Grief, PTSD, and Empathy

It’s not about me. It’s not about me. It’s not about me … I chanted aloud when alone, silently while surrounded. The reasoning side of myself knew this grief wasn’t about my grief — no matter how much it felt like it was.

I didn’t know the man who died as last year ended and this one began, but his brother and sister-in-law are my friends.

Shortly after I heard the news, I spoke with my friend. With her was a woman I’d never met before, but my soul recognized her expression, an affect exuding the shock of sudden loss. Just a day and a half earlier, her beloved life partner had collapsed — without warning — in their bathroom. Died without reviving. (As did mine, six years earlier.)

I knew nothing I could say would make it better. How could words — any words — alleviate the agony of their loss?

They couldn’t.

But say something to this newly bereaved woman I must. Must. MUST. MUST. MUST! Must approach — even in her in her unapproachable grief. Must extend sincere condolences — even in her inconsolable situation. Must … say … something …

Yet I — after facing my own similar loss; after networking, conversing with, being befriended by multitudes of widowed and differently bereaved souls; after writing thousands and thousands and thousands of words on the subject of what to say when someone dies (and what not to say) —

I struggled for what to say (and what not to say).

So, I said very little.

“I’m sorry,” I told her, then listened.

After a while, when it seemed appropriate, I said, “My husband also died suddenly.” Remembering the widows who spoke similar words to me, I added, “I don’t know what you’re feeling, but I know it hurts. I’m here to listen.”

She held herself — and her grief — with a quiet dignity. She spoke of her faith in God and how she’s trying to rely upon Him. I admired her attitude even in her anguish.

I remembered similarly drawing strength from my faith during raw, early mourning. My absolute knowledge of God’s love kept (keeps) me functioning. Yet I felt unconsoled and discomforted by those who tried to preach away my sorrow, as if they implied Godly love should negate — rather than enhance — my love-grief for my husband.

I nodded and listened. When she asked me to pray for her, I did. Promised to continue. I still do.

When she apologized for crying, I reassured her she need not. I acknowledged that tears of grief are tears of love. That as she mourned, she need not be ashamed of showing her love in that way.

When we parted, she knew another person outside her family cared about her bereavement.

When I got into my car, I cried for her and all the pain I know she has yet to face. (And I cried for myself as my body and soul felt again the raw pain and shock that enveloped my life six years earlier.)

A few days later, the Saturday morning skies loomed gray the day of the funeral. (As they were for my husband’s, six years earlier.)

Three steps inside the church hallway, my feet slowed. My hands shook. Lungs shrank.

PTSD threatened to do worse if I continued. Empathy insisted I proceed.

I could have turned around. Left the building. Driven away.

The funeral setting felt too familiar.

Like six years ago.

Again.

But it felt like few attended my husband’s funeral.

And I’d gained emotional strength from those who did show up.

And I’d gained physical strength from those who provided food for our family after the burial.

So, I stayed to offer what little support I could.

Despite the uplifting, sometimes hilarious anecdotes shared in the public celebration of this man’s life, and despite the beautiful, spirit-soothing music, my body recognized this was a family’s final, physical farewell to one they cherished.

During the service, I sometimes shook so hard I wrapped my wide scarf around my arms to hide them. My body insisted these traumatic triggers were mine to feel again now (and seemingly forever), but I didn’t wan’t to draw attention to myself.

It’s not about me, not this time. It’s not about me.

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

After the funeral, while the family and closest friends attended the graveside service, several women from two congregations prepared and set out platters of donated food. Sometimes I worked alongside the others in the kitchen. Sometimes I stepped away, seeking solace in solitude.

In the multipurpose cultural hall, empty chairs waited around linen-covered tables. On each stood a vase of cut flowers, also lovingly donated.

I thought about the exhausted relief and despair and closure and uncertainty I felt after my own husband’s funeral. How feeding myself had felt irrelevant until then, but feeding my extended, gathered family after this event became both impossible and essential — and I couldn’t have done it without my church sisters stepping in and caring for us all …

… as my church sisters and I were now doing. When this grieving family returned, we had a buffet large enough to feed the extensive group.

I watched their expressions — grief, relief, exhaustion, hunger, shock, sorrow, fatigue, appreciation — and remembered seeing the same on the faces of my family six years earlier. Many expressed heartfelt gratitude.

Did I thank the women who served my family following my husband’s burial? I’d like to think I did, but much of that day blurs in memory — it’s possible I didn’t. (If so, I’m sorry. Belated thanks to you all, whoever you were that day.)

It would have been easier — emotionally and physically — to leave before the service or not show up at all. But empathy, as painful as it can be, is a wise leader when interacting with the bereaved.

When you have the chance to step forward to comfort your grieving friend, listen. Listen to your friend. Even if it hurts, because it’s not about you.

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.

Healing and Grief — “Well under Way” or Not?

A  reporter covering one of the funerals for a victim of the Pulse nightclub shooting a couple of days ago said “healing is well under way.”

I disagree. 

photo provided by and with permission of https://www.instagram.com/harmonyebee/ #OrlandoUnited #OrlandoStrong

photo at Orlando vigil provided by and with permission of harmonyebee #OrlandoUnited #OrlandoStrong

I don’t dispute that in the wake of this tragedy, kindness and generosity abound. The outpourings of support proclaiming #OrlandoUnited and #OrlandoStrong reveal facets of the goodness surrounding my city and, in fact, the world.

That’s as it should be, and it will aid future healing.

But this — scarcely a week later — is far too soon to say “healing is well under way.”

Grieving is a journey without shortcuts. Mourning takes time, but right now, the traumatized and injured survivors and the victims’ families are in shock. (As a community, we all are.)

The grief that comes with the first onslaught of knowing your loved one has died is a loud, brutal bullying earthquake. It rattles your body and soul so hard you are forever altered. You may resemble yourself on the outside, but you know that’s not you anymore. The cells inside you have tumbled, twisted, crumpled into positions and shapes nature never intended.

That kind of upheaval takes time to recognize, time to adjust to, time to heal into. Note, please, that I said “heal into,” not “heal from.”

When author C.S. Lewis’s wife died, he vented his grief in a series of journals meant only for himself. Later published as A Grief Observed, it was one of the most healing, cathartic books I read after my husband died. The agony Lewis poured unfiltered onto the pages reflected the scattered, shattered state of my own emotions.

He compared grieving his wife to an amputation. In time the wound itself would stop bleeding, the tissues would seal, and he would learn new ways of “walking” as a widower — but that accustomed limb would always be absent, and that different way of moving about would never be the same.

He would heal but never again be whole.

How long before it’s acceptable to say Orlando’s “healing is well under way”?  I can answer only with another question: How long does it take to heal from the sudden, traumatic, much-publicized loss of your loved one? (Go on. Pick a figure. Decide how long you think it might take until you’re healed or “over it.” Double it. Double it again. For good measure, triple it. You might be getting closer — or not.)

My mother died as peacefully as possible after a brave and dignified battle with cancer over 20 years ago. My husband died without warning due to medical causes never fully identified over five years ago.  I no longer actively mourn them every day, but for years I did.

For years.

Every day.

I think I’d been widowed about a year and a half before I realized — for the first time — I hadn’t cried over him that day (which realization, of course, made me cry again). A year and a half.

To say “healing is well under way” at less than two weeks is inaccurate at best, injurious at worst. No one should be made to feel rushed in their grieving or as if they’re “failing” by not following another’s expectations.

My life now is rich and full and I love it — though five-plus years later I still face obstacles and hurdles my late husband’s death raised, challenges which, frankly, I’d much rather not have to deal with.

And there will always be days and dates that make “healed” wounds ache and reboot the pain of loss — like Father’s Day, with the father of my children no longer alive, or my would-have-been-30th wedding anniversary next month …

For mourning families and friends, for recovering injured (and traumatized) survivors, for the LGBTQ community who were targeted by the evil shooter, for the employees at Pulse and surrounding businesses, for the first responders and medical personnel, for the greater Orlando area at large — life will never be the same again.

In time and with nurturing care, there will be healing, and every kind act aligns us in that direction.

But it does take time. If you know someone who has lost a loved one, find out birthdays and other significant dates. Enter them in your calendar. And commit to keep reaching out — not just now when the tremors are still visible but in the weeks, months, and even years to come — when mourners are settling into their shifted foundations.

Your long-term acknowledgment will help healing begin to get better under way.

 

 

Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 5, Legal Status

When someone dies, what should you say to surviving loved ones about their legal status?

[While you wait for the answer, listen for sounds of shy, exhausted crickets …]

[… and wait …]

[… and wait …]

Is the silent treatment getting a bit uncomfortable? Only slightly? Then let’s wait a bit more …

[twiddling thumbs]

[looking around the room, avoiding eye contact]

[clearing throat to break the awkward silence]

… and … you’re still waiting, aren’t you?

Get used to it, because I can’t think of a single thing it’s appropriate to say about the legal status of deceased loved ones — or their survivors. Broaching the subject will cause far more discomfort than a pregnant pause.

What seems like a gazillion grief years ago, I started a mini-series of posts on taboo topics* with these assertions:

All grief is personal, but please don’t impose personal comments on the newly bereaved.

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

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality reminded me I hadn’t yet posted about why legal status is a taboo topic if you want to console the bereaved. When your relative, friend, or colleague has lost a loved one, the only legal certification that should matter to you is the word deceased

Whether you’re a fundamentalist Christian preacher or the chief organizer of a pride parade or a number-crunching hospital administrator, whether the departed and their surviving loved ones are old or young, gay or straight, zealots or atheists, when you learn that someone died, your only concern should be to offer nonjudgmental consolation and comfort in any way you can.

  • Do estranged surviving spouses suffer more distress than long-term partners who stood by loved ones in unwavering fidelity? Should one group have a say in making funeral and other arrangements while the other has no say?
  • Does it matter to a mourning mother whether her child’s birth (and death) was connected to her by biology or by adoption? Does a father who truly fathered a stepchild (by day-to-day manning up to meet his kids’ emotional and physical needs — whether he legally adopted them as his own or not) grieve less fervently than one whose birth certificate – documented “fathering” was over and done with long before that child died?
  • Do bereaved best friends (who talked twelve times a day) deserve less consolation and consideration than surviving siblings (who exchanged little more than annual Christmas and birthday cards)?
  • Do legal residents mourn departed kin more than people without papers do?
  • Do felons (or their families) deserve less respect and support when someone they love dies?

Of course not.

Grieving has no limits graphic compiled by Harmony Bruce

Grieving has no limits graphic compiled by Harmony Bruce

Grief is an outcropping of love. When death severs us from those we love, grief pours from the wound. Like love, it cannot be legislated into neat little boxes on government-issued forms. What can be, and should be, and now has been legislated, is greater ability for people to decide who will deal with the business and legal sides of their final goodbyes.

Whatever the mourner’s legal status, whatever the legal definitions of relationships between people, it’s not up to anyone else to concern themselves with the details. For the rest of us, our job is to simply say “I’m sorry” and to show up without comment, bringing with us only our kindness — whether that’s demonstrated by casseroles, consolation, or (if appropriate) even cash.

___

*To see the first post in the taboo topics series, visit
Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 1, Politics