More about Hugs–and Tears

A couple of weeks ago, two women at my doctor’s office offered  much-needed hugs — for opposite reasons that both connect to my widowed status. Here’s what happened:

When I check in at the front desk, the young woman behind the chest-high counter asks me to review my medical records. Routine stuff, right? Wrong.

I glance at the page and feel my forehead go pale. In the seconds it takes to process the written emergency contact and financially responsible party, my fingertips already dampen the page. My lungs feel as they did when a year-older bully punched me in elementary school. My stomach lurches as it did  three years earlier, the first time my trembling hand scrawled “widowed” between the mutually exclusive yet equally accurate options of “married” and “single.”

Between blinks at those small, inked symbols, I’ve been transported back to the most traumatic period of my life.

With the offensive paper shaking in my hands, I lean forward, resting my forearms on the countertop. I hate that tears rim my eyes — Snap! — just like that. Three years of progress in learning to “handle” and “manage” my grief — gone.

“Ma’am? Ma’am? Are you okay?”

I nod-shake my head in an indecipherable up-side-to-side-and-down gesture, still unable to draw in breath enough to speak. I feel badly for the poor girl (about my oldest daughter’s age) staring up at me from her monitor and keyboard. It isn’t her fault that three years’ of “updated” information never made it into the office database. I feel the impatient stares of other patients in the growing line behind me.

When I finally manage to inhale, my first words come as unfiltered as they did three years ago, back when I  began nearly every conversation  the same way. “My husband died.” Now I add, as if needing to justify my display of emotion, “I already changed it on the forms, but he’s still written here.”

The young woman stammers out, “I’m sorry.” She looks nearly as distressed as I feel.

Once I manage to cross out  my husband’s name and information — Ouch! — and write in my current contact and ID numbers, she promises she’ll input it immediately — so I won’t have to face that again.

Fast forward 30+ minutes later, inside the exam room.

In walks the doctor, who does a double-take when she sees me. “You’ve lost weight [16 pounds so far!]. You look terrific! And you don’t have the cane with you anymore? Tell me what’s been going on.”

I share the miracle of healing that let me ditch my cane after 10 years and 5 months. I show her the story I wrote in my copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive for Kids and tell her of my other published work. I answer questions about my daughters’ well-being.

My doctor beams at me with unfallen tears glistening. “You’ve come so far after such a hard load of grief. May I give you a hug?”

Earlier in my grief (as I stated in “To comfort the bereaved, give hugs–but ask first!”) I was prickly about being touched. Sometimes I craved the embrace of a friend almost as much as I craved my husband’s hugs. Other times, I couldn’t stand any hugs that were not his — especially not from unrelated men.

Now, though, I welcome her hug as much as the compassion that prompts it.

Fast forward again, this time back in the lobby,  standing in another line to check out. The young woman who witnessed my tears earlier leaves her desk and approaches me. “I’m really sorry about before,” she says. “Would it be okay if I give you a hug?

Again, I welcome it.

Whether in celebration or sorrow, whether accompanied by tears of rejoicing or despair, a hug is a wonderful gift and healing tool — when asked and applied appropriately.

Happy Thanks-Grieving: Grief-Enhanced Gratitude

Wait! I promise this won’t be morose.

Growing up, I thought my mother coined the phrase “attitude of gratitude.” After a rough day at school, she’d hug me and listen to every ranting word. She let me go on (and on) until I’d vented my frustrations. But then … (I’m smiling and shaking my head at my little-girl-self as I type this …) Then Mom always (and I mean always) said, “Now tell me three good things that happened.” She’d sit beside me, with patient stillness, until I’d squeezed three good things from my heart through my (sometimes clenched) reluctant lips.

As much as I wanted her consolation, there were some days I stifled my complaints just so I wouldn’t have to acknowledge “three good things.”

I’ve heard it said that you can’t feel badly while expressing gratitude, but through grief I’ve found that isn’t so. After Mom died, I felt simultaneous, deep gratitude for the time I spent with her — and despondency that there was no more time together. I felt grateful, humble joy that (of all the women on the planet) she was my mother — but I lamented over how few my almost-eight- and three-year-old daughters’ memories of their grandma would be and that my yet-unborn third child would not know her at all. I thanked heaven aloud and in my heart that Mom no longer suffered the indignities of cancer’s claws — while I sobbed over the gaping absence of her presence in our lives.

Gratitude and Grief (which runs deeper than “sadness”) walked beside me, both holding my hands.

A few hours after my husband’s sudden death, in the awful stillness that was yet hours ahead of dawn, on the darkest night of my existence, I opened a spiral notebook and began to write. That content is too personal, too sacred to share, but on those pages (starting, inexplicably, on the last page and working my way forward) I listed blessings, all the things I had to be thankful for, all “the good things” in my life. Doing so brought me forward into that day’s light.

In the hours, days, weeks, months, and years that followed, those grateful truths have played a key role in my efforts to move forward through each day. Whether I spoke my grateful truths aloud, wrote them in my journal, or offered them in silent prayer, each soothed my aching a little more as I sent them out from the core of my soul. However, like so much of “recovery” from grief, their effective balm only worked applied in one direction. When others told me the same things, the same ideas rankled worse than driving the wrong way over the tire-piercing spikes in a parking lot exit.

So please, please, don’t tell the bereaved what they have to be grateful for, unless they ask you to.

three good holiday candle things-min

Sharing three good things about a deceased loved one can be cathartic, but being told to be grateful can hurt mourners more. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

As you comfort your friends through their grief this Thanksgiving, remember to listen with patient stillness. Let your grieving friends rant and vent. Then, after calm returns, gently invite them to share “three good things” from memories of their loved ones.

I think they’ll be grateful you asked.



I’d already begun drafting this post when I discovered the following article, geared more for the bereaved themselves than for those offering them your support. If you’re trying to understand what to say and do to help console grieving friends, family, classmates or coworkers, read it for yourself. Consider passing it along to them.

Megan Devine offers practical advice  to those experiencing their first holiday season without a loved one: “The grieving introvert + the holiday season: a different survival guide.”

Typhoons, Tornadoes, and Other Disasters Wreak Havoc on Individuals

Typhoons. Tornadoes. Terrorism. Turmoil. Large-scale disasters all, impacting dozens, hundreds, thousands of souls.

Life-shattering, publicly viewed, world-watched tragedies, displaying agonies of individuals: children, wives, husbands, parents, siblings, relatives, friends.

Fragmented sentences, fragmented lives.

I admit, I seldom watch the news. Not anymore. Not since my husband’s death.

It’s not that I don’t want to be informed. I do. But I’m now expertly informed in the one area the glowing rectangle cannot convey, no matter how eloquent its writers, nor inspired its photographers, nor supernal its composers, nor gifted its news gatherers and broadcasters may be:

I know how grief feels.

And when I see the shocked, huddled faces of survivors’ physical pain and discomfort …

And when I see the decimated rubble  of one-time homes, hospitals, and houses of worship…

And when I see the eyes of those whose loved ones are no more…

…I see their grief, their public grief,
and I feel a degree of it.
I remember the excruciating feel of
my own, private anguish.

Large-scale grief-events require large-scale generosity and cooperation (to rebuild community infrastructure and provide day-to-day resources for residents to live on). They also require one-on-one generosity and compassion (to refashion–not rebuild–individual survivors’ lives).

Please, as much as you are able, help.

Image from the Children's Grief Awareness Day Facebook page (

Blue butterfly image from the Children’s Grief Awareness Day Facebook page

Donate time, money, or expertise. Give a little or give a lot, but please also give from your heart. Though emergencies have an impact on everyone, with Children’s Grief Awareness Day coming this week, please consider the affected children’s needs, too. Already grieving children (and parents) not directly touched by today’s tragedies will nevertheless feel for–and with–those who are.

Better Questions than “How Are you?” Part 1–Why

“How are you?” is almost impossible to answer if you’re newly bereaved (within 13 months of a loss).

When grief shakes your world, tips it end over end, and dumps it in the middle of life’s ten-lane freeway during rush hour, you find yourself smashed into  3.4 bazillion pieces (give or take a handful).

Even if you could yell “STOP!” and every commuter and freight driver pulled over to help gather the detritus that was your life Before… Even if magical glue could mend you more seamlessly than Humpty Dumpty… You’ve lost bits and pieces of yourself, blown away by the breezes of cleanup or embedded in the tires of already faraway cars.

So how would you reply to the question, “How are you?” while you’re still smeared and strewn and fragmented and incomplete?

Picture this:

I answer the doctor’s questions about my hubby’s medical history. Doctor utters impossible to comprehend, life-shattering words: “I’m sorry to inform you …”

Everything shifts.

Somehow my brain processes the meaning of the doctor’s ongoing words, though my ears hear only wuh-WUH-wuh-wuh vocalizations like adults in Charlie Brown TV specials. My vision zooms onto my daughter’s shocked face as I watch comprehension and disbelief drawing battle lines across her lovely, distorted features. In the same moment, as if I have more than one set of eyes, I notice the way light plays differently in the corners of the ceiling above and behind the doctor’s droning and I squint at the glare of his bald spot. Out of nowhere, a wrecking ball tugs from the base of my skull, its weighted chain confined within my spine, its globe of destruction swinging wildly through my abdomen. I am helpless to console my child, because this cannot be real and it cannot be undone–and how, oh how can I call her sisters 2,000 miles away to tell them–over the phone–they’ll never see their father again?  “So this is what it feels like,” the writer’s voice in my head intrudes, “when you lose your spouse.”

A bit of time passes. Seconds? Minutes? Hours? Impossible to say, but the doctor is still here, saying I don’t know what anymore.

In walks a hospital employee, portable phone in hand. (Soon I’ll learn he’s on the line with someone from the medical examiner’s office to question me.) As his eyes fix on mine, he says, “How’re you doin’?”

I admit my response was impolite.

(Part 2, Better Questions than “How Are You?” —  What to Ask When Grief Is New, will offer alternative questions that show you care.)

Do NOT Tell the Bereaved “Life Goes On.”

Never tell a newly grieving person that “life goes on.”  Don’t.

The first time I heard that after my husband’s death, my breath whooshed away like when a fifth-grade bully punched me in the stomach. If my lungs hadn’t been empty I’d have screamed, “That’s not true!”

It wasn’t — not for my husband. His life did NOT go on.

It wasn’t true for our family, either. Death ended the life we had together. His/Our/My life did NOT “go on” physically, emotionally, financially, legally, socially. It screeched down a slope, plunged over a cliff, and shattered into flying shards.

“Life goes on?” Straightforward, everyday chores nearly undid me! When I entered the grocery store as a new widow, Halloween decorations mocked from everywhere. My heart pounded faster than my thoughts raced. “How can there still be holidays? How can people put up decorations? How dare they depict death and decay and graveyards as fun?”

I took as much offense at the onslaught of every season throughout that year of “first” annual events. Each birthday, anniversary, and holiday that “went on” without my husband scratched nails across the now excruciating chalkboard of occasions by which we had once marked our shared passage through each calendar page.

That life could “go on” normally — for everyone else — seemed cruel.

During those first shocked, raw months, I felt bruised and fettered by day-to-day evidence that — for others — “life went on” around me.

Gradually, as I worked through the motions of “going on,” I felt a brief loosening of those fetters. Sometimes they tightened again, protesting my returns toward living my own life as I faced “new firsts” without him. When I opened my first “Congratulations! Your story has been selected …” notice, I squealed and waved my arms and shouted (just a bit excited, you understand!) and then — and then I wanted to tell my husband … and my mom.

Ouch, again.

But each time I stepped forward, those fetters stretched a little more, and with each new “first” I found their restrictions looser, briefer. Eventually they began resembling bracelets more than manacles, accessories to my life story more than markings of “The End.”

I’ve learned that life does, indeed, go on, that it can be beautiful again. I, however, like every other grieving soul, had to discover it for myself — when I was ready.