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

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*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.

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(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.”)

Kids after Death, Children’s Grief Awareness Day

Children’s Grief Awareness Day is the third Thursday each November. As people in the U.S. gear up for the following week’s Thanksgiving celebrations, the day is meant to raise awareness that the holiday season can be especially difficult for children who are grieving.

It’s a time of year that’s hard enough for bereaved adults, and kids’ feelings run just as deep. However, children lack the ability to draw on decades of emotional (and verbal) experience to help them recognize and process those feelings.

It should be obvious that children need emotional support as they mourn. It should be obvious that as children grow up, milestone events sometimes prompt as much pain over their absent loved one as pride in their own accomplishment. It should be obvious that anniversaries and holidays and yearly commemorations are forever altered when a loved one is lost.

Sadly, sometimes even professionals get it wrong.

[A friend gave permission to tell this true incident, but I’ve omitted details for the privacy of those involved:]

Two months before the first anniversary of one parent’s death (prior to the start of the holiday season), the surviving parent of a high school student asked for a meeting with school counselors and teachers. The desperate parent sought ways to help the grieving student re-engage in education while the teenager worked through the natural ups and downs of mourning.

Two months after the first anniversary,  when the long-sought meeting was finally convened (amid a season of holiday decorations everywhere), the situation had grown more dire.

The school psychologist had not yet met the surviving parent — or student — until they sat across from the table that day. The school system employee opened a file and scanned it for about three seconds. She sighed, closed the file, and said, “I see your grades and attendance started slipping about this time last year. What happened?”

The parent and the student were too stunned to answer.

The school social worker (who had met the parent and the student earlier) leaned forward. As if cuing in her colleague via a stage whisper, the social worker relayed that the other parent died the previous year.

The school psychologist’s response was, “That was last year. What’s the problem this year?”

As if the parent’s death and subsequent absence no longer mattered.

Thank goodness other professionals get it right.

My children were young when my mother died. We’d lived in Mom and Dad’s house for two years, caring for her while he worked and she recovered from cancer treatment, and we stayed with them while she endured to the end of its return. So my daughters were very close to their grandma. Even as Mom’s health declined, she loved having her grandchildren snuggle up beside her for a story or a cuddle or “commersations” about their day.

The hospice nurses in and out of the house were attentive to my kids, even though my mother was their patient. They always bent down at eye level and spoke to my oldest. They talked with her about how they were taking care of Grandma, not to “make her better” but to help her feel as comfortable as she could.

After Mom died, the nurses cried with us. They gave our daughters each a small toy — a thing they could hold onto while part of their lives and household slipped from them.

One hospice nurse and counselor came back later to show the children they were still remembered — and to acknowledge they knew the girls “still” missed their grandmother.

These professionals’ one-on-one attentions reassured my daughters … and therefore eased one corner of my own bereavement after Mom’s death.

And therein lies all the difference.

If you know a child who has lost a parent, sibling, or other beloved one, please reach out. Acknowledge the loss. Ask the child’s parent or guardian how you can offer support.

Please be aware.

And wear blue in support of #childgriefday this Thursday. Learn more by visiting
http://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/.