Grief Talk: Blurting Nonstop about a Loved One’s Death

I blurted “my husband died” to every stranger I encountered in the earliest weeks after it happened. No matter the setting — church, the frozen foods aisle, in the pharmacy checkout line … No matter where I was, I had to say it. I hated saying it. I hated hearing it. But I had to.

It wasn’t as if I walked into any business thinking, “I’m going to announce to the world I’m a widow.” Most of my grief blurted out in unbidden bursts prompted by the piercing pressure of dull-looking (yet deceptively sharp) questions like “How are you?”*

I am grieving, that’s how I am, thank you very much. Whether a person meant the question or said it as a greeting synonymous with hello, if I was asked, I would tell. And even if I wasn’t asked, my body had to express its inexpressible sadness in tears, shallow breathing, gut-wrenching anxiety at the sight of products my husband used — no, used to use — and sometimes in words, inadequate as they were.

Perhaps my pattern of blurting was set from the first moments after the hospital doctor delivered his pronouncement, when an orderly leaned inside the doorway of the tiny waiting room. “‘Scuse me,” he said to the doctor, “the medical examiner’s office is on the phone.” He crossed the room in three steps and while extending the cordless phone toward my hand said, “How ya doin’?”

I regret to say I raised my voice at the man. “My husband just died. How do you THINK I’m doing!?” (I can only hope my outburst did some good in the long run; I hope he never, ever addressed a grieving family in that way again.)

The gentle gauze of acknowledgement will better slow verbal grieving than the poky prodding of a cotton swab. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

The gentle gauze of acknowledgement will better slow verbal grieving than the poky prodding of a cotton-tipped swab. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Sometimes the people I blurted to were sympathetic. “I’m sorry,” they’d say while looking me over carefully. (One asked, “Are you okay to drive? Do you need me to call someone for you?”) I appreciated the kindness of their sympathy and felt slightly better for the interaction. Their gentle acknowledgement acted like an embracing gauze to hold my wounded soul together.

Often people appeared embarrassed, averting their eyes as if I’d bared too much skin rather than too much of my soul. “Oh,” they’d say (if they said that much) before altogether turning away or, in the case of cashiers locked into position, turning their full attention back to the buttons at their fingertips. I left such encounters feeling the kind of social embarrassment I hadn’t experienced since my children were tiny and bled or threw up (or worse) in public places. In this case there were no surfaces to clean up and nothing to apologize for, but it felt much the same.

The harshest, most damaging interchanges happened when strangers (or much worse, people I knew) chastened me for speaking (or crying) about my husband’s death. “Stop crying,” they’d say, or “You already told me,” or “But that was last month, so why are you still crying about it?” or “Everyone has troubles, so you need to get over it and move on.” I walked away from such encounters feeling deep shame for my feelings and my inability to keep them to myself, as if I’d just offered a messy, inappropriate blood sacrifice in someone’s all-white living room.

In hindsight, with five-plus years behind me, I can forgive myself for committing such “offenses” against those whose own insecurities prompted their harsh or embarrassed responses. Looking back on the way I felt when newly bereaved, I can see how my wounded, lacerated soul and psyche bled orally. Applying pointed pressure to stanch the flow of grieving words was no more effective than holding a Q-tip to a deep cut.**

It was about a year before I managed not to blurt, “My husband died,” long after his death faded to “old news.”

For our family, though, every day we lived with the new, unwelcome reality of “firsts” without him. Time had to thicken and slow the verbal and emotional bleeding. Gentle acknowledgement of loss had to wrap around me and take hold. The raw edges of my wounded psyche had to begin their healing.

If your mourning friends seem never to stop talking about the death of their loved ones, don’t shove a poky cotton-tipped swab into their wounds. Wrap them with the consoling gauze of your acknowledgement and absorb the mess of their blurting with your acceptance and understanding.


Feel free to share ways you blurted — or listened.


*Please see these suggestions for Better Questions to Ask than “How Are You?”

**I don’t have any affiliation with (or aversion to) the Q-tip brand of cotton-tipped swabs.



More about Hugs–and Tears

A couple of weeks ago, two women at my doctor’s office offered  much-needed hugs — for opposite reasons that both connect to my widowed status. Here’s what happened:

When I check in at the front desk, the young woman behind the chest-high counter asks me to review my medical records. Routine stuff, right? Wrong.

I glance at the page and feel my forehead go pale. In the seconds it takes to process the written emergency contact and financially responsible party, my fingertips already dampen the page. My lungs feel as they did when a year-older bully punched me in elementary school. My stomach lurches as it did  three years earlier, the first time my trembling hand scrawled “widowed” between the mutually exclusive yet equally accurate options of “married” and “single.”

Between blinks at those small, inked symbols, I’ve been transported back to the most traumatic period of my life.

With the offensive paper shaking in my hands, I lean forward, resting my forearms on the countertop. I hate that tears rim my eyes — Snap! — just like that. Three years of progress in learning to “handle” and “manage” my grief — gone.

“Ma’am? Ma’am? Are you okay?”

I nod-shake my head in an indecipherable up-side-to-side-and-down gesture, still unable to draw in breath enough to speak. I feel badly for the poor girl (about my oldest daughter’s age) staring up at me from her monitor and keyboard. It isn’t her fault that three years’ of “updated” information never made it into the office database. I feel the impatient stares of other patients in the growing line behind me.

When I finally manage to inhale, my first words come as unfiltered as they did three years ago, back when I  began nearly every conversation  the same way. “My husband died.” Now I add, as if needing to justify my display of emotion, “I already changed it on the forms, but he’s still written here.”

The young woman stammers out, “I’m sorry.” She looks nearly as distressed as I feel.

Once I manage to cross out  my husband’s name and information — Ouch! — and write in my current contact and ID numbers, she promises she’ll input it immediately — so I won’t have to face that again.

Fast forward 30+ minutes later, inside the exam room.

In walks the doctor, who does a double-take when she sees me. “You’ve lost weight [16 pounds so far!]. You look terrific! And you don’t have the cane with you anymore? Tell me what’s been going on.”

I share the miracle of healing that let me ditch my cane after 10 years and 5 months. I show her the story I wrote in my copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive for Kids and tell her of my other published work. I answer questions about my daughters’ well-being.

My doctor beams at me with unfallen tears glistening. “You’ve come so far after such a hard load of grief. May I give you a hug?”

Earlier in my grief (as I stated in “To comfort the bereaved, give hugs–but ask first!”) I was prickly about being touched. Sometimes I craved the embrace of a friend almost as much as I craved my husband’s hugs. Other times, I couldn’t stand any hugs that were not his — especially not from unrelated men.

Now, though, I welcome her hug as much as the compassion that prompts it.

Fast forward again, this time back in the lobby,  standing in another line to check out. The young woman who witnessed my tears earlier leaves her desk and approaches me. “I’m really sorry about before,” she says. “Would it be okay if I give you a hug?

Again, I welcome it.

Whether in celebration or sorrow, whether accompanied by tears of rejoicing or despair, a hug is a wonderful gift and healing tool — when asked and applied appropriately.

Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 2–What to Ask When Grief Is “New”

For at least the first year after a death, avoid casually asking “How are you?” It’s too broad, and because it’s routinely used in place of “hello,” it can seem insincere.

Instead, ask one or two specific questions that acknowledge life has changed:

  • Are you remembering to breathe?
    If you’ve never been blindsided by grief, this may seem odd. (After all, who forgets to breathe?!) More than a month after my husband’s death, another widow first asked about my breathing. I thought the question strange–until I inhaled. All at once I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’d fully filled my lungs. The difference felt amazing, even luxurious! Still, over the next year, I found myself failing to do so again and again.
  • Do you need a drink of water? Are you drinking enough water?
    Your friend has shed incalculable streams of tears. You may (or may not) have witnessed them, but I guarantee more are shed unseen. Those tears, along with the other myriad physical and emotional stressors and distractions of grief, can lead to dehydration.
  • Can I make calls for you?
    Notifying others of my husband’s death was excruciating. It had to be done, but I  dreaded every personal and business call.
  • Would you like to talk?
    This helps, but be sure to listen! Your job is to L-I-S-T-E-N–not to evaluate, judge, or redirect. Let the conversation wander wherever your bereaved friend needs it to go.
  • Would you like to talk about [name the loss]?
    Grieving loved ones need to share feelings and memories about the deceased.
  • Can I bring you [name a specific food, whether homemade or take-out] at [#] o’clock on ___-day?
    Menu planning? Hah! I felt like a five-star chef if I managed to serve cold cereal or popcorn. Sometimes I forgot to eat or to stop eating. Grief disrupts digestion as ruthlessly as it sabotages sleep.
  • May I help you with [name a chore (*see below)]?
    Name one or two, because often the bereaved struggles to recall even simple tasks. I knew I wasn’t handling everything that needed doing, but I couldn’t figure out what was undone until someone offered to help with it. (I appreciated those thoughtful folks!)

    [*Consider offering to take on: errands, paperwork, transporting kids, yard work, washing the car, sweeping, laundry, polishing shoes, buying milk or fruit, house cleaning, etc.]

Questions like these show you care in practical ways. Even if the answer to all is “no,” your interest will be appreciated. (If your offers are rebuffed, please, please try again in a week or so. Consistency counts.)

If you’ve suffered such a loss, please add a comment sharing what helpful things others asked–and did–for you.

Better Questions than “How Are you?” Part 1–Why

“How are you?” is almost impossible to answer if you’re newly bereaved (within 13 months of a loss).

When grief shakes your world, tips it end over end, and dumps it in the middle of life’s ten-lane freeway during rush hour, you find yourself smashed into  3.4 bazillion pieces (give or take a handful).

Even if you could yell “STOP!” and every commuter and freight driver pulled over to help gather the detritus that was your life Before… Even if magical glue could mend you more seamlessly than Humpty Dumpty… You’ve lost bits and pieces of yourself, blown away by the breezes of cleanup or embedded in the tires of already faraway cars.

So how would you reply to the question, “How are you?” while you’re still smeared and strewn and fragmented and incomplete?

Picture this:

I answer the doctor’s questions about my hubby’s medical history. Doctor utters impossible to comprehend, life-shattering words: “I’m sorry to inform you …”

Everything shifts.

Somehow my brain processes the meaning of the doctor’s ongoing words, though my ears hear only wuh-WUH-wuh-wuh vocalizations like adults in Charlie Brown TV specials. My vision zooms onto my daughter’s shocked face as I watch comprehension and disbelief drawing battle lines across her lovely, distorted features. In the same moment, as if I have more than one set of eyes, I notice the way light plays differently in the corners of the ceiling above and behind the doctor’s droning and I squint at the glare of his bald spot. Out of nowhere, a wrecking ball tugs from the base of my skull, its weighted chain confined within my spine, its globe of destruction swinging wildly through my abdomen. I am helpless to console my child, because this cannot be real and it cannot be undone–and how, oh how can I call her sisters 2,000 miles away to tell them–over the phone–they’ll never see their father again?  “So this is what it feels like,” the writer’s voice in my head intrudes, “when you lose your spouse.”

A bit of time passes. Seconds? Minutes? Hours? Impossible to say, but the doctor is still here, saying I don’t know what anymore.

In walks a hospital employee, portable phone in hand. (Soon I’ll learn he’s on the line with someone from the medical examiner’s office to question me.) As his eyes fix on mine, he says, “How’re you doin’?”

I admit my response was impolite.

(Part 2, Better Questions than “How Are You?” —  What to Ask When Grief Is New, will offer alternative questions that show you care.)