How to Help after a Death

The death of a loved one shocks those left behind. Whether the loss is anticipated after long illness or utterly unexpected, the bereaved are seldom emotionally prepared. Even those who knew death was coming (and already made final arrangements) have no idea of the overwhelming tasks to be done after a loved one’s passing. Many can’t be delegated, but friends, neighbors, and coworkers can — and should — offer help where possible.

Within minutes or hours, new mourners must answer overwhelming questions and make difficult decisions:

  • Will organs (or the body) be donated for transplants and/or study?
  • What were the circumstances of the death? The day(s) leading up to it? (If death wasn’t expected, police and/or the medical examiner’s office may demand ones far-reaching, deeply personal answers.)
  • Who will move the person’s remains — and to where?
  • Who should make such decisions? (Does anyone know if there’s a will and/or an appointed executor?)

The deceased might have expressed clear, final wishes before his or her death. Those left behind must deal with implementing — or ignoring — such requests.

Within hours or days, survivors must create or enact plans: 

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Will the loved one’s body be buried or cremated? Where? When?
  • Will there be a private or public memorial service before the body’s disposal? After?
  • If so, will there be an open-casket viewing?
  • Will survivors hold a formal service in a church, synagogue, or mortuary? Or will they gather informally inside a private home (whether that of the deceased or of survivors or friends)? Or will they meet at a park, restaurant, beach, roadside …?
  • Who will arrange — and pay for — all this?
  • Who needs to be notified for personal reasons? How can they be reached? Who will tell them, and how much (or how little) will be shared about the circumstances of the death?
  • Who needs to be notified for financial and/or legal reasons (partners, employers, employees, suppliers, customers …)?

Please note: These decisions belong to those closest to the deceased (those in the innermost rings of grief ). The role of everyone else is not to second-guess but to support. If you disagree with the way or the timing or the manner of their choices, I’m sorry, but it’s not your place to say so. (The adage “least said, soonest mended” fits.)

Within hours or days, loved ones must also address legal matters: 

  • custody and care of surviving dependents (children, disabled adults, elderly relatives, pets)
  • payments of debts (mortgages, car payments, credit cards, medical bills yet to arrive …)
  • payment of and transferal of ongoing accounts including rent, utilities, health insurance for survivors …
  • notification of life insurance companies, if applicable
  • notification of banks or credit unions
  • notification of federal agencies (e.g., the U.S. Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service)
  • notification of credit bureaus (to prevent scumbags from accessing the deceased person’s credit, etc.)

And who knows where such information is? If bills were paid electronically, does the family know how to access the accounts? Will linked accounts for auto-pay bills contain enough to meet immediate, ongoing needs?

Meanwhile, while the loved one’s life has ended, survivors’ lives must go on. But don’t say that. I repeat — DO NOT say “life goes on” to the survivors. Instead, help them. You can:

  • Pick up and drop off
    • meals and snacks
    • groceries
    • prescriptions
    • kids in carpool
    • relatives flying in and out
    • dry cleaning
    • paper goods (tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, disposable plates …)
    • gift cards and/or cash
    • notes of love and awareness
  • Pitch in
    • wash clothes* and bedding* (PLEASE see note at bottom!)
    • do dishes*
    • bathe pets
    • clean the car
    • take the trash out
    • clean and shine the family’s shoes*
    • rake, water, or weed the yard
    • sweep the front porch or wash the windows
    • read to, play with, and offer to babysit children
    • listen
    • house-sit during publicly advertised services
  • Make a list — a notebook with pockets and dividers might be helpful
    • local funeral homes, services, prices (It will be easier for you to make such calls and create a comparison list than for your friends while they’re newly grieving.)
    • contact information (phone, website, and physical addresses) for tending to
      • motor vehicle title(s)
      • house deed/rental agreement(s)
      • bank and credit card accounts
      • utilities (electricity, water, gas, phone, internet …)
      • subscriptions (newspaper, magazines, movie services …)
      • insurance companies (auto, health, life …)
      • credit bureaus (to prevent identity theft)

Please note: Only the closest, most trusted individuals — if any — should help in any way that involves actual account numbers. Keep an eye out for anyone who may take advantage of mourners’ vulnerable, distracted states of mind.

    • due dates and amounts of recurrent bills to be paid (monthly, quarterly, annually)
    • local grief support services and resources for now or for later (Check with area hospices and faith-based groups for starting points.)
    • names, contact information, and offers of people who say, “Let me know if I can help with …”

Please note: If you offer, follow up. Don’t wait for the grieving person to call you, because most can’t muster the energy no matter how badly they need to.

    • the kindnesses done by friends, family, neighbors, coworkers …
    • things remembered about the deceased — stories, anecdotes, personality quirks …
  • Return to the top of this list and repeat.

As much as grieving friends need your support in the hours, days, and weeks immediately after a death, mourners also need loving, practical support in the long, lonely months (and years) that follow.

*Before washing any items worn or used by the person who died, PLEASE ask to make sure that will be welcome. If in doubt, don’t. (Many survivors take comfort from holding and smelling items which remind them of their loved one.)

The Pulse of Grief, Six Months Later

Half a year ago, 49 people died without warning in an evil attack at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub. For six months, these victims’ loved ones — parents and partners, siblings and children, other family and friends — have privately and publicly mourned their beloved ones.  Just (or should I say already?) 26 weeks ago our city — and with television and Internet coverage, the world — ground to a halt in emergency response, physical recovery, and remembering.

In the 180-some days since those horrible, early morning hours, Orlando’s outward pace has accelerated almost back to normal in a deceptive echo of the trite, insensitive dismissal — “life goes on” — some shove at the bereaved.

"You Mattered" Pulse Birds (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

“You Mattered” Pulse Birds painted outside an Orlando business (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I have hope, though, that many hearts better understand the open-ended nature of grieving. Murals, T-shirts, store marquees, and hashtags all around town (#OrlandoStrong and #OrlandoUnited) display the love and pride my city’s citizens express in memory of the victims and in support of their loved ones. Surely, with such vivid visual reminders, we will keep these loved ones’ lost lives present in ways that will help their families rather than harm them.

I’m grateful for the media coverage focusing on the coming-together of disparate parts of our community. People who didn’t know any of those who were slain actively reach out to show their support for the people grieving them.

It’s important to remember, though, that most people mourning loved ones don’t have national or even local media reminding everyone of grief milestones — such as the six or twelve or eighteen or twenty-four months — since their loved ones died.

For many who grieve, such commemorations pass in lonely, heartbroken silence.  Death anniversaries — even “monthiversaries” — can be difficult. So please, reach out to those you know who have lost someone recently.

 

Grieving through the Holidays — A Personal Message to Mourners

Several friends and acquaintances have contacted me in recent weeks because someone they know has lost a loved one. They’re worried about how grieving friends will endure the holiday season. The purpose of my website has always focused on educating people — like my friends — in how to support the newly (and not-so-newly) bereaved.

I’ve spoken indirectly to mourners rather than addressing them here — until now:

Dear Mourning Friend of My Friend,

I’m sorry.

As a widow whose life partner perished — and as a daughter who yet mourns her mother — I share my grief with you. Not in comparison with yours but as an offering to open communication. I do not know the exact pain of your bereavement — I have not experienced it. But from within the pain of my own, I recognize your guttural groans of grief as the same life-altered language of loss I’ve learned.*

I’m so sorry.

My Friend’s Friend, if I could sit down beside you, I’d listen to you cry (and maybe probably drop a tear or two of my own) while handing you one thick, lotion-infused tissue after another. (I’d bring a new box for you each time I arrived.)

I’d nod my head (and bite my tongue) while you ranted and raved about anything and everything remotely responsible for the death of your loved one.

If you said out loud all the things you’re going to miss about your dear one, I’d listen to every one — and I’d write them if you’d like me to. If you chose to tell me funny stories about your deceased darling, I’d laugh along with you (again handing you tissues if when laughter crossed the line back to tears).

I’d hear you out — without judgement or interruption — if you chose to tell me of your faith and how it helps you cope — or how it does not. If you asked me — and only if you asked — I’d relay how my faith sustained me through the earliest days of my own grieving (and — if you asked — how, six years later, it keeps me afloat through the occasional blindsiding waves of renewed grief).

If you wanted someone at your side to attend a worship service, I’d go with you, and you wouldn’t have to explain yourself or feel like hiding your tears when the familiarity of place and ritual clashed against the unfamiliar absence of your dearly departed. I wouldn’t judge you if you needed to flee mid-hymn or mid-prayer.

Grief dehydrates through tears and stress. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Grief dehydrates through tears and stress. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I’m so sorry for the devastating loss of your loved one.

If I could sit down beside you in your grieving, I’d bring you a glass of water, I’d suggest you drink it, and I’d tell you to breathe. Yes, breathe.**

(Really. Before you read further, take a long, deep breath.) 

I would not say, “Call me if you need anything,” because I remember how confused I was while newly grieving. I didn’t know what I needed — but I knew I was as physically as emotionally incapable of picking up the phone to ask anyone for help — no matter how sincere I believed their offer.

Nor would I ask, “How are you?” because I remember how impossible it was to answer that question when half my heart felt ripped away.

But I would reassure you that, no, you’re not crazy, and yes, your grieving body is likely doing all sorts of weird things to your appetite, skin, digestion, sleep cycle, immune system, memory … I’d encourage you that — in time — much of that will resettle, but in the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt — and might help — to check in with your doctor.

I’d write things down for you, because you’re going to forget. I’d bring you an obnoxious, look-at-me-bright neon notebook for recording and storing all the death-related red tape and paperwork — everything from jotting the names, phone extensions, and times of day you speak with employees over cancelling accounts, to listing the kind ways friends and neighbors reach out, to stockpiling the government forms you have yet to fill out.

Three months after my husband died, I attended our congregation's annual Christmas pot luck social. I couldn't make myself go again until this year, the sixth after his death. (Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Three months after my husband died, I attended our congregation’s annual Christmas pot luck social. I couldn’t make myself go again until this year, the sixth after his death. (Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

If I sat with you side by side, and you asked how I made it through the first (and second) holiday season after my mother died, and then after my husband died, I’d lower my eyes, thinking, Not well. Then I’d answer as positively as honesty allows, “I don’t really know. Much is a merciful blur …”

I’d pause before speaking the rest: “… but the parts I remember — hurt.”

I’d add assurances that it’s okay — even necessary — to be flexible about Christmas parties and Hanukkah traditions and holiday gatherings. I’d acknowledge they will never be the same. Only you will know which customary activities might bring you peace through their connection to your deceased loved one; only you will know which might grind salted vinegar into the raw recesses of your grieving heart. I’d give you my permission — which you don’t need — to change your mind at any time about any and all of whatever celebrations you desire to join in on. And I’d remind you that when traditions no longer bring joy, it’s okay to exchange them.

I’d ask if you’d welcome a hug, and if not, I’d graciously accept your refusal. When you’re the one grieving, you’re allowed to say what you need and want.

___

*My friend Melissa Dalton-Bradford‘s On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them beautifully speaks that language. Reading her poignant portrayal of working through her son’s death and studying the passages she shared from other voices helped me when I needed it.

**For specifics on why I urge you to breathe, see this post on the taboo topic of appearance.

When Should Mourners Move On?

When should the bereaved stop talking about their deceased loved ones or their grief? I’ll answer by posing more questions.

When your friends got married, did you tell them to stop speaking of their husband or wife a few weeks or months after the wedding? Do you tell coworkers to remove family pictures from their workplaces or stop mentioning their kids once they’ve left babyhood, elementary school, or the nest? When lifelong friends announce their move to another state, do you vow to never communicate with — or about — them again?

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Of course not. To do so would be insensitive at best, rude at worst.

Marriage, childbirth, relocation — these are tremendous life changes, life-altering conditions. Once entered into, life for the participants becomes different than it was before, with birthdays, anniversaries, and physical reminders inextricable ongoing reminders. People expect and understand their conversations and preoccupations will center around those changes. After all, once a parent, always a parent …

So why force such expectations on mourners?

The death of a dear one marks another monumental shift in a person’s life and outlook. When a beloved one’s life ends, surviving loved ones’ lives are forever altered, with bereaved birthdays, agonizing anniversaries, and physical reminders both present and absent all around them.

Yet people outside the immediate, inner circle of loss may soon grow tired of the grief their friends express (whether in words, attitudes, or behaviors). Worse, they sometimes tell the grieving to “get over it” or “move on.”

But love and loss are inextricably entwined — so what mourners hear from such comments is “stop loving the one who died … and stop talking about it.”

Before you feel tempted to chime in on another’s grief, ask yourself why you feel compelled to comment:

  • Are you truly worried for your friend, sorry to see them living in a place of such sorrow, and hoping to comfort and lift them from it? If so, that’s admirable, but offering them a nonjudgmental, listening ear will enable them to better process their grieving.
  • Or are you tired of hearing about their sadness because it makes you uncomfortable, opening up fears of what it will be like when you face a similar loss? If so, let yourself dwell a little deeper in those fears. I guarantee you won’t be able to image how hard grieving will be, but if you really, really think about it, you might develop just enough empathy to realize how much understanding your grieving friend needs.

How long will it take to “get over” grief? Well, how long does it take to “get over” love?

It has now been nearly 21 years since my mother died — 21 years, and I still miss her! And yes, I still cry sometimes, wishing I could have her love and advice here with me again — not just the memory of it.

It’s been six years since my husband died. I don’t cry every day anymore — though I did for a long, long time (over a year) — but certain dates (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays), songs, or conversations still trigger tears. Perhaps they always will.

I’d just as soon skip September if I could only figure out how. Green Day sings it best: “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (from their album American Idiot).

That doesn’t mean my life hasn’t moved forward in good, positive ways — it has! — but it illustrates that grief is a complicated process, one lasting long after the funeral.

 

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, TealAshes.com)

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.

stopinlotbyteresatlbruce

___

*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.

St. Patrick and the Green Grief Monster

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day (or not) isn’t the same when you’re grieving. Nothing is. The day itself commemorates the death of Ireland’s patron saint — originally it was a religious observation. But in recent years its solemnity appears all but forgotten as popular culture makes it into a day for people to celebrate their Irish heritage (whether real or adapted for the day).

In my family, with Irish ancestors on both my side and my late husband’s side, our St. Patrick’s Days were all about the green. When our kids were little, I’d add green food coloring into milk, pancakes, cookie dough — whatever I could think of — just to infuse the day with a bit more color.

Green milk and other green-dyed foods were a staple of our St. Patrick's Days.

Green milk and other green-dyed foods were a staple of our St. Patrick’s Days. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

We wore green, of course, because nobody wanted to get pinched.

I made corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes for dinner. A few times I made Irish brown bread from a magazine or cookbook recipe.

And that was it — St. Patrick’s Day at our house.

After my husband died, memory and timekeeping did an agonizing push-pull dance.  For more than a year, I knew exactly how many days, weeks, and months had passed since his death. The awareness wasn’t something I tried to keep track of — it just was.

I also knew when holidays loomed ahead of me, but I backpedaled from them, dragging my feet as the calendar funneled me toward them. Maybe I thought if I didn’t acknowledge them, didn’t prepare for them, didn’t commemorate them … Maybe by ignoring those yearly occasions, I could avoid the pain of experiencing them without my husband.

I also felt guilty for the unwilling resentment I felt toward couples I saw enjoying such days together. I wanted to walk up to them and say, “Whatever you do, don’t take each other for granted. You’re together. Not everyone has that.”

I’d felt similar pangs of green-eyed jealousy after my mom died when I’d see grown daughters with their mothers. It was especially difficult at church, watching women I grew up with visiting home and spending that time with their moms. Of course I was happy for them, but it hurt that they had what I no longer did.

More than a few times, when I overheard women (of various ages) griping about their moms or snapping at them with harsh words at the store or a restaurant, I butted in — completely unbidden. “Excuse me,” I’d say. “You don’t know how long you get to have her in your life. When she’s gone you are going to regret acting like this.” Then I’d walk away. (I’ve tried to keep my own words in mind when interacting with my grown daughters. Every day together is precious.)

It hurt to remember my husband and my mother during holidays. It hurt worse when others didn’t acknowledge their absence during those same days.

Although it wasn’t my intention to walk around under a cloud of doom, I couldn’t help resenting well-intended “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” greetings, along with every other “happy this” or “happy that” greeting in the first couple of years after each new loss. Sure, I wanted to be happy, but I was mourning. And grief is not a  happy process.

The best support friends gave me during holidays, on anniversaries, and on other tender dates was to acknowledge my loss.

It may seem contradictory, but speaking of the deceased loved one can offer better cheer than saying “Have a happy [whatever] day.” Instead, tell your grieving friend something like, “I’m sure you’re missing [SAY the name!] today. I’m thinking of you.”

This is my sixth widowed St. Patrick’s Day. There’s no corned beef and cabbage on the menu, but I’ve made green milk and cookies again, and I no longer scowl when wished a “happy St. Patrick’s Day.” For now, that’s enough.

 

 

Grief, Fear, and Reassurance after Death

When a friend asked whether I’d heard of people experiencing irrational fears after losing loved ones, I nearly laughed, not at her question, but at myself.

Irrational fears after a death? Oh, yeah. I’m afraid that yes, I have been scared (and somewhat scarred) by those …

(Sorry. Couldn’t resist the pun. Chalk it up to warped, widowed humor.)

In the first couple of years after my husband’s unexpected death:

If I needed to run an errand on the other end of town, I faced a frightening dilemma: 25 minutes on the highway with lunatic drivers speeding, or 45 minutes on back roads with crazed drivers running red lights and stop signs. Which would get me home quicker? More safely? At all?

If my doctor wanted me to try a new medication, did I dare? What if I was one of the few for whom death was listed (in infinitesimal print) as a possible side effect? I had a dependent child at home — could I take that risk?

If my daughter ran a fever, my mind forgot the existence of common culprits like a cold virus or other seasonal bug. I googled symptoms of meningitis and other serious ailments, afraid to have her doctor confirm my worst fears, but also afraid not to take her in for an exam.

One day my daughter’s severe lower abdominal pain and fever prompted the pediatrician to send us straight to the hospital. The same hospital where, less than a year earlier, a doctor prefaced the worst news of our lives with “Unfortunately …”

My daughter was beside herself, tense with pain and fearful of the unknown.

I was determined to “stay strong” for her — like so many people had admonished me to be over recent months. But my hands trembled, and I fought to keep my voice calm. Walking into that same doorway and down those same halls was like walking into a nightmare — while fully awake — terrified of history repeating itself. It felt like every step forward sent me ten steps back into the trauma of that night months before.

On that night I’d entered with confidence in the skills and abilities of the city-sized staff and the wonders of modern medicine. This time, I entered with spine-seizing fear.

But I knew I had to stay strong for my daughter because she needed me (and because that’s what people told me when they saw me cry). So I swallowed my fear whole and spoke past the lump burning in my throat. I murmured the same words in the same tone I’d uttered countless times during two decades of parenting our three children: “Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’ll be okay.”

“No. You can’t say that anymore, Mom.” 

Silence. 

She was right.

Wrecking-ball-to-the-gut silence.

Months earlier we’d been catapulted into the worst outcome — the one too awful to have considered that it might have been possible — and in crash-landing everything changed. Up meant fifty degrees sideways; left and right were mushed together somewhere beneath us; light illuminated nothing; the blinding brightness of dark stung our eyes.

“It’ll be okay” no longer sounded reassuring or hopeful. Guarantees were gone, replaced by uncertainty.

I later learned I wasn’t the only widowed parent who — alongside grieving the death of a spouse — mourned the loss of a child’s innocent trust that life goes on. Because sometimes (and eventually for everyone) it doesn’t. Not for the one who died. Not for the ones left mourning.

When their world has turned upside down, children (and adults) sometimes revert back to behaviors from a time they felt more secure. As a newly widowed mom, I sometimes caught myself saying quietly but aloud, “I want my mommy.”

Children who’ve lost a parent (or other caretaker) to death sometimes become clingy, once again exhibiting the separation anxiety they already outgrew. It’s not uncommon for them to whine or cry when the remaining parent leaves for work (or for anything). In an odd role reversal, kids may demand, “Where are you going? Who are you going to be with? What time will you come home? Let me know when you’re on your way back …

Grief often disrupts sleep. Children who haven’t used night lights in years (or ever) may refuse to sleep in the dark. Others may be unable to sleep alone. Nightmares (of the circumstances of the loved one’s death or fears about what follows) can be so intense that surviving family members may try avoiding sleep altogether. (My nightmares and night worries were so intense I cracked a molar clenching my teeth in my sleep during the first year after my husband died.)

Telling grieving kids (or adults) to “stop worrying” ignores their genuine (and logical) distress. After all, the fact that one parent already died irrefutably introduced them to the reality of mortality.

A healthier way to reassure them is to acknowledge their reasons for concern and to encourage them to express their fears. Older kids (and adults) might write in a private journal or in letters to their deceased loved one. Younger children might draw pictures or role-play with stuffed animals or dolls.

To help mourners (of all ages) as they face the many fears that accompany bereavement, give them the benefit of time with friends who let them talk — without judging them for how well they are (or aren’t) handling their grief.

___

(In case you were wondering, it really was okay that day in the hospital. But ever since, I fear I’ve been reluctant to say, “It’ll be okay.”)