A Widow’s Thoughts on Father’s Day … and Star Trek

I’ve written and discarded more than a handful of pre-Father’s Day posts this year.* Early attempts gushed, dripping with enough emotion to make the Enterprise‘s empathic Counselor Deanna Troi  seem unfeeling. Later drafts evoked so little sentiment they could have been dictated by the most stoic members of the Vulcan High Command.

You might be asking, why the Star Trek references on a grief website about Father’s Day?

My three daughters — my next generation — grew up with the sounds and culture of Star Trek in our home. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com.)

I introduced my late husband to Gene Roddenberry’s world(s), and over the years he learned to love Star Trek and Star Trek The Next Generation as much as I did. (Well, almost, anyway.) The Next Generation debuted weeks before the birth of our first child, and he watched (at first) only to placate his very pregnant wife. It’s the series I most associate with him becoming a new father.

A few years (read: show seasons) later, I went into labor with our second child (during the first commercial break) while watching a new episode. I hid my increasing discomfort (read: pain and silent attempts at Lamaze breathing) until the end of that hour. I knew he and my mother (who’d come to help with the baby) would insist I hurry to the hospital the second they realized I was having contractions — but first, I had to see how The Next Generation episode ended! (Besides, the contractions started at twelve minutes apart. When they soon skipped to five, I couldn’t exactly call the doctor as instructed at seven minutes apart, could I?) Better to wait until the end of the show …

In early grief, I wished I could click a magic device and say, “Beam me up.” (Image from Bruce family photos, TealAshes.com.)

In these days of DVDs and streaming, its easy to binge-watch not just one installment but all the Star Trek spin-off series. Yet, in the nearly seven years since my husband died, I’ve probably seen fewer than seven episodes of the seven hundred-some spanning six series not to mention the movies. It took time to win my husband over to the sci fi shows, and it has taken time to win me back to that shared interest.

Grief takes time. Lots and lots of time. Moving forward with everyday life while mourning happens only one step — sometimes one inch — at a time. (So, please, be patient with your grieving friends.)

During the first couple of years after my husband died, sometimes I wanted to say, “Beam me up, please,” but I knew my children, my dad, and my dog needed me (not always in that order).

As it was, grief stresses kept me on 24-7 red alert: single parenting, mourning, shifted family resources, altered finances, revamped career moves, overturned short- and long-term plans, sleeping, eating, paying bills, doing home maintenance … Those around me may not have seen the red strobes flashing behind my eyelids, and they may not have heard the sirens blaring in my ears, but my body and brain could not turn them off. Relentless fight-or-flight feelings brought on by bereavement drained my reserves at warp speed.

The future — the unplanned-for future without my husband — seemed vast, cold, and dark as I explored the “strange, new world” of widowhood.

I feel more upbeat about this Father’s Day than I have in years. Maybe it’s just easier this seventh year. More likely, it’s because I’m about to enter a new frontier of my own as the cast and crew of my family expands to include our next generation — my first grandchild.

The original crew of the Enterprise expanded into multiple series — not counting the red-shirted extras. (Image from Bruce family photos, TealAshes.com.)

Do I still miss my husband and grieve over him? Yes. Will there be moments of sadness in Father’s Days to come when his grandchild grows up without ever meeting him? Doubly yes. Will I fall apart at church on Sunday when the children sing to their fathers? Yes, yes, and yes.

But I think (and hope) I’ll shed fewer tears this year.  Even as I “boldly go where no” husband of mine has gone before … from widowhood into grandparenthood.

* For specific things to do for and say to someone grieving this Father’s Day, please see Another Father’s Day — DANG IT!

(A few years ago I also wrote Father’s Day Non-Scents for the Segullah.org blog.)

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.


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.

Faked Deaths and Distracted Driving: Distrust and Distress

I couldn’t believe the news story. Officials at a small-town high school announced four students were killed in an automobile accident. I was horrified, deeply saddened for the loss of those families and for the shock and anxiety of their peers.

Seconds later, the newscaster explained the school’s announcement was a hoax, a trick, a ploy to teach students the dangers of distracted and/or impaired driving. No kids died — thank goodness! For a brief moment, they’d been “dead” to their peers yet were now “alive again.”

My initial relief — joy, even — on behalf of these students flashed into disbelief and then burned into anger.

How dare their school pretend such a thing!

I understand that the school administrators in Brodhead, Wisconsin, wanted to impress the students with the gravity of distracted-driving consequences. I realize they wanted to prevent students from the fatal errors others have made. I agree with and applaud such motives.

I also understand from news reports that the idea for the fake death announcement came from the student council itself. Concerned teens thought this would be an effective way to scare their peers into safer driving habits — a worthy goal.


Doing so in this way was a terrible, counterproductive idea, and the adults at the school should have had the sense to see it. 

The Washington Post video clip of the edited announcement showed two adults alternating the following lines:

“We have some bad news. Four students were T-boned, as they ditched school, by a drunk driver …”
“Further information on this accident will be coming…”
“… four students who had the accident, the T-bone by a drunk driver, uh, the unfortunate news is that they did not make it…”

Never, never, NEVER let these turn your car into a lethal weapon. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Never, never, NEVER let these turn your car into a lethal weapon. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Bad news. Unfortunate news. It went far beyond that.

Students at the high school and their parents (who received distraught texts from their children) were understandably distressed by the “news” of their peers’ deaths. For those who had already lost family members to the violence of drunk or distracted drivers, the shock of such an announcement surely rebooted their grief-induced post-traumatic stress.

And the made-up report of the “deaths” was a slap in the face that trivialized the reality of such incidents for those whose loved ones have died in such ways.

For them — and for everyone with similar backgrounds hearing the news story — the trauma of the untrue announcement had no easy off-switch. Trauma triggers don’t stop sending fight-or-flight chemicals surging through the body and brain just because someone says, “Just kidding. Didn’t happen. All is well.”

My immediate thoughts went to those  who have actually lost loved ones due to selfish acts of texting drivers or drunk drivers. Many are open about telling their stories and do so with eloquence. Their genuine emotion and conviction reaches hearts, convincing their audiences to never inflict such harm on those who cross their paths.

Why didn’t the adults at Brodhead High School steer the inexperienced, young student council’s good intentions toward a more responsible, truthful message delivery? Why didn’t they invite real survivors into their school to truly tell the life-long impact of losing loved ones to distracted drivers?

It’s one thing to tell the truth, which can be difficult and even distressing to hear. That is a part of life.

It’s another thing altogether to inflict distress that’s dressed up as if it’s true by those who should be trustworthy.  That’s shameful.

I cannot understand why school officials thought lying to students about their peers’ death — THE most irrevocable human condition — would instruct these teenagers. How will these kids trust their school in other matters?

Stop fake scare tactics. Tell the truth. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Stop fake scare tactics. Tell the truth. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

If, heaven forbid, Brodhead ever encounters an incidence of violence such as those that have happened elsewhere, will any of these teens trust directions given for their safety? Or, will they smirk in a fooled-me-once way and say, “Lockdown? Sure. Like there’s really any danger this time. Remember when they told us …”

Do we need to teach our youth (and adults) to exert greater care when driving? Absolutely. Do they need to understand the consequences of taking someone’s life or limbs by distracted driving? Yes. Is the best way to do that by pretend scare tactics which traumatize without teaching truth? Absolutely not.


Trauma after Death

I’m usually calm in crises, but I couldn’t remember how to dial 9-1-1.

lock screen, incorrect pin, dog, emergency call

The red phone icon would have let me dial for help without keying the pin number on my locked screen … if I’d remembered. (Screenshot of photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

I’d seen items in the road and eased the car around them.

Passing the parallel-parked cars — and the things strewn on the road — I realized they weren’t things. I threw the motor into park, blocking the road. My hands shook. I jumped from the car.

On the ground, a backpack hid someone’s back; a baseball cap covered his head. His upper body jutted into the street from between two cars.

“Sir, are you okay?” He was breathing but didn’t respond. I fumbled the numbers to unlock my phone. (I forgot about the red emergency call icon.)

The man lay facedown on the road. His legs and hips hung above the ground, tangled in an upside-down bicycle between the sidewalk and the street.

Another man snaked his motorcycle around my car to see what happened. He quieted his motor and stepped close to the red pavement under the baseball cap.

I entered my unlock code, then tried keying 9-1-1. “Don’t move him!” I yelled as Mr. Motorcycle approached the unconscious man. I knew never to move anyone with possible back injuries — but this passerby didn’t.

An employee from the nearby school hurried over. Calling “9-1-1” felt more complicated than it should have been. Again I hit the wrong combination of digits.

You'd think hitting 9 once and then hitting 1 twice would be easy...

You’d think hitting 9 once and then hitting 1 twice would be easy…

Mr. Motorcycle laughed, pointing at the spilled beer can nearby. “He’s not hurt — he’s just drunk.”

I finally got through to 9-1-1.

“Sir!” I yelled again. “DON’T MOVE HIM!”

Mr. Motorcycle ignored me. He tugged and pulled the bike from between the unconscious man’s legs, lowering half his body with a thud.

The dispatcher barraged me with questions I couldn’t answer. “I don’t know. I found him like this.” How old was the person, how long had he been there, did anyone else see what happened, did the fall make him unconscious, or was it the other way around … ?

She kept asking, as if I hadn’t already answered.

Meanwhile, my car blocked the narrow street; I needed to make room for the ambulance. I told Mr. Motorcycle and the school employee to stay by the injured man (to protect him from approaching vehicles).

The dispatcher reprimanded me, telling me not to leave the scene — which I wasn’t doing! — and interrupted my disclaimers.

My hands shook as I fastened my seat belt. “I’m putting you on speaker,” I told her. She demanded I not relocate my car but rather return to make sure no one moved the man. (She’d already heard me tell Mr. Motorcycle — and that he ignored me.)

With one hand on the gearshift and one on the wheel, I jumped. Mr. Motorcycle pressed both hands against my window, talking at me through the glass.

The dispatcher fussed at me — loudly — as I lowered the window.

Mr. Motorcycle had to leave before the bank closed (it was barely three o’clock) and would be “right back.” (At least, I think that was what he said — it was hard to hear over the dispatcher’s voice.)

That was the last I saw of him.

The school employee (thank heaven for her!) “stood guard” while I drove (seven whole car-lengths away) to an empty space alongside the curb. (If you’ve never parallel parked while a 9-1-1 dispatcher berates you for making room so an emergency vehicle can reach the emergency, you can’t imagine how long that short drive was.) “I’ve parked and I’m walking back to the injured man now,” I told the dispatcher.

“Don’t give him anything to eat or drink,” she warned.

“He’s unconscious!” (I’d already told her.)

“Paramedics are on the way,” the dispatcher said, “but if he wakes before they arrive, don’t let anyone feed him or give him anything to drink.”

Between the dispatcher’s assurance of help on the way and the siren’s affirmation that it was, a gut-punching thought took my breath: These first responders were coming from that station — the station whose paramedics entered our home that night.

Please, oh, please, oh, please, oh, please, let it not be them…

I’d seen them out before — the same team — at the grocery store. I’d fallen apart, emotionally thrown back to the ground of that traumatic night.

Please oh please oh please let it not be them.

But the side of the truck bore that station number.


I turned and faced the prostrate man. I wouldn’t look at the paramedics’ faces.

Too many PTSD triggers of that night…

Behind me a man said, “I remember you…”

Oh, please, no!

My stomach heaved.

“Weren’t you in my radio class?”

I breathed again — How long was I holding my breath? — and turned toward the firefighter who’d taught my CERT group about the science and protocols of amateur radio back when I got my ham operator license. Way back, before the night my husband died.

It’s okay, I told myself. Not them. 

But. What if the others were on duty that night?

I blurted a summary of all I’d told the dispatcher, then asked whether I needed to stay.

“No, we’ve got him now. Thanks for helping out. Good seeing you.”

As I turned away, I heard the injured man respond to the rescue crew. I felt tremendous relief; he was conscious, but I didn’t linger. (I scurried to my car to avoid seeing other rescuers’ faces.)

Then I drove away.

Life went on, for me, anyway. I hope and assume it did for that man…

pavement, stain

“Stained pavement only seems compelling if you understand the story that soiled it. … Learning the story of another’s grief will help you understand the marks of mourning on the soul.” — Teresa TL Bruce (TealAshes.com)

It’s been a couple of weeks since that afternoon. I’ve wondered about the man whose name I don’t know. (Did he have a head injury? Did Mr. Motorcycle harm his back?) And I’ve worried. (Is that his bicycle locked against the fence near where he fell? If so, why hasn’t he come back for it?).

After two weeks in the Florida sun and rain, as of yesterday the pavement still showed stains from that day. I can’t pass the street without remembering.

It’s made me consider other marks on the roadways, discolorations I never thought twice about before. Stained pavement only seems compelling if you understand the story that soiled it.

How many of us see the behavioral or emotional “stains” in those around us and walk by — or turn our backs — without practicing emotional triage? For those who are grieving, it’s not enough (and often not a good idea) to simply ask, “Are you okay?” or “How are you?”*

Make sure your grieving friends breathe deeply. Stand guard against those who would take advantage of their vulnerability. Offer support, even if it comes in a drink of water or a bite to eat. Help them back onto their feet — physically and emotionally. Don’t ride away just because you have other things to do. Listen to their words and their tears and their assertions.

Learning the story of another’s grief will help you understand the marks of mourning on the soul.


*Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 2–What to Ask When Grief Is New