broken glass, tempered glass, teal tray, glass shard, grief, loss,, Teresa TL Bruce

Grief and Glass — Shattered


Broken glass, shatter, grief, teal shoelace, loss, Teresa TL Bruce,

When the glass cutting board hit the tile floor, shards went everywhere — much like life shatters under the impact of grief. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

When my glass cutting board hit the floor, it shattered against the tile. Tiny, sharp cubes spread near — piled around my feet — and flew far — some 12 feet away. (Thank goodness for tempered glass, or I’d have been sweeping up even more shards.) Portions clumped together, resembling a crackled fraction of the item that once protected surfaces and survived countless kitchen close calls over the last two decades. Not one bit of it was salvageable.

When my husband died, grief shattered my world into nearly as many tiny fragments of my former life. It was as if someone scored a crackled fraction pattern over me and then dropped me onto tile. The resulting impact sent shards of myself flying — some landing in a crumpled heap at my feet and others tumbling far, far, far beyond view. I didn’t feel salvageable.

I could have attempted a Humpty-Dumpty–patch job with parts of the cutting board. With scads of time, protective gloves, and the right adhesive, I might have reassembled a nearly complete rectangle of the same overall shape. Its length, width, and depth might have been close to the original version of itself.

broken glass, tempered glass, teal tray, glass shard, grief, loss,, Teresa TL Bruce

Shattered tempered glass might stick together at first, but like a life shattered by grief, it will never be the same. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

But it would never, ever be good as new again. Never would it safely bear up under the burdens of chopping, slicing, or dicing with a blade of any dimension. Never would its once-impervious surface be easily cleaned for hygienic meal preparation.

Now, I’m not saying we should sweep up the pieces of mourners’ lives, hand them over with a dustpan, and say, “Put it together or throw it out.” Grief doesn’t work that way. (And we all know how well Humpty-Dumpty turned out.)

Early in grieving, mourners need to be told it’s okay that they feel shattered. Being told how “strong” they are or that they can “handle” everything might seem helpful — but in most cases it’s not helpful. Often, well-intended  comments about your bereaved friends’ strength, resiliency, or abilities will come across to your grieving friend as poorly as these:

  • So what if your world has fallen apart?
  • People die every day, so why are you having such a hard time with your loss?
  • You’ll just have to learn to live without your loved one.
  • Better you than me.
  • You don’t need (or deserve) my help.

Ouch. No one wants to wound their mourning friends with such sharp-edged apathy, so avoid saying those kinds of things. Please.

tile floor, shattered glass, grief, far-flung, Teresa TL Bruce,

Grief sends pieces of survivors’ shattered lives in many directions, much like this far-flung glass that shattered and flew 12 feet away. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

In time, your friends’ grief will no longer be as overwhelming and raw as in early months and years. That doesn’t mean their grief will go away (there’s no magic Humpty-Dumpty–patch for that, remember) but they will adapt — eventually. (Though I’ve learned to function without my husband, and though much of my life now is great, there are times I still feel fractured seven years later.)

You can help grieving friends in the meantime by picking up some pieces for them:

  • Bring meals or easily prepared snacks, invite them to dinner, or take them with you to get groceries.
  • Help with household tasks or chores.
  • Call, write, text, phone, and visit to show your awareness long, long, long (weeks and months and years) after the funeral.
  • Listen. Share and hear stories about their loved ones.

You can’t fix your friends’ grief. You can’t put them back together. But you can be there to handle their broken, shattered hearts with care, attention, and gentle understanding.


“Be Strong” Is Wrong (for Grieving Friends)

When someone dies, don’t tell survivors how strong they are. Tell them you’ll be strong beside them so they don’t have to — and follow through.

The first times people called me strong after my husband died, I had no idea how to respond. Their expressions and tones made it clear they’d intended to compliment me, but I couldn’t accept their words. I’d look at them, thinking, How can I say the expected “thank you” to such a blatant lie? 

I was as fragile as dandelion fluff.

Mourning made my feelings as fragile as overripe dandelion fluff. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

The truth was, I was broken, shattered into a million loosely gathered shards. The softest puff of sympathy or the least gust of gruffness might send my fragmented psyche as irretrievably into the wind as overripe dandelions in the hands (and breath) of enthused toddlers.

I was not strong. And it puzzled me that anyone might think I was.

I cried all the time. All. The. Time.

Everyday chores I’d mastered years earlier now confused me.

New tasks (including seemingly endless death-related business matters) overwhelmed me.

The sudden, sole responsibilities of single parenting had my knees buckling.

Strong, I was not. But that’s what was expected (and even demanded) of me. “Don’t cry,” some said. “You have to be strong for your daughters.”

Such words (though intended as encouragement) deeply shamed me. Being anyone else’s rock is a heavy burden when you’re scarcely able to hold onto yourself. 

Didn’t they realize how much strength seeped from me in getting out of bed each morning? Didn’t they know how much energy I exerted just remembering to breathe? Had they no idea how sucked away my strength felt after days and weeks and months of only sparse, grief- and nightmare-riddled, interrupted naps instead of genuine sleep?

Telling me how strong I was didn’t feel like a compliment. It felt like being told I could and should be able to handle everything on my own.

But I couldn’t.

Telling me I was strong didn’t make me feel capable. It made me feel like I wasn’t worthy of asking for help.

So I didn’t.

Sorrow saps strength. Grieving grinds it away. Bereavement burdens and bruises the body. Mourning makes mincemeat of memory.

So step in.

How can you offer your strength to grieving friends?

  • Help your mourning friends with physical tasks like mowing the lawn or shoveling snow or washing the car or doing the dishes and laundry. (*See important note about this below!)
  • Go along on emotionally charged errands (like changing car titles, account names, or banking business into the survivors’ names). Don’t make general offers like “call me if you want me to go” — they won’t. Instead, be specific: “Can I take you to the auto tag office Thursday afternoon to help you transfer the title into your name?” or “Would Tuesday or Wednesday be better for me to drive you to the Social Security office to submit the claim for the kids’ benefits?” or “The minute the funeral home says you can pick up the death certificates, call me. I want to help.”
  • Look out for your bereaved friends’ health. Bring a healthy meal, invite your friends on nature walks, share your favorite sleep soundtrack, take them for a massage, mention you need your own six-month dental cleaning and ask if they need you to call their dentist to schedule theirs …
  • Make a list. Mourning makes remembering anything a challenge. Write down tasks your friend might mention in passing. Offer reminders of appointments. Write down memories of their deceased loved one. Write down all the kindnesses other friends extend to your grieving mutual friend.
  • Be present. The loneliness of mourning a person missing from your life is difficult to describe. Acknowledge your awareness your friend is hurting. Sometimes the bereaved need reminders they (the deceased and the bereaved) aren’t forgotten and that they are valued for themselves — not just for who they used to be in relation to the ones no longer living. If you live nearby, sitting in silence alongside your friends will strengthen them just by your willingness to witness their sorrow. If you live far from them, you can still be “present” with phone calls, texts, instant messages, and even old-fashioned snail mail.

Here’s the irony:

Now, five-plus years later, I can honestly say, I’ve become strong. I’ve had to.  I’ve become stronger than my pre-widowed self could have imagined. The bones of my broken soul reknit into a construction of titanium lace.

But it took being broken — and much, much longer than six to eight weeks — to grow that strength.

(Sometimes, I also admit, the holes in that titanium knit lace soul of mine still feel more jagged than smooth, more broken than whole. Grieving, like living, is a process.)


*Please note: ALWAYS, Always, always ask before washing or putting away or cleaning up after the deceased person’s clothing, dishes, or even apparent trash! (Mourners may need and want to handle those newly sacred, last-touched items themselves.)

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.”)