New Year, New Grief

You might assume the New Year’s arrival will bring healing relief to friends whose loved ones died during the last year. You might think, “Now that it’s a new year, not the year of their loss, things will be better, right?”

Not necessarily.

For some mourners, replacing their calendar from the year of a significant loss might feel like it offers a “fresh start.” For many of the recently bereaved, though, the New Year marks another level of removal from beloved ones, another severing of increasingly tenuous connections to them and/or their memories. In previous years their loved ones lived; in all the years to come, they won’t. Once that calendar changes, shared years are forever left behind.

New Year’s Eve (just like other holidays) can trigger renewed feelings of loss in those who have already begun the long, long, long process of learning to live while grieving loved ones. From traditions like setting New Year’s resolutions (a.k.a. “goals”), to swapping “Who were you with when the ball dropped?” stories, to serving special New Year’s Day foods (like black-eyed peas), the day — and day after — can be full of painful reminders of grief.

The end of one year and the beginning of another can be difficult for those mourning with anticipated grief, too. If your friends are facing a terminal illness or condition for themselves or their loved one, the imminence of knowing the coming year might — or will — be their last together can be overwhelming.

How can you help your grieving friends through the New Year?

  • Acknowledge that you know this holiday, like others, marks a difficult time of year.  Whether the loss is recently raw or it has been years, with the ending/beginning nature of this worldwide change from one year to the next, New Year’s Eve and Day have the potential to reopen grief’s partly- or not-yet-healed wounds.
  • Invite your grieving friends to join you in your celebration or commemoration of the event. Let them know you’d like them to be with you for your sake (“I’d like your company”) as well as for their sakes (“I’d like y’all to join me so you won’t have to be alone or plan anything yourselves”). If they decline at once, let them know the invitation remains open in case circumstances change or they change their minds.
  • Repeat the invitation, but don’t push. Offer your grieving friends the choice, but respect that they will know best for themselves whether solitude or socializing will help. For some of my widowed friends, going to friends’ homes to ring in the New Year lifted their spirits better than staying home. For me, some years I’ve needed to stay home watching chick flicks with my daughters and other years I’ve preferred to go out dancing with friends.
  • Offer an oasis. Sometimes the bereaved can happily engage with others one moment and feel hit by tsunami-sized waves of grief the next. Let your grieving guest(s) know ahead of time where they can go if they need a few moments to themselves. (Sometimes a private cry is priceless for channeling emotions.)

If your mourning friends choose not to join you, you can still offer an oasis of listening, awareness, and concern. When “life moves on” for the rest of the world on January 1st (and by the way, do NOT ever tell mourners “life moves on”), let your friends know that you know that this year will be different and that you will still be there for them.

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For more on this topic, see Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death.

 

Holiday grief–LISTEN up!

Holidays are hard when you’re mourning. Like performing your own root canal with only elevator Muzak for anesthesia. Blindfolded. While wearing oven mitts and running down the middle of Alligator Alley with hungry gators sunning nearby.

I wish I were exaggerating, but that ridiculous example far understates it.

I’m doing well this year, my fifth widowed Christmas.  Last year, my fourth, I was doing “meh.” Okay.

But the first three? (I just shuddered as I typed those four words.I no longer feel that agonizing, raw pain of new grief, but even its memory kept me from posting earlier this month, when it might have helped someone going through the indescribable anticipation of the first holiday season without their parent, child, sibling, spouse, or other dear one.

I couldn’t revisit those feelings — that pain — while heading into my own “doing better” holiday season. Not this year. Not yet.

So if I — a person in every way “moving forward” with my life — shied away from addressing the agonies of “new” grief during the holidays, imagine how much harder it is for your friends who have lost someone within the last year (or two).

Here are some ways you can show you care:

  • Acknowledge the loss. The best condolence doesn’t attempt to “cheer up” the mourner. Rather, it validates the survivors’ feelings of grief. “I know this is/was your first [second, etc.] Christmas [Hanukkah, New Year’s…] without your husband [father, daughter, sister, friend…]. You’ve been in and will continue to be in my thoughts.”
  • Ask, and then listen. This isn’t a time to tell about you and yours (unless the mourner asks). This is a time to offer your bereaved friends the chance to speak of what their aching hearts need to share.
    “Would you like to tell me about how you and ____ celebrated ____ together?”
    “What were _____’s favorite holiday traditions?”
  • Do something. For those who are grieving, even small gestures — a handwritten note, a quick text, a dropped off candy bar or flower, an act of service (like shoveling sidewalks or, for those of us in warmer climates, pulling weeds) — can mean the difference between despair and hope during one of the hardest times of year.
  • Repeat. Once you’ve checked in and done one (or all) of the above, start over. Unlike the holidays, which hit the calendar once in the year and cycle away for a year, grief is ever-present. Moments of sorrow can yield to moments of joy and acceptance in the kindnesses shown by friends, but they are temporary.

It takes time — LOTS of time — before the excruciating fog of new grief lifts, and after the holidays, when the rest of the world seemingly goes back to normal, the contrast between “peace on earth” and the sorrow of the mourning heart can seem even greater. Your ongoing thoughtfulness will help your friends through.

What to Say When Someone Is Dying at Christmas–or Anytime

A few days ago I was asked what to say to a friend whose boyfriend is dying.

My first thought was, “No!” My second was, “Not at Christmas. Not during the holidays,” as if any time is a “better” time to face the death of a loved one.

I responded as well as I could (not knowing her friends) from my experiences and from what others have shared with me about theirs. I cried as I typed, aching for families I know also facing the holidays with their own heart-breaking questions this year: parents, children, cousins, spouses, friends.

Here’s an adaptation of what I answered:

I’m so, so sorry for what you’re going through right now. Yes, it is about your dying friend and about your other friend, the already bereaved partner about to be left behind, but — oh, you’re going through the pain of grief, too!

For you to best help your friend, the first thing to understand is you can’t “fix” anything — for either of them. They’re both experiencing unbearable, inexplicable pain. This may sound awful, but the sorrow of your dying friend will be short-lived. [And no, I don’t mean that as a pun. As inappropriate as it seems, it’s the only word that feels right to convey what I mean.Be available to hear his feelings and share his memories — while you can.

For the loved ones he leaves behind, sorrow will linger and stretch into a festering mist that surrounds, drenches, and permeates their beings. You can no more “cheer them up” than you can point to the sky at midnight and command a noonday sunshine to dissipate early morning fog. Acute grief must wait for the earth to turn before “sunlight” dispels its “fog.” You can’t change the weather of your friend’s grief, but you can sit alongside her in the dark and the damp.

You will be hurting along with her, but yours will be an awful, salt-rubbed, vinegar-spritzed laceration; your surviving friend’s will be an unskilled, dull-bladed, un-anesthetized amputation. In time — much, much, much time — her skin and bone and other tissues will heal — but that limb will always be missing. Acknowledge her life is forever altered. Even when it “looks” better, your friend is going to have “phantom limb” pain that returns. This time of year (the time of “knowing” and the time of “losing”) will ache for years — years — to come. (Jot the dates in next year’s calendar. Ink in a reminder during the month leading up to it, too. Plan now to “be there” for the long term!)

For now, what your surviving friend needs is your presence and your willingness to listen to whatever feelings need airing. No judgement, no filter.  Just acceptance, hugs, and tears.

A practical suggestion: Show up with a box of lotion-infused tissues. They really are softer, and when you’re using them over and over and over and over again all day and night, they chafe less. (Crying is normal. In private and in public. Anytime. Everywhere.)

Know that your friend’s emotions may — scratch that — will run all over the place. Survivors may feel the need for “permission” to laugh again. Or to feel very, very angry. Your friend may become despondent and depressed. These and other contradictory emotions may cycle within a matter of minutes and repeat relentlessly, or any of them may “settle” upon your grieving friend for long periods. Validate and honor the intensity of their emotions by acknowledging them. Never tell grieving friends not to feel what they are feeling. (I’m not a physically aggressive person, but sometimes I thought I’d slap the next person to tell me “He wouldn’t want you to be sad” or “Don’t cry.”)

Your friend will probably become woefully forgetful and distracted.* This may mean forgetting to eat — or becoming unable to stop eating. The same all-or-nothing  reaction may apply to sleep. Extremes of emotion and body are “normal.” Reassure your friend that it’s okay to experience whatever reactions are surfacing.

It will help your friend for you to verbalize how horrible the loss is. “Ugh. This is so awful. It stinks. It sucks.” [I never, ever use that last phrase, except relating to loss and grief.Survivors need frequent validation of their feelings.

It is painful watching a friend grieve when you carry your own grief over their loss, too. There may be times your friend will want to talk about the lost loved one and about their time together. Or, doing so may be too painful at first. Make sure your bereaved friend knows that if (and when) ready to talk about the departed loved one, you are willing to share those memories.That you also miss the deceased can only help your friend, but be sure you let her know you are there for her, not the other way around. Approaching the bereaved widow or parent or child with how terrible the loss is for you does not show your support for them.

When a couple of weeks or more have elapsed after the death, you may wish to tell your friend about local or online support groups. [One such site was among the first places I felt “understood.” I can’t put words to how “embraced” I felt when I read of others experiencing the onslaught of physical and emotional symptoms of my grief.] Often, viewers can browse postings without having to join.

My heart goes out to you. It hurts, mourning your friend and mourning for your surviving friend’s bereavement. It is hard. It is exhausting. It is important.

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*How distracted was I in the first few months after my husband died? Although I’ve lived — and driven — in the same neighborhood most of my life, I got lost four times on the way from my house to the interstate!  (The route takes only two turns — at the correct intersections — once I’ve left my driveway.) In hindsight, it’s probably better I couldn’t find my way to the highway on any of those occasions.