Don’t Speak Ill of the Dead

For centuries, social decency taught: “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” It should make obvious sense: Don’t complain to a widow that her late husband was a lout. Don’t shush crying, orphaned children that they’ll be better off without their neglectful parents. Don’t tell a bereaved father his son would have messed things up worse if he’d have lived.

Use caution if you're about to say something unkind about the deceased. You'll need to stop soon.

Use caution if you’re about to say something unkind about the deceased. You’ll need to stop soon. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Don’t say good riddance about the death of someone else’s dear one — even if you think it’s true.

Perhaps the widow mentioned above would be the first to agree her late husband was a lout. If so, it’s her right to say it — when and if she’s ready — not anyone else’s.

Perhaps orphaned children themselves, whatever their ages, recognize they’re better off forever freed from their parents’ neglectful (or even harmful) pseudo-care. If so, it’s their right to say it — when and if they’re ready — not anyone else’s*.

Perhaps the bereaved father himself will believe his son wouldn’t have amounted to anything. If so, it’s that father’s right to say it — when and if he’s ready — not anyone else’s.

It’s true one-on-one with people you know, and it’s true on a larger scale with people you know about.

When a public figure passes — celebrity, activist, politician, criminal, terrorist —  it’s easy (perhaps too easy) to jump onto social media and chime in. Oh, what a loss! The world will miss them! or, in the case of a person of infamy,  Oh, it’s about time. Too bad they didn’t go sooner

For the most part, these public figures chose to live in a way that made their comings, goings, achievements, or even atrocities matters of public record; those actions are open to public scrutiny. Their deaths, however, belong first and foremost to their families and closest friends. Private grief supersedes public accolades and animosity.

When someone famous dies, whether it was a person I admired or a person whose actions I loathed, my first thought is for their family and friends; they’ve lost someone important to them.

Speaking ill of the dead doesn’t harm the deceased, but it does inflict cruel, additional pain on their survivors.

Historians will sort the late heroes from villains. For the sake of their surviving friends and family, the rest of us should bite our tongues (or sit on our fingertips) if we’re tempted to say anything that’s neither consoling nor kind.



*Bereaved children should receive access to counseling with a licensed therapist who specializes in children’s grief. Adult caretakers should encourage kids to express their feelings without imposing adult judgement or views on the children’s perceptions.

New Year after Death

Illustration of running the gauntlet from "Spiessgasse" (Pike-alley) from the Frundsberger Kriegsbuch (war-book) of Jost Ammann, 1525. (This image is in the public domain.) Source:

Illustration of running the gauntlet from “Spiessgasse” (Pike-alley) from the Frundsberger Kriegsbuch (war-book) of Jost Ammann, 1525.
(This image is in the public domain.)

‘Twas the week after Christmas and ‘fore the New Year,
When partyers gathered to prolong good cheer.
But for mourners it marked yet another milestone
(without absent loved ones) of being alone.
— Teresa  TL Bruce

The holidays are hard for the newly bereaved. (They’re not so easy for the not-so-newly bereaved, either.) Since early fall (in the U.S.), we’ve run the grieving gauntlet of celebrations — Halloween, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas — and now we’re facing New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. [Please see New Year, New Grief for specifics on grief, the end of one year, and the beginning of the next.]

Sometimes, the cumulative effects of getting through event after event without deceased loved ones can seem like too much to bear. Sometimes mourners become overwhelmed with breathing — with being — in a world whose traditions and commemorations keep going while their lost loves do not.

For weeks now I’ve been reflecting on something I saw on the news the week before Thanksgiving. Former NFL New England Patriot quarterback Doug Flutie’s parents died of natural causes within hours of one another. His father had a fatal heart attack, and then his mother did, too.

It’s been said she died of a broken heart. I believe it.

My sympathies and condolences go to the Fluties’ children, grandchildren, and other extended family this holiday season and as they begin the new year without them. Losing a parent is agonizing. (I know how I felt when my mother died.) Losing a grandparent is painful and life-changing, too. (I miss all of my grandparents.)

I cannot imagine the sorrow and ache of losing both parents (or two grandparents) in a single day.

For their immediate and extended family’s sake, I am sorry. Their pain and mourning will last beyond the initial swells of sympathy and kindness they no doubt received from their friends (and from the public).

But for the sake of the couple themselves, who died within hours of each other …

Losing a spouse is heart-breaking. Literally. It wasn’t until my husband’s death that I understood how physically broken a heart could feel. But it wasn’t just my heart. I had grafted my life to my husband’s — joined in mind, heart, body, and soul. His death ripped, tore at, axed, smashed, and severed our joined mind, heart, body, and soul — my mind, my heart, my body, my soul.

We were one. And when one is halved, the fraction remaining is not whole. The surviving spouse is an off-kilter, walking wound, more a jagged hole than a functioning human.

I remember how awful the first days felt. (First weeks, months, years …) I resented rare couples, like the Fluties, who passed from this life into the next together by peaceful, natural causes.

For the sakes of that late husband and his briefly widowed wife (whose family now doubly grieves their dual absence), I reluctantly admit I held a sliver of envy. (Amid the widowed community, I know I’m not alone in this.)

I’m not the only widowed one who, on hearing of one spouse shortly following the other into death, feels … (I don’t like admitting this) … jealous.

Now, lest any of my friends, family, or readers misunderstand me, let me be very, very clear before we go on from here:  I did not ever, I do not now, and I will not ever contemplate taking any action to hasten “joining” my late husband. No. NOT gonna happen.*

But there were times I would have welcomed a passive exit of my own. There were times when grief was so ever-present, so debilitating, so excruciating, so overwhelming, so lonely … I went to bed hoping not to wake up. 

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to live, because I had three amazing daughters who needed me. I had other family and friends I needed and loved, too. But I didn’t know how to keep going One. More. Hour. — let alone another DAY — in that much pain.

Waking up to a new day was as awful as going to bed alone. (Sometimes.)

Among the newly widowed, dying together can seem preferable to surviving a spouse. (At least for a while.) Over and over I heard others say, “Why did I have to stay behind? Why do I have to keep going? How can I endure hurting this badly?”

There’s nothing you can do to remove their pain, but you can make sure they don’t endure it alone. Include them. Be with them. Validate their loss by acknowledging and accepting their sorrow.

Let them know you’ll be by their side — and not just on New Year’s Eve, but in the unbearably long 365 days that follow.


*If you (or anyone you know) feel so overburdened by grief or loss (or any other reason) that “not living” seems like an option, please, please seek professional help. Do it now. If not for your own sake, then for the sakes of those around you, get help now.
Visit or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in the U.S.; outside the U.S. you may find resources listed at


Honoring Memorial Day

Memorial Day was originally intended as a day of solemn remembrance.*[See the end of this post for a link to a short video about the day’s origins and evolution.] Once called Decoration Day (on which widows, orphans, and other war survivors decorated soldiers’ graves), its purpose was to honor and reflect on those who died while in service to their country.

Memorial Day, military, honor, remember, sacrifice, survivors

Memorial Day honors the sacrifices of those who died in service to their country. Please remember the loved ones they left behind, too. (This photo called “Memorial Day” is from

Within my extended family, the day also developed a broader meaning as descendants of my great-grandparents gathered every year to honor the memories not just of all our honored military dead but of all deceased family members. In my grandmother’s hometown, kin from all over began the day at her parents’ graves, filling the weathered cemetery — for one day each year — with as many folks above- as below-ground.

My long-widowed grandmother’s features took on a different expression there. Hindsight — now having lost all my own grandparents, mother, and husband — allows me to better understand the nostalgia, the sadness, the love, and the gratitude that shone from her lined face during this annual meeting of family from afar. It was a chance for Grandma’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews (and all their “grands,” too) to greet and get to know (by place and by story) her long-lost grandparents, parents, siblings, husband, daughter, and — in later years before her death — grandson.

The cemetery on that day was not a place of sadness — though there were tears — but of reunion (both in the here-and-now gathering and in the looked-to-someday future).  After beginning the day with respects paid on the sacred ground there and with family news updates shared by all, we relocated to the place and time I looked forward to when I was little: the park. Nearby, the entire city park (rented by the extended family for that day every year since long before my birth) was open to exploration.

When I was a child, Memorial Day meant family reunions with buffet-style picnic foods (including as many dill pickles as I could eat from a jar that was nearly as big as I was). It meant wondering why the grownups cheered and jeered (in good fun) during their annual singles versus marrieds softball game. Close cousins and distant kin walked around wearing similar noses, foreheads, and jawlines while gesturing in mannerisms either inherited or learned in a trickle down the pyramid of  Great-grandma Inez’s and Great-grandpa Edwin’s descendants.

As a widow, my appreciation of Memorial Day has shifted. I’d always been taught to acknowledge that the price of my daily freedoms was paid for by the lives of those who served my country long before me. My parents taught me reverence for our flag, not as an item to be worshiped but as a tangible representation of the blood sacrificed by those who served. War was awful because of the lives it ended; warriors — of whatever nationality — were respected for their service to their nation(s). Although my family celebrated with fun traditions on such holidays, in a very real sense Memorial Day, Flag Day, and Independence Day were holy days, too.

Now that I’ve experienced the loss of my own husband and witnessed my children’s thus-altered lives, my appreciation for the families of fallen soldiers has increased hundred-fold. I’m not a military widow, though I have been honored by friendships with many who are.  I do not know their pain, but I have greater reverence for theirs because of my own.

How can you  honor and support such families on Memorial Day? Start with acknowledging their soldiers’ service and their families’ losses. Express appreciation. Share memories. Speak up. Such days are not for politicizing the “should”s or “should-not”s of specific military campaigns or politics. They are days of succoring, support, and solidarity.

If you have other suggestions, please share them below!


*See the video clip at