Returning after Grief (and Pavement) Smacked Me in the Head

Hello, again. You might have noticed the July to April gap in new posts on What to Say When Someone Dies. Years ago, I first started writing content for this grief support website within three days of my husband’s unexpected death, although I didn’t know at the time that’s what I was doing. Even surrounded by the thick, heavy fog of shock, I recognized that some folks’ well-intended words landed like a blow to the gut or slapped me in the face.

Slap in Your Face unintended commentary assume you meant well, surprised face, embarrassed face, grief

On the other hand, a few — sadly, too few — friends’ and even strangers’ words and gestures gently reached my hurting heart through comforting compassion. I wanted to remember all these words — the helpful and the harmful — so I opened a spiral notebook and scribbled them as best I could.

ink on notebook paper, list how to help mourner, Teresa TL Bruce
Days after I started the “Slap in Your Face” list, I wrote this on the page before it to remind myself how to treat others who were grieving (Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

As I slowly (oh, how slowly!) learned to live with my grief, I networked with widows and widowers of widely varied backgrounds, cultures, and nations, some in their senior years but many younger — even decades younger — than you’d likely expect. At the same time, I spoke at length and developed cherished friendships with bereaved parents, children, siblings, and others who mourned departed dear ones. Imagine my surprise at how many of us, while mourning diverse losses, experienced similar distressing visceral reactions to the trite, time-worn platitudes (“he’s in a better place”, “at least they didn’t suffer,” “her suffering’s over now…”) meant to offer comfort.

meant well p 5, grief, TealAshes.com

Likewise, regardless of our backgrounds, we appreciated the thoughtful outreach of those whose words acknowledged and validated our pain.

It took nearly three years to work up the courage to share what I learned. While my husband’s death felt recent enough to keep fresh my recollections of raw grief, the merciful yet relentless passage of time allowed me a self-preserving sliver of distance. Not only that, but in most areas of my life, I’m a deeply private person. Opening up about grief’s impact on me still sometimes feels like opening my curtains and inviting the world in to witness my vivisection.

Deaths of family members and friends from December 2017 through March 2019 forced me too many times to again ask myself what to say when another someone died. New bereavement reopened wounds of mourning earlier losses. These new losses forced me to focus on how to comfort those closest to the center of each loss while grieving myself.

As much as I wanted to post here, I held back. I ached with grief, but I recognized mine wasn’t the primary loss of each surviving spouse, parent, child, or sibling. And what pain I owned felt too newly raw and too personal to publish.

For the last nine of those sixteen months, after hitting my head on the street, I’ve also been learning about managing symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. Consequently, I’ve kept my screen time focused on work for clients more than writing for myself. (Stay tuned for a post now in progress comparing the effects of grief and concussion. In true writer fashion, I tried to capture details while inside the ambulance and the MRI machine. I’ll admit those injured mental notes weren’t as coherent as I’d like.) I’m still not fully recovered, but I’ll keep working toward it.

As this website approaches the completion of its sixth year of offering ways to help grieving friends, coworkers, and family members, I remain grateful to you for reading. I’d like to thank those of you who’ve followed this content from the beginning (How I Learned What to Say When Someone Dies) as well as those of you who’ve browsed my posts only on occasion as needed. I appreciate your trust, and I’m always touched when you take the time to comment.

I hope you’ll continue to visit and share as we move forward with helping those who are grieving — and as I move forward with preparing an accompanying book.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for helping your grieving friends! — Teresa TL Bruce

What to Say at a Funeral or in a Card

Against medical advice, I attended my friend’s memorial service. Most of it.

I left the sanctuary during every hymn — had to — and watched the video tribute through the window. My concussion-injured head (a long, unrelated story) can’t yet tolerate many sounds, including, apparently, music.

Even though my doctor ordered me to “strictly limit all social interaction” while recovering, I needed to attend. It felt important to show up in support of my friend’s family.

Despite my concussion, I also wanted to gather with others who’ll miss my friend, but my desire was secondary to offering his widow, son, and other family members the tangible presence of one more person who cares about their loss.

Having said that, I don’t recommend foregoing doctors’ orders for a funeral service. If you’re possibly contagious, stay away — for now — because the last thing someone grieving needs is additional trauma from already grief-stressed immune systems.

But if you’re physically sound and geographically near enough, show up. If you live too far away or you’re too incapacitated to attend the funeral, send messages of support.

What should you say at a funeral? What should you say in a message if you can’t attend the memorial service?

Keep condolences short and simple. “I’m sorry” can be enough. Acknowledge your awareness of the huge loss your friends now face. Let them know you are thinking of them and, if appropriate to your beliefs and theirs, praying for them.

Share positive memories of the dead loved one. If the circumstances surrounding the memorial don’t seem appropriate, write such anecdotes and send them later.

Offer specific assistance. Even the most sincerely offered “Let me know if I can help” seldom helps someone overcome by the raw, overwhelming nature of grief. When my husband died, I realized people who said this meant it, but I had no idea what I needed. Weeks later, when I began to understand what would have been helpful, I couldn’t bring myself to follow up with them. On the other hand, I could say yes (or no) to targeted offers like “Please let me bring your family dinner Wednesday” or “May I take the kids to the park tomorrow afternoon?” or “I’d like to help you with laundry or dishes or other chores of your choosing around the house Saturday morning if that time works for you.”

Avoid preachy platitudes like “he’s in a better place” or “God must have needed her” or “it was their time to go” or “heaven’s a happier place now with them there.” It’s never wise to use clichéd words as if you’re trying to make anyone else’s losses seem OK.

Avoid saying “at least.” In almost every case, this phrase minimizes rather than validating the breadth and depth of grief.

It’s absolutely all right for the mourners themselves to use these phrases — or any other words they choose — as expressions of how they feel. Even if you disagree with a mourner’s assertion regarding their loved one’s status in the afterlife, showing up in support of grieving friends is not about you, so don’t argue. At all.

Finally, it’s never too late to reach out because there is no “finally” in supporting friends who mourn. Death’s impact on surviving loved ones does not end with the funeral or even after a year or two. While you’ve got the funeral program or obituary notice in hand, make a few notes in your calendar — the person’s birth and death dates, their wedding or other anniversaries, children’s birthdays, etc. — and reach out to your grieving friends in advance of those dates. Many bereaved individuals silently struggle in the days leading up to such commemorations.

The most intense shock of new, raw grief often erodes as the most upfront support from friends and neighbors also wanes. Reaching out to your grieving friends in the months (and years) after the funeral can offer much needed support and encouragement.

Think Before Recommending Books and Movies after a Death

I recently finished a book* several friends and associates recommended during the first two years after my husband died. Recommended might be too mild a word; they practically insisted I read it, yet something held me back, and I’m glad I waited until now, nearly seven years into widowhood.

I can almost imagine why they recommended this compelling work of historical fiction. Its vivid language, with three-dimensional settings and characters, made me feel I’d traveled into another era and community. It was a great read, yes — but it was a terrible recommendation for someone actively grieving.

“What were they thinking?” I asked myself — aloud — at least a dozen times over the three days while I read it. “What were they thinking?” At times I even exclaimed in all-caps volume that startled my dog. “WHAT were they THINKING?”

When I reached the end of the book, I sobbed. I’d shed a few tears within other pages, but these “The End” tears accompanied long, high, keening sobs like I haven’t released in years. Yes, years.

I can only begin to imagine how traumatized I’d have felt if I’d read it back then, while I was yet adjusting to widowhood and only beginning to develop ways of coping with my grief.

In the days after I finished reading, I couldn’t stop wondering: What were my friends thinking when they recommended this beautiful, breathtaking, heart-filled, heartbreaking story to me as a new, actively grieving widow?

A) Maybe the story of this character losing a loved one and falling utterly apart in the process will make my friend feel better about falling off the deep end herself. INCORRECT.

B) Maybe the story of this character’s tragic loss(es) will make my friend feel like her loss isn’t so bad after all. INCORRECT.

C) Maybe the realistic bereavement in this book will make my friend forget all about her own mourning. INCORRECT.

D) Maybe if my friend cries over these characters she’ll stop crying over her husband dying. INCORRECT.

Maybe they just weren’t thinking.

Almost as elusive as the answer to that question I asked (and re-asked) is the answer to a quieter, more introspective question: What was I thinking? Why didn’t I read it when they recommended it to me? Why did I wait?

I knew these nonfiction books focused on grief when I chose to read them, and I therefore found them cathartic — especially Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s “On Loss and Living Onward” and “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Many people find reading next to impossible while mourning. Grief distracts them too much for the concentration reading requires.

But reading anesthetized my distraught nerves and temporarily muted my pain. I read 286 books of fiction and nonfiction (including plenty of titles about grief) in those same first two years after my husband died. While my head lived in the pages of other writers’ stories, I laughed, cringed, empathized, and feared for them. Reading set aside my distress long enough for my body and brain to recharge.

Reading (and writing) while grieving saved my sanity. Sometimes, mindlessly watching TV shows or movies did too. But those offered troubling issues too.

About a month after my husband died, some of my daughter’s friends, meaning well, invited her to join them for a movie night. That was a fantastic gesture, and she’d have gladly attended to distract herself from her grief over her father’s death … if they hadn’t chosen The Lion King, in which the young protagonist is traumatized by the death of his father. (Many Disney films present a minefield of grief triggers for children, of all ages, who’ve lost parents.)

Watching Monk because I knew the main character suffered from the loss of his spouse (and because he also suffered from OCD, as did my late husband) let me channel my bereaved emotions in a metered, measured way. Watching a show (or reading a book) in which I didn’t expect to face a character suddenly mourning a loved one threw me into shoulder-shaking, gut-churning paroxysms of grief.

Fiction in literature and film can offer cathartic release of emotions, particularly when the grieving person seeks it out. Sometimes, a good cry over a fictional character might momentarily lighten one’s own bereavement. But it can trigger cascading meltdowns in mourners, especially if unexpected similarities smack them in surprise.

When inviting grieving friends to join you in a movie or urging them to read a book you enjoyed — and you should do these things as a way to offer support — please think carefully about the content. If characters die or suffer other significant loss, choose something else to share, or alert your friends ahead of time so they can decide whether to proceed.

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*It’s not the author’s fault this book pushed so many of my personal grief-trigger buttons. And I don’t want to make any of my friends who recommended this particular book feel badly for recommending it so many years ago. For these reasons, I’ve chosen not to name the title or writer here.

 

 

 

 

Grief after Holidays

You’ve packed lights and ornaments away, hauled your tree to the curb for recycling (or tucked it back into a box), and started (or at least outlined) your battle plan for losing holiday pounds. “The holidays” are past. Whew! It’s time for a return to the security of normal routines … unless you’re grieving.

Emptied of adornments and social obligations, the post-holiday season sometimes leaves mourners feeling more bereaved than before. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Emptied of adornments and social obligations, the post-holiday season sometimes leaves mourners feeling more bereaved than before. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

If your friends are mourning recent losses, the emptiness of bereavement may surge in the post-holiday “normalcy” of unadorned surroundings and cleared social calendars.

Have you ever unwillingly started over? Imagine waking up one morning to discover your contact lists, calendars, medical records, project files, programs, passwords, accounts, data, and personal property were all gone — vanished. Multiply that by a thousand or so, and you might glimpse the disconcerting reset death writes into the hearts and minds of the bereaved. (If a loved one’s or business partner’s death left unknown account passwords or nontransferable titles, this revision upends emotional, mental, and practical matters.)

When my husband died, our family patterns shut down without warning. The agonizing rebooting left no backup files, and those of us left behind faced unfamiliar operating systems written in a foreign language not compatible with our hardware.

In the earliest months after, I observed that others’ lives continued exactly as before. I even recognized myself as more-or-less alive, so in fragmented slivers of my shattered self I (eventually) acknowledged that life continued, sort of. I didn’t want (or need) to hear “life goes on” from those who meant to comfort me. Life for my family was forever altered — our lives did NOT “go on” as they had before.

When loved ones die, “normal” no longer exists. Please, don’t tell a mourning friend “life goes on,” because for their loved one it didn’t; for your friend, life now goes differently.

In the past year, many of you neighbors dropped off casseroles, friends attended funerals, and well-wishers sent notes of condolences to coworkers, family, or even passing acquaintances who lost loved ones. Well done. Thank you for reaching out to comfort and console your grieving friends and coworkers. (On a personal note, I’m forever grateful to those of you who have comforted me and my family by mourning alongside our trials and triumphs through the years.)

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

For friends whose loss(es) occurred recently, the blurring fog of shock probably obscured transitions from the old calendar 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 friends 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 ones aren’t forgotten. Let them know you’re aware it has been a year (or two) since their dear ones died. Make note and mention them on birthdays their loved ones won’t be present to celebrate.

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

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(This post is a revised version of 2015’s Grief Reboots after Holidays.)

New Year, New Grief after Death

As the world counts down the end of this year and anticipates the beginning of the next, news outlets will no doubt remind us of 2016 celebrity deaths: Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, George Michael, John Glenn, Florence Henderson, Janet Reno, Gene Wilder, Muhammad Ali, Christina Grimmie, Prince, Chyna, Patty Duke, Harper Lee, David Bowie, Alan Rickman … Many famous people left behind sorrowful fans who regret their absence — and grieving families who lament and mourn them.

If you haven’t recently buried a loved one, you might think the new year promises solace — a fresh start — to grieving friends. For some, replacing a calendar marked by death’s heavy hand offers healing.

Turning calendar pages can refresh old grief (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Turning calendar pages can refresh old grief (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

But getting through holidays without deceased loved ones can feel disloyal, pointless, or any other strong emotion, and when the calendar changes, years shared with dear ones are forever left behind. For many mourners, the new year symbolizes further isolation from beloved ones.

New Year’s Eve/Day celebrations often trigger renewed grief. Traditions like listing resolutions, counting down to midnight, swapping ball-drop-watching stories, serving New Year’s Day black-eyed peas) — all can provoke painful reminders of bereavement in those who may have begun adjusting to earlier losses.

Anticipatory grief also rises at year end. For those facing a terminal diagnosis (their own or a loved one’s), realizing the coming year might — or will — be their last can be devastating.

In marriage, I’d grafted myself — mind, heart, body, and soul — to my husband; we’d been one. His death ripped apart that grafting, leaving me an incomplete fraction of myself — not whole — a walking wound, more a jagged hole than a functioning human. It shattered me.*

I wasn’t the only widow (or other mourner) who lamented, “Why am I still here? Why couldn’t it have been me?” During restless nights when waking alone felt almost as awful as going to bed alone, I’d have welcomed a passive exit in my scant sleep. Lest you misunderstand, please note: I didn’t, I don’t, and I won’t consider hastening to join my late husband.* (No way — I have daughters, other family, and friends who need me and whom I love and need, too.) But sometimes the brokenhearted agony of raw grief exceeded bearability.*

You can’t lessen the pain of grieving a loved one’s death at New Year’s (and beyond), but you can make sure your friends don’t have to endure it alone. How?

  • Acknowledge it’s a difficult time of year, whether the loss is recent and raw or even years ago. New Year’s Eve and Day can reopen grief’s wounds. Friends validated my loss by acknowledging and accepting my sorrow (rather than ignoring or trying to “fix” it).
  • Invite grieving friends to join in your celebration or commemoration of the event. Tell them you’d like them with you for your sake (“I’d like your company”) as well as for their sakes (“Please join me so you won’t be alone”). If they decline (as I often did), assure them the invitation remains open if their circumstances or feelings change.
  • Repeat the invitation, but don’t push. Offer bereaved friends the choice, but respect them to know best whether solitude or socializing will help. For some widowed peers, going to friends’ homes to ring in the new year lifted their spirits better than staying home. For me, some years I’ve needed to stay home watching chick flicks with my daughters; other years I’ve gone out dancing with friends. (I’ve yet to decide which I’ll do this year.)
  • Offer an oasis. Sometimes mourners happily engage with friends (and strangers) one moment but feel hit by tsunami-sized waves of grief the next. Let grieving guest(s) know ahead of time where they can find a few moments to themselves — sometimes crying in private helps channel emotions — but assure them it’s okay if they cry right there beside you and other guests, too.

If mourning friends choose not to join you, continue offering an oasis of listening, awareness, and concern.

If your friends lost loved ones this year, please reach out to them during this rough week. Even if the loss doesn’t seem recent to you, it still is to them. (For many mourners, the second year after a death can be as hard, if not harder, than the first.)

Express that you’re aware this year is different for your grieving friends when life moves on for the rest of the world January 1. (Don’t, however, tell mourners “life goes on” — for their loved one it didn’t.) Be there for them — not only New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day but in the 365 (and more) days to follow.

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* PLEASE seek professional help if you (or anyone you know) feel so overburdened by grief or loss (or any other reason) that suicide seems like an option. Do it now. If not for your own sake, then for those around you, get help now. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in the U.S.; outside the U.S. you may find resources at this  list of international suicide hotlines.

(Forgive my overuse of single asterisks above. I wanted to call as much attention as possible to this notice.)

Elements of this post may seem familiar; parts are adapted from my earlier New Year, New Grief and New Year after Death posts.

For more on what to say (and what NOT to say) to the newly bereaved heading into the new year, see Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death.

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Within hours of posting this the day after Carrie Fisher’s death, I learned that her mother, Debbie Reynolds, also died. I’ve edited the above text to include her name as well. I sincerely offer my condolences to their family as they grieve this heartbreaking double loss.