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!

Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 1, Politics

Some topics are off-limits when a friend is grieving. Do you remember the classic dinner conversation advice given to prospective business associates (or future in-laws)? “Never discuss politics, religion, or money.”  Keep this in mind as a starting point, but to support mourning friends I recommend expanding the list.

Unless the mourner asks you, or unless it pertains to your already established professional relationship, don’t bring up politics, religion, money, physical appearance, or legal status. 

The rest of this post tells why you shouldn’t bring up POLITICS.*

Keep in mind that no matter how devoted the bereaved (and/or the deceased) may have been to a cause in the past, the surviving loved ones’ world has changed. It doesn’t matter that you and your coworker may have made lively political debates as much a part of daily lunch breaks as clocking out and back in again. For your grieving friend, in the initial shock of new grief, community or state, national, and even global concerns may shift into a distant blur.

Grief’s omnipresence overwhelms other concerns. To the newly bereaved, issues of political concern aren’t spelled P-O-L-I-T-I-C-S; they’re spelled P–loss–O–grief–L–loss–I–grief–T–loss–I–grief–C–loss–S–grief. (If that seems hard for you to read, think about how hard it is for your grieving friend to live.)

Perhaps the deceased was actively involved in political processes (campaigning, debating, petitioning, running for office, or simply following the nuances of opposing parties’ claims). Survivors may feel impelled to take up their loved one’s unfinished work and step into their footsteps — or they may actively avoid the entire realm of politics. Such activities may be far too painful (“too close to home”) as they grieve and adjust. Persuading (or worse, guilt-tripping) mourners to step into (or out of) the political arena does them a disservice. No one representing a political cause (or party) has the right to claim what the deceased “would have wanted.” Ever.

On the other hand, some survivors may need to immerse themselves in political processes. Perhaps circumstances surrounding the death of their loved one could have been prevented had legislation, policy, or decision makers been different. Working and fighting for related changes can be therapeutic and can help grievers direct or channel their pain — not remove or heal it.

If your mourning friend approaches you, by all means listen! Offer to help if you see the point of the changes they want to make. However, if you disagree (and when it comes to political matters, even reasonable, like-minded people can have passionately divergent opinions!), now is not the time to argue or debate the issues with the bereaved. For the mourner, the politics and the emotions may be inseparable, so don’t go there.

My husband loved our country’s political process. He watched (and argued at) the televised debates. He was passionate (and a bit one-sided) about campaigns and platforms. One of the things he loved about me was that I took the time to study the issues on the ballots and the candidates running for office prior to every election. After his death, it took what felt like superhuman strength to do even the most superficial research and to decide issues. I could not (and still can’t) abide the rancor of the adversarial debates. It was (and still is) repellent. Yes, I know the issues are important, but the mud-slinging is too great a reminder that “life’s too short” for that much anger.

___

*I’ll talk about the other taboo topics — religion, money, physical appearance, and legal status — in upcoming posts. (And yes, I appreciate the irony of talking about things you shouldn’t talk about.)

Grief Takes a Holiday

This post title could be interpreted a couple of ways. For instance, grief sometimes takes a holiday and makes it a hostage, hiding it away from all past expectations and practices. It can (and will) take over the traditional celebration of any (and every) holiday or special occasion, translating once-joyous dates into somber signposts of loss. This is particularly true within (but not limited to) the awful Year of Firsts in which new mourners face twelve full months of ” the first time without” their loved ones, culminating in the anniversary of the death that took them. Grief doesn’t discriminate; it takes over all such events, whether they are public or private, secular or sacred, frivolous or formal.

But that’s not the interpretation I intended by this title.

After the initial shock of bereavement begins to fade (and this takes months, not weeks), grief  takes a holiday from inflicting its regularly scheduled torments on the bereaved. By “regularly scheduled” I mean 24/7 because Grief (personified as Death’s hang-around cousin) invades sleepless thoughts and disturbing dreams as easily as it steps into the personal space of its targets’ wakeful awareness. Without warning, Grief takes over so much of a mourner’s life that no more will fit. Every pore becomes saturated  with sorrow and every air sac stretches near to bursting with bereavement; every bone, tooth, hair, and nail droops, leaden with agony. Grief becomes too heavy, too smothering, too oppressive. Too. Much.

As pervasive as Grief becomes in the lives of those who’ve suffered deep loss, from time to time it becomes too much to handle. Too much. Too. Much. TOO MUCH. TOO MUCH! Grief has to take an occasional (albeit brief) break from its duties lest its unwilling hosts break altogether.

And so Grief takes a holiday.

In the 1934 movie Death Takes a Holiday, Death took on human form for three days in order to better understand why people avoided him with such vehemence. During that time not one person died — not anywhere in the world. In this old black and white film, Death was too busy going about the business of living to go about his usual duties.

While this analogy isn’t perfect, it’s the best way I can think to explain the looonnnng two-month gap between my last post (July 3) and this one (September 4).  Within a short period, Grief butted into one too many conversations, eavesdropped on two too many phone calls, snooped through three too many emails, and inked itself into too, too many calendar squares.

Grief was becoming an obnoxious pain in the — well, it was becoming a pain — and it realized I’d hit my saturation point. Lack of sleep and a nasty, lingering respiratory virus left me tired and sick physically, and a convergence of multiple grief triggers left me sick and tired of feeling, well, sick and tired.

I held my hands to my ears, closed my eyes and chanted,

La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la–la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la …”

I had to ignore Mr. Grief as I regrouped to take better care of myself. (That meant no more writing — especially about grief — during supposed-to-be sleeping hours!)

When Grief realized its attentions were becoming futile, it went on holiday to recharge and, no doubt, to seek out and practice new methods and tricks. Meanwhile, in the real-life, three-dimensional Technicolor world, I was busy going about the business and duties of living.

I’d like to say Grief left for good, but — Alas! — that’s not how it works.

I’ve been “tagged,” so Grief keeps my itinerary on its watch list. It may watch me from the sidelines, monitoring my emotional baggage and holiday plans, but it never retires its ID badge or all-access card key. It lurks, more determined than any stalker. And it runs into the terminal whenever it chooses, sometimes keeping me from making my connecting flights. Once in a while it tosses a handful of cheap souvenirs my way, as if offering to make things all right.

I don’t know that Grief and I will ever become friends, though we’ve become so well acquainted. I’m now a more seasoned traveler. I’ve learned that once in a while it’s okay to shove Grief off the path and let me step along on my own. Even knowing it will return from time to time, I’ve earned the right — and the ability — to give it a push and say, “Grief, take a holiday!”

Bereavement and the Post-Holiday Blues

After the holidays, when parties are over and visitors have stopped dropping in, someone who has recently lost a loved one may face new lows of loneliness. While some may find the new year an open gateway to a fresh start, others may find it a slammed door of separation from shared experiences and future dreams with their deceased dear ones. For some, the post-holiday blues may reflect the bereavement faced not long after a death.

How long has it been since your friend’s life changed forever? A few days? A couple of weeks? Half a year?

In the beginning, a newly grieving, raw-hearted mourner may be nearly as overwhelmed by outpourings of support as by the loss itself. Picture a parched child trying to sip from an open fire hose. The analogy is imperfect, but I hope it conveys the idea. By all means,  do offer your support and your presence! (But be understanding if your friend “backs away” at first — or even after repeated gestures on your part.)

Later, the initial shock of death wears off and day-to-day realizations and adjustment difficulties set in.  Sadly, as friends and loved ones return to their “normal” lives, their life-sustaining (though drenching) support often wanes to a trickle. Picture the same open-mouthed child now waiting beneath a stalactite for quenching water — one drop at a time. The mourning soul still thirsts, but expected sources of hydration have all but dried up.

Just as the post-holiday ebb of socializing may leave you feeling the loss of interaction with your friends and coworkers as your life gets back to “business as usual,” the decrease in holiday-minded activities can usher in a newly darkened period of social “dehydration” for those in mourning.

Here are some ways you can offer life-sustaining, soul-quenching “water” (in manageable quantities) to your friend whose loved one died:

  • Acknowledge the absence. (“I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re missing her today.”) I appreciated (and still do appreciate!) expressions of acknowledgement.
  • Be dependable. (If you say you’ll call Friday at at 8:00 p.m., be sure you call Friday at 8:00 p.m. — no matter what.) When everything in my life seemed upside down, having friends follow through on promises kept me anchored.
  • Invite interaction. (It doesn’t matter whether you ask your grieving friend over to play with your new holiday pet, meet for lunch, or take a walk around the block, as long as you act to include him or her.) I turned down far more invitations than I accepted, but I needed to hear each one — even those I wasn’t able to accept.
  • Think about your friend — and share that you’ve thought it! (Text, private message, email, write, call, or speak face-to-face to say, “You’re in my thoughts,” or “Thinking of you today.”) You may think it silly to send such simple words, but it’s not! Your message doesn’t have to be eloquent. Just heartfelt.

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.)