Grief on the Fourth of July

I’ve always loved the U.S. holiday called Independence Day, but for twenty years I’ve struggled to enjoy the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate it. Contradictory? Perhaps, but holidays after a loved one’s death can become complicated, contradictory things.

20150704_stars and stripes fireworks burst

“Stars and Stripes Fireworks over Orlando” photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

On the one hand, maintaining annual traditions can give survivors a lifeline of continuity in a time when their lives have been demolished by death. Things will never be normal again, so holiday celebrations and commemorations can — for some mourners — offer the comforting familiarity of ritual. For the first couple of years after my husband died, only at the last minute did I remember to buy hot dogs, potato chips, dip, and soda (our family’s traditional Fourth of July junk food)  — primarily because our kids expected it.

On the other hand, for some who grieve, carrying on with past traditions (as if nothing has changed) hurts more than it helps. Also in the first year (or two) after my husband died, I felt raging jealousy and resentment for those going about their days as if everything was okay — because to me it wasn’t. I couldn’t make myself display any of our household Independence Day decorations I’d made and/or purchased during our twenty-four years of marriage. (In fact, on this my sixth widowed Independence Day, that bin remains untouched. Maybe next year.)

If your friends have lost loved ones recently, please be sensitive to their grief this Fourth of July (and in holidays yet to come):

  • Acknowledge that this holiday will be different (if not downright difficult) for the bereaved. Don’t be afraid of reminding them of their loss or “making” them sad; they already remember their loss every minute of every day. What they need is to know someone else does, too.
  • Invite them to join you in cookouts, picnics, beach trips … whatever you usually do to celebrate. Tell them the invitation remains open if they decline. Don’t push — they may really need space — but do make certain they are welcome to change their minds later.
  • Don’t take it personally if they turn you down, won’t RSVP, or don’t return calls or messages. In the early months after my husband died, sometimes I answered the phone only for my immediate family but let other calls go to voicemail. (It wasn’t them, it was me.) It took me more than six months to be able to even think about attending social gatherings (and it took longer to actually go).
  • Ask them how they usually celebrated the holiday with their deceased loved one. Most mourners are grateful for the chance to speak about the ones they grieve.
  • Tread lightly with greetings like “Happy Fourth.” Of course you want your friends to be happy, and happiness is possible even while grieving, but when grief is new and raw, a safer, more considerate message might be “Thinking of you on the Fourth.”

(To find out why I’ve had an aversion to July 4th since the 1990s, see Fireworks of Grief.)

One more thing. While you’re enjoying whatever it is you like to do on this national holiday, please take one moment (or more) to reflect on the gift it is to be able to celebrate as you wish. The freedoms we too often take for granted were purchased by the labors — and the lives — of many to whom we owe a debt our gratitude can never repay.



Fireworks of Grief

July Fourth weekend, 1992. 

Their home phone rang as my parents walked back in the door after visiting Mom’s aunt over the holiday weekend. It was Mom’s doctor — not his staff — on the other end. “Where have you been? We’ve been calling for days. We’ve got you scheduled for surgery.”

Mom hadn’t told me about the biopsy — or even about the lump that prompted it. She hadn’t wanted me to worry. My first inclination of something wrong was when an uncle called to ask me if I’d heard the results. “No,” I’d assured him. “There’s nothing the matter. They’d have told me. You must be mistaken.”

Back in January she’d had her annual exam and mammogram. All was clear. In April she’d seen a small lump in the mirror (it was visible but not palpable) and she’d made an appointment. Her doctor recommended a biopsy. She had the biopsy and left town for the weekend.

The cancerous cells had already burst through all the lymph nodes.

Surgery, radiation, and chemo followed.

My husband and I moved our family from Arizona to Florida to care for her as she recovered while Dad continued working nights. She did well and returned to work.

20150704_multiburst fireworks

photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

July Fourth, 1995, after watching the fireworks, we walked in the door and found Mom (who’d stayed home with a slight headache) slumped against the hallway. It was the first visible symptom that breast cancer had resurfaced, this time in her brain and spinal column.

The following week we learned it was terminal.

It’s been 19 years since that second devastating Independence Day. In the intervening years our family sometimes rekindled the positive traditions of early times. After my husband’s illness and death, though, the redoubling of grief made — still makes — the Fourth (like most widowed holidays) harder to manage than it used to be.

It’s not easy to construct new traditions. It’s not easy to “get over” grief when you miss loved ones who “should” be sharing special days. Please be patient with your grieving friends. Invite the bereaved to join you in your celebrations. Ask them about the traditions they cherish. Acknowledge your awareness of them, let them know they are not forgotten, even though they may be alone in their loneliness on Independence Day and other holidays.