Facing Death in the Family

Today was my uncle’s funeral.

I’ve posted seldom since late October, when hospice staff told my aunt to make sure all the family visited within two to three weeks. They didn’t expect my uncle to be with us longer.

When I got the call, my aunt’s soft voice delivered that sentence in a three-fisted punch. The triple blows landed in a tight triangle, right where years before I’d felt grief’s wrecking ball hit mid-gut on my insides. My breath whooshed out as I tried not to cry into the phone:

My uncle.

My aunt.

My cousins.

I didn’t want it to be true. Denial, of course. Didn’t want to think of a world without him here. Selfish, raw, pre-grieving — thinking all about me missing my hilarious, compassionate, faithful uncle. About my kids missing their great-uncle and my dad missing his half-century brother-in-law.

Didn’t want my aunt forced to wear the title Widow. Yes, capitalized. Boldfaced. Italicized. Quadruple-underlined. 800-point font. Thinking all about her — knowing how I’d ached while mourning my husband after 24 years together and not wanting her to feel that. Grieving for what I knew she’d face. Yet knowing I had no idea how she’d feel after more than twice that time with my uncle.

Didn’t want my cousins bereft of their dad. Remembering  how I felt losing — missing — my mom and thinking about my cousins, picturing their pain at losing their dad. Seeing again my children’s grief after their dad died and not wanting that raw ache for my cousins and their kids and grandkids.

All this within seconds of hearing my aunt’s words.

My uncle surprised us all.

Within that hospice-projected two to three weeks, my aunt and uncle’s kids, grandkids, and great-grandchildren all visited with him. Other family members and close friends came too. They shared stories, memories, and love. Said whatever needed saying. Sweet visits, prompted by heartbreaking need.

Beloved uncle, glasses, sour candy, teasing, TealAshes.com

My funny uncle with a piece of candy he didn’t expect to be so sour. (Family photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

My uncle’s eyes still twinkled as he teased, and they softened as he expressed love and appreciation. He and his family enjoyed one another through post-prediction milestones: Halloween, his daughter’s birthday, Thanksgiving, his 57th wedding anniversary, and Christmas Day.

Meanwhile, I all but stopped writing. 

How could I post new material about what to say when someone dies while my dear uncle lay slowly dying? Time and again, my grief over his too imminent passing rebooted feelings I experienced while caring for his sister — my mom — as she neared the end of her life more than 20 years ago. In my mind, I was back in Mom’s bedroom, looking on as my uncle — this uncle — arrived in time to tell her goodbye.

But it wasn’t about my feelings. In the days since my uncle’s death, and on this day of his funeral, and in the days, weeks, months, and years to come, it’s about my aunt, my cousins, and their kids. Yes, I’m grieving my uncle’s terminal illness and passing. But my grief is also for them — my uncle’s immediate family. Theirs is the primary, innermost loss.*

Friends and our church family have been thoughtful in their support of offered meals and visits. For now, the family has requested privacy in grief, declining such offers with gratitude for their kind intentions.

In every loss I’ve suffered, the day of the funeral brought a turning point — in some ways, a relief of sorts, unwelcome though it was. Sometimes, the service also, sadly, began the waning of public awareness and outreach. Well-meaning folks assume memorial gatherings bring so-called closure to mourners.

But no. Closure implies an ability to shut the door on grief and walk away. In reality, mourning loved ones lasts much, much longer — which is why it’s so important to reach out a month, two months, six months, a year, and further after someone you know loses a loved one.

In time, we learn to walk with our grief and its connection to the one we (still) love.

In the meantime (and beyond), please keep reaching out.

___

*See  Grief — It’s All in the Family for more about how relatives might experience grief differently.

Easter Mourning — Grief and Belief

What should you say to a grieving friend at Easter*?

Here’s how to support grieving friends at Easter — or any time: 

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • “I’m thinking of you (and your family).” This simple expression of caring is always appropriate.
  • Send something (a card or another tangible token) expressing your awareness.
  • Bring edibles (snacks, groceries or ready meals).
  • Invite them to eat with you (at home or out).
  • Listen. Let them reminisce, rage, and roar their grief. Laugh along at great memories. Mourners need to share their feelings.

If you wish to share Easter-related (or other religious-themed) thoughts of comfort with your mourning friends, think carefully before and while speaking. Their grief is valid, and your words should acknowledge that.

Never make assumptions — or admonitions — about what the bereaved should do, feel, or believe. If you express how you feel about your own faith, only speak in relation to your feelings — not in relation to their loss.

How can you express your own belief near religious holidays without diminishing the loss your friends feel?

  • “I’m thinking of you and your family this Easter.”
  • “You and your family are in my prayers as I celebrate Easter this year.”
  • “Sending you loving thoughts at Easter time.”
  • “I miss your mother, too, and I look forward to one day seeing her again. But it’s hard to not have her with us. Thinking of you during my Easter commemoration.”
  • “I take comfort in the joy of the resurrection to come, but I realize this is your first Easter season alone.”

If your beliefs are vastly different from your grieving friends, you might say something like:

  • “Even though I don’t celebrate Easter, I know it’s been important to you, and I know you’re mourning. I’m thinking of you.”

I hope you’ll adapt such positive statements in reaching out to your mourning friends.

Now, having said all this, please let me delve a bit deeper.

I continue feeling conflicted about Easter. It still brings me blister and balm, solace and sorrow. Community and isolation. Heartache. Hope. (I wrote more on this in Easter Grief:  Life and Death and Loss and Hope.)

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I miss my own (and my daughters’) childhood Easter observations — chocolate bunnies, colored eggs, children with parents at church.

I dislike dwelling on the graphic horrors of what Good Friday inflicted, but I daily ponder my gratitude for the empty grave Easter morning revealed. I believe that because Jesus Christ was resurrected from that grave,  I’ll therefore be reunited in the hereafter with the loved ones I’ve lost.

And I take comfort in knowing — within the perspective of eternity — our till-death-did-us-part separation is temporary.

But I didn’t, I don’t (and I perhaps never will) take comfort from others telling me to feel that same hope I already embrace.

  • Don’t admonish mourners to remember the reason for the season. (You might think you’re saying something positive, but what they hear is that you’d rather preach to them than acknowledge the depth of their sorrow.)
  • Don’t tell the bereaved they should be “happy” for the faraway, future fulfillment of their faith. (They’re grieving lost loved ones now — and throughout the rest of what they foresee as long, lonely lifetimes. Future hope doesn’t restore or negate ongoing absence.)
  • Don’t assert or assume that devotion to Deity makes grief go away. (It can lighten the weight of mourning — it did/does for me! — but grief and love are connected. Let mourners mourn as they will, and let them also worship as they will — or won’t.)

When a mourning friend asks what comforts you in your faith, by all means, share the beliefs which offer you consolation. If a bereaved coworker asks what speaks peace to your heart, testify to that source of solace. When one who has lost loved ones worries over their own soul, witness what strengthens yours.

Six-plus years after my husband’s death, I still feel ambivalent about hearing “happy Easter.” But it always feels good to hear someone say, “I’m thinking of you.”

___

*Many of your faith traditions differ from mine. Please understand, I mean no disrespect or disregard toward yours. Please adapt and apply these suggestions to the religious holiday observations and practices sacred to you and to your grieving friends.

I try to make this site relevant to helping everyone learn ways to support their mourning friends — regardless of their faith traditions. Belief doesn’t banish bereavement. 

But because my faith plays such a formative role in my life and worldview, it sometimes features in what I write about, including topics like this Easter-inspired post.

For those of you who celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter — and beyond — I hope you will enjoy this brief Easter video: #PrinceOfPeace

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.

___

(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.

___

* 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.

___

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.

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.