First Anniversary of Grief after Pulse Shootings

One year ago, June 12, 2016, a man with evil, hateful intent entered Pulse nightclub in my Orlando hometown and shot into the crowd of innocent friends and family members enjoying a night of dancing. Of the many he struck down that night, 49 never rose again.

In the weeks and months following that cowardly assault, local manifestations of support showed humankind at its best: Donations poured into the OneOrlando Fund for the shooting victims and their families. Murals, T-shirts, and business markees displayed messages of encouragement and unity. Scholarships honored the memories of the fallen. Neighbors stood alongside strangers in solidarity while acknowledging differences.

Painting outside Orlando’s Zebra Coalition honors the 49 who died in the Pulse shooting (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Media coverage — initially 24-7 — ebbed over the year but has resurged as we’ve approached the first anniversary.  Much has been tasteful and sensitive, though I observed one broadcaster recently say something that revealed a fundamental lack of understanding about grief: “As the anniversary approaches,” the person said, “it may even be possible some Pulse families and survivors will feel upset again.”  (I’ve written that in quotes, but I paraphrased the actual words to avoid embarrassing the speaker.)

One fallacy of that statement is the implication that mourners might be upset again about their loved ones’ deaths — as if they’d had ample time to no longer be upset about it. But grieving, adjusting, and building new lives takes much, much longer than a mere 12 months. Even when, eventually, surviving loved ones manage to move forward in life without the deceased present in their lives, the absence will remain present and painful in survivors’ hearts.

The other fallacy in that well-meaning newscaster’s statement assumed that some Pulse families (and therefore not all) will find the first anniversary difficult.  From the thousands of mourners I’ve interacted with, all expressed increased anxiety, sorrow, anger, irritability, and longing for their deceased loved ones in the days leading toward the first anniversary after death. All. Even among those whose deaths were peaceful and anticipated, the first anniversary brought with it more pain than resolution. Where death occurred via such senseless, hate-infused violence as was inflicted at Pulse, mourners’ minds and bodies especially rebel at reliving the date when their loved ones died.

With rare exceptions, grieving individuals and families find reaching the first anniversary of a loved one’s death offers an elusive, hoped-for, impossible, unfulfilled promise of relief from the bitter agony of bereavement. The hope is that if one makes it through that horrendous first year, one will be okay from then on. 

The reality comes as an aftershock when the bereaved realize the beginning of the second year often brings renewed heartache and struggles in coping. Compounding the difficulty is the perception — and assertion — by friends and coworkers that mourners should be better by now or get on with their lives already. (If you hear such thoughts trying to work themselves into your words, erase them!)

For soul mates and partners, parents and siblings, cousins and other kin (by blood or law or choice), when it comes to the first year, grieving will never be one and done. Neither should the support and encouragement we offer, which should remain ongoing for as long as the loved ones are missed.

In other words, it’s never too late to let survivors know you are aware of their loss, and it’s never too late to show you care.

Full width of painting outside Zebra Coalition (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

How to Help after a Death

The death of a loved one shocks those left behind. Whether the loss is anticipated after long illness or utterly unexpected, the bereaved are seldom emotionally prepared. Even those who knew death was coming (and already made final arrangements) have no idea of the overwhelming tasks to be done after a loved one’s passing. Many can’t be delegated, but friends, neighbors, and coworkers can — and should — offer help where possible.

Within minutes or hours, new mourners must answer overwhelming questions and make difficult decisions:

  • Will organs (or the body) be donated for transplants and/or study?
  • What were the circumstances of the death? The day(s) leading up to it? (If death wasn’t expected, police and/or the medical examiner’s office may demand ones far-reaching, deeply personal answers.)
  • Who will move the person’s remains — and to where?
  • Who should make such decisions? (Does anyone know if there’s a will and/or an appointed executor?)

The deceased might have expressed clear, final wishes before his or her death. Those left behind must deal with implementing — or ignoring — such requests.

Within hours or days, survivors must create or enact plans: 

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Will the loved one’s body be buried or cremated? Where? When?
  • Will there be a private or public memorial service before the body’s disposal? After?
  • If so, will there be an open-casket viewing?
  • Will survivors hold a formal service in a church, synagogue, or mortuary? Or will they gather informally inside a private home (whether that of the deceased or of survivors or friends)? Or will they meet at a park, restaurant, beach, roadside …?
  • Who will arrange — and pay for — all this?
  • Who needs to be notified for personal reasons? How can they be reached? Who will tell them, and how much (or how little) will be shared about the circumstances of the death?
  • Who needs to be notified for financial and/or legal reasons (partners, employers, employees, suppliers, customers …)?

Please note: These decisions belong to those closest to the deceased (those in the innermost rings of grief ). The role of everyone else is not to second-guess but to support. If you disagree with the way or the timing or the manner of their choices, I’m sorry, but it’s not your place to say so. (The adage “least said, soonest mended” fits.)

Within hours or days, loved ones must also address legal matters: 

  • custody and care of surviving dependents (children, disabled adults, elderly relatives, pets)
  • payments of debts (mortgages, car payments, credit cards, medical bills yet to arrive …)
  • payment of and transferal of ongoing accounts including rent, utilities, health insurance for survivors …
  • notification of life insurance companies, if applicable
  • notification of banks or credit unions
  • notification of federal agencies (e.g., the U.S. Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service)
  • notification of credit bureaus (to prevent scumbags from accessing the deceased person’s credit, etc.)

And who knows where such information is? If bills were paid electronically, does the family know how to access the accounts? Will linked accounts for auto-pay bills contain enough to meet immediate, ongoing needs?

Meanwhile, while the loved one’s life has ended, survivors’ lives must go on. But don’t say that. I repeat — DO NOT say “life goes on” to the survivors. Instead, help them. You can:

  • Pick up and drop off
    • meals and snacks
    • groceries
    • prescriptions
    • kids in carpool
    • relatives flying in and out
    • dry cleaning
    • paper goods (tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, disposable plates …)
    • gift cards and/or cash
    • notes of love and awareness
  • Pitch in
    • wash clothes* and bedding* (PLEASE see note at bottom!)
    • do dishes*
    • bathe pets
    • clean the car
    • take the trash out
    • clean and shine the family’s shoes*
    • rake, water, or weed the yard
    • sweep the front porch or wash the windows
    • read to, play with, and offer to babysit children
    • listen
    • house-sit during publicly advertised services
  • Make a list — a notebook with pockets and dividers might be helpful
    • local funeral homes, services, prices (It will be easier for you to make such calls and create a comparison list than for your friends while they’re newly grieving.)
    • contact information (phone, website, and physical addresses) for tending to
      • motor vehicle title(s)
      • house deed/rental agreement(s)
      • bank and credit card accounts
      • utilities (electricity, water, gas, phone, internet …)
      • subscriptions (newspaper, magazines, movie services …)
      • insurance companies (auto, health, life …)
      • credit bureaus (to prevent identity theft)

Please note: Only the closest, most trusted individuals — if any — should help in any way that involves actual account numbers. Keep an eye out for anyone who may take advantage of mourners’ vulnerable, distracted states of mind.

    • due dates and amounts of recurrent bills to be paid (monthly, quarterly, annually)
    • local grief support services and resources for now or for later (Check with area hospices and faith-based groups for starting points.)
    • names, contact information, and offers of people who say, “Let me know if I can help with …”

Please note: If you offer, follow up. Don’t wait for the grieving person to call you, because most can’t muster the energy no matter how badly they need to.

    • the kindnesses done by friends, family, neighbors, coworkers …
    • things remembered about the deceased — stories, anecdotes, personality quirks …
  • Return to the top of this list and repeat.

As much as grieving friends need your support in the hours, days, and weeks immediately after a death, mourners also need loving, practical support in the long, lonely months (and years) that follow.

*Before washing any items worn or used by the person who died, PLEASE ask to make sure that will be welcome. If in doubt, don’t. (Many survivors take comfort from holding and smelling items which remind them of their loved one.)

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.

 

 

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.

 

Good Grief, Halloween! (It’s Not All Good)

For anyone mourning recent losses, Halloween can be painful. Good, clean, costumed, candy-consuming fun too often fades behind gruesome, in-your-face depictions of morbid, glorified, sinister portrayals.

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Pumpkin (Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Halloween was the first store-pushed celebration after my husband’s death. With newly widowed eyes, my gut clenched at the fake tombstones, skeleton parts, and decayed zombie costumes shouting from store shelves and “decorating” — but certainly not enhancing — my neighborhood.

Don’t these people know my husband died?

Of course they didn’t know (except when I blurted it to store clerks who’d made the mistake of greeting me with rushed variations of “how’re-you-today” which they’d not really meant to ask). The whole world, it seemed, went back to normal after his funeral — the whole world except for me and my grieving household.

If your friends have just buried a loved one, they aren’t likely to nominate your plastic cemetery and zombie yard decorations for lawn-of-the-month. If they’re mourning loved ones who died by violent means, they will not thank or applaud you for costumes and makeup which call injuries to mind.

I once met a couple whose entire home — outside and inside, every room — could have furnished the gift shop inventory for a haunted house, spook alley, or nightmare on any street. From my new, widowed perspective, I couldn’t help wondering what one of them will someday think when surviving the other and walking through their once-shared front door. What will their prominently displayed tombstones and bones and coffins and skeletons mean then? Perhaps they will offer continuity and connection to items once loved by their departed beloved. But perhaps not …

Everyone reacts differently to bereavement. Children, for example, often cling to continuity after a loved one dies. The same activity, such as trick-or-treating, which agonizes one family member may act as a bridge between bereaved upheaval and tradition’s normalcy for another.

Instead of wishing your grieving friends a “happy Halloween,” invite them into your life. Invite their children to go trick-or-treating along with yours (especially if the adults aren’t up to it). Invite teenagers to costume parties. Invite the adults, too.

If  they turn you down, don’t take it personally. They may not be able to abide socializing or celebrating in any way for a while yet. But they’ll appreciate that you wanted to include and acknowledge them. Try asking them again next time. And the next.

But please, at Halloween, be thoughtful about your costume and decor. And the car you park outside your door.

Words failed me when I saw this van. Perhaps its owner had good reasons for affixing a skeleton to the front and including another inside. Perhaps they had good reasons for the splashes of red paint. (Although I can't imagine what those good reasons may be ... I snapped this photo in August, long before Halloween's approach.)

Words failed me when I saw this van. Perhaps its owner had good reasons for affixing a skeleton to the front and including another inside. Perhaps they had good reasons for the splashes of red paint. Although I can’t imagine what those good reasons may be … I snapped this in August, long before Halloween’s approach. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

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Beware of “Happy Halloween” and Other Hazardous Good Wishes

Halloween Grief

Belated Halloween Reprise (including a link to Megan Divine’s HuffPost Healthy Living “Halloween and Grief: When the Nightmare Is Real“)

 

When Should Mourners Move On?

When should the bereaved stop talking about their deceased loved ones or their grief? I’ll answer by posing more questions.

When your friends got married, did you tell them to stop speaking of their husband or wife a few weeks or months after the wedding? Do you tell coworkers to remove family pictures from their workplaces or stop mentioning their kids once they’ve left babyhood, elementary school, or the nest? When lifelong friends announce their move to another state, do you vow to never communicate with — or about — them again?

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Of course not. To do so would be insensitive at best, rude at worst.

Marriage, childbirth, relocation — these are tremendous life changes, life-altering conditions. Once entered into, life for the participants becomes different than it was before, with birthdays, anniversaries, and physical reminders inextricable ongoing reminders. People expect and understand their conversations and preoccupations will center around those changes. After all, once a parent, always a parent …

So why force such expectations on mourners?

The death of a dear one marks another monumental shift in a person’s life and outlook. When a beloved one’s life ends, surviving loved ones’ lives are forever altered, with bereaved birthdays, agonizing anniversaries, and physical reminders both present and absent all around them.

Yet people outside the immediate, inner circle of loss may soon grow tired of the grief their friends express (whether in words, attitudes, or behaviors). Worse, they sometimes tell the grieving to “get over it” or “move on.”

But love and loss are inextricably entwined — so what mourners hear from such comments is “stop loving the one who died … and stop talking about it.”

Before you feel tempted to chime in on another’s grief, ask yourself why you feel compelled to comment:

  • Are you truly worried for your friend, sorry to see them living in a place of such sorrow, and hoping to comfort and lift them from it? If so, that’s admirable, but offering them a nonjudgmental, listening ear will enable them to better process their grieving.
  • Or are you tired of hearing about their sadness because it makes you uncomfortable, opening up fears of what it will be like when you face a similar loss? If so, let yourself dwell a little deeper in those fears. I guarantee you won’t be able to image how hard grieving will be, but if you really, really think about it, you might develop just enough empathy to realize how much understanding your grieving friend needs.

How long will it take to “get over” grief? Well, how long does it take to “get over” love?

It has now been nearly 21 years since my mother died — 21 years, and I still miss her! And yes, I still cry sometimes, wishing I could have her love and advice here with me again — not just the memory of it.

It’s been six years since my husband died. I don’t cry every day anymore — though I did for a long, long time (over a year) — but certain dates (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays), songs, or conversations still trigger tears. Perhaps they always will.

I’d just as soon skip September if I could only figure out how. Green Day sings it best: “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (from their album American Idiot).

That doesn’t mean my life hasn’t moved forward in good, positive ways — it has! — but it illustrates that grief is a complicated process, one lasting long after the funeral.

 

Don’t Speak Ill of the Dead

For centuries, social decency taught: “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” It should make obvious sense: Don’t complain to a widow that her late husband was a lout. Don’t shush crying, orphaned children that they’ll be better off without their neglectful parents. Don’t tell a bereaved father his son would have messed things up worse if he’d have lived.

Use caution if you're about to say something unkind about the deceased. You'll need to stop soon.

Use caution if you’re about to say something unkind about the deceased. You’ll need to stop soon. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Don’t say good riddance about the death of someone else’s dear one — even if you think it’s true.

Perhaps the widow mentioned above would be the first to agree her late husband was a lout. If so, it’s her right to say it — when and if she’s ready — not anyone else’s.

Perhaps orphaned children themselves, whatever their ages, recognize they’re better off forever freed from their parents’ neglectful (or even harmful) pseudo-care. If so, it’s their right to say it — when and if they’re ready — not anyone else’s*.

Perhaps the bereaved father himself will believe his son wouldn’t have amounted to anything. If so, it’s that father’s right to say it — when and if he’s ready — not anyone else’s.

It’s true one-on-one with people you know, and it’s true on a larger scale with people you know about.

When a public figure passes — celebrity, activist, politician, criminal, terrorist —  it’s easy (perhaps too easy) to jump onto social media and chime in. Oh, what a loss! The world will miss them! or, in the case of a person of infamy,  Oh, it’s about time. Too bad they didn’t go sooner

For the most part, these public figures chose to live in a way that made their comings, goings, achievements, or even atrocities matters of public record; those actions are open to public scrutiny. Their deaths, however, belong first and foremost to their families and closest friends. Private grief supersedes public accolades and animosity.

When someone famous dies, whether it was a person I admired or a person whose actions I loathed, my first thought is for their family and friends; they’ve lost someone important to them.

Speaking ill of the dead doesn’t harm the deceased, but it does inflict cruel, additional pain on their survivors.

Historians will sort the late heroes from villains. For the sake of their surviving friends and family, the rest of us should bite our tongues (or sit on our fingertips) if we’re tempted to say anything that’s neither consoling nor kind.

stopinlotbyteresatlbruce

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*Bereaved children should receive access to counseling with a licensed therapist who specializes in children’s grief. Adult caretakers should encourage kids to express their feelings without imposing adult judgement or views on the children’s perceptions.