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.

(Part 2) Grief Can’t Tell Time, but It Obsesses over Calendars

As I said in part one, grief can’t tell time, but it  can — and does — obsess over calendars.

Some calendar-activated grief triggers are predictable and public, like holidays and other annual events. No matter which of the 365 days begins a mourner’s first year of grief, your friend who has lost a loved one will soon ache through the first holidays in mourning.

Notice I didn’t say “the first holiday in mourning”? No, I said “the first holidays in mourning.” Plural.

Whether your friend mourns someone who died on January one, Leap Day, the Fourth of July, or New Year’s Eve, for the next year, every first holiday without the loved one will be difficult.* Whether it’s a national holiday or less celebrated annual observance, if the day is highlighted on calendars or merchandised in stores, chances are the days leading up to it will be filled with anticipatory pain.

As each holiday approaches throughout the year, acknowledge your awareness of the loved one’s absence. It’s easy to do. Make a phone call, write a brief note, send an IM,  email, or text. It can be simple: “I know this is your first Christmas without John. You’re in my thoughts and I’d love to hear yours. I’m here for you.”

Then follow through. Be there. Call or text, asking for the opportunity to hear memories about the deceased or their holiday traditions.

There will be private calendar triggers for your friend’s bereavement, too. Annual family events like birthdays and  anniversaries or family reunions can be unbearable to the newly bereaved. As much as I needed and craved time with extended family after my mother’s death and then again after my husband’s, it also hurt to be around them. It didn’t feel right without Mom or Hubby. Family dynamics had shifted. Nothing felt the same.

A couple from church visited one day with a long question that surprised me. “Will you tell us your birthday, your [late] husband’s birthday, your children’s birthdays, and your what day is your anniversary?” The wife pulled a 3×5 card and a pencil from her purse and she wrote each date.

A couple of months later, one of my out-of-state daughters called to say she’d gotten a birthday card from the couple, and I recalled their earlier question. Since then, they have sent each of our children a birthday greeting, and they’ve acknowledged my wedding anniversary. They have texted awareness of holidays, too.

“Little” gestures such as these offer big comfort and consolation all year.


*[This doesn’t mean the same holidays will be “fine” once the first year has passed. Sometimes the second year — when shock has faded and the survivors’ new reality has set in — can be as hard as (or harder than) the first year. Holidays — whenever they fall — are hard. Remember: For your friend who lost a loved one, all of life’s celebrations have been forever altered.]