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!

Easter Grief: Life and Death and Loss and Hope

At Easter time, what should you say to a grieving friend whose loved one has died? My perspective may surprise you.*

I love Easter, but I don’t like it. I’m grateful for Easter, but it’s painful. I take comfort in Easter, but it’s not comforting.

Confusing enough?

When I was little, reading of Good Friday made me sad. My great-aunt Sarah used to say, “What’s so good about Good Friday? It’s horrible” revisiting the crucifixion story. As I grew older and learned more about the physical afflictions inflicted by that practice when Jesus Christ walked the earth among men, it became harder to sit through sermons about that day.

And yet …

For those of us who believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ (and future resurrection of all mankind), the message and reason for Easter celebrations offers hope for eventual reunions with long-gone (or recently departed) loved ones. My earliest memory of that hope centers on my mother’s reverence toward Easter, especially in the years following her mother’s death. Mom knew she would see Grandma again someday, and she acknowledged her gratitude that God, in his mercy, provided for that gift.

But she wouldn’t buy (or make) Easter dresses. She wanted our focus on why we were there rather than on what we wore. For similar reasons, she gently steered my friends and me from including “pretend Sacrament” (our name for Communion) when we “played church.” I was five or six years old, but I still remember Mom bending down to our eye level. She was glad we enjoyed church enough to include it in our playtime, but that part, she said, was “about Jesus dying for us, so it’s too sacred” to play about.

Coloring eggs, hiding and finding them, and nibbling chocolate bunnies figured into my family’s annual Easter traditions, but my parents made it clear those were merely fun, shiny wrappings around the real Gift of the season. My husband and I tried to do the same with our kids.

sun-blooms-in-snow-TLBRUCE-20150415

Sun Blooms in Snow (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

My appreciation for the significance of Easter deepened after the deaths of my mother, cousin, remaining grandparents, and my husband.  I knew then, as I know now, that our separation is temporary — at least where eternity is concerned. I took (and still do take) solace in that.

However …

It’s one thing for me to say, “I’m grateful I’ll see Mom again. I’m grateful that, because of Jesus Christ, we’ll be reunited.” It’s uplifting when friends agree with me. It’s even nurturing when friends whose views differ acknowledge they’re glad for my sake that my stated beliefs give me comfort (even though they disagree).

It’s entirely different when others tell me to “take comfort” in similar statements. How dare they tell me what I “should” feel about my losses? How dare they tell me what “should” lessen my bereavement? For those already experiencing anger (with God in particular or the universe in general) over loved ones’ deaths, such assertions increase mourners’ feelings of isolation.

When my losses were new, I did NOT want people reminding me of the hope I “should” feel for the future. I did NOT take comfort in platitudes about eventual reunions. I did NOT feel uplifted by efforts to “make” me feel better by reminding me of “the reason for the season.” Such expressions ignored the sorrow of my grief. 

I didn’t (and sometimes still don’t) want to be told “Happy Easter.” I wasn’t happy about my mother’s death, or my husband’s (or my Savior’s either, for that matter). Yes, I rejoice that I will see them again. But looking forward to anticipated reunions makes mourning in the here-and-now all the more painful. Future hope doesn’t erase current absence.

Here are ways to support your grieving friends this Easter, no matter what their faith (or yours) may be:

  • “I’m thinking of you (and your family).” Period. No matter the mourner’s faith (or yours), this will always show that you are aware. You can’t go wrong with this, and you can repeat it often.
  • Drop off a card (or some other tangible sign of your concern) they will see long after your visit.
  • Bring them a treat, a snack, or a bag of groceries. Better yet, invite them over to eat with you.

I also feel comfort when friends acknowledge my faith and my loss together:

  • “I’m thinking of you and your family this Easter.”
  • “You and your family are in my prayers as we celebrate Easter.”
  • “Sending you loving thoughts at Easter time.”
  • “I miss your mother, too, and I look forward to one day seeing her again. Thinking of you and your family at Easter.” (This states the person’s faith and hopes, without imposing them on the mourner.)
  • “I take comfort in the joy of the resurrection to come, but I know you’re missing your husband this Easter season.” (Again, this expression of a friend’s faith acknowledges the current sorrow without imposing that faith on the bereaved.)

If you haven’t yet known what to say to a grieving friend, now’s a great time to reach out.

___

*Please note: My intention isn’t to preach here, but due to the nature of the Easter holiday, I can’t express what I think you should (or shouldn’t) say to mourners at this time of year without referencing elements of my faith. Although faith colors my perspective and shapes my day-to-day life, I respect others’ beliefs. (I’ve never intended to make this a “religious” blog. There are many, many writers who do a beautiful job of that.) My goal has always been to make this a place where people can learn to help grieving friends from any (or no) faith tradition. In most posts, references to my faith and/or my church family do appear, not because I’m trying to proselytize but because they’re as much a part of my life as being a widow with three daughters who has worn bifocals since seventh grade.

Having said that, for those who do share my faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

#BecauseHeLives

You Can’t Put a Bandage on Grief

When my daughters were little, they often bruised or scraped themselves in the course of everyday play. A kiss from Mommy or Daddy (and perhaps a Sharpie-drawn smiley face on a Band-Aid — whether necessary or not) was all it took to make things okay again.

Sometimes other tots grabbed toys, knocked over blocks, or cut their Barbies’ hair — oh, wait … it was my child who did that (as practice before “trimming” her friend’s bangs). All it took to reset their emotional footing was distraction — manufactured by word or sleight-of-hand. Almost at once, they got back to the business of learning by play.

As they grew older their minds and hearts grew into increasingly complex, interdependent organs. It became harder to “fix” what upset them. The inevitable day came. A daughter spurned my offer to “kiss it better” as she clutched at the reddened skin on her forearm. “That won’t help,” she pouted, her eyes daring me to contradict her. My offer to read her a story elicited the same response.

She was right, of course. A hug or kiss didn’t take away the sting of the injury. A bandage could cover the wound (at least temporarily) and hopefully keep out germs that would otherwise impede healing, but beneath its plain (or decorated) facade, remained a wound that required time — and the right circumstances — to mend. A kiss of affection, a favorite toy to hold, or a new story to distract might momentarily provide another focal point, but every heartbeat fueled throbbing reminders that all was not well.

It’s the same for grief. Bandages don’t work.

You can't put a bandage on grief to "fix it" or "make it better." Like any wound, it takes time.

You can’t put a bandage on grief to “fix it” or “make it better.” Like any wound, it takes time.

When grief is new (and by “new” I mean the loss occurred within two years — yes, I said years), the bereaved often bruise and scrape their psyches against circumstances of living in the course of everyday survival. Such emotional abrasions include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Significant dates — birthdays, holidays, anniversaries (of both positive and negative events). For many within the first 18 months after a loved one’s death, that day of the week (every week) and that date of the month (every month) feels like ripping off a fresh scab, re-traumatizing survivors.
  • The “business” of death — deeds, accounts, titles, plots, medical bills, insurance … The list of accounts can seem endless for an adult or unfairly incomplete for a child. Making each phone call or office visit is excruciating. Every time I called another provider, I sobbed. Removing my husband’s name from each document felt like erasing him. It felt disloyal. It felt violent. Horrible.
  • Routine “first since” appointments — the dentist, the doctor, the pharmacist, the mechanic, the accountant … Anywhere a person has done business in an ongoing manner, that first visit since the death occurred forces yet another face-to-face bout of admitting a loved one is no longer living. As a new widow, I cried every time. Many forms had boxes to check that offered only the options of single, married, or divorced. I wrote in “widowed” on paper forms. Online forms frustrated me so badly I shrieked at the computer (and I’ve never been a “yeller”). If I checked “married,” they required ongoing contact information no longer applicable, but for a long, long time I refused to consider myself “single,” so that option didn’t work, either.
  • Getting groceries — ugh! Walking through the aisles was awful, awful, awful. “His” foods stood out on the shelves. I couldn’t find things I wanted right in front of me (on rare occasions when I actually knew what I wanted). I couldn’t even remember to consult the list in my hand. The first time I saw THE paramedics from the nearby fire station in the store, oh, how I lost it!

Recently, Megan Devine of Refuge in Grief wrote “grief & the grocery store.” If you want to understand what your grieving friend experiences in the ordeal of getting groceries, please read what she has to say:

http://www.refugeingrief.com/groceries/

You can’t cover your grieving friends’ loss with a bandage. You can’t “fix it” or “make it better.” But you can offer them momentary distraction from their pain by including them in your plans (whether they accept your invitations or not). You can aid them in their healing by acknowledging significant dates, offering to fill out paperwork (or make other business calls), accompanying (or taking) them for routine appointments, and going with them to the store to help them navigate the perils of produce.*

Be with them in their grief. Be patient as they heal.

___

*For an in-depth look at one element of grocery-intensified grief, see my essay Eggplant Elegy” in the online journal Segullah.

 

Grief Can’t Be Scheduled

Grief can’t be scheduled.

When it comes to timetables for how long a person will grieve in a particular way, there’s one rule that applies to everyone: there is no timetable.

Processing grief takes as long as it takes and can’t be rushed — so don’t try to speed it along.

When you want to comfort or support someone whose loved one has died, avoid making comments like:

“Are you feeling better yet?”
“I thought you’d be more like yourself by now.”
When are you going to get over it?”
“Why haven’t you already …  [anything!]?
“Are you still sad?”
“But you were doing better, so why are you having a hard time again?”

These and other “time trigger” words indicate disapproval to the bereaved. Hearing your expectations of what you think they “should” feel or accomplish does not motivate or inspire grieving survivors toward healing. Rather, it reinforces the enormity of change wrought in their lives. Consider, for a moment, what the bereaved have been doing with their time and energy.

Working through the emotional pain of grief is exhausting. In the earliest weeks and months after my husband’s death, getting out of bed in the morning or, more often, rolling off the couch (as most nights I couldn’t face our empty bed) took as much physical strength and concentration as I could muster. Not that I’d slept much or well in either place. Showering and putting on clean clothes was daunting. Remembering to fill my lungs and to empty my water glass on a regular basis required excruciating effort. On top of that, I took on the legal and financial tasks of closing his accounts and tending to all the “costs of death.” (If you haven’t done this, I’m glad for you. If you have, you’re wincing now, aren’t you?) Most importantly, I was a widowed parent — all the responsibilities of parenting were mine alone.

In summary, I didn’t sleep, seldom remembered to eat or drink, and shouldered sole responsibility for upkeep of finances, house, yard, and car — as well as my far more important daughter (and the dog). I was mourning the loss of my husband and all our future plans.  I was mourning the loss of my children’s father and all that they were mourning, too.

So on days when I managed to arise from a soft surface, wash my face and brush my hair, slip into appropriate attire, and venture into public, I felt pretty good about my accomplishments! Until I met someone who greeted me with their expectation of my “recovery” timetable.

Then I just wanted to crawl back to bed.

When you talk with your grieving friends, tell them you’re proud of them for whatever they have achieved — no matter how small it may seem to you. Let them know it’s okay they’re feeling whatever emotions are roiling at the moment. Reassure them they’ll get wherever they wish to go whenever the time is right for them.

You might just leave them with a smile that keeps them out of bed for the day.

(And if your distraught friend needs a day to climb back into pajamas, hand over your teddy bear.)