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.

“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, TealAshes.com)

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.)

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*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.)