Christmas Joy, Christmas Grief

It’s been (early) Christmas at my house for more than a week now; we’re wrapping up (or should I say we’ve already unwrapped?) our holiday celebrations — all but the church service — before December 25. It’s been wonderful having my kids here and celebrating together — this has been a lovely holiday season, our seventh without my husband, their father.

During a few moments, though, “old” grief barged in, casting its shadow across the glow of today’s Christmas lights and shoving me back toward the way I felt when grief was raw:

Mom's Christmas Angel (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Mom’s Christmas Angel (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Glimpsing maroon-and-red hanging from a store display and thinking — just for a second — Ooh, I think he’d like those colors — before I remembered it’s been seven Christmases since I got him a new shirt …
  • Looking up from the yogurt aisle at Walmart to see one of the three paramedics who came to our house the night my husband died … I backed up, turned away, fled to another aisle, and doubled over in the holding-a-shopping-cart equivalent of putting my head between my knees … (My brain knew I was okay, that it was in the past, but my body didn’t. I shook and trembled on and off for hours after, and had to talk myself into sleeping that night for fear of nightmares returning — as they sometimes do.)
  • Placing the star atop the tree and flashing back to my husband lifting our daughters over his head when they were small so they could set the star or an angel at the top …
  • Setting the felt angel my mother made decades ago into the Christmas tree branches and missing her all over again …
  • Realizing with gratitude that my wonderful son-in-law brings our holiday household back to five members … and wishing my husband could be here to get to know and love him too …
  • Relishing the new Star Wars movie with my firstborn daughter beside me and recognizing my hand reached for his at my other side, darn it

For the most part, in day-to-day life, I’ve learned. I’ve grown. I’ve adjusted to living without him at my side. As I’ve shared above, sometimes it “still” hurts, but not as sharply as in the traumatic first and second years after his death.

Much felt hazy in widowed fog back then. Yet I remember the numerous people who attempted to console and comfort me during those difficult, raw years — especially during the holidays. I appreciated them for speaking and reaching out — for not ignoring me — even when some of their efforts were less comforting.

  • Some told me not to cry, that he wouldn’t want me (or our kids) to be sad. I couldn’t help thinking, would he want me to be happy he’s not here? 
  • Others said in time I’d “get used to” living without him (and several years later I have), but that didn’t help me feel better then — it made it worse; it felt like they wanted me to forget about him by discounting the painful grief that was (is) interwoven with my love for him.
  • A few admonished me to “keep it together” for my kids’ sakes. “Don’t let them see you cry,” they said. “You’ll spoil their Christmas and make them afraid to go back to school” (my older daughters attended college out of state during those first few years). But my kids and I were still learning our way through grieving, and suppressing grief is far more harmful than expressing it. I wasn’t crying every minute of every day (though it sometimes felt almost that much), but I didn’t benefit when others told me to hide my tears.

I also remember the many kind, supportive words and gestures that lightened my emotional (and physical) burdens while acknowledging my bereavement during those earliest grief-filled holiday seasons.

  • “I’m thinking of you.”
  • “You’re in my prayers.”
  • “I know you’re grieving her during this season.”
  • “I know it’s not the same without him.”
  • “Would you like to talk about him? About his favorite parts of Christmas?” (Sometimes I did want to talk about it. Sometimes I didn’t. But it felt like I mattered whenever they asked.)
  • One woman called to ask what kind of cookies my youngest daughter liked. A few hours later, she texted to say she was on her way to drop off a plateful.
  • Unexpected gift cards (and cash) helped offset expenses and made me feel less alone in providing for my family’s needs.
  • Cards, letters, emails, and texts offered tangible, visual evidence of others’ awareness.
  • Phone calls offered the same, even when I let it go to voicemail to listen later. (Sometimes I could not summon the emotional effort to answer or reply, but I did appreciate them.)
  • Invitations to join others in holiday gatherings proved I hadn’t been forgotten. Even though I couldn’t muster the strength or will to accept them (and I may not have even responded to some of them, I’m sorry to say now), it meant a lot to be asked.
  • A few of the men from our congregation — my husband’s church brothers — stopped by with a Christmas tree a couple of months after he died, when I’d all but forgotten about readying myself, let alone my house, for the holidays.*

Think back over your year. Did any of your friends lose loved ones? If so, please reach out to them. The holidays can be especially lonely and difficult while mourning. It’s not too late — it’s never too late — to say, “I’m thinking of you” — unless you never say it at all.

Wishing you and yours moments of peace and joy in your holidays. If’ you’re mourning this season, I hope those around you will reach out and show you they care. 

___

This is only a portion of the debris cleared away by the men from church that day. The "bushes" behind the trash bags are piled limbs hauled out to the street. (The poor lighting reflects my scattered state of mind at the time. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

This is only a portion of the debris cleared away by the men from church. The “bushes” behind the trash bags are piled limbs hauled out to the street. (The poor lighting reflects my scattered state of mind at the time.) Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

*The day our church brothers brought the Christmas tree, they did more than that. They opened their eyes and looked around as they hefted the pine out of a pickup truck and into the house. While setting it up in the stand, they asked, “Sister Bruce, do you have anyone helping you out with your yard?” (By what they’d seen, the answer was obvious, but to their credit they asked anyway.) To read about the amazing service they gave my family soon after, please see Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 3 — What to Keep Asking.

 

When Should Mourners Move On?

When should the bereaved stop talking about their deceased loved ones or their grief? I’ll answer by posing more questions.

When your friends got married, did you tell them to stop speaking of their husband or wife a few weeks or months after the wedding? Do you tell coworkers to remove family pictures from their workplaces or stop mentioning their kids once they’ve left babyhood, elementary school, or the nest? When lifelong friends announce their move to another state, do you vow to never communicate with — or about — them again?

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Of course not. To do so would be insensitive at best, rude at worst.

Marriage, childbirth, relocation — these are tremendous life changes, life-altering conditions. Once entered into, life for the participants becomes different than it was before, with birthdays, anniversaries, and physical reminders inextricable ongoing reminders. People expect and understand their conversations and preoccupations will center around those changes. After all, once a parent, always a parent …

So why force such expectations on mourners?

The death of a dear one marks another monumental shift in a person’s life and outlook. When a beloved one’s life ends, surviving loved ones’ lives are forever altered, with bereaved birthdays, agonizing anniversaries, and physical reminders both present and absent all around them.

Yet people outside the immediate, inner circle of loss may soon grow tired of the grief their friends express (whether in words, attitudes, or behaviors). Worse, they sometimes tell the grieving to “get over it” or “move on.”

But love and loss are inextricably entwined — so what mourners hear from such comments is “stop loving the one who died … and stop talking about it.”

Before you feel tempted to chime in on another’s grief, ask yourself why you feel compelled to comment:

  • Are you truly worried for your friend, sorry to see them living in a place of such sorrow, and hoping to comfort and lift them from it? If so, that’s admirable, but offering them a nonjudgmental, listening ear will enable them to better process their grieving.
  • Or are you tired of hearing about their sadness because it makes you uncomfortable, opening up fears of what it will be like when you face a similar loss? If so, let yourself dwell a little deeper in those fears. I guarantee you won’t be able to image how hard grieving will be, but if you really, really think about it, you might develop just enough empathy to realize how much understanding your grieving friend needs.

How long will it take to “get over” grief? Well, how long does it take to “get over” love?

It has now been nearly 21 years since my mother died — 21 years, and I still miss her! And yes, I still cry sometimes, wishing I could have her love and advice here with me again — not just the memory of it.

It’s been six years since my husband died. I don’t cry every day anymore — though I did for a long, long time (over a year) — but certain dates (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays), songs, or conversations still trigger tears. Perhaps they always will.

I’d just as soon skip September if I could only figure out how. Green Day sings it best: “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (from their album American Idiot).

That doesn’t mean my life hasn’t moved forward in good, positive ways — it has! — but it illustrates that grief is a complicated process, one lasting long after the funeral.

 

“Be Strong” Is Wrong (for Grieving Friends)

When someone dies, don’t tell survivors how strong they are. Tell them you’ll be strong beside them so they don’t have to — and follow through.

The first times people called me strong after my husband died, I had no idea how to respond. Their expressions and tones made it clear they’d intended to compliment me, but I couldn’t accept their words. I’d look at them, thinking, How can I say the expected “thank you” to such a blatant lie? 

I was as fragile as dandelion fluff.

Mourning made my feelings as fragile as overripe dandelion fluff. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

The truth was, I was broken, shattered into a million loosely gathered shards. The softest puff of sympathy or the least gust of gruffness might send my fragmented psyche as irretrievably into the wind as overripe dandelions in the hands (and breath) of enthused toddlers.

I was not strong. And it puzzled me that anyone might think I was.

I cried all the time. All. The. Time.

Everyday chores I’d mastered years earlier now confused me.

New tasks (including seemingly endless death-related business matters) overwhelmed me.

The sudden, sole responsibilities of single parenting had my knees buckling.

Strong, I was not. But that’s what was expected (and even demanded) of me. “Don’t cry,” some said. “You have to be strong for your daughters.”

Such words (though intended as encouragement) deeply shamed me. Being anyone else’s rock is a heavy burden when you’re scarcely able to hold onto yourself. 

Didn’t they realize how much strength seeped from me in getting out of bed each morning? Didn’t they know how much energy I exerted just remembering to breathe? Had they no idea how sucked away my strength felt after days and weeks and months of only sparse, grief- and nightmare-riddled, interrupted naps instead of genuine sleep?

Telling me how strong I was didn’t feel like a compliment. It felt like being told I could and should be able to handle everything on my own.

But I couldn’t.

Telling me I was strong didn’t make me feel capable. It made me feel like I wasn’t worthy of asking for help.

So I didn’t.

Sorrow saps strength. Grieving grinds it away. Bereavement burdens and bruises the body. Mourning makes mincemeat of memory.

So step in.

How can you offer your strength to grieving friends?

  • Help your mourning friends with physical tasks like mowing the lawn or shoveling snow or washing the car or doing the dishes and laundry. (*See important note about this below!)
  • Go along on emotionally charged errands (like changing car titles, account names, or banking business into the survivors’ names). Don’t make general offers like “call me if you want me to go” — they won’t. Instead, be specific: “Can I take you to the auto tag office Thursday afternoon to help you transfer the title into your name?” or “Would Tuesday or Wednesday be better for me to drive you to the Social Security office to submit the claim for the kids’ benefits?” or “The minute the funeral home says you can pick up the death certificates, call me. I want to help.”
  • Look out for your bereaved friends’ health. Bring a healthy meal, invite your friends on nature walks, share your favorite sleep soundtrack, take them for a massage, mention you need your own six-month dental cleaning and ask if they need you to call their dentist to schedule theirs …
  • Make a list. Mourning makes remembering anything a challenge. Write down tasks your friend might mention in passing. Offer reminders of appointments. Write down memories of their deceased loved one. Write down all the kindnesses other friends extend to your grieving mutual friend.
  • Be present. The loneliness of mourning a person missing from your life is difficult to describe. Acknowledge your awareness your friend is hurting. Sometimes the bereaved need reminders they (the deceased and the bereaved) aren’t forgotten and that they are valued for themselves — not just for who they used to be in relation to the ones no longer living. If you live nearby, sitting in silence alongside your friends will strengthen them just by your willingness to witness their sorrow. If you live far from them, you can still be “present” with phone calls, texts, instant messages, and even old-fashioned snail mail.

Here’s the irony:

Now, five-plus years later, I can honestly say, I’ve become strong. I’ve had to.  I’ve become stronger than my pre-widowed self could have imagined. The bones of my broken soul reknit into a construction of titanium lace.

But it took being broken — and much, much longer than six to eight weeks — to grow that strength.

(Sometimes, I also admit, the holes in that titanium knit lace soul of mine still feel more jagged than smooth, more broken than whole. Grieving, like living, is a process.)

___

*Please note: ALWAYS, Always, always ask before washing or putting away or cleaning up after the deceased person’s clothing, dishes, or even apparent trash! (Mourners may need and want to handle those newly sacred, last-touched items themselves.)

“Happy Birthday” after a Death?

At this time last year I wrote about MLK Jr., Kennedy, and me. It should be on my mind again this weekend, but this year I hardly remembered why the third Monday of January is recognized as a national holiday. It’s not the late Dr. King’s birthday I’m remembering.

Birthday candles and party favors (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Birthday candles and party favors (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

It’s my husband’s. My late husband’s.

And my mother’s. My late mother’s.

When Mom died a little over twenty years ago, I worried over whether anyone else would remember her birthday. I didn’t want her to be forgotten. And I knew I’d miss her even more on her birthday than I did every other day without her.

Celebrating my husband’s birthday without my mother’s was hard, but he helped me get through each of hers. He said things like:

“I know today is a hard one.”
“I’m sure you’re thinking of your mom today.”
“I miss her, too.”

When my husband died a little over five years ago, I couldn’t face the thought of Mom’s birthday without him.

And I couldn’t face the thought of his birthday at all. I was too broken.

A dear friend came to spend time with me. She listened when I cried and ranted. She reminded me to eat (and made me food when I still forgot). By her presence, she showed me how much she cared.

Even though these pieces are glued back together, this broken mug will never fully be whole again. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

Even though these pieces are glued back together, this broken mug will never fully be whole again. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

And that she remembered. By doing so, she helped me gather up pieces of my fragmented self.

Fast forward five years — to now.

My life is good again — different, but good. Most days are much easier to get through than they were in the first couple of years after he died.

But some days — like his birthday and like my mom’s, which fall so close together — are harder than others. On those occasions, grief leaks more easily through the patched-up holes where I put myself together in my new normal.

If you know someone who is grieving lost loved ones, share your memories of them.

And if you know their birthdays, let them know you’re thinking of them then, too.

Halloween Grief

My husband died about a month before Halloween. Fake tombstones and skeletons lined store aisles. I was a new widow, the unwilling owner of his cemetery plot. Holiday prop inscriptions labeled Rest in Peace were anything but peaceful.

Mock cemetery displays (complete with fake tombstones and skeletons) contradict the "peaceful" invocation to "rest in peace" (RIP). Many mourners despise them. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

Mock cemetery displays (complete with fake tombstones and skeletons) contradict the “peaceful” invocation to “rest in peace” (RIP). Many mourners despise them. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

He loved Halloween. He delighted in seeing our daughters’ excitement as they dressed up in costumes. I think trick-or-treating was as much fun for him as it was for them. Even when he had to work nights, his favorite annual activity at church was taking our girls “trunk-or-treating” right up until the moment he had to leave for his job.

That first year, just weeks after his passing, I sat in the decorated gym more out of habit (for our youngest daughter’s sake) than because I wanted to be there. I wasn’t quite numb anymore — the shock was beginning to erode — but I wasn’t myself yet, either (and wouldn’t be for a long, long time).

Sights and sounds buzzed and blurred around me. Kids played, adults conversed. I tried eating the food in front of me, but taste and appetite were as irrelevant as they’d been since the night my husband died.

I was an auto-pilot version of myself. I had no desire (or ability) to socialize, and the sight of couples enjoying the event together evoked irrational but undeniable guilt-inducing envy and resentment.

One woman, a person of refinement and decorum, sat beside me. She looked at me without staring yet she saw the pain I was too raw to conceal. “I won’t ask you how you’re doing,” she said.

I nodded my thanks, trying not to let the gathering moisture in my eyes spill onto my face.

“It just sucks,” she said.

Her words, so unlike the lexicon of culture and propriety I’d come to expect from her, were exactly what I needed to hear. Those three little words acknowledged my life had taken a turn, that the “fun” event was anything but, that my soul ached.

And in her acknowledgment of my hurt, a tiny bit of healing began.

Fast forward four, then five years.

Last year I manned games at the children’s trunk-or-treat. It was great fun, and I looked forward to doing the same again this year.

But grief doesn’t always behave in an orderly way. The closer I got to this year’s event, the stronger my aversion grew. Finally, I backed out of my plan to help. (And felt much, much better as soon as I did.)

I don’t mind the cutesy witches and ghouls and goblins decorating houses and buildings. I have nothing against the rows of tiny costumes and candy totes lining store aisles. I still think it will be fun to see little ones dressed up and going door to door again, yelling, “Trick or treat!”

But I still dislike neighborhood “cemeteries” like the one I photographed while out walking the dog early one morning. There’s nothing restful or peaceful about mock burial sites when you’ve had to buy a real one.