Returning after Grief (and Pavement) Smacked Me in the Head

Hello, again. You might have noticed the July to April gap in new posts on What to Say When Someone Dies. Years ago, I first started writing content for this grief support website within three days of my husband’s unexpected death, although I didn’t know at the time that’s what I was doing. Even surrounded by the thick, heavy fog of shock, I recognized that some folks’ well-intended words landed like a blow to the gut or slapped me in the face.

Slap in Your Face unintended commentary assume you meant well, surprised face, embarrassed face, grief

On the other hand, a few — sadly, too few — friends’ and even strangers’ words and gestures gently reached my hurting heart through comforting compassion. I wanted to remember all these words — the helpful and the harmful — so I opened a spiral notebook and scribbled them as best I could.

ink on notebook paper, list how to help mourner, Teresa TL Bruce
Days after I started the “Slap in Your Face” list, I wrote this on the page before it to remind myself how to treat others who were grieving (Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

As I slowly (oh, how slowly!) learned to live with my grief, I networked with widows and widowers of widely varied backgrounds, cultures, and nations, some in their senior years but many younger — even decades younger — than you’d likely expect. At the same time, I spoke at length and developed cherished friendships with bereaved parents, children, siblings, and others who mourned departed dear ones. Imagine my surprise at how many of us, while mourning diverse losses, experienced similar distressing visceral reactions to the trite, time-worn platitudes (“he’s in a better place”, “at least they didn’t suffer,” “her suffering’s over now…”) meant to offer comfort.

meant well p 5, grief, TealAshes.com

Likewise, regardless of our backgrounds, we appreciated the thoughtful outreach of those whose words acknowledged and validated our pain.

It took nearly three years to work up the courage to share what I learned. While my husband’s death felt recent enough to keep fresh my recollections of raw grief, the merciful yet relentless passage of time allowed me a self-preserving sliver of distance. Not only that, but in most areas of my life, I’m a deeply private person. Opening up about grief’s impact on me still sometimes feels like opening my curtains and inviting the world in to witness my vivisection.

Deaths of family members and friends from December 2017 through March 2019 forced me too many times to again ask myself what to say when another someone died. New bereavement reopened wounds of mourning earlier losses. These new losses forced me to focus on how to comfort those closest to the center of each loss while grieving myself.

As much as I wanted to post here, I held back. I ached with grief, but I recognized mine wasn’t the primary loss of each surviving spouse, parent, child, or sibling. And what pain I owned felt too newly raw and too personal to publish.

For the last nine of those sixteen months, after hitting my head on the street, I’ve also been learning about managing symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. Consequently, I’ve kept my screen time focused on work for clients more than writing for myself. (Stay tuned for a post now in progress comparing the effects of grief and concussion. In true writer fashion, I tried to capture details while inside the ambulance and the MRI machine. I’ll admit those injured mental notes weren’t as coherent as I’d like.) I’m still not fully recovered, but I’ll keep working toward it.

As this website approaches the completion of its sixth year of offering ways to help grieving friends, coworkers, and family members, I remain grateful to you for reading. I’d like to thank those of you who’ve followed this content from the beginning (How I Learned What to Say When Someone Dies) as well as those of you who’ve browsed my posts only on occasion as needed. I appreciate your trust, and I’m always touched when you take the time to comment.

I hope you’ll continue to visit and share as we move forward with helping those who are grieving — and as I move forward with preparing an accompanying book.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for helping your grieving friends! — Teresa TL Bruce

broken glass, tempered glass, teal tray, glass shard, grief, loss, TealAshes.com, Teresa TL Bruce

Grief and Glass — Shattered

 

Broken glass, shatter, grief, teal shoelace, loss, Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

When the glass cutting board hit the tile floor, shards went everywhere — much like life shatters under the impact of grief. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

When my glass cutting board hit the floor, it shattered against the tile. Tiny, sharp cubes spread near — piled around my feet — and flew far — some 12 feet away. (Thank goodness for tempered glass, or I’d have been sweeping up even more shards.) Portions clumped together, resembling a crackled fraction of the item that once protected surfaces and survived countless kitchen close calls over the last two decades. Not one bit of it was salvageable.

When my husband died, grief shattered my world into nearly as many tiny fragments of my former life. It was as if someone scored a crackled fraction pattern over me and then dropped me onto tile. The resulting impact sent shards of myself flying — some landing in a crumpled heap at my feet and others tumbling far, far, far beyond view. I didn’t feel salvageable.

I could have attempted a Humpty-Dumpty–patch job with parts of the cutting board. With scads of time, protective gloves, and the right adhesive, I might have reassembled a nearly complete rectangle of the same overall shape. Its length, width, and depth might have been close to the original version of itself.

broken glass, tempered glass, teal tray, glass shard, grief, loss, TealAshes.com, Teresa TL Bruce

Shattered tempered glass might stick together at first, but like a life shattered by grief, it will never be the same. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

But it would never, ever be good as new again. Never would it safely bear up under the burdens of chopping, slicing, or dicing with a blade of any dimension. Never would its once-impervious surface be easily cleaned for hygienic meal preparation.

Now, I’m not saying we should sweep up the pieces of mourners’ lives, hand them over with a dustpan, and say, “Put it together or throw it out.” Grief doesn’t work that way. (And we all know how well Humpty-Dumpty turned out.)

Early in grieving, mourners need to be told it’s okay that they feel shattered. Being told how “strong” they are or that they can “handle” everything might seem helpful — but in most cases it’s not helpful. Often, well-intended  comments about your bereaved friends’ strength, resiliency, or abilities will come across to your grieving friend as poorly as these:

  • So what if your world has fallen apart?
  • People die every day, so why are you having such a hard time with your loss?
  • You’ll just have to learn to live without your loved one.
  • Better you than me.
  • You don’t need (or deserve) my help.

Ouch. No one wants to wound their mourning friends with such sharp-edged apathy, so avoid saying those kinds of things. Please.

tile floor, shattered glass, grief, far-flung, Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

Grief sends pieces of survivors’ shattered lives in many directions, much like this far-flung glass that shattered and flew 12 feet away. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

In time, your friends’ grief will no longer be as overwhelming and raw as in early months and years. That doesn’t mean their grief will go away (there’s no magic Humpty-Dumpty–patch for that, remember) but they will adapt — eventually. (Though I’ve learned to function without my husband, and though much of my life now is great, there are times I still feel fractured seven years later.)

You can help grieving friends in the meantime by picking up some pieces for them:

  • Bring meals or easily prepared snacks, invite them to dinner, or take them with you to get groceries.
  • Help with household tasks or chores.
  • Call, write, text, phone, and visit to show your awareness long, long, long (weeks and months and years) after the funeral.
  • Listen. Share and hear stories about their loved ones.

You can’t fix your friends’ grief. You can’t put them back together. But you can be there to handle their broken, shattered hearts with care, attention, and gentle understanding.

 

Facing Death in the Family

Today was my uncle’s funeral.

I’ve posted seldom since late October, when hospice staff told my aunt to make sure all the family visited within two to three weeks. They didn’t expect my uncle to be with us longer.

When I got the call, my aunt’s soft voice delivered that sentence in a three-fisted punch. The triple blows landed in a tight triangle, right where years before I’d felt grief’s wrecking ball hit mid-gut on my insides. My breath whooshed out as I tried not to cry into the phone:

My uncle.

My aunt.

My cousins.

I didn’t want it to be true. Denial, of course. Didn’t want to think of a world without him here. Selfish, raw, pre-grieving — thinking all about me missing my hilarious, compassionate, faithful uncle. About my kids missing their great-uncle and my dad missing his half-century brother-in-law.

Didn’t want my aunt forced to wear the title Widow. Yes, capitalized. Boldfaced. Italicized. Quadruple-underlined. 800-point font. Thinking all about her — knowing how I’d ached while mourning my husband after 24 years together and not wanting her to feel that. Grieving for what I knew she’d face. Yet knowing I had no idea how she’d feel after more than twice that time with my uncle.

Didn’t want my cousins bereft of their dad. Remembering  how I felt losing — missing — my mom and thinking about my cousins, picturing their pain at losing their dad. Seeing again my children’s grief after their dad died and not wanting that raw ache for my cousins and their kids and grandkids.

All this within seconds of hearing my aunt’s words.

My uncle surprised us all.

Within that hospice-projected two to three weeks, my aunt and uncle’s kids, grandkids, and great-grandchildren all visited with him. Other family members and close friends came too. They shared stories, memories, and love. Said whatever needed saying. Sweet visits, prompted by heartbreaking need.

Beloved uncle, glasses, sour candy, teasing, TealAshes.com

My funny uncle with a piece of candy he didn’t expect to be so sour. (Family photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

My uncle’s eyes still twinkled as he teased, and they softened as he expressed love and appreciation. He and his family enjoyed one another through post-prediction milestones: Halloween, his daughter’s birthday, Thanksgiving, his 57th wedding anniversary, and Christmas Day.

Meanwhile, I all but stopped writing. 

How could I post new material about what to say when someone dies while my dear uncle lay slowly dying? Time and again, my grief over his too imminent passing rebooted feelings I experienced while caring for his sister — my mom — as she neared the end of her life more than 20 years ago. In my mind, I was back in Mom’s bedroom, looking on as my uncle — this uncle — arrived in time to tell her goodbye.

But it wasn’t about my feelings. In the days since my uncle’s death, and on this day of his funeral, and in the days, weeks, months, and years to come, it’s about my aunt, my cousins, and their kids. Yes, I’m grieving my uncle’s terminal illness and passing. But my grief is also for them — my uncle’s immediate family. Theirs is the primary, innermost loss.*

Friends and our church family have been thoughtful in their support of offered meals and visits. For now, the family has requested privacy in grief, declining such offers with gratitude for their kind intentions.

In every loss I’ve suffered, the day of the funeral brought a turning point — in some ways, a relief of sorts, unwelcome though it was. Sometimes, the service also, sadly, began the waning of public awareness and outreach. Well-meaning folks assume memorial gatherings bring so-called closure to mourners.

But no. Closure implies an ability to shut the door on grief and walk away. In reality, mourning loved ones lasts much, much longer — which is why it’s so important to reach out a month, two months, six months, a year, and further after someone you know loses a loved one.

In time, we learn to walk with our grief and its connection to the one we (still) love.

In the meantime (and beyond), please keep reaching out.

___

*See  Grief — It’s All in the Family for more about how relatives might experience grief differently.

Fires, Floods, and Aggression: Mourning Mass Tragedies and Disasters

I  heard “largest mass shooting in U.S. history” the second morning of October and wondered why the newscaster spoke of last year’s horrific murders at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. My breath caught; another individual’s evil actions broke that infamous record.

The massacre in Las Vegas killed scores, wounded hundreds, traumatized thousands. Survivors’ face pain and scars that show and deeper scars that don’t. Too many families and friends now grieve loved ones who’ll never come home.

Such heinous, criminal incidents evoke collective sorrow. It’s awful enough when individuals (or groups) inflict irreparable harm and terror on lone victims — worse, far worse when they attack several or more souls. And around the globe, large-scale, devastating conflicts of civil (though uncivil) wars and military offensives cost countless lives and send refugees fleeing for theirs.* When media coverage focuses national and worldwide attention, hopefully it spurs purposeful outrage and aid.

And what of widespread weather- and climate-related disasters? Wildfires in the West and hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Nate in the South have destroyed homes, livelihoods, and lives in the U.S. and the Caribbean this year. The September earthquake in Mexico City and the winter avalanches in Afghanistan and Pakistan killed hundreds. Deadly flooding and landslides killed thousands and displaced or otherwise affected hundreds of thousands in Africa, South America, and South Asia — this year.*

cardboard meal kits with food items for relief for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma, relief, grief, TealAshes.com, Feeding Children Everywhere, Orlando Cares

21 of 24 meal kits per carton prepared through Feeding Children Everywhere at #OrlandoCares — Hope for Puerto Rico (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

That’s a lot of beleaguered, suffering bodies and a lot of grieving, bereaved souls. A lot.

Whether political issues or policies contributed to these tragedies or impede subsequent relief efforts matters not for the purpose of this post. (Articulate people can and should make compelling arguments and take constructive steps in other settings to bring about positive change in days and for years to come.)

This post — right here, right now — is about comforting the folks grieving these specific losses  — right now and in the immediate future and for the rest of their lives. Because mass tragedies inflict grief on the individuals within communities.

You can (and should) give large-scale, physical comfort. Join with others in relief efforts. Volunteer your labor, skills, goods, or funds. Do a little research. Find way (or two or more) to help.

You also can (and should) give one-on-one, specific support to individuals grieving lost livelihoods, homes, or loved ones:

  • Acknowledge the degree of loss.
  • Where possible, bring physical relief (meals, clothes, shelter, water …).
  • Avoid “at least” statements, which minimize rather than validate.
  • Note the date(s) of the disasters in your perpetual calendars. Set up reminders to offer ongoing emotional support in months and years to come. (Yes, years.)
  • Avoid claiming you “know” how the bereaved feel.
  • If you have photographs of the deceased (or your friends’ destroyed homes), make copies and then offer them to your bereaved friends.
  • Ask your mourning friends if they’d like to tell you about their loved ones. (Speak the names of those who died.)
  • If you have memories or stories about those who died, ask your friends if you may share them.

If you’re able to give time or money to help those impacted by recent disasters — whether global, national, regional, or local — please do.

volunteer, Feeding Children Everywhere, relief, meal kits, Hope for Puerto Rico, Orlando Cares, grief, TealAshes.com

These women (and two others not pictured) assembled and filled more than 58 cartons of meal kits (with 24 meals per carton) during the four hours we worked together at the Orlando Cares — Hope for Puerto Rico event sponsored by Feeding Children Everywhere. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Just as importantly, if you know people affected by these tragedies, please reach out. You don’t have to know them well to know they need support. You can make a tremendous difference to them by even the smallest of gestures.

For more on related topics, please see Typhoons, Tornadoes, and Other Disasters Wreak Havoc on Individuals.

___

*To better understand the obstacles many refugees face, visit Their Story Is Our Story: Giving Voice to Refugees.

**10 of the Deadliest Natural Disasters of 2017 as reported by U.S. News

Grief, Guilt, and Hurricanes

Almost a year ago, I posted about getting ready for Hurricane Matthew in Grief Before and After the Storm. Now Hurricane Irma’s bullying her way toward swallowing my state.

empty battery shelf, TealAshes.com

Batteries were in short supply before Hurricane Irma (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

With Irma following so closely on the horrible heels of Harvey, people in Central Florida took this storm’s approach seriously.  Usually, by the time most folks start preparing — a day or two before a hurricane — supplies become scarce. I went to the store Wednesday to freshen my supplies (read: to buy chocolate-covered cookies and Cheetos) and stopped by a few aisles just to see how they looked in advance of Sunday afternoon’s anticipated rough weather. As you can see by my photos, options were already limited.

It’s awful to admit I smiled when I saw the emptied shelves — not that I felt happy the supplies were gone. Far from it. Many people still needed essential items, and I hadn’t a clue whether they’d be able to find them elsewhere. A part of me even felt guilty that I’d tucked them away months ago when hurricane season began. (I used to teach emergency preparation seminars at public and private events around our area; I generally keep necessary emergency kit items current.)

empty flashlight shelves, empty lantern aisle, prehurricane, tealashes.com

Anyone who waited until four days before Irma’s arrival to purchase flashlights at this store might be spending many hours in the dark (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

I sighed with relief that so many of my fellow residents weren’t waiting until the last minute this time.

Once-upon-a-lifetime ago — my husband’s lifetime, to be precise — I was active in my neighborhood CERT program*. I even got licensed to operate ham radio so I could check in with others in the event of phone failures.

But the first time I tried to reconnect with my CERT peers after my husband died, the triage refresher course cut too deeply. I shook as the instructor stressed the potential for “life over limb” decisions that offered “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

I couldn’t handle the reminder that sometimes you can’t save people no matter how hard you try. That I couldn’t save my husband no matter how hard I’d tried. That despite my training and efforts, he died.

It took years to forgive myself for failing him. My inability to save him left me as empty as the bottled water aisle before Irma.

Hindsight (and seven years) tells me it wasn’t my fault. I did everything I could.

empty water aisle, pre-Irma, pre-hurricane

The bottled water aisle emptied quickly before Hurricane Irma (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Now, as all of Florida holds it breath in the hours and days to come, I’m again telling myself I’ve done everything I could to make ready for this storm. Whatever Irma brings, it’s no one’s fault.

(Yet that didn’t stop me from grumbling at my late husband while sandbagging and hauling things into place. Was my anger logical? Of course not. But neither is grief.)

___

*CERT — Community Emergency Response Team — a great program in which private citizens receive training to help their neighbors in emergencies