Children’s Grief Awareness Day

I wear teal every day. Most days it’s obvious by my shirt or scarf (or both).

Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com, wearing blue (with accents of teal) for Children's Grief Awareness Day

Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com, wearing blue (with accents of teal) for Children’s Grief Awareness Day

When I’m walking my dog (in old jeans and older T-shirts), it’s not as easy to see. It takes searching to note that my eyeglasses frames are a dark teal, my sneakers are a brighter shade of teal, and my key chain carabiner is — you guessed it — another shade of teal. (Even my hair scrunchies alternate between patterns of flowers and Winnie the Pooh figures — against teal backgrounds.)

Children, like adults, wear their grief every day, and for them it’s also obvious to see on some days. The hues of their grieving show brightly as they’re crying when a children’s movie protagonist loses a parent (or a beloved animal) — Bambi, Mufasa, Cinderella, Nemo, Charlotte, Old Yeller … (Anyone else see a trend here?) You may see them drawing pictures of deceased loved ones. Or you may see them “acting out” in behaviors you’d rather not witness.

Children’s grief — just like their drawings and the size of their clothes and their experience in every area of life — does not always look the same as adult grief. They at times play and study and go about their daily routines (almost) as if nothing happened. Unfortunately, adults may see those healthy behaviors as signs bereaved children are “all better” and expect them henceforth to behave that way.

But love, loss, and grief weave their way into children’s lives as deeply as into adults. And where children’s lives and personalities and outlooks are still in development, those threads should not be overlooked.

For specifics on what to say (and not say) to grieving children and for helpful resources, visit this earlier post.

This gift to my then-little girls from my mother's hospice nurses retains a place on our shelves 21 years later. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

This gift to my then-little girls from my mother’s hospice nurses retains a place on our shelves 21 years later. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

When my mother died, her hospice nurses gave this book to my grieving children, because they wanted my girls to have something just for them in that difficult time. We’ve purged many kids’ books in the 21 years since, but this one will always have a home with us.

 

 

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.

Speak the Names of the Dead

what to say when someone dies

Speak the Names of the Dead (word cloud created on WordItOut.com)

People often mistakenly worry they’ll “make” grieving survivors feel sad by mentioning or alluding to their friends’ deceased loved ones. They’re afraid speaking up will remind them of the loss. There are two reasons this isn’t so:

  • You can’t “remind” a person of something they cannot (and should not and don’t want to) forget. Grief is rooted in love, and that love doesn’t die with the deceased. For the one grieving, no matter the relationship — bereaved parent, sibling, child, grandparent, best friend, spouse, aunt, uncle, niece, cousin, in-law, or other loving mourner — the loss is never forgotten. With time — more time than you can possibly imagine unless you’ve mourned a similar loss — the sadness will thin from a suffocating deluge to a gentle mist that moistens but no longer threatens drowning. It may at times seem imperceptible, but it never evaporates completely.
  • Most people who mourn loved ones fear that others will forget them. They may feel they have to hold tighter to the memories of their dear dead ones — because if they don’t, who will remember? Hearing others speak their dear ones’ names acknowledges they aren’t — and won’t be — forgotten. It frees them to mourn without fear of losing their memories.

Yes, your friends’ eyes may glisten (or pour) when you speak their loved ones’ names, but that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes grief fills a mourner full to bursting — and tears act as a pressure release valve.

It’s been nearly five years since my husband’s death and nearly twenty years since my mom’s. My life is rich and full (sometimes too full) and I’ve learned to live with the grief I still — yes, still — feel for them. (Thank heaven I’m way past the awful days, er, months when I blurted out variations of “My husband died” to everyone I encountered.)

But there are days when grief gets ugly again, not just for me, but for everyone who has lost someone dear. It sneaks up behind us and whispers cruel doubts about whether anyone else still cares they’re gone, about our ability to keep on keeping on, about the disloyalty of moving forward in our lives without them.

Those are some of the days when we most need to hear others speak their names. Tell us stories of what they did — good or bad.* If you knew them, tell us you miss them, too (no matter how long it’s been). If you didn’t know them, tell us you remember (and understand) that missing them goes on . . . long after they have.

___

*I realized after writing this that part of my thinking (and post title) draws on echoes of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Its title character cautions survivors that he will speak the truth — the full truth — about the dead they wish memorialized.

People Aren’t Interchangeable (and Neither Are Their Pets)

Loved ones can’t be replaced. So please don’t suggest otherwise.

Loved ones can't be replaced, so don't suggest otherwise.

An empty blanket, an empty collar, and an empty ring: Loved ones can’t be replaced, so don’t suggest otherwise.

When people (or pets) expire, mourners can’t scoop up “bargain-priced offspring” from the children’s department; they won’t rush to the store and click a collar around a “brand new best friend” package in the pet aisle; they shouldn’t be driven to the mall for sniffing and squeezing current models in order to select a “ripe new spouse” from the potential mates display window. (At least, for most people it doesn’t work that way…)

Forgive me, please, if it sounds as if I’m making light of the seriousness of death. My intent is to point out the ridiculous assumptions made by well-meaning people who treat the bereaved in this foolish way.

For example, the first variation I heard on “You’re young. You can marry again” was less than 48 hours after my husband’s death. It was an (arguably misguided) attempt to assure me I need not feel lifelong devastation and solitude. But deep as I was in that personal place of raw, recent loss,  life as I knew it had already immersed me in devastation and loneliness.

I could no more have “replaced” my late husband while thus submerged (nor contemplated the idea of it) than I could have inhaled deeply from the bottom of a full swimming pool.

For those who mourn the death of a child, there’s nothing assuring in the agony-increasing comments of those who try to “comfort” them by promises of possible future children. Doing so ignores the life-altering, soul-searing loss of THAT precious, beloved child.

Pet owners face their own grief at the passing of beloved companions. Well-meaning friends might suggest it’s “only a pet” or “you can always get another one,” but the bonds between pet owners and their furry (or feathered or scaly) friends are as unique — and can run as deep as — friendships (and deeper than some kinships) between members of the same species.

More helpful than such “reassurances” of suggested “replacements” are acknowledgements of the loss. Offer comments like:

  • He was such a ____ [kind, thoughtful, funny, interesting…] soul. I’ll miss him, too.
  • I’m so sorry about the death of your ____ [child, parent, friend, sibling…]. I know you’re hurting.
  • Fluffy was a good ____ [cat, dog, hamster, sugar glider…]. She’ll be missed.

In time, grieving parents might have another child; bereaved animal lovers might adopt other pets; mourning widows (or widowers) might date and perhaps even marry again. But they might not. There may be reasons they cannot, reasons that are no one’s business but their own.

In the distant future, even if the mourning parent welcomes another child, even if the grieving owner takes in another pet, even if the bereaved widow(er) finds a second soul mate, each newly loved one finds his or her OWN place within the healing heart once broken by the death of the deceased.

Remember: Beloved souls aren’t interchangeable — even within species. You can’t remove one from a person’s life and simply plop another into the deceased one’s place.

How to Filter What You Say for Others’ Comfort

The ones at the center of the ring of loss/grief/suffering can dump whatever they want into outer rings. Those outside the core may dump into larger rings, but ONLY COMFORT goes from an outer to an inner ring.

Ring Theory of Kvetching, Illustration by Wes Bausmith

When you’re upset over the death of someone dear to you and dear to others around you, it can be difficult to filter what you say to whom. A little over a week ago, a reader on another blog* shared this illustration of “Comfort IN, Dump OUT” as expressed by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman in the Los Angeles Times post “How not to say the wrong thing.”  (Please read the full article at http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407)

The concept is simple. The center of the “Ring of Kvetching” is the person to whom the bereavement, illness, crisis, or other distress belongs — the patient, the dying, the widow(er), the orphaned, the laid-off, the divorced, the ripped-off, etc. People affected in peripheral ways — immediate family, extended family, closest friends, other friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc.–are in the outer rings.

Quoting the post by Silk and Goldman:

“When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘This must really be hard for you’ or ‘Can I bring you a pot roast?’ Don’t say, ‘You should hear what happened to me’ or ‘Here’s what I would do if I were you.’ And don’t say, ‘This is really bringing me down.'”

If everyone applied such a “comfort IN, dump OUT” filter, it would be much easier to support one another through all kinds of grief, not just due to the death of a loved one but to other losses as well.

It can be tough to see which ring is closer to the center than your own.

It can be tough to see which ring is closer to the center than your own.

Within grieving families, though, it isn’t always easy to figure out — or remember — whose pain is at the center of the rings. Families are filled with primary relationships that could all be seen as the innermost rings:

  • spouse — spouse
  • parent — child
  • sibling — sibling

Also important are these other familial relationships:

  • grandparents — grandchildren
  • aunts/uncles — nieces/nephews
  • cousins
  • godparents
  • “like family” or “family by choice” friends

Loss is loss. If you’re in the inner rings, try to remember that those closest to you and your departed loved one are also hurting. Be gentle with each other’s feelings. Try to think before you speak, especially in response to comments that seem hurtful or insensitive to your own loss. If you’re not sure whether the person you’re about to unload on is in a broader, more “distant” ring than you, err on the side of caution, offering only your condolences and willingness to listen.

___

*Many thanks to Ana of the Nine+Kids for sharing the Los Angeles Times story and graphic in her comment on my guest blog post at The Sister, the Beast, and the Invitation to Love

In Support of a Grieving Family

My friend’s son died yesterday morning.

In the final days of his life, his name became well-known beyond the circle of his immediate family and their friends. I hope there will be an equally widespread outpouring of support for his family. Please forgive me if this sounds presumptuous, but I’d like to reiterate principles to remember for anyone who may be reaching out to his grieving family.

[Note: Right now I’m too close to the emotions of the topic, so I’m modifying excerpts from two previous posts. (*For links to the original blog entries, see the end of this one.)]

Grieving the death of a loved one — especially a child — defies description.

Even others who’ve experienced a loss of similar devastation can imagine only a fraction of what grieving parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins face. Every relationship between souls is unique, as is each loss.

Some principles, however, apply to comforting the bereaved in almost all situations. The link below is to a post called “6 Things Never to Say to a Bereaved Parent.” The writer, Angela Miller, tells exactly how some of the most commonly used but least helpful platitudes come across to mourning souls. Please read her article for helpful insights into what NOT to say (http://stillstandingmag.com/2014/01/6-things-never-say-bereaved-parent/).

I’ve summarized her main points below, but please, please see her full article!

  1. Do NOT say Time heals all wounds.
  2. Do NOT say Let go … Move on.
  3. Do NOT say Have faith.
  4. Do NOT say Everything happens for a reason.
  5. Do NOT say At least…
  6. Do NOT say Be thankful.

I’ve not experienced the death of a child or sibling, so I don’t claim to know that pain. I do know that in each of the losses of my own life, the sentiments Ms. Miller describes are similar to what I felt and to what friends have expressed their feelings to be.

___

Children grieve as deeply as adults, but they lack the maturity and experience to identify and put words to their feelings.

Here are some things NOT to say to a grieving child–of any age:

  • “You need to take care of your [surviving family members] now.” While compassion for one’s family is worthwhile, the job of a child is to be a child, not a head of household. Children (especially older ones) will resent being told what they should do, especially if it is an area they are already considering on their own.
  • “God needed him/her more than you did.” Really?! To grieving children (and to many adults), no one (especially not an all-powerful God) could “need” their loved ones more than they do.
  • “God took him/her to heaven.” To very young children already facing traumatic upheaval, the notion of God (whom they cannot see) randomly “taking” people can be frightening rather than comforting. To older children, whose fledgling faith may be quavering in their bereavement, such statements can prick rebellion rather than consolation. Allow children’s immediate caretakers to address all faith-related aspects of grieving unless they specifically ask for your input.
  • “You’re the man [or lady] of the house now.” This is a cruel burden to place on a child, especially one who is grieving.
  • “At least you had your [parent, sibling, relative, friend] for X [years, months, days]. That’s longer than some …” Instead of acknowledging the significance of the loss, this and every other “at least” statement demeans the reason the child is mourning.
  • “Don’t cry” or “He/she wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Crying is an essential part of grieving, and sadness is a natural response to separation from loved ones. Suppressing such emotional expression can be harmful.

Here are  HELPFUL things to say to a bereaved child–of any age:

  • “It’s okay to feel ____.” Fill in the blank with whatever emotions you see the child displaying. Naming the emotions will help the child identify and label otherwise overwhelming feelings. Being angry, sad, confused, frustrated, afraid, and resentful are all normal responses to grief.
  • Children need “permission” to feel happy and optimistic about things, even while grieving. Experiencing and enjoying moments of play are an important part of how kids process difficult feelings.
  • “Would you like to talk about your [sibling, cousin, friend, etc.]?” Children take their behavioral cues from the adults around them. However, family members are likely to handle their collective grief in individual ways.
  • The bereaved — including children — should never be forced to discuss their absent loved ones, but they should be offered opportunities to do so.

Thank you for taking the time to read what is and isn’t helpful to mourning families. While nothing you can do or say will make things “better,” you can make an uplifting difference by showing that you care.

__

*See the full original post texts here: https://tealashes.com/2014/01/28/do-not-say-these-to-a-bereaved-parent-or-any-other-mourner/

and here: https://tealashes.com/2013/11/20/for-grieving-children-wear-blue-on-childrens-grief-awareness-day/

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).