Grief, Fear, and Reassurance after Death

When a friend asked whether I’d heard of people experiencing irrational fears after losing loved ones, I nearly laughed, not at her question, but at myself.

Irrational fears after a death? Oh, yeah. I’m afraid that yes, I have been scared (and somewhat scarred) by those …

(Sorry. Couldn’t resist the pun. Chalk it up to warped, widowed humor.)

In the first couple of years after my husband’s unexpected death:

If I needed to run an errand on the other end of town, I faced a frightening dilemma: 25 minutes on the highway with lunatic drivers speeding, or 45 minutes on back roads with crazed drivers running red lights and stop signs. Which would get me home quicker? More safely? At all?

If my doctor wanted me to try a new medication, did I dare? What if I was one of the few for whom death was listed (in infinitesimal print) as a possible side effect? I had a dependent child at home — could I take that risk?

If my daughter ran a fever, my mind forgot the existence of common culprits like a cold virus or other seasonal bug. I googled symptoms of meningitis and other serious ailments, afraid to have her doctor confirm my worst fears, but also afraid not to take her in for an exam.

One day my daughter’s severe lower abdominal pain and fever prompted the pediatrician to send us straight to the hospital. The same hospital where, less than a year earlier, a doctor prefaced the worst news of our lives with “Unfortunately …”

My daughter was beside herself, tense with pain and fearful of the unknown.

I was determined to “stay strong” for her — like so many people had admonished me to be over recent months. But my hands trembled, and I fought to keep my voice calm. Walking into that same doorway and down those same halls was like walking into a nightmare — while fully awake — terrified of history repeating itself. It felt like every step forward sent me ten steps back into the trauma of that night months before.

On that night I’d entered with confidence in the skills and abilities of the city-sized staff and the wonders of modern medicine. This time, I entered with spine-seizing fear.

But I knew I had to stay strong for my daughter because she needed me (and because that’s what people told me when they saw me cry). So I swallowed my fear whole and spoke past the lump burning in my throat. I murmured the same words in the same tone I’d uttered countless times during two decades of parenting our three children: “Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’ll be okay.”

“No. You can’t say that anymore, Mom.” 


She was right.

Wrecking-ball-to-the-gut silence.

Months earlier we’d been catapulted into the worst outcome — the one too awful to have considered that it might have been possible — and in crash-landing everything changed. Up meant fifty degrees sideways; left and right were mushed together somewhere beneath us; light illuminated nothing; the blinding brightness of dark stung our eyes.

“It’ll be okay” no longer sounded reassuring or hopeful. Guarantees were gone, replaced by uncertainty.

I later learned I wasn’t the only widowed parent who — alongside grieving the death of a spouse — mourned the loss of a child’s innocent trust that life goes on. Because sometimes (and eventually for everyone) it doesn’t. Not for the one who died. Not for the ones left mourning.

When their world has turned upside down, children (and adults) sometimes revert back to behaviors from a time they felt more secure. As a newly widowed mom, I sometimes caught myself saying quietly but aloud, “I want my mommy.”

Children who’ve lost a parent (or other caretaker) to death sometimes become clingy, once again exhibiting the separation anxiety they already outgrew. It’s not uncommon for them to whine or cry when the remaining parent leaves for work (or for anything). In an odd role reversal, kids may demand, “Where are you going? Who are you going to be with? What time will you come home? Let me know when you’re on your way back …

Grief often disrupts sleep. Children who haven’t used night lights in years (or ever) may refuse to sleep in the dark. Others may be unable to sleep alone. Nightmares (of the circumstances of the loved one’s death or fears about what follows) can be so intense that surviving family members may try avoiding sleep altogether. (My nightmares and night worries were so intense I cracked a molar clenching my teeth in my sleep during the first year after my husband died.)

Telling grieving kids (or adults) to “stop worrying” ignores their genuine (and logical) distress. After all, the fact that one parent already died irrefutably introduced them to the reality of mortality.

A healthier way to reassure them is to acknowledge their reasons for concern and to encourage them to express their fears. Older kids (and adults) might write in a private journal or in letters to their deceased loved one. Younger children might draw pictures or role-play with stuffed animals or dolls.

To help mourners (of all ages) as they face the many fears that accompany bereavement, give them the benefit of time with friends who let them talk — without judging them for how well they are (or aren’t) handling their grief.


(In case you were wondering, it really was okay that day in the hospital. But ever since, I fear I’ve been reluctant to say, “It’ll be okay.”)

Are We There Yet? (How Long Does Grieving Take?)

Are we there yet? — one of the most annoying questions parents hear. Invariably, no matter how long remained was too long for our children. When they were young,  we sometimes answered that if they asked one more time, we’d turn the car around and go back home.

clock with fallen numbers

“who cares?” clock face created and photographed by Teresa TL Bruce (

On a few occasions, we circled back to where we started, postponing the excursion for another day.

Their petition came regardless of our destination — rare, days-long, out-of-state road trips; frequent, up-to-an-hour-long, crosstown errands; or thrice-weekly, around-the-corner church meetings . All drives were apt to include variations on the dreaded question.

In hindsight, I realize our kids were eager for the fun to begin (or at least for the end of being strapped into car seats and belts while motion sickness churned their tummies). But while we were behind the wheel, our focus was to convey everyone safely from point A to point B. (If I could manage not getting lost when I was driving — ha! — so much the better.*)

Maybe askingWhen will we get there? reflected part of our kids’ intellectual development, too. They were still learning the basics of how time flows and is measured. They were learning to anticipate upcoming landmarks on familiar routes and weren’t yet able to estimate the amount of time it would take to reach the next location they could relate to during their journey.

And at that point in their lives, they lacked the experience to realize (or in some cases to care) how annoying it was to be asked.

We were more worried about reaching our destination intact than in time. If the Bruces were late, we were late … as long as we didn’t become the late Bruces in our attempt to arrive.

Sometimes detours or road conditions made our best estimates to How long is it gonna take? woefully wrong. (And, oh, did we hear about it!)

Then life’s day-to-day travels crashed into the worst kind of unplanned detour. My husband died.

My estimated arrival times died with him.

Are you better yet? — one of the most annoying questions mourners hear. With precious and dear exceptions, no matter how recent my bereavement felt, it seemed to take too long for those around me. When my grief was still young, I first answered bluntly, “No, of course not.”

If the same person asked more than once, I soon learned my frank answers disappointed them; disapproval showed in their expressions, voices, and words. I turned myself around when I saw them (or their phone numbers). That I was “still” not “better” (meaning not yet my former, pre-widowed self again) shamed me into silence about my real feelings. (Grieving was hard enough without being made to feel I was doing it the wrong way.) I put on my plastic smile and said, “Mm-hmm” — and got away from them as fast as I could.

In hindsight, I realize my friends were still learning the basics of what it meant to be around someone who’d lost a loved one. And they were eager for my sadness to end (as evidenced when I cried my way through conversations). But while I fumbled my  way through learning to cope with life-altering loss, my focus was simply to endure a single day from one moment to the next.

Any planning, any  estimation, any sense of the “when” of things was beyond my capacity. Death detoured my timing in every way. It slowed me down. (I know others who fell into fast-paced flurries of keep-busy actions to try to keep their grief from catching up with them; it sometimes worked — temporarily.)

It took me twice as long to do the dishes (when I remembered to cook — or to eat — and the two didn’t necessarily happen together anymore). It took me twice as long (or more) to get dressed in the morning. Four times as long to pay the bills and attend necessary business transactions. And getting to sleep or staying asleep … (sigh). Let’s just say my internal sleep clock has been at the repair shop for several years now …

I had a trouble estimating how I’d fare on the other side of the next five or ten minutes. Figuring out what would happen another day was tougher. What would the next week hold? (Thinking that far ahead made my head hurt almost as much as my heart.) The following month? Ha! (In case the italicized “Ha” with an exclamation point didn’t convey it clearly the first time, let me repeat. Ha!)

Questions about my five- or ten-year plans were as impossible to answer as “When are you going to act like normal again?

Maybe askingWhen will you be done with grieving? reflected part of my acquaintances’ empathetic development. They were still learning the basics of how grief flowed and ebbed around time-warped detours on an unfamiliar journey they couldn’t relate to. Yet because of what they observed in how I grieved my husband, they were awakened to an uncomfortable realization: they would someday lose a loved one, too.

Their need to ask, So, is everything okay now? stemmed as much from their lack of experience with grieving as it did from their genuine concern for me. And at that point in their lives, they had no way to realize how annoying it was to be asked. 

Instead of asking your grieving friends how long it will take them to “get over” their bereavement, assure them you accept them and support them no matter where (and when) they are in their grief.


*I’ve been known to get lost even when following GPS directions. In a future post I’ll share more about getting lost in other ways while finding my way through grief.


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Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 3 — What to Keep Asking

After the initial shock of my loss lessened, I began adjusting to life as a widow. Far from being “over” my grief, I faced ongoing challenges.

These are questions I found particularly helpful as time went by.

  • How are you sleeping?
    Grief wreaks havoc with sleep cycles, causing some to sleep much longer than “normal” and others — like me — much, much, much less. (Would another “much” be too repetitive?) Asking won’t restore the mourner’s pre-grief sleep, but it will show you’re aware of the struggle. In grieving families with young children, ask if you can take the kids for a few hours so the parent(s) can rest.
  • Do you need help with [be specific in naming possible errands] that you’ve been afraid or reluctant to ask for?
    This is only a portion of the debris cleared away by the men from church that day. The "bushes" behind the trash bags are piled limbs hauled out to the street. (Sorry for the poor lighting!)

    This is a portion of debris cleared by the men from church that day. “Bushes” behind the yard bags are actually piles of limbs they hauled to the street. The poor photo quality reflects my scattered state of mind at the time! (photo — such as it is — by Teresa TL Bruce,

    I had trouble figuring out what I’d left undone until friends offered help with specific tasks. I needed (but too seldom sought) help transporting my daughter, remembering car maintenance, washing doggie (an ordeal requiring a minimum of five human hands), cleaning …

    One Saturday, men and boys from church gathered in my yard and hauled more than 15 Hefty bags of debris — and a huge pile of limbs — out to to the curb. I was flabbergasted. Until I saw the tremendous difference their efforts made, I hadn’t noticed the overgrown undergrowth!  (I still get teary-eyed over their labors — and the thoughtfulness behind them.)

  • What sounds appetizing? Which day can I bring you [the “appetizing” dish or another item of your suggestion], or would you rather to come to my place?
    Grief scrambles appetite as ferociously as sleep. On “bad” days, pouring cereal and milk into the same bowl felt like an accomplishment. On “good days,” removing plastic wrap from frozen pizza before heating (or not burning boxed macaroni and cheese) felt like I’d done “real” cooking again.
  • Will you come [for a walk, to the store, to the mall, to a movie, to lunch, etc.] with me [name a specific day and time]?
    Again, invitations to specific activities and times are less threatening to the bereaved than general ones.  When well-meaning friends and acquaintances invited me to “do something” in the earliest weeks after the funeral, I wasn’t ready. Overwhelmed, I asked them to check back later. (Two actually did.) I needed time and space to grieve and to focus on my daughters before I worked up courage to return to “social” activities.

Questions (and actions!) such as these acknowledge you haven’t forgotten that your friend is still grieving — “even” after months have passed.