You Can’t Put a Bandage on Grief

When my daughters were little, they often bruised or scraped themselves in the course of everyday play. A kiss from Mommy or Daddy (and perhaps a Sharpie-drawn smiley face on a Band-Aid — whether necessary or not) was all it took to make things okay again.

Sometimes other tots grabbed toys, knocked over blocks, or cut their Barbies’ hair — oh, wait … it was my child who did that (as practice before “trimming” her friend’s bangs). All it took to reset their emotional footing was distraction — manufactured by word or sleight-of-hand. Almost at once, they got back to the business of learning by play.

As they grew older their minds and hearts grew into increasingly complex, interdependent organs. It became harder to “fix” what upset them. The inevitable day came. A daughter spurned my offer to “kiss it better” as she clutched at the reddened skin on her forearm. “That won’t help,” she pouted, her eyes daring me to contradict her. My offer to read her a story elicited the same response.

She was right, of course. A hug or kiss didn’t take away the sting of the injury. A bandage could cover the wound (at least temporarily) and hopefully keep out germs that would otherwise impede healing, but beneath its plain (or decorated) facade, remained a wound that required time — and the right circumstances — to mend. A kiss of affection, a favorite toy to hold, or a new story to distract might momentarily provide another focal point, but every heartbeat fueled throbbing reminders that all was not well.

It’s the same for grief. Bandages don’t work.

You can't put a bandage on grief to "fix it" or "make it better." Like any wound, it takes time.

You can’t put a bandage on grief to “fix it” or “make it better.” Like any wound, it takes time.

When grief is new (and by “new” I mean the loss occurred within two years — yes, I said years), the bereaved often bruise and scrape their psyches against circumstances of living in the course of everyday survival. Such emotional abrasions include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Significant dates — birthdays, holidays, anniversaries (of both positive and negative events). For many within the first 18 months after a loved one’s death, that day of the week (every week) and that date of the month (every month) feels like ripping off a fresh scab, re-traumatizing survivors.
  • The “business” of death — deeds, accounts, titles, plots, medical bills, insurance … The list of accounts can seem endless for an adult or unfairly incomplete for a child. Making each phone call or office visit is excruciating. Every time I called another provider, I sobbed. Removing my husband’s name from each document felt like erasing him. It felt disloyal. It felt violent. Horrible.
  • Routine “first since” appointments — the dentist, the doctor, the pharmacist, the mechanic, the accountant … Anywhere a person has done business in an ongoing manner, that first visit since the death occurred forces yet another face-to-face bout of admitting a loved one is no longer living. As a new widow, I cried every time. Many forms had boxes to check that offered only the options of single, married, or divorced. I wrote in “widowed” on paper forms. Online forms frustrated me so badly I shrieked at the computer (and I’ve never been a “yeller”). If I checked “married,” they required ongoing contact information no longer applicable, but for a long, long time I refused to consider myself “single,” so that option didn’t work, either.
  • Getting groceries — ugh! Walking through the aisles was awful, awful, awful. “His” foods stood out on the shelves. I couldn’t find things I wanted right in front of me (on rare occasions when I actually knew what I wanted). I couldn’t even remember to consult the list in my hand. The first time I saw THE paramedics from the nearby fire station in the store, oh, how I lost it!

Recently, Megan Devine of Refuge in Grief wrote “grief & the grocery store.” If you want to understand what your grieving friend experiences in the ordeal of getting groceries, please read what she has to say:

http://www.refugeingrief.com/groceries/

You can’t cover your grieving friends’ loss with a bandage. You can’t “fix it” or “make it better.” But you can offer them momentary distraction from their pain by including them in your plans (whether they accept your invitations or not). You can aid them in their healing by acknowledging significant dates, offering to fill out paperwork (or make other business calls), accompanying (or taking) them for routine appointments, and going with them to the store to help them navigate the perils of produce.*

Be with them in their grief. Be patient as they heal.

___

*For an in-depth look at one element of grocery-intensified grief, see my essay Eggplant Elegy” in the online journal Segullah.

 

Laughter and Tears–Where Grief Meets Humor

This morning I wrote such a long comment on another blog I realized I’d written a post-length response. Heather O., author of “There are two possibilities” on Segullah.org, wrote,

“Humor. I think it’s important. I’m not sure how you can best use it, or when you should use it, but I still think it’s important. Somehow it fits into the comfort paradigm. Or at least, I think it does. What do you think?”*

Here’s how I answered:

My daughter told me this yesterday. One scientist: “Tell me the joke about potassium.”
Second scientist: “K.”

Every person grieves differently, and every loss is different, whether it be loss of health, a job, a pet, or a loved one, or a different loved one. In most cases I’ve known, before a person CAN see or be comforted by humor, they must be mourned WITH.

So glad I coaxed Aunt Ginny and Granddad (her brother) into sitting for portraits that day.

I’m so glad I coaxed Aunt Ginny and Granddad (her brother) into sitting for portraits that day. (Picture didn’t appear in my Segullah comment.)

My beloved great-aunt died last weekend. Her funeral is today in another state and I can’t be there. She was nearly 96, and all the family is relieved (though with teary eyes) for her sake that she didn’t linger long after falling and suffering multiple breaks two days earlier. As we go through her lived-through-the-Depression-so-never-discarded-anything house just around a few corners from mine, there’s a lot of laughter. My biggest laugh so far? The discovery of a beautiful little antique glass bottle … labeled and filled with her late husband’s kidney stones. He passed in the mid-70s, though he probably passed the stones much earlier. (Pun intended!)

On the other hand (of possible reactions), even in my relief for her release and return to long-gone loved ones, I’m forever going to miss her sweet, rose-colored, glass nearly-full (never just half-) day-to-day presence. I ache in her absence. My most sentimental sob-inducing find so far? A 3×4-inch scrap of paper drifted out from the pages of a huge stack of ancestral research. On it that sentimental woman had jotted down my youngest daughter’s birth information (name, time, size, etc.) when I called her from the hospital that morning … She’d even written down “Teresa doing well and breakfast just delivered to her room.”
___
When I became a widow at 44 it was completely unexpected. Blindsided by grief, I deeply resented those who said, “You’re kidding!” or “You’re joking!” to the news of my 47-year-old husband’s death. (Four years later, I understand they thought they were as blindsided as my daughters and I.) I also resented (and was repelled by) those who in any way tried to make light of our loss. What I (and my daughters) needed was to be mourned with before we could be comforted.

On the other hand (of possible reactions), I quickly recognized, took solace in, and quickly developed the dark widowed humor of others who’d experienced the deaths of their spouses. (Now there’s no need to shave your legs in the winter, no one will steal the covers from your side of the bed, you can have the last word in every argument, stick a red paper hourglass on a black T-shirt and you’ll never have to create another Halloween costume…) Coming from people who hadn’t walked in widowhood’s path, their comments would have felt like minimizing slaps in the face; coming from a community of the also-widowed, they felt like encouraging “you’ll get through this — I did” pats on the back.

(In one widows and widowers group, one of the longest-running, most commented on threads was about leg shaving. If that isn’t funny, I don’t know what is!)

Be very, very careful about using humor while interacting with the newly bereaved. Laughter that has nothing to do with the death can be cathartic. Offer to watch a great comedy with them — if they are up to it — because humor can promote belly laughs that bring sorely-needed oxygen to mourners’ lungs. (See Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 4, Appearance.) Sometimes those who grieve need participation in activities unrelated to their loss, but without an invitation they may not think to on their own.

However, unless you’ve walked a very similar path of loss, tread oh so lightly when bringing humor into conversations about the loss. Laughter over funny memories of the deceased is usually welcome. Laughter over the loss itself is not.

___

* I recommend you read Heather O.’s full post. It made me think. http://segullah.org/daily-special/there-are-two-possibilities/

On Scents, Memories, and Grief

 

Teresa TL Bruce with her late husband and his last opened bottle of aftershave.

Today the Segullah blog published my guest post “Father’s Day Non-Scents” which I wrote during the weeks leading up to this year’s Father’s Day. I hope you’ll visit and enjoy it.

http://segullah.org/daily-special/fathers-day-non-scents/