The Pulse of Grief, Six Months Later

Half a year ago, 49 people died without warning in an evil attack at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub. For six months, these victims’ loved ones — parents and partners, siblings and children, other family and friends — have privately and publicly mourned their beloved ones.  Just (or should I say already?) 26 weeks ago our city — and with television and Internet coverage, the world — ground to a halt in emergency response, physical recovery, and remembering.

In the 180-some days since those horrible, early morning hours, Orlando’s outward pace has accelerated almost back to normal in a deceptive echo of the trite, insensitive dismissal — “life goes on” — some shove at the bereaved.

"You Mattered" Pulse Birds (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

“You Mattered” Pulse Birds painted outside an Orlando business (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I have hope, though, that many hearts better understand the open-ended nature of grieving. Murals, T-shirts, store marquees, and hashtags all around town (#OrlandoStrong and #OrlandoUnited) display the love and pride my city’s citizens express in memory of the victims and in support of their loved ones. Surely, with such vivid visual reminders, we will keep these loved ones’ lost lives present in ways that will help their families rather than harm them.

I’m grateful for the media coverage focusing on the coming-together of disparate parts of our community. People who didn’t know any of those who were slain actively reach out to show their support for the people grieving them.

It’s important to remember, though, that most people mourning loved ones don’t have national or even local media reminding everyone of grief milestones — such as the six or twelve or eighteen or twenty-four months — since their loved ones died.

For many who grieve, such commemorations pass in lonely, heartbroken silence.  Death anniversaries — even “monthiversaries” — can be difficult. So please, reach out to those you know who have lost someone recently.

 

Grief Before and After the Storm

“Feeder bands” of grief-tinged déjà vu arrived ahead of the hurricane.

Hurricane Matthew surges toward my state after devastating the Caribbean and taking lives there. My ties to the islands are indirect — a young friend’s anxiety for the family in Haiti she hasn’t been able to contact; a daughter’s concern for students she worked with in the Dominican Republic; local friends’ worries for people within their ministries on the island of Hispaniola …

24-hours before Matthew's arrival, Central Florida grocery staples disappear (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Empty bread aisle 24 hours before Matthew’s arrival in Central Florida (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Here in Central Florida, I’m stocked up (water, food, dog food, and battery-operated fans). I’ve lowered and secured window awnings and stowed away outdoor items — I’m as ready as I can be.

Wednesday night, on the way home from a writers meeting, I stopped at a grocery store to top off my supply of stress foods (chocolate chip cookies and crunchy cheese-ish snacks). I’m glad I had already purchased the basics; as you can see by these photos, the staple aisles were depleted.

But my heart is heavy for the families of those who’ve already lost loved ones. I too clearly remember how new, raw grief felt — and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

48 hours before Matthew's arrival (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Empty water aisle 48 hours before Matthew’s arrival (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

The advent of this monster storm also brought back memories of the years when my late husband and I weathered earlier hurricanes and tropical storms. This is the first BIG storm I’ve prepared for without him.

Six years after his death, “firsts” still punch me in the gut. Not as hard as during earlier years, but enough to make me suck in my breath, feel a moment’s panic that my wedding ring isn’t on my finger, and revisit the anger I felt so often while adjusting to widowhood.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but as I stowed away outdoor items and braved the general icky-ness of our backyard shed, I wanted to tell off my husband. (WHAT was that thing skittering past my foot? It looked like a short, striped snake with legs.) I wanted to gripe at him. “This isn’t fair. You’re supposed to be here. How dare you leave me here to get ready for this storm — and for everything else I’ve had to do — since you died.”

It’s not fair to blame him (and his absence) for this storm. It’s not reasonable to be angry with him for it. It’s not nice to wish him here in harm’s way with the rest of us.

But grief isn’t nice, or reasonable, or fair. It’s a monster that sweeps the ground out from under mourners, floods them with confusion and distress, empties them of planned-for futures, and blows over the concept of “normal.” 

Empty fruit aisle 24 hours before Hurricane Matthew (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Empty fruit aisle 24 hours before Hurricane Matthew (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

After someone dies, life does not “go on” the same for the bereaved as it does for everyone else. It takes years to build what most of us call a “new-normal” life plan without the loved one who figured prominently before.

I don’t know what this (or any) hurricane will do to the physical landscape around me. I didn’t know what grieving my husband would do to the landscape of my life, either. 

If your friend or coworker or neighbor has lost a loved one in the last two years, please be patient with them as they rebuild their new normal. Stand close beside them, and let them know you are aware of their grief. Lend them your strength as they sort through the debris of dead dreams.

If you’re in the path of this storm — or others — please, please, please help each other be safe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Grief, Fear, and Reassurance after Death

When a friend asked whether I’d heard of people experiencing irrational fears after losing loved ones, I nearly laughed, not at her question, but at myself.

Irrational fears after a death? Oh, yeah. I’m afraid that yes, I have been scared (and somewhat scarred) by those …

(Sorry. Couldn’t resist the pun. Chalk it up to warped, widowed humor.)

In the first couple of years after my husband’s unexpected death:

If I needed to run an errand on the other end of town, I faced a frightening dilemma: 25 minutes on the highway with lunatic drivers speeding, or 45 minutes on back roads with crazed drivers running red lights and stop signs. Which would get me home quicker? More safely? At all?

If my doctor wanted me to try a new medication, did I dare? What if I was one of the few for whom death was listed (in infinitesimal print) as a possible side effect? I had a dependent child at home — could I take that risk?

If my daughter ran a fever, my mind forgot the existence of common culprits like a cold virus or other seasonal bug. I googled symptoms of meningitis and other serious ailments, afraid to have her doctor confirm my worst fears, but also afraid not to take her in for an exam.

One day my daughter’s severe lower abdominal pain and fever prompted the pediatrician to send us straight to the hospital. The same hospital where, less than a year earlier, a doctor prefaced the worst news of our lives with “Unfortunately …”

My daughter was beside herself, tense with pain and fearful of the unknown.

I was determined to “stay strong” for her — like so many people had admonished me to be over recent months. But my hands trembled, and I fought to keep my voice calm. Walking into that same doorway and down those same halls was like walking into a nightmare — while fully awake — terrified of history repeating itself. It felt like every step forward sent me ten steps back into the trauma of that night months before.

On that night I’d entered with confidence in the skills and abilities of the city-sized staff and the wonders of modern medicine. This time, I entered with spine-seizing fear.

But I knew I had to stay strong for my daughter because she needed me (and because that’s what people told me when they saw me cry). So I swallowed my fear whole and spoke past the lump burning in my throat. I murmured the same words in the same tone I’d uttered countless times during two decades of parenting our three children: “Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’ll be okay.”

“No. You can’t say that anymore, Mom.” 

Silence. 

She was right.

Wrecking-ball-to-the-gut silence.

Months earlier we’d been catapulted into the worst outcome — the one too awful to have considered that it might have been possible — and in crash-landing everything changed. Up meant fifty degrees sideways; left and right were mushed together somewhere beneath us; light illuminated nothing; the blinding brightness of dark stung our eyes.

“It’ll be okay” no longer sounded reassuring or hopeful. Guarantees were gone, replaced by uncertainty.

I later learned I wasn’t the only widowed parent who — alongside grieving the death of a spouse — mourned the loss of a child’s innocent trust that life goes on. Because sometimes (and eventually for everyone) it doesn’t. Not for the one who died. Not for the ones left mourning.

When their world has turned upside down, children (and adults) sometimes revert back to behaviors from a time they felt more secure. As a newly widowed mom, I sometimes caught myself saying quietly but aloud, “I want my mommy.”

Children who’ve lost a parent (or other caretaker) to death sometimes become clingy, once again exhibiting the separation anxiety they already outgrew. It’s not uncommon for them to whine or cry when the remaining parent leaves for work (or for anything). In an odd role reversal, kids may demand, “Where are you going? Who are you going to be with? What time will you come home? Let me know when you’re on your way back …

Grief often disrupts sleep. Children who haven’t used night lights in years (or ever) may refuse to sleep in the dark. Others may be unable to sleep alone. Nightmares (of the circumstances of the loved one’s death or fears about what follows) can be so intense that surviving family members may try avoiding sleep altogether. (My nightmares and night worries were so intense I cracked a molar clenching my teeth in my sleep during the first year after my husband died.)

Telling grieving kids (or adults) to “stop worrying” ignores their genuine (and logical) distress. After all, the fact that one parent already died irrefutably introduced them to the reality of mortality.

A healthier way to reassure them is to acknowledge their reasons for concern and to encourage them to express their fears. Older kids (and adults) might write in a private journal or in letters to their deceased loved one. Younger children might draw pictures or role-play with stuffed animals or dolls.

To help mourners (of all ages) as they face the many fears that accompany bereavement, give them the benefit of time with friends who let them talk — without judging them for how well they are (or aren’t) handling their grief.

___

(In case you were wondering, it really was okay that day in the hospital. But ever since, I fear I’ve been reluctant to say, “It’ll be okay.”)

“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.)

Live or Survive (the Song by TREN) and the Great Grief Dilemma

I heard “Live or Survive” by TREN this morning, and within seconds — before listening to the whole song again and again — I knew I’d share it here. Although this isn’t a song about grief,  its music nevertheless speaks to me (or should I say sings?) of the great grief dilemma I’ve faced with the death of each loved one. 

*Here’s the song:

Now, I realize TREN didn’t write this song to speak about grief. Their intention is stated on their Facebook page:

“Live or Survive” was written with a mission to play at the end credits of the last Hunger Games movie, by TREN (Taylor Miranda, Richard Williams, Eliza Smith, and Nate Young). The idea is that there comes a time when we must either fight for a chance at really “living life” or give in to circumstance and simply “survive.”https://www.facebook.com/wearetren/timeline (Twitter: @tren_music)

I’m a fan of the Hunger Games franchise. A big fan. (I won’t admit how many times I’ve read the books by Suzanne Collins and seen the movies.) I hope the producers jump at the chance to include this song. It captures the contradictions Katniss faces within herself as much as with her battle against The Capitol.

But that’s not why I feel impelled to share it here, where I write about how to help grieving friends, family, and coworkers.

What I heard was a reflection of daily battles with bereavement. “Live or Survive” captures the multifaceted impossibilities of what I call the great grief dilemma for the newly-bereaved: my life is over, but I’m still here to live it.

Consider these lyrics by TREN (in italics) — paired with grief-related thoughts I’m expressing in the present tense (to reflect new, raw grief):

  • “I hear the call, but will I listen?” — I hear the doctor’s words of diagnosis. Of pronouncement. I know their meaning, but I do not, cannot know what they mean, much less accept them.
  • “Flames pave the sky in the distance.” — My world tumbles upside-down. There’s air beneath my feet, and smoke obscures my eyes. Everything is altered.
  • “I know my place, but should I stay?” — I’m a wife, but my husband is dead. I’m my mother’s daughter, but Mom is gone. Who am I? (My friends — dear friends — who have lost beloved children are, and will always be, the parents of those precious departed souls, but these bereaved parents will forever straddle pain whenever someone asks the number of their children.)
  • “Something in my soul craves resistance.” — Denial doesn’t allow me to accept that my loved one is never coming back. Unfinished business or issues will never be resolved. It’s too much to take, so I won’t think about it. My brain is overloaded and my heart won’t let me.
  • “One by one, they drop and fall, hiding beneath already broken walls. Watch them burn to the ground.” — My plans, hopes, dreams, and expectations for the future have died with my husband. Hourly at first, then over days, weeks, and months, loss peels layer after layer from my being.
  • “Ashes of freedom never to be found. Traitor to the truth inside.” — Tethered by 24/7 caretaking, the death of my dear one delivers physical relief with a terrible, terrible cost. Survivor’s guilt means that (even if I believe it) I don’t want to hear how wonderful it is he’s no longer suffering or how glad anyone is that she’s in “a better place.”
  • “Can you stand tall against the tide?” — Grief assaults me in waves that knock me to my knees. Mourning often submerges me. Standing requires strength I don’t have.
  • “Will you put your hands in the sky?” — How can I go on? I give up. I can’t do this on my own.
  • “Or curl them into fists and fight?” — I snap at everyone around me, stuck in fight-or-flight battle mode. Uncharitable words I’ve never uttered chip at my defenses until I’m even fighting myself just to keep a civil tongue.
  • “Live or survive. Live or survive.” — If one more person tells me “life goes on,” I’ll scream. Loudly. Because it doesn’t. His didn’t. And yet … and yet … I can’t deny I’m still here. But I’m not living. Not really. Barely.
  • “Gotta pick a side.” — I have to decide. Will I ever do more than go through the motions? Will I ever want to live for myself?
  • “Can you hear them calling?” — Too many calls. Not enough calls. Don’t demand I do things now. I’m not ready. Don’t ignore me, either. I need to be called. I need to know I still matter, even though the one who mattered to me is gone.
  • “Can’t waste time.” — I can’t even tell time, let alone track it. Once-simple, 30-minute tasks take hours. Seasons surprise me. Yet funerary and other business matters demand timely attention my mind can’t pay.
  • “Revolution falling.” — My worldview’s shifting with my upside-down universe. Except for the innermost core of my being (a knowledge that God loves me and will somehow carry me through this), I take nothing else for granted but unpredictable change.
  • “I will not stand by.” — I can’t stand seeing others mourning — it hurts too much! — but I won’t stand apart (or depart) from them either. If I can help ease another’s loneliness, isolation, sorrow, insecurity, or confusion in their grief, I have to try. I have to. (Hence, this site.)
  • “Courage at the core. Go before the fear sets in.” — It requires unspeakable, exhausting courage to manage routine business matters. I count my breathing before asking for help and stave off the panic until I hang up. It takes days to muster the will to make a single phone call, and once I psyche myself up to it I must act. Fast.
  • “Stronger than before.” — Hour by hour. The only way to survive this. (If one more person says “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I may remind them that didn’t work so well for my husband. Loudly.)
  • “Never let your faith give.” — My trust in God’s plan for my life takes a back seat to my trust in his love for me. (Back seat? On second thought, trust in “the plan” rides on a rickety trailer pulled far behind the vehicle of love where I’m seat-belted in place. It’s still there, but not easy to reach. For a time.)
  • “Live for something more.” — It’s not possible to live when your other half is severed. Only half a being remains. So when I do learn to live again, it will have to be for something more.

It’s been 56 months since my husband died and nearly 20 years since Mom’s passing. am living again, and life is good, thanks to time and work and practice, but I’ll never “get over” loving the ones I’ve lost. No one does. Rather, we learn to live in spite of our bereavement. Sometimes, though, events (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, or nothing identifiable) will reactivate waves of grief. When they strike again, I’ll remember I have options:

“Will you put your hands into the sky?
Or curl them into fists and fight?
Live or survive.”

___

*If you enjoyed TREN’s music as much as I did, please like and share it using #liveorsurvive and #tren. When Mockingjay — Part 2 is released, I’d love to hear “Live or Survive” on the soundtrack!

When Will Things Be Back to Normal for My Grieving Friend?

When will life get back to normal for a grieving friend? The short answer is simple: never. It won’t ever be the same.

The long-term answer is more complex. The reality is that when their loved ones died, so did the “old” life they knew. Almost as soon as the funerals end, friends of the bereaved settle back into “normal” routines. For them, “life goes on,” but for the bereaved it does not. (Please see my earlier post: Do NOT Tell the Bereaved “Life Goes On”.)

A couple of month after my husband died, I came across an old copy of a Life Change Index Scale.* It was a chart listing the “points” attributed to various stressful life changes. (Not life pauses or hiccups or bubbles. Changes.) For each pertinent event I’d experienced within a year, I was to add up the associated numerical ratings. At the bottom of the page, the scoring caution went something like this:

  • under 150 meant 30% chance of illness in the near future
  • 150 – 299 meant 50% chance of illness in the near future
  • 300+ meant 80% chance of developing illness in the near future

I actually laughed at my result. My score was over 750.

The reason I bring up this scale is that in every version I’ve seen since, the highest stress point value (100) is attributed to the death of a spouse. The deaths of other close family members are also highly ranked (63). For me, seeing those numbers on a black and white chart validated how off-kilter I felt. The first two words of the title — Life Change — acknowledged the irrevocable shift from my “old normal.”

Eventually, your grieving friends will forge a “new normal” path through life. This will likely take years. Yes, I said years. The minute by hour by day by week by month by year adjustments are huge, and the human mind and body can only handle so much at a time. Be patient with your friend, who probably won’t seem like himself or herself for a long time.

Early in my raw grief, I wondered when I would feel like myself again. Most people who’d been widowed much longer than me assured me that it would happen, but they alerted me not to expect it too soon. At first, I felt despair when they cautioned it took about three years for most of them. Three years?!? I didn’t know if I could make it feeling so horrible for three more days — how could I fathom feeling this way for three years?!?

The first year was difficult beyond description. My mind and body were so overloaded I have huge gaps in my memory. I look back over the things I wrote for myself in journals and in correspondence with other widows and widowers and, until I read my own words, I have no recollection of how I got through some months.

The second year was also brutal. During the second year I no longer felt the numbing effects of “widowed fog.” I’d thought the Year of Firsts was hard as I went through the first of every holiday and family commemoration without my husband. I’d experienced the same every-event renewal of loss the first year after Mom died, too. But during my second year as a widow, I was more aware of the increased responsibilities on my shoulders. I was more aware of how their father’s death impacted our children’s lives. I was beginning to learn to process the emotions I’d tried to ignore for the sake of getting through year one.

For me, the shift into “new normal” clicked into gear a couple of months before the third anniversary of his death. I’d known all along that — eventually — I’d be okay again. My faith had been at the core of that understanding, but it was an ethereal assurance. It took 34 months for me to begin to feel I was actually becoming okay again. That doesn’t mean I no longer dissolve into a puddle of tears from time to time, nor does it mean I don’t miss him anymore. I do both. Sometimes I still slip back into non-functioning hours when mustering the strength to hide in the pages of a good book is my best self-preservation tool. But even as I turn each page, I know when I reach the end of the chapter I’ll be able to step back into my life, my different life.

Please understand this about your grieving friends. They need time. They need your patience. They need your acceptance of how their grief impacts their lives.

I will always be grateful for those who didn’t rush me that I “should” feel or do what they thought appropriate. I will always appreciate those who did not shame me by inflicting “by now” or “already” assumptions upon me. I will always be indebted to them for listening to me without judgement. Please, do the same for your friends who’ve lost someone they love.

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*One such scale is available at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~eap/library/lifechangestresstest.pdf