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.

But.

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.

 

Walking on Eggshells When Someone Dies

Does knowing what to say when someone dies feel like walking on eggshells?

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

(Walking on Eggshells photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

You wouldn’t knowingly step barefoot into a kitchen littered with sharp, slippery shells. Who wants to walk on a surface that’s messy at best, hazardous at worst? But you can’t ignore what’s there. Before entering to clean up the unacceptable disorder, you slip your feet into shoes and grab supplies to help you remove the rolling shell-shards and wipe up the white-and-yolk smears.

Mourning friends’ emotions can seem as hard, thin, fragile, slippery, or sharp as broken eggshells, but you shouldn’t ignore them or their loss, either. Please, please enter their grieving space, but tread lightly and bring appropriate resources as you walk with your mourning friends through their emotional eggshells of grieving.

(Before I take this analogy further, let me be the first to admit where it breaks down: You can completely clean and disinfect a floor, making it good as new, like nothing ever spilled there; you CANNOT straighten or sanitize grief. The bereaved who mourn their spouse, child, sibling, parent, cousin — anyone dear to them — will NEVER be the same. Given abundant time and support, they’ll someday learn to function well again and may no longer display the sharp, messy, slimy aftereffects of grieving — but only after they’ve woven and worn-in an all-new carpet to cover the permanently stained, scratched, and scorched surface beneath.)

  • Acknowledge you’re aware your friend is hurting — and that you know you can’t fix their grief. Not even all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and women can fix the breaks of bereavement.
  • Lament the loss and LISTEN. (“I’m so sorry your friends died. I’m here to listen. Would you like to tell me more about her/him/them?”) If your friend says something you disagree with, this is NOT the time to argue. Your role is to be a safe sounding board. Don’t take their short temper or lack of attention personally — it’s not about you when their world has shattered.
  • Pick up the practical pieces you can.* Offer to do specific, tangible tasks (drive carpool, bring groceries or meals, wash laundry or dishes or the dog, mow the lawn, tend the kids, make phone calls …).
  • Wipe up the mess — without judgement. Grief can cause torrential tears, erratic emotions, disrupted digestion,  sickly sleep, distressing distraction … in short, mourning is messy. Bring the softest tissues you can find, offer assistance with upcoming deadlines, invite the bereaved into your circle and activities (without reproach if you’re turned down), and reassure your friends that it’s okay for them to grieve in their own way**.
  • Return often. Grief’s relentlessness is as certain as gravity. Eggs will fall, crack, and roll all over a cleaned kitchen floor. Mourning will hit without warning, cracking life into a fragmented shell of what it once was. As your grieving friend begins to adjust, shock wears away, allowing new waves of grief to resurge as they confront the ongoing realities of living without their loved one.

Tread lightly while stepping alongside your mourning friends, but DO walk with them. And don’t be afraid of the mess as you clean up crushed eggshells with them along the way.

___

*Exercise CAUTION when helping with physical things within the deceased person’s home or office. Do not rush a bereaved person into any decisions, but ALWAYS ASK before throwing away or laundering items. What you may see as an old newspaper to be thrown out, your grieving friend may see as the last crossword puzzle their loved one finished. The pillowcase you wish to strip in order to provide your friend with fresh bedding may contain the last scent of their loved one.

**Everyone grieves differently. Avoid telling your friends they “should” (or shouldn’t) anything. The only exception is if their actions or (inaction) cause immediate or imminent harm to themselves or others.

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.

 

 

Forget about the “Stages of Grief,” but Remember the “Symptoms”

As a writer and editor of both fiction and nonfiction (and as a widow who has networked with thousands of other bereaved individuals) I cheered — and jeered — over one trade article’s treatment of grief.

I applaud Danny Manus for writing “Notes from the Margin: Five Stages of Grief for Your Character,” in which he urges fellow writers to infuse their characters with “fully fleshed out” emotional reactions by having “them go through the Five Stages of Grief.” Too many writers (and friends of the bereaved) appear unaware of the the life-altering impact of loss (whether that loss relates to health, relationships, employment, or other serious changes — including, of course, death).

Manus’s article and attached illustration might provide an initial working framework, but as one among many grief-related writers, I must disagree with the shape of the ribbon as well as the opening lines of the article!

The true

Although the loops acknowledge there are turns along the way to “recovering” from grief’s impediment, I disagree with the shape and “stages” of this image linked with Manus’s article at http://www.scriptmag.com/features/five-stages-of-grief-character.

“When something traumatic happens, it’s said that we all experience the five stages of grief. So as your character goes on their journey – which should be full of trauma, drama, action and emotion – it stands to reason that they should go through the same steps.” – See more at: http://www.scriptmag.com/features/five-stages-of-grief-character#sthash.jNiDqsod.dpuf%5D

I groaned — aloud — as I saw the lovely, neatly looped ribbon illustration and read the words “the five stages” and “the same steps.” 

Not again!

REAL people experience REAL grief in messier, less linear, and far less predictable ways. Every loss is different, because every relationship is unique. Realistic fictional (and nonfictional) characters should be presented accordingly — and living, (barely) breathing, grieving friends should never, ever, ever be pigeonholed into expectations of predictable, orderly patterns of grieving through “stages.”

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross herself explained that her “Five Stages” of grief applied specifically to people’s confrontations with their own impending mortality — and that they did not always line up in this neat little order. As another Elizabeth put it (though regarding the admittedly different topic of pirate laws), “They’re more like guidelines.”

A more accurate “ribbon” would show these “stages” appearing at uneven intervals and with skipped and irregular repetitions. Instead of a loosely looped U shape, the ribbon would be knotted in places, torn and shredded, and positioned in a wobbly spiral like a warped, stretched, squished Slinky.

For me (and for most of those I know who have lost loved ones, the so-called stages look more like the figure on the right:

Grief is messy. The “stages” look more like the figure on the right. (Image found at http://www.ywam-fmi.org/tl_files/ywam-fmi/images/articles/2015/Stages_of_Grief.jpg)

Consider realistically portrayed grieving television characters. Let’s look at the early guest appearances by the divorced Lorna/Lana Gardner (played by Jean Smart) on Frasier and the eight seasons of widowed Adrian Monk (played by Tony Shalhoub) on Monk.

When former high school classmate Lorna/Lana is reintroduced to Frasier, she thought she was already “over” her divorce. She’d “moved on” and was happy with her life — until her ex remarried on her birthday. The writers successfully (and comically) revealed her ups and downs along spirals of “stages” as new life circumstances forced her character to revisit past emotional reactions in her present life. In subsequent episodes, Lorna (by then called Lana) continued to carry her “anger” and “bargaining” stages with her (as parts of her personality that crept in) even as she moved along in her “meaningful life.”

In the series “Monk,” the title character was beautifully, tragically flawed. His lifetime of coping with OCD was thrown into non-coping chaos after his wife’s murder. Even though Adrian Monk managed (with heavy support from understanding though sometimes impatient and exasperated friends) to “return to meaningful life,” that life was always in flux with the “earlier stages.”

When also-widowed Natalie Teeger (played by Traylor Howard) becomes Mr. Monk’s assistant in the third season, her character has “already” returned more fully “to meaningful life” than her employer, yet throughout the remaining seasons there are moments the writers reveal the ongoing impact of grief in its recurring stages. For Adrian, the Slinky of stages remains tightly compressed as he moves forward; for Natalie the Slinky is stretched nearly — but not quite — into a straighter line.

Grieving is messy and complicated and non-linear. If you’re writing about characters whose losses have impacted their “normal” lives, be aware that realistic portrayals reflect the chaos of returning, churning emotions they thought they’d already put in the past.

If you’re supporting friends who’re mourning, please, please, please don’t tell them, “You may be depressed now, but as soon as you go through bargaining you’ll be ready for acceptance and then everything will be okay.” (Trust me on this — I’ve heard it. It doesn’t help, and unless you can bring back the dead, to the recently bereaved that will never be okay.) For many, grieving a loved one is the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and sanitizing it into simple stages implies it should be easier. They will not appreciate you minimizing their emotions.

If you’re grieving a loss of your own, I’m sorry. It hurts. Sometimes all you’ll see are the suffocating scribbles in the “My experience” illustration above. It won’t always be this hard, and in time the dark lines will fade as you work your way forward, but for now, be patient with yourself. Please.

Merry Christmas Mourning (Death Changes Holidays)

I had a wonderful Christmas this year, the first filled with more joy than sorrow since my husband died in 2010. (Yes, I already had my Christmas celebration, and yes, I know it isn’t yet December 25.)

But last year to a small degree, and the year before more so, and the year before, and the year before, and the awful year before that … (I’m  shuddering now at the painful recollections …) What most stands out is memories not of Christmas mornings but of Christmas mourning.

THIS year I sang Christmas hymns and carols at church without crying. (Okay, I did cry when the choir sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” but it was because the music and the message were beautiful, not because I was too emotional with grief to tolerate the familiarity of it.)

THIS year I fell into sleep on our family’s pre-Christmas Eve without tossing and turning. (Most nights I still — five years later — have difficulty getting to sleep without my husband beside me, but this year my kids and I were so on-the-go I was tired enough to leave consciousness behind the moment my head hit the pillow — but I won’t admit to them how late even that was.)

THIS year I read every line of friends’ Christmas letters without grudging envy over their continued co-parenting. (In other years since my husband died, I couldn’t get all the way through. I’ve never considered myself jealous by nature, but reading the happy announcements of what they’d done together hurt too much as I struggled to balance grief and single parenting.)

This was our barely dressed Christmas tree (photo by Teresa TL Bruce).

This was our barely dressed Christmas tree (photo by Teresa TL Bruce).

They say time heals all wounds. In grieving, it certainly helps. But healing takes much longer than most non-grievers think, and “healing” in grief is never fully complete. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis likened his wife’s death to an amputation. The surrounding tissues would stop bleeding and would close up and mend, but there would always be a scar, and “normal” life would never, ever be the same.

Part of what made this year easier for me was the way we deliberately shook up (and also broke up) our Christmas traditions: Instead of putting up a six-foot tree the day after Thanksgiving* (and decorating it with nearly 30 years of memory-rich accumulated, sentimental ornaments), we pulled a factory-lit four-footer from its box (still wearing last year’s also-boxed-up string of red beads, a star, and an angel). We usually enjoy Christmas dinner in the afternoon a few hours after opening presents in the morning; this year we ate our traditional menu one night, but we opened Christmas stockings and presents three mornings later; we sipped night-before-Christmas cocoa at the end of our Christmas day, before my out of state daughters left.

This year Old Doggie Dear's stocking stayed in the Christmas decorations box -- alongside my late husband's stocking. New Doggie Dear got her own. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

This year Old Doggie Dear’s stocking stayed in the Christmas decorations box — alongside my late husband’s stocking. New Doggie Dear got her own. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

Part of what made Christmas more poignant this year was buying an inexpensive stocking for our new doggie. It didn’t feel right to use Old Doggie Dear’s. My out of state daughters fell head-over-heels in love-at-first-sight with New Doggie Dear — just as much as my other daughter and I did from day one — but we all cried (at least once or twice) over Old Doggie Dear’s absence — even while loving and playing with New Doggie Dear.

And it was heartwarming but heartbreaking to again gather at Aunt Ginny’s for our Christmas meal. (Family members still own her house, so we felt blessed to be there where we invoked her memory and her zest for family get-togethers.) Like we’ve done for most of the last 20 years, my girls and I made the meal together, and everyone present held hands in a circle of prayer the way Aunt Ginny always insisted on before we ate. (But the circle felt incomplete without Aunt Ginny herself squeezing my hand with her bony but incredibly strong fingers.)

Both Aunt Ginny (a few days short of 95) and Doggie Dear (13) died in the first half of this year. So this was our first Christmas without them. It was our sixth without my husband,  our 21st without Mom.

At the holidays, even those of us whose grief isn’t “new” often agonize through moments when our losses feel as raw and as inescapable as when they were.

For those grieving recent deaths, the missing loved one’s absence often tarnishes tradition, defiles decoration, taints taste, and mars music.

This well-intended message comes across as diminishing the reality and importance of grieving a loss. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

This well-intended message comes across as diminishing the reality and importance of grieving a loss. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

In the first few years after my husband died, I disliked being told to have a “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays.” How could I be merry or happy at all? (Don’t think I never smiled or laughed, because there must have been good moments … but they were the exceptions.)

I knew the people who wished me such seasons greetings were at the least being polite and at the best hoping to offer cheer to my gloomy, wounded soul. Being told I was supposed to feel “merry” while grieving felt like my loss wasn’t important — didn’t matter — to them.

This year, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks before our family’s Christmas celebrations that I realized it took me six Christmases before I could accept people’s “merry Christmas” greetings at face value (and not as thoughtless reprimands).

If your friends grieve a recent loss (and by recent I mean within a couple of years, not just a couple of months!), invite them to join you in your celebrations. Let them know you are thinking of them this holiday season. Acknowledge their loss to show them it’s okay for them to be sad in the midst of holiday cheer.

If they should feel like laughing or playing reindeer games with you, so much the better, but if they need to cry or decline and be reclusive, support them in that as well. Let them know you’re okay with whatever works for them.

___

*Our first Christmas without my husband, just three months after he died, I forgot about Christmas trees, decorations, everything — until a group of church brothers knocked on my door and asked whether I already had a Christmas tree. When I said no, they stepped to the back of a pickup truck in my driveway, pulled down a fragrant pine, brought it into the house, and set it up for me.

They didn’t call to ask if they could bring it (still in shock, I’d have said no) and they didn’t say “Let us know if there’s anything we can do for you.” (I wasn’t capable of knowing what I needed, much less asking for it if I figured it out.) They thought of something they thought might help me, showed up with it, and then asked while on my doorstep.

I’ll never forget their kindness and thoughtfulness!