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.” 

 

 

 

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.

 

Friends and Grief

“Your address book will change,” another widow told me.

Will you write yourself into or fade away from your grieving friends' address books? (photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Will you write yourself into or fade away from your grieving friends’ address books?
(photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

“What do you mean?”

“Some of the people you thought would always be there for you … won’t. They’ll disappear.”

My mind replayed one of the most-heard phrases at and after the funeral: “Call if you need anything.” I’d known the people saying it meant the sentiment (or at least thought they did). But while I nodded acknowledgement of their intention, I also knew — really knew — I wouldn’t call. I couldn’t.

“It’s not their fault,” I told my widow friend. “They’d be here if I asked.”

As if she read my mind, she said, “And how many have you asked?”

My silence answered.

“I get it,” she said. “As much as you need people around you, it’s physically and emotionally impossible to reach out to gather them to you. It takes every bit of energy just to muster the have-to calls for paying the bills and tending to all the business-of-death matters.”

“You mean it’s not just me?” I’d thought I was especially weak and inept at dealing with the aftermath of my husband’s death.

“Teresa, it’s hard for everybody,” she said, “but this is still early for you.  I don’t know anybody who could call people back if they needed anything so soon. It took me a couple of years. You’re only a couple months out, still in shock.”

Two months, one week, and three days, I corrected in my head, incapable of turning off the infernal count ticking off the time since he died. “It seems like it’s been forever, but it also feels like it just happened.”

“Have any of your friends tried to make you feel like you should be ‘over it’ by now?”

Frustrating memories surfaced: The first time (a whole 36 hours after he died) when someone said, “Don’t worry about anything. You’re young enough to remarry.” The people who (the day of the funeral) pressed to know what my immediate, short-term, and long-term future plans were now. The woman who (about six weeks after he died) insisted, “I wish you wouldn’t cry anymore. I makes me feel sad to see your tears.” (To her credit, she apologized soon after.)

“After the funeral,” my widow friend continued, “your friends’  lives went back to normal. But yours will never be the way it was before. They can’t understand, not unless they’ve also lost someone as much a part of your life as your husband was to you. They’re not trying to shut you out. They’re just … getting on with their lives.”

I nodded. I’d learned to scroll past friends’ status updates about sweet marital bliss — or stupid squabbles — that sliced and salted my grief. How unfair. Don’t they know they should be grateful for what they still have? But it still hurt to see illustrations that “life went on” for them when it hadn’t for me. (Side note: Never say “life goes on” to anyone grieving. Just don’t.)

“And then there are the ones who step away because they’re too uncomfortable around your pain.”

I let out a brief, one-syllable bark-laugh, thinking of the neighbor who instead of waving hello now turned away at the sight of me.

“But you’re going to make some amazing new friends, too. And there will be people you didn’t know well who will reach out with compassion that makes up for the others’ neglect.”

“You’re right.” I smiled and nodded at thoughts of those who’d reached out, people I’d known only casually before: A note card in the mail. Text check-ins. Dinners (or desserts) dropped off. Emails. His angelversary date acknowledged. 

I’ve reflected on that conversation many times since. It reminded me of a song round I learned as a Girl Scout:

Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.

Dear new friends have shown up and written themselves into my life’s address book in gold and silver inks during the five-plus years since my husband died. My life now is richer for knowing them.

Among my friends who mourn, I understand why some have erased entries from their contacts. Rejection and neglect are painful at any stage of life, but they are brutal while grieving. If a trusted friend criticizes or ignores your bereavement, why continue to rely on them?

For my part, I didn’t trust my own grief-shrouded judgement enough to erase the time-worn entries from my contacts. Even when I was too wounded to reach out to them. Meanwhile, those who didn’t ink themselves into my widowed life have faded: gold to silver to ink to pencil.

In future, who knows? Maybe one of those barely legible names will tell me a story of my husband or let one of my kids know they remember their dad. If so, the faded lines will become traced over, easier to distinguish.

Even if they don’t ink themselves back into my treasured contacts, I’ll keep them written there.  If I could rewrite the world to exclude grief, I would. But I can’t. So I’ll try to remember when faded contacts’ time comes to join the ranks of those who “get” grief.

I’ll try to reach out, because there’s no such thing as too many friends — even faded, friendly acquaintances — when you’re grieving.

 

 

“Thought of You” Five Years Later

Five years ago my life ended.

In that same absent heartbeat, my new, alien life began.

No, I didn’t have a near-death experience, but without warning, Death got in my face, reached into my being, and ripped away my other half — my soulmate.

To say that it hurt … words don’t exist that convey the suffering of that severance. I didn’t think I could endure the agony.

I wouldn’t — couldn’t — consider ending my life to end the pain; I had three daughters who needed me. But there were times the idea was hard to squelch. More often, I daydreamed of going to sleep and never waking up.

Waking up — in that split-second flash of remembering he was dead — felt horrific, far worse than the sleepless tossing and turning that preceded it. Brief, eventual dips into nightly, exhaustion-induced, nightmare-ridden naps were never “restful.” Even within those nightmares I somehow knew that waking would bring a fresh slap in the face of the worst reality I’d ever faced: my husband was dead.

Life — as I knew it — was over. (The well-intended, misguided souls who “consoled” me that “life goes on” were wrong.)

It was

no

more.

Yet, relentlessly, without him, one unwanted sunrise after another, I “woke up and wished that I was dead, with an aching in my head . . . I thought of you and where you’d gone, and the world spins madly on.“*

I found myself drawn to communities of the widowed, and I connected more deeply with friends who’d lost children and other dear ones. In such company, the words which so frustratingly failed us when speaking with the non-bereaved weren’t necessary. Among fellow mourners, each grieving their own unique bereavement, all were fluent in the language of heart loss.

Back then, I struggled to get through a full day. The thought of enduring that degree of pain — at that intensity — for the rest of my lifetime . . . Ugh. (As I sit typing these words, even the memory of those awful months makes me shudder from shoulder to knee.)

I asked my fellow widows and widowers who seemed to have rebuilt their shattered lives, who seemed to know how to make it from one day to the next, “How long did it take? How long before you felt like yourself again? Before you felt you could cope again?”

Their responses gave me nibbles to ponder (I wasn’t yet up to food for thought), hope in future, and reasons to fight — for my own newly alien life. Their answers surprised, encouraged, and confounded me:

  • I’ll let you know if I ever feel like myself again.
  • The second year was harder than the first. I started getting my act together during the third.
  • I did what I had to do because there was no one else to do it, but I still don’t feel like myself.
  • It takes as long as it takes. Don’t listen to anybody who hasn’t walked in your shoes. There’s no set time for anything.
  • By five years I’d pulled my new self together. Give yourself time.

Five years? I thought. No way will it take me FIVE YEARS. No way I can last that long through this. No way.

From time to time since then, I’ve tried to take an objective look at where I am now compared to where I was before widowhood and where I was during the earliest months and years of widowhood. Along the way from Back Then to each new Right Now, at every self-evaluation I could see signs of progress — and of my own personal failure to thrive.

Overall, my progress has grown and my failures (for the most part) have shrunk from one stage to the next. But I always thought, It’s okay that I’m not “there” yet. I will be before five years. I am NOT gonna take that long to be okay again.

But now . . .

It has been five years.

And I am well. Not the same, but well enough. (At least, well enough for now.)

And, most of the time, I am happy again. (At least, happy enough for now.)

Among the widows and widowers I first met, someone (I wish I remember who, but too many memories from then are widow-fog obscured) shared the video clip, “Thought of You” by animator Ryan Woodward**, created the same year my husband died. The artist left the meaning open so viewers can relate their own circumstances to the story it tells. To me (and to many others who’ve lost loved ones) the animation, music, and lyrics together come close — very close — to conveying the feeling of new bereavement (which words alone can’t approach).

 

___

*Lyrics by The Weepies in “World Spins Madly On,”
http://www.theweepies.com/
**Ryan Woodward’s incredible site:
http://ryanwoodwardart.com/

___

(Happy angelversary in your better place, my dear.)

Getting Lost in Grief

Navigating life while dealing with death can be like finding your way to an urgent appointment — in a new country …

Where you don’t understand the culture — or the language …

While operating a vehicle you’ve never driven, flown, or sailed before — and while responsible for a dozen kids, their gear, and their pets …

All yelling, “Are we there yet? How much longer?”*

And you were supposed to be there yesterday.

You could pull over to ask for directions — if you could find a passerby with whom you can communicate.

You could call someone who has been there before — if you hadn’t just unknowingly crossed a border not included in your phone plan. If you had any service bars available. If you had your charger with you.

Getting lost in grief

Getting lost in grief, photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

“The grief journey” is one description for the process of learning to live again after a loss. It’s not like vacationing to experience new scenery or to reconnect with family origins. It’s more like traveling through J.R.R. Tolkein’s Mordor, but without a noble quest. There’s no loyal Samwise Gamgee for unwavering companionship — those on the journey are there because a beloved one has been forever left behind.

Travelers on the grief journey constantly ask themselves, “Where am I? What am I doing here?”

Have you ever forgotten where you were going (while halfway there)? Ever been so lost you had to approach a stranger for directions,  or call a friend to talk you through your route, or pull out a map — even while using GPS?

There was no map to show me the way from life with my husband to life without him.

I’ve always been prone to “creative” navigation from Point A to Point B via unintended alternative routes. My husband and kids found it amusing, though sometimes annoying, that I could find my way through any area — once I’d already been lost there.

After he died, when the shock of grief was new and raw, I couldn’t locate familiar, close-by places; less familiar, more distant destinations were all but impossible.

The interstate was easy to reach, just two turns from my street. But I can’t begin to count how many times I found my widowed self turning too many blocks before I got there. Or half a mile past it. Or not remembering where I’d meant to go. (In hindsight, that was a good thing. I had no business driving at highway speeds when I couldn’t even figure out how to reach it.)

Physically, I was lost all the time. Emotionally, I was just as lost.

In the early months, I was so lost I even blurted my grief whenever I approached strangers. (Most of my widowed friends have said they did the same.) It was as if telling the grocery store clerk, the librarian, and the receptionist “My husband died” was a compulsory password to activate my grief processing symptoms — my distressing, personal GPS.

In time I learned to call on others who’d been there; they’d also lost their spouses. They talked me through how they survived the upending of all they’d known.

Slowly, oh, so slowly, I began drafting my own mourning map.

It took more time than I would have expected to be able to find my way again. It took more time than many of my friends expected, too.**

Be patient with your grieving friends as they relearn how to navigate their altered lives … and offer them rides whenever possible.

___

*See my earlier post called Are We There Yet? (How Long Does Grieving Take?)

___

**Speaking of my friends … I’d like to thank Bettie Wailes, Doug Grossman, Nylda Dieppa, and Liz Collard for their feedback — and patience.

Are We There Yet? (How Long Does Grieving Take?)

Are we there yet? — one of the most annoying questions parents hear. Invariably, no matter how long remained was too long for our children. When they were young,  we sometimes answered that if they asked one more time, we’d turn the car around and go back home.

clock with fallen numbers

“who cares?” clock face created and photographed by Teresa TL Bruce (TealAshes.com)

On a few occasions, we circled back to where we started, postponing the excursion for another day.

Their petition came regardless of our destination — rare, days-long, out-of-state road trips; frequent, up-to-an-hour-long, crosstown errands; or thrice-weekly, around-the-corner church meetings . All drives were apt to include variations on the dreaded question.

In hindsight, I realize our kids were eager for the fun to begin (or at least for the end of being strapped into car seats and belts while motion sickness churned their tummies). But while we were behind the wheel, our focus was to convey everyone safely from point A to point B. (If I could manage not getting lost when I was driving — ha! — so much the better.*)

Maybe askingWhen will we get there? reflected part of our kids’ intellectual development, too. They were still learning the basics of how time flows and is measured. They were learning to anticipate upcoming landmarks on familiar routes and weren’t yet able to estimate the amount of time it would take to reach the next location they could relate to during their journey.

And at that point in their lives, they lacked the experience to realize (or in some cases to care) how annoying it was to be asked.

We were more worried about reaching our destination intact than in time. If the Bruces were late, we were late … as long as we didn’t become the late Bruces in our attempt to arrive.

Sometimes detours or road conditions made our best estimates to How long is it gonna take? woefully wrong. (And, oh, did we hear about it!)

Then life’s day-to-day travels crashed into the worst kind of unplanned detour. My husband died.

My estimated arrival times died with him.

Are you better yet? — one of the most annoying questions mourners hear. With precious and dear exceptions, no matter how recent my bereavement felt, it seemed to take too long for those around me. When my grief was still young, I first answered bluntly, “No, of course not.”

If the same person asked more than once, I soon learned my frank answers disappointed them; disapproval showed in their expressions, voices, and words. I turned myself around when I saw them (or their phone numbers). That I was “still” not “better” (meaning not yet my former, pre-widowed self again) shamed me into silence about my real feelings. (Grieving was hard enough without being made to feel I was doing it the wrong way.) I put on my plastic smile and said, “Mm-hmm” — and got away from them as fast as I could.

In hindsight, I realize my friends were still learning the basics of what it meant to be around someone who’d lost a loved one. And they were eager for my sadness to end (as evidenced when I cried my way through conversations). But while I fumbled my  way through learning to cope with life-altering loss, my focus was simply to endure a single day from one moment to the next.

Any planning, any  estimation, any sense of the “when” of things was beyond my capacity. Death detoured my timing in every way. It slowed me down. (I know others who fell into fast-paced flurries of keep-busy actions to try to keep their grief from catching up with them; it sometimes worked — temporarily.)

It took me twice as long to do the dishes (when I remembered to cook — or to eat — and the two didn’t necessarily happen together anymore). It took me twice as long (or more) to get dressed in the morning. Four times as long to pay the bills and attend necessary business transactions. And getting to sleep or staying asleep … (sigh). Let’s just say my internal sleep clock has been at the repair shop for several years now …

I had a trouble estimating how I’d fare on the other side of the next five or ten minutes. Figuring out what would happen another day was tougher. What would the next week hold? (Thinking that far ahead made my head hurt almost as much as my heart.) The following month? Ha! (In case the italicized “Ha” with an exclamation point didn’t convey it clearly the first time, let me repeat. Ha!)

Questions about my five- or ten-year plans were as impossible to answer as “When are you going to act like normal again?

Maybe askingWhen will you be done with grieving? reflected part of my acquaintances’ empathetic development. They were still learning the basics of how grief flowed and ebbed around time-warped detours on an unfamiliar journey they couldn’t relate to. Yet because of what they observed in how I grieved my husband, they were awakened to an uncomfortable realization: they would someday lose a loved one, too.

Their need to ask, So, is everything okay now? stemmed as much from their lack of experience with grieving as it did from their genuine concern for me. And at that point in their lives, they had no way to realize how annoying it was to be asked. 

Instead of asking your grieving friends how long it will take them to “get over” their bereavement, assure them you accept them and support them no matter where (and when) they are in their grief.

___

*I’ve been known to get lost even when following GPS directions. In a future post I’ll share more about getting lost in other ways while finding my way through grief.

___

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