Walking on Eggshells When Someone Dies

Does knowing what to say when someone dies feel like walking on eggshells?

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

(Walking on Eggshells photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

You wouldn’t knowingly step barefoot into a kitchen littered with sharp, slippery shells. Who wants to walk on a surface that’s messy at best, hazardous at worst? But you can’t ignore what’s there. Before entering to clean up the unacceptable disorder, you slip your feet into shoes and grab supplies to help you remove the rolling shell-shards and wipe up the white-and-yolk smears.

Mourning friends’ emotions can seem as hard, thin, fragile, slippery, or sharp as broken eggshells, but you shouldn’t ignore them or their loss, either. Please, please enter their grieving space, but tread lightly and bring appropriate resources as you walk with your mourning friends through their emotional eggshells of grieving.

(Before I take this analogy further, let me be the first to admit where it breaks down: You can completely clean and disinfect a floor, making it good as new, like nothing ever spilled there; you CANNOT straighten or sanitize grief. The bereaved who mourn their spouse, child, sibling, parent, cousin — anyone dear to them — will NEVER be the same. Given abundant time and support, they’ll someday learn to function well again and may no longer display the sharp, messy, slimy aftereffects of grieving — but only after they’ve woven and worn-in an all-new carpet to cover the permanently stained, scratched, and scorched surface beneath.)

  • Acknowledge you’re aware your friend is hurting — and that you know you can’t fix their grief. Not even all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and women can fix the breaks of bereavement.
  • Lament the loss and LISTEN. (“I’m so sorry your friends died. I’m here to listen. Would you like to tell me more about her/him/them?”) If your friend says something you disagree with, this is NOT the time to argue. Your role is to be a safe sounding board. Don’t take their short temper or lack of attention personally — it’s not about you when their world has shattered.
  • Pick up the practical pieces you can.* Offer to do specific, tangible tasks (drive carpool, bring groceries or meals, wash laundry or dishes or the dog, mow the lawn, tend the kids, make phone calls …).
  • Wipe up the mess — without judgement. Grief can cause torrential tears, erratic emotions, disrupted digestion,  sickly sleep, distressing distraction … in short, mourning is messy. Bring the softest tissues you can find, offer assistance with upcoming deadlines, invite the bereaved into your circle and activities (without reproach if you’re turned down), and reassure your friends that it’s okay for them to grieve in their own way**.
  • Return often. Grief’s relentlessness is as certain as gravity. Eggs will fall, crack, and roll all over a cleaned kitchen floor. Mourning will hit without warning, cracking life into a fragmented shell of what it once was. As your grieving friend begins to adjust, shock wears away, allowing new waves of grief to resurge as they confront the ongoing realities of living without their loved one.

Tread lightly while stepping alongside your mourning friends, but DO walk with them. And don’t be afraid of the mess as you clean up crushed eggshells with them along the way.

___

*Exercise CAUTION when helping with physical things within the deceased person’s home or office. Do not rush a bereaved person into any decisions, but ALWAYS ASK before throwing away or laundering items. What you may see as an old newspaper to be thrown out, your grieving friend may see as the last crossword puzzle their loved one finished. The pillowcase you wish to strip in order to provide your friend with fresh bedding may contain the last scent of their loved one.

**Everyone grieves differently. Avoid telling your friends they “should” (or shouldn’t) anything. The only exception is if their actions or (inaction) cause immediate or imminent harm to themselves or others.

Wear Blue for Children’s Grief Awareness Day the 3rd Thursday of November

The Children's Grief Awareness Day Hope Butterfly http://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/

The Children’s Grief Awareness Day Hope Butterfly http://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/

Thursday, November 20, 2014 is Children’s Grief Awareness Day. (It’s held every 3rd Thursday of November, the week before Thanksgiving’s 4th Thursday.) To learn more about the event, check out http://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/.

I wear teal 364 days a year, but on Children’s Grief Awareness Day you’ll find me in blue, and I hope you’ll join me. Even professionals who work with children daily need to better understand and be aware of the unique needs of grieving children.

I’ve networked with many, many souls who have lost loved ones. I’d like to share one example of why #CGADHope is so important. I do so with permission, but with key identifying factors altered. In honor of CGAD, I’ll call this widow “Mrs. Blue.”

Mrs. Blue’s husband died early one school year. Understandably, Child Blue’s academic year held many challenges and adjustments. As the first anniversary of Daddy Blue’s death approached, Child Blue faced greater academic and emotional struggles. The fog of new grief was gone, and the real work of grieving was in full swing.

Before school began, Mrs. Blue contacted school officials, attempting to put into place strategies and awareness to help Child Blue weather that grief-strewn time of year. Sadly, the school wouldn’t allow a meeting with all necessary parties until November (ironically, near Children’s Grief Awareness Day), months after the start of the academic year and the first anniversary of Child Blue’s father’s death.

At the meeting, Dr. Clueless, one of the most necessary of the necessary parties, sat down and brusquely said, “I see Child Blue’s grades and attendance started slipping last fall. What happened?”

Mrs. Blue’s jaw dropped. She’d included the “what happened” reason and background information in all the emails and phone calls she’d made since before the school year began. Even the other necessary parties in the room stared at Dr. Clueless. One of them, Ms. Aware, finally answered, saying, “Child Blue’s father died last fall.” (Mrs. Blue still couldn’t speak.)

Without even a perfunctory “sorry-for-your-loss” or “this-must-be-difficult” acknowledgement to Child Blue (whose attendance was required for the school to finally hold the meeting), Dr. Clueless displayed even worse ignorance. Dr. Clueless responded to Ms. Aware’s statement by saying, “Yes, but that was last year. What’s Child’s problem this year?”

True story.

At a follow-up meeting, Mrs. Blue and Dr. Clueless were the only ones in the room before the others arrived. Because of Dr. Clueless’s comments at their prior encounter, Mrs. Blue asked, “Dr. Clueless, have you ever worked with any other children who’ve lost a parent?” She was stunned to learn that Dr. Clueless had, in fact, worked with many, many grieving students over a 20-year period.

How sad that in all those years, Dr. Clueless had not developed an awareness of children’s grief and grieving. How fortunate that Ms. Aware, in far less than half that time, had developed such an awareness.

For more information on ways you can help bereaved children, see my Helpful Resources page or check out last year’s post on the subject, For Grieving Children …