Lost, Found, and Lost Again–Goodbye, YWBB

Several weeks after my husband died, a friend of a friend suggested I visit a website for young widows. Like me, she’d been widowed not long before, and she’d found it a balm for her wounded, bereaved soul. When our mutual friend mentioned it to me, I balked. How could I — why would I — ever consider putting my most raw, vulnerable feelings “out there” under a made-up user name to converse with strangers in a forum that anyone in the world could read?

(Says the woman whose blog now does just that, but in her own name …)

I resisted the invitation to check out the website, but my friend persisted, insisting it had helped her friend and that it could help me, too. After fending off several promptings from her, I finally typed in the site address. (I figured I’d give it a quick glance so I could tell her I’d done it — so she’d stop asking.)

What I didn’t know then, but quickly learned upon my first look at the site, was that it was FILLED with others who’d suffered their own similar, devastating losses. I believe there were about 17,000 registered users at the time — a staggering number considering I was the only young widow I knew then.  It was one thing for friends and family to reassure me, “You’ll be okay, Teresa. You’ll get through this.” Their words were positive and encouraging and appreciated and … emotionally unbelievable.

How could any of the people in my “real life” know what it meant to suddenly, unexpectedly be “relieved” of 24/7 soul mate caretaking? How could they relate to the weight of being the sole, surviving parent of college and high school students? How could they assure me that things would “be okay” for my kids (and me) while life as we knew it tumbled apart and away in grief and loneliness and shock and a thousand other irrevocable daily changes…

Within seconds — yes, seconds — of my first glance at the Young Widows Bulletin Board (YWBB), I felt the weight of “aloneness” slip from my shoulders. These people were my people, from all walks of life, from just about every corner of the globe. All knew the self-severing pain of losing their other halves. All wore the wounds of widowhood.

They assured me it was okay to cry whenever (and wherever) I needed to. They reminded me I needed to breathe deeply and drink more water to cope with the physical stresses of bereavement. They understood why I couldn’t remember to prepare meals (or eat them), why I got lost driving within my neighborhood, and why simple errands left me sobbing. They shared the same physical cravings for their companions.

With these, my new peers, I was home.

They didn’t tell me to “be happy” for his lack of ongoing suffering or to “be glad” it was quick. They didn’t tell me when I “should” feel this way or that. They didn’t reassure me he was “in a better place,” even when they believed it as firmly as I did. They didn’t minimize his absence by “consolation” that I was “young enough” to marry again.

They acknowledged, and therefore validated, my pain.

In the years since I took that first glance, I grew to know and care about many of “the regulars” and before long I found myself in the role of nurturer for the newly widowed. I’ve met with many of my friends from the site and formed lifelong bonds. In time, I leaned on the YWBB less frequently as I grew and healed and found other sources of solace and support.

But it was always there as an emotional backup.

Until today.

The site recently announced it would forever close as of March 20, 2015. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve frantically poured spare minutes into the painstaking, time consuming process of copying and pasting my archived posts into my personal journal. I’d made a lot of comments over the years, so the process took HOURS. I had about 60 comments to go (out of more than 1300) when at midnight this message appeared:

Young Widows Bulletin Board signs off

It is gone. I knew it was coming, and yet … I mourn anew at its passing.

Worse, far worse, early this morning — between the time I began drafting this post and the time I finished it — a friend joined the ranks of the young widowed. She’s a woman of great faith; please offer a prayer (or two or more) in behalf of my friend and her family. My heart hurts for her (and for her children) and I want to — I wish I could — walk her gently to the place of my now-missing lifeline. 

There are other sites available now, and I’m sure they will offer complete camaraderie and sustaining support, too. But they won’t be the same.

___
(By the way, Cynthia and Eileen, thanks again for your kind, well-aimed nudges toward what became a source of strength and encouragement when I so badly needed it.)

Valentine Greetings for the Grieving

Holidays and other special occasions hurt when you’ve lost someone you love. Valentine’s Day is no exception.

When the love of your life has died, pre-Valentine’s advertising seems cruel. Perfect gift boxes from Jared and kisses beginning with Kay mock survivor’s lonely wedding rings and abandoned lips. Hallmark video vignettes leave tear marks. Plush teddy bears (or lace teddies), chocolate-covered strawberries (or chocolates), intoxicating aromas of roses (or colognes), intimate dinners out (or in) for two … Whatever romantic traditions a couple may have shared, reminders are everywhere that two are now halved into — rather than joined as — one.

Anyone who has lost somebody they love — parents, children, siblings, friends — not just romantic partners, can feel agonizing resurgence of “old” grief around the most heart-oriented part of the year. In my childhood home, Mom made heart-shaped pancakes and colored my milk pink every Valentine’s Day. She died nearly two decades ago, and I still ache for her — as well as for my late husband — every February 14.

For those whose grief began more recently, the already excruciating pain of loss is sharpened by the onslaught of all things about the holiday. Almost as devastating as the loss itself is the sensation of being forgotten, abandoned, or overlooked.

So what can you do to help your friends whose loved one has died? By telling your friends you’re aware of their pain on this holiday (and others!), you’ll alleviate some of that loneliness.

Instead of wishing a grieving widow(er) or other mourner “Happy Valentine’s Day,” express something that better reflects your awareness of the loss. 

Here are some helpful things to say to those suffering any bereavement — not just to those who’ve lost a life partner:

valentine-candy-heart

There’s a piece missing from this candy-filled heart. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • I know this is a difficult Valentine’s Day for you. You are in my thoughts and prayers.
  • You are in my thoughts this Valentine’s Day.
  • Thinking of you this week.
  • Avoid saying “at least,” which diminishes the importance of the loss. Never, ever say it. Your purpose is to acknowledge the source of the grief, not gloss it over or otherwise minimize it.

Gestures are great, too, and they don’t have to be big. If you can’t bring yourself to address the loss directly in words, you can indeed show your concern and awareness — literally, in deeds:

  • invitations to lunch/dinner at your home or a restaurant
  • invitations to do ____ [something!] with you
  • small gifts (a flower, a plant, a candy bar, a funny card … whatever you think may be of interest)
  • completion of a chore (rake the yard, wash the car, walk the dog, shine shoes together, do a load of laundry or dishes …)

Whatever you choose to do for your grieving friends this Valentine’s Day, thank you for doing it. Thank you for acting to comfort their broken hearts on this day honoring love.

___

Please note: I have no relationship of any kind with Hallmark or Jared or Kay jewelers — beyond my deep seasonal aversion to their advertising campaigns (as explained above).

Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death

Do I wish my grieving friends “Happy New Year?” There are more helpful things to say, depending on how long it has been since their loved ones died.

If your friend’s loss is recent (and by “recent” I mean within a year or even up to 15 months), then no. “Happy New Year” is probably not the right thing to say in the first year (or two), even though you do wish your friend to be happy. Grief is not a happy feeling, but when it is new and raw it is the feeling your friend needs acknowledged. More thoughtful responses will be better received. Some things I appreciated hearing as a “new” widow of three months:

  • “I wish you well in the year ahead.”
  • “I know it is difficult starting this new year without him. I miss him, too.”
  • “Would you like to talk about how you two usually celebrated New Year’s Eve together?”
  • “We’d love to have you welcome in the new year among friends. Would you like to join us?”
  • “I’m sorry he isn’t here to begin this year with you.”
  • “You’re in my thoughts this New Year’s Eve. I know it isn’t the same.”

If the loss is more recent, the bereaved may not want to be included in “party” atmospheres — they are hurting too much to celebrate — but it is essential to invite them! Whether they accept your invitations or not, it is better for grieving souls to turn down a dozen invitations to social gatherings than not to receive them at all. Even if they repeatedly refuse your invitations, KEEP ASKING.

As the world celebrates moving forward from one year’s date to the next, those mourning the loss of loved ones who died in the “old” year face the devastating reality that their dear ones will never “touch” the new year. Even those who have already spent nearly a year adjusting to their changed lives will face a new 365-day period of acknowledging their lack. For weeks, maybe months, every time a widowed spouse pens the year onto a check or a parent-bereft child painstakingly pencils the date on a school assignment, a grieving soul feels the “betrayal” of hand and tool writing a time their loved ones will not experience with them.

If your friend’s loss struck longer ago (and by “longer ago” I mean at least a year or more), then “Happy New Year” may be a welcome greeting. If your friend is moving forward,  taking steps geared toward the future, finding joy and fulfillment in life again, then by all means say “Happy New Year!” But be sensitive to how your friend is really feeling. Some who mourn lost loved ones may “look” like they’re “doing better” through the holidays — at least in public — but even those who’ve “gotten used to” their losses find holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries to be difficult times.

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.

___

*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.

On Grief and Recovery: Holiday on the Drive and Stepping Back into Community Tradition

For as many years as we’ve lived in our neighborhood, its main throughway has hosted an annual Holiday on the Drive at the beginning of every December. Last night, after a six-year absence, I returned. (I can’t recall the reason we didn’t attend six years ago, but I’m all too aware of why I stayed away since then — until last night.)

As in years past, no cars hurried north or south. Instead, the street filled with merchant booths and food carts, church outreach tables and school sports boosters, moonwalk castles and live performers. Seasonal lights and decor shone in competition with the brightness of little faces queuing up at the park gazebo to whisper wishes in a certain red-and-white clad, elderly bearded gentleman’s ear. Families and couples strolled, pushing strollers and trailing leashes; teens in twos and threes roamed; babes (and dogs) in arms reached for things they saw (and smelled). Holiday music flowed from speakers and shop doors; horse hooves clip-pe-ty-clopped ahead of a laden carriage; dishes and glassware clinked as waiters called out orders; silvery peals of laughter — especially from the children — tied all the lovely din together.

I saw no holiday sweaters this year in the balmy (73 degrees Fahrenheit) evening air. Even if we’d had a bitter, humid cold snap, like the last time I attended with my husband, the warmth of community camaraderie would have kept me glowing. It, like its predecessors, was a happy, forward-looking event.

And that is why, until last night, I couldn’t face it during the years since my husband died.

It’s easy for most people to understand why we didn’t go while my husband was so ill, even if they didn’t comprehend the nature of his malady. After all, illness is illness, and if you’re too sick to do a thing you shouldn’t be pressured into it. People (for the most part) “get” that. They’d not shake their heads at a feverish person for choosing not to hike in either arid deserts or snowy mountains.

Some friends and neighbors understood why I didn’t — couldn’t — go that first year. Less than three months into widowhood, I was still in shock.

What those outside a family’s grief may not “get” is that grief makes you heartsick.

While I was “fevered” with actively grieving my husband’s loss, I wasn’t capable of stepping into that warm, familiar, comfortable climate of tradition — not without  him. But now, heading into my fourth Christmas season as a widow, the fever has broken, the acute breaks are mending, and I finally felt ready to step back into tradition, albeit stepping at a different pace now.

I kept thinking, as I walked along last night, there was something else I wanted to do, something I ought to do — besides share the night with my husband. At home hours later, I remembered I’d wanted to take a picture. But like many tasks along my widowed journey, I forgot.

Next year I’ll remember to pull out my phone and snap a picture. Maybe I’ll even bring my dog.