport? May I pick them up for you?”).
    • Avoid asking, “What do you need?” or “What can I do for you?” Most mourners are too overwhelmed by grief to know.
  • Neither blame nor shame the bereaved or the deceased.
    • This isn’t the time to lecture suicide survivors about mental health issues.
    • This is not the time to say the person who died should have known better than to smoke or to drink and drive or to cross the street or to neglect regular checkups or to eat as they did …
    • This is not the time to blame the now dead firefighter, policeman, or military service person for choosing that profession.
  • Remember, this isn’t about you. It’s about reaching out in support of your friend, co-worker, or relative who’s mourning.
    • It’s helpful to remember your own losses and how they made you feel, but never compare your loss to the bereaved unless you’re doing so in a way that validates theirs.
      • I found it comforting when older widows said things like “I can’t imagine what it would be like to still be raising children as a widow. It was hard enough with mine already grown. Bless you.”
      • And it felt validating when younger widows said things like “I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be widowed after 24 years. It was hard enough for me after our 12 years together. I’m so sorry.”

Speak up next.

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’m here for you.” (Follow this up by being there.)
  • “I want to help, but I don’t know how, so may I come sit with you in the meantime?”
  • “May I do this [specific task] for you?”
  • “I will miss him [or her] too, though I know you’re hurting much more.”
  • “I wish you had more time with [speak the name of the deceased].”
  • “I’d love to hear more about [speak the name of the deceased] when you feel like talking.”
  • “I’m sorry.” (Yes, I repeated this, and it’s okay for you to repeat it too.)

And act.

  • Do (or send) practical help: pull weeds, shovel snow, bring food, pick up dry cleaning, tend children, make phone calls, wash dishes or laundry (BUT do NOT touch items belonging to or last used by the deceased without first getting explicit permission from the mourning, widowed partner) …
  • Follow up. If you promised to check in next week, do it. If you offered to have lunch together, set it up and don’t back out. If you mentioned a book you found helpful when you were grieving a similar loss, and if your mourning, widowed friend seemed interested, bring a copy to him or her.
  • Set reminders. Offer support throughout the weeks and months following the death. Note significant dates in your calendar (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, diagnosis dates, etc.), and let your friends know you’re thinking of them as those dates approach.
  • Don’t take it personally if grieving friends don’t return messages or phone calls. Sometimes grief is too overwhelming for such seemingly simple tasks.

Repeat.

When friends are grieving, they get to decide what is helpful or what is offensive. Again, it’s not about you. If they say you’ve done something hurtful, own it. Apologize rather than defending yourself, and do better in the future. (And be proud of yourself for reaching out despite the discomfort of acknowledging death and loss. Thanks for reaching out to your friends.)

Fires, Floods, and Aggression: Mourning Mass Tragedies and Disasters

I  heard “largest mass shooting in U.S. history” the second morning of October and wondered why the newscaster spoke of last year’s horrific murders at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. My breath caught; another individual’s evil actions broke that infamous record.

The massacre in Las Vegas killed scores, wounded hundreds, traumatized thousands. Survivors’ face pain and scars that show and deeper scars that don’t. Too many families and friends now grieve loved ones who’ll never come home.

Such heinous, criminal incidents evoke collective sorrow. It’s awful enough when individuals (or groups) inflict irreparable harm and terror on lone victims — worse, far worse when they attack several or more souls. And around the globe, large-scale, devastating conflicts of civil (though uncivil) wars and military offensives cost countless lives and send refugees fleeing for theirs.* When media coverage focuses national and worldwide attention, hopefully it spurs purposeful outrage and aid.

And what of widespread weather- and climate-related disasters? Wildfires in the West and hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Nate in the South have destroyed homes, livelihoods, and lives in the U.S. and the Caribbean this year. The September earthquake in Mexico City and the winter avalanches in Afghanistan and Pakistan killed hundreds. Deadly flooding and landslides killed thousands and displaced or otherwise affected hundreds of thousands in Africa, South America, and South Asia — this year.*

cardboard meal kits with food items for relief for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma, relief, grief, TealAshes.com, Feeding Children Everywhere, Orlando Cares

21 of 24 meal kits per carton prepared through Feeding Children Everywhere at #OrlandoCares — Hope for Puerto Rico (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

That’s a lot of beleaguered, suffering bodies and a lot of grieving, bereaved souls. A lot.

Whether political issues or policies contributed to these tragedies or impede subsequent relief efforts matters not for the purpose of this post. (Articulate people can and should make compelling arguments and take constructive steps in other settings to bring about positive change in days and for years to come.)

This post — right here, right now — is about comforting the folks grieving these specific losses  — right now and in the immediate future and for the rest of their lives. Because mass tragedies inflict grief on the individuals within communities.

You can (and should) give large-scale, physical comfort. Join with others in relief efforts. Volunteer your labor, skills, goods, or funds. Do a little research. Find way (or two or more) to help.

You also can (and should) give one-on-one, specific support to individuals grieving lost livelihoods, homes, or loved ones:

  • Acknowledge the degree of loss.
  • Where possible, bring physical relief (meals, clothes, shelter, water …).
  • Avoid “at least” statements, which minimize rather than validate.
  • Note the date(s) of the disasters in your perpetual calendars. Set up reminders to offer ongoing emotional support in months and years to come. (Yes, years.)
  • Avoid claiming you “know” how the bereaved feel.
  • If you have photographs of the deceased (or your friends’ destroyed homes), make copies and then offer them to your bereaved friends.
  • Ask your mourning friends if they’d like to tell you about their loved ones. (Speak the names of those who died.)
  • If you have memories or stories about those who died, ask your friends if you may share them.

If you’re able to give time or money to help those impacted by recent disasters — whether global, national, regional, or local — please do.

volunteer, Feeding Children Everywhere, relief, meal kits, Hope for Puerto Rico, Orlando Cares, grief, TealAshes.com

These women (and two others not pictured) assembled and filled more than 58 cartons of meal kits (with 24 meals per carton) during the four hours we worked together at the Orlando Cares — Hope for Puerto Rico event sponsored by Feeding Children Everywhere. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Just as importantly, if you know people affected by these tragedies, please reach out. You don’t have to know them well to know they need support. You can make a tremendous difference to them by even the smallest of gestures.

For more on related topics, please see Typhoons, Tornadoes, and Other Disasters Wreak Havoc on Individuals.

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*To better understand the obstacles many refugees face, visit Their Story Is Our Story: Giving Voice to Refugees.

**10 of the Deadliest Natural Disasters of 2017 as reported by U.S. News

The Seven-Year Glitch: When Grieving Gets Easier

It — That Day — snuck up on me this year. Granted, I’ve had a lot on my mind the last month:

Teresa TL Bruce, newborn, baby hat, teal glasses, TealAshes.com, teal blanket with flowers

My New Granddaughter and Her Teal-Wearing Grandma (family photo, Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Waiting for the birth of my first grandchild in another state
  • Helping my daughter recover from the birth of her daughter
  • Rushing home to prepare my house for Hurricane Irma’s attack on my state
  • Cleaning up after Irma smacked Florida up one side, across the middle, and up the other side as well
  • Juggling the usual stuff — editing, writing, paying bills, tending to family needs …

    Free Irma Souvenirs sign, branches, hurricane Irma, TealAshes.com

    Some residents displayed humor in the aftermath of massive cleanup following Hurricane Irma. In worse-hit areas, there’s not much to laugh about as residents try to reassemble their lives. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

So it makes sense that I felt distracted while attempting to work last week. I missed my precious baby granddaughter (and her parents) while I dealt with Irma issues. Even so, I’m usually better able to tune out distractions while polishing prose — whether my clients’ or my own.

As that long, long week drew to an end, realization hit me. All at once, I understood what kept my attention blowing aside, why my mind felt muddled, where the eye of my inner storm hit a wall:

In a handful of days I would complete my seventh year as a widow. I once again faced the anniversary of my husband’s unexpected death.

Odd and disrespectful as it sounds to admit this, I laughed when I recognized how few days remained before this year’s deathiversary. (Yes, I know that sounds awful!)

But I couldn’t help it. In fact, I felt almost giddy. (That sounds even worse, doesn’t it?)

That the date snuck up on me felt like a victory of sorts. This year, I’d finally functioned (reasonably well) through the early days of September. Mild distraction — easily attributed to gratitude and gladness over becoming a grandmother as well as the harried hurry of hurricane hassles — proved a gazillion times better than the overarching, insurmountable, emotional maelstroms of previous Septembers.

I remember the acute pain of new, raw grief: Loss hollowed my gut and battered my brain. Sleep channeled nightmares instead of rest, and waking meant the worst nightmare was real. Simple, familiar tasks required impossible concentration and dexterity. Memory melted. I couldn’t eat. Couldn’t think. Didn’t want to exist.

People tried to rush me through the grief. “Don’t worry. You’ll feel better in time.” But in that new grief I didn’t need to be told my life-changing loss didn’t matter. The best consolation came from those whose honesty acknowledged my life would never be the same. I needed to hear that the devastation I felt made sense.

But I also heard hope — hope I couldn’t yet believe but needed anyway — from other widows (and widowers) who’d lost their spouses longer ago than I had. I felt validated when they said things like, “It’s okay that you’re falling apart” — and I really had fallen apart at the time — “because this is the worst thing that could have happened.”

Or they’d caution me by saying, “Sometimes it might feel even worse than it does right now, but it won’t always feel this bad.”

Then I asked the naive question only someone desperate not to feel so awful will plead: How long? How long will this grief tear me up? How long until I feel like myself again?

Their experienced, widowed answers varied, but they ran along similar, appalling, prophetic lines: Three years. Five years. Seven years.

It seemed impossible to survive with grief’s ache for three hours at at time, much less three years. But their frankness assured me it was okay that I didn’t “bounce back” right away (despite other folks’ well-meaning, ill-informed attempts to urge me to “get over” my mourning).

Time and experience certified their counsel as reliable. Starting over takes time — emotionally, physically, financially, socially — and learning to live onward after the death of a loved one requires starting over. At my husband’s three- and five-year angelversaries, I knew I still had a long way to go, but I could see how much progress I’d also made.

Now, heading into the completion of year seven and the beginning of year eight, I more than see that progress — I feel it.

No doubt there will be setbacks. Life and love and grief are built that way.

And I might yet want need to dive into a carton of Publix Chocolate Trinity on the day before and the day of his death, if any of the local stores have started receiving ice cream in their post-Irma shipments again, that is. (See Grief Meltdown in the Ice Cream Aisle for more about this yummy flavor.)

But today … today I’m feeling fine. And that’s a good sign.

I laughed again while I typed the lines just above. In the background, I heard this song by The Piano Guys with Sir Cliff Richard. A  few years ago, maybe even last year, I wouldn’t have believed the words these great artists sang. Back then, I couldn’t, but now, I do believe “It’s Gonna Be Okay.” 

 

 

 

Grief, Guilt, and Hurricanes

Almost a year ago, I posted about getting ready for Hurricane Matthew in Grief Before and After the Storm. Now Hurricane Irma’s bullying her way toward swallowing my state.

empty battery shelf, TealAshes.com

Batteries were in short supply before Hurricane Irma (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

With Irma following so closely on the horrible heels of Harvey, people in Central Florida took this storm’s approach seriously.  Usually, by the time most folks start preparing — a day or two before a hurricane — supplies become scarce. I went to the store Wednesday to freshen my supplies (read: to buy chocolate-covered cookies and Cheetos) and stopped by a few aisles just to see how they looked in advance of Sunday afternoon’s anticipated rough weather. As you can see by my photos, options were already limited.

It’s awful to admit I smiled when I saw the emptied shelves — not that I felt happy the supplies were gone. Far from it. Many people still needed essential items, and I hadn’t a clue whether they’d be able to find them elsewhere. A part of me even felt guilty that I’d tucked them away months ago when hurricane season began. (I used to teach emergency preparation seminars at public and private events around our area; I generally keep necessary emergency kit items current.)

empty flashlight shelves, empty lantern aisle, prehurricane, tealashes.com

Anyone who waited until four days before Irma’s arrival to purchase flashlights at this store might be spending many hours in the dark (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

I sighed with relief that so many of my fellow residents weren’t waiting until the last minute this time.

Once-upon-a-lifetime ago — my husband’s lifetime, to be precise — I was active in my neighborhood CERT program*. I even got licensed to operate ham radio so I could check in with others in the event of phone failures.

But the first time I tried to reconnect with my CERT peers after my husband died, the triage refresher course cut too deeply. I shook as the instructor stressed the potential for “life over limb” decisions that offered “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

I couldn’t handle the reminder that sometimes you can’t save people no matter how hard you try. That I couldn’t save my husband no matter how hard I’d tried. That despite my training and efforts, he died.

It took years to forgive myself for failing him. My inability to save him left me as empty as the bottled water aisle before Irma.

Hindsight (and seven years) tells me it wasn’t my fault. I did everything I could.

empty water aisle, pre-Irma, pre-hurricane

The bottled water aisle emptied quickly before Hurricane Irma (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Now, as all of Florida holds it breath in the hours and days to come, I’m again telling myself I’ve done everything I could to make ready for this storm. Whatever Irma brings, it’s no one’s fault.

(Yet that didn’t stop me from grumbling at my late husband while sandbagging and hauling things into place. Was my anger logical? Of course not. But neither is grief.)

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*CERT — Community Emergency Response Team — a great program in which private citizens receive training to help their neighbors in emergencies