Healing and Grief — “Well under Way” or Not?

A  reporter covering one of the funerals for a victim of the Pulse nightclub shooting a couple of days ago said “healing is well under way.”

I disagree. 

photo provided by and with permission of https://www.instagram.com/harmonyebee/ #OrlandoUnited #OrlandoStrong

photo at Orlando vigil provided by and with permission of harmonyebee #OrlandoUnited #OrlandoStrong

I don’t dispute that in the wake of this tragedy, kindness and generosity abound. The outpourings of support proclaiming #OrlandoUnited and #OrlandoStrong reveal facets of the goodness surrounding my city and, in fact, the world.

That’s as it should be, and it will aid future healing.

But this — scarcely a week later — is far too soon to say “healing is well under way.”

Grieving is a journey without shortcuts. Mourning takes time, but right now, the traumatized and injured survivors and the victims’ families are in shock. (As a community, we all are.)

The grief that comes with the first onslaught of knowing your loved one has died is a loud, brutal bullying earthquake. It rattles your body and soul so hard you are forever altered. You may resemble yourself on the outside, but you know that’s not you anymore. The cells inside you have tumbled, twisted, crumpled into positions and shapes nature never intended.

That kind of upheaval takes time to recognize, time to adjust to, time to heal into. Note, please, that I said “heal into,” not “heal from.”

When author C.S. Lewis’s wife died, he vented his grief in a series of journals meant only for himself. Later published as A Grief Observed, it was one of the most healing, cathartic books I read after my husband died. The agony Lewis poured unfiltered onto the pages reflected the scattered, shattered state of my own emotions.

He compared grieving his wife to an amputation. In time the wound itself would stop bleeding, the tissues would seal, and he would learn new ways of “walking” as a widower — but that accustomed limb would always be absent, and that different way of moving about would never be the same.

He would heal but never again be whole.

How long before it’s acceptable to say Orlando’s “healing is well under way”?  I can answer only with another question: How long does it take to heal from the sudden, traumatic, much-publicized loss of your loved one? (Go on. Pick a figure. Decide how long you think it might take until you’re healed or “over it.” Double it. Double it again. For good measure, triple it. You might be getting closer — or not.)

My mother died as peacefully as possible after a brave and dignified battle with cancer over 20 years ago. My husband died without warning due to medical causes never fully identified over five years ago.  I no longer actively mourn them every day, but for years I did.

For years.

Every day.

I think I’d been widowed about a year and a half before I realized — for the first time — I hadn’t cried over him that day (which realization, of course, made me cry again). A year and a half.

To say “healing is well under way” at less than two weeks is inaccurate at best, injurious at worst. No one should be made to feel rushed in their grieving or as if they’re “failing” by not following another’s expectations.

My life now is rich and full and I love it — though five-plus years later I still face obstacles and hurdles my late husband’s death raised, challenges which, frankly, I’d much rather not have to deal with.

And there will always be days and dates that make “healed” wounds ache and reboot the pain of loss — like Father’s Day, with the father of my children no longer alive, or my would-have-been-30th wedding anniversary next month …

For mourning families and friends, for recovering injured (and traumatized) survivors, for the LGBTQ community who were targeted by the evil shooter, for the employees at Pulse and surrounding businesses, for the first responders and medical personnel, for the greater Orlando area at large — life will never be the same again.

In time and with nurturing care, there will be healing, and every kind act aligns us in that direction.

But it does take time. If you know someone who has lost a loved one, find out birthdays and other significant dates. Enter them in your calendar. And commit to keep reaching out — not just now when the tremors are still visible but in the weeks, months, and even years to come — when mourners are settling into their shifted foundations.

Your long-term acknowledgment will help healing begin to get better under way.



Friends and Grief

“Your address book will change,” another widow told me.

Will you write yourself into or fade away from your grieving friends' address books? (photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Will you write yourself into or fade away from your grieving friends’ address books?
(photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

“What do you mean?”

“Some of the people you thought would always be there for you … won’t. They’ll disappear.”

My mind replayed one of the most-heard phrases at and after the funeral: “Call if you need anything.” I’d known the people saying it meant the sentiment (or at least thought they did). But while I nodded acknowledgement of their intention, I also knew — really knew — I wouldn’t call. I couldn’t.

“It’s not their fault,” I told my widow friend. “They’d be here if I asked.”

As if she read my mind, she said, “And how many have you asked?”

My silence answered.

“I get it,” she said. “As much as you need people around you, it’s physically and emotionally impossible to reach out to gather them to you. It takes every bit of energy just to muster the have-to calls for paying the bills and tending to all the business-of-death matters.”

“You mean it’s not just me?” I’d thought I was especially weak and inept at dealing with the aftermath of my husband’s death.

“Teresa, it’s hard for everybody,” she said, “but this is still early for you.  I don’t know anybody who could call people back if they needed anything so soon. It took me a couple of years. You’re only a couple months out, still in shock.”

Two months, one week, and three days, I corrected in my head, incapable of turning off the infernal count ticking off the time since he died. “It seems like it’s been forever, but it also feels like it just happened.”

“Have any of your friends tried to make you feel like you should be ‘over it’ by now?”

Frustrating memories surfaced: The first time (a whole 36 hours after he died) when someone said, “Don’t worry about anything. You’re young enough to remarry.” The people who (the day of the funeral) pressed to know what my immediate, short-term, and long-term future plans were now. The woman who (about six weeks after he died) insisted, “I wish you wouldn’t cry anymore. I makes me feel sad to see your tears.” (To her credit, she apologized soon after.)

“After the funeral,” my widow friend continued, “your friends’  lives went back to normal. But yours will never be the way it was before. They can’t understand, not unless they’ve also lost someone as much a part of your life as your husband was to you. They’re not trying to shut you out. They’re just … getting on with their lives.”

I nodded. I’d learned to scroll past friends’ status updates about sweet marital bliss — or stupid squabbles — that sliced and salted my grief. How unfair. Don’t they know they should be grateful for what they still have? But it still hurt to see illustrations that “life went on” for them when it hadn’t for me. (Side note: Never say “life goes on” to anyone grieving. Just don’t.)

“And then there are the ones who step away because they’re too uncomfortable around your pain.”

I let out a brief, one-syllable bark-laugh, thinking of the neighbor who instead of waving hello now turned away at the sight of me.

“But you’re going to make some amazing new friends, too. And there will be people you didn’t know well who will reach out with compassion that makes up for the others’ neglect.”

“You’re right.” I smiled and nodded at thoughts of those who’d reached out, people I’d known only casually before: A note card in the mail. Text check-ins. Dinners (or desserts) dropped off. Emails. His angelversary date acknowledged. 

I’ve reflected on that conversation many times since. It reminded me of a song round I learned as a Girl Scout:

Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.

Dear new friends have shown up and written themselves into my life’s address book in gold and silver inks during the five-plus years since my husband died. My life now is richer for knowing them.

Among my friends who mourn, I understand why some have erased entries from their contacts. Rejection and neglect are painful at any stage of life, but they are brutal while grieving. If a trusted friend criticizes or ignores your bereavement, why continue to rely on them?

For my part, I didn’t trust my own grief-shrouded judgement enough to erase the time-worn entries from my contacts. Even when I was too wounded to reach out to them. Meanwhile, those who didn’t ink themselves into my widowed life have faded: gold to silver to ink to pencil.

In future, who knows? Maybe one of those barely legible names will tell me a story of my husband or let one of my kids know they remember their dad. If so, the faded lines will become traced over, easier to distinguish.

Even if they don’t ink themselves back into my treasured contacts, I’ll keep them written there.  If I could rewrite the world to exclude grief, I would. But I can’t. So I’ll try to remember when faded contacts’ time comes to join the ranks of those who “get” grief.

I’ll try to reach out, because there’s no such thing as too many friends — even faded, friendly acquaintances — when you’re grieving.



Why Daylight Savings Time (Still) Gives Me (More) Grief

I don’t know anyone who likes the twice a year body-clock havoc wrought by Daylight Savings Time. I never did — even before my husband’s death.

I thought it would get easier with time, but here I am, not long before the “official” hour to reset my clocks, writing about how much this spring’s time change “still” hurts. This will be my eighth widowed shifting of the digits. I thought I’d be used to it “by now.”

Changing my clocks hurts for two main reasons. The first is as personal to me as my grief is (and let me be clear — all grief is personal). The second applies to bereavement in general.

My husband was a stickler for timepiece accuracy. I am not. He liked having the seconds on the clock line up with “official” time. I prefer clocks set at least three minutes early to nudge myself toward being on time. Our first Daylight Savings Time weekend as newlyweds brought confusion — and comedy — as we both set and reset our few shared timepieces. As the number of clocks in our household grew over the next 24 years, so did our semi-annual scramble to set them according to his time or mine. It became a twice-yearly game (except when we lived in sensible, non-DST Arizona), and it was a fun prelude to the discomfort of adjusting our sleep-wake cycles.

The first time I changed our clocks by myself after he died felt wrong. It felt like cheating on our game. I couldn’t bring myself to change them all. How I wanted to walk into each room and find that room’s clock set to exactly the right time!

It felt just as improper the following spring — and the fall after, and the spring and fall after that. It felt equally wrong last spring and fall. It still feels awful.

Tonight’s anticipation of Daylight Savings Time brings me to the second, more general reason why DST and Standard Time changes make “the grief monster” more fierce.

When grief is new, every event that marks the passage of time — including the semi-annual time change — lands like a portcullis between life Before and life After the loved one’s death. Each event is a mile marker documenting the ever-increasing distance separating one soul from another.

With time markers such as holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries of all sorts, there are usually emotional histories and future plans connecting them. They each carry a particular pain of their own. But the regular shift from Standard to Daylight Savings Time happens year after year after year … just because legislators decided it should.

For those less new to their grief, it’s true that time will help it become less raw, but don’t try to tell them that unless they ask. Instead, listen to them. “In time” their grief will become seasoned. “With time” their grief will soften. “Over time” their grief can heal–but only in the way a deep, lacerating cut can heal — with a big, permanent scar. “Recovering” from bereavement doesn’t mean the bereaved will ever be able to turn back time to life Before, but it does mean they’ll someday be able to “spring forward.”

“Springing” may be a bit much. Reassure your mourning friends they’ll eventually move forward when they’re ready. Meanwhile, even “inching forward” shows progress.

Grief Can’t Tell Time, but It Obsesses over Calendars (Part 1)

Grief can’t tell time, but it obsesses — I repeat — obsesses over calendars. It highlights dates better than a Fortune 500 CEO’s social secretary. Grief tracks anniversaries better than hungry jungle cats on a grey-muzzled gazelle tending a newborn.

I thought I was going crazy. Without hesitation I answered anyone who asked me how long it had been. I told them exactly how long since my husband died.

My answers unnerved people, but I wasn’t sure which aspect disturbed them.  Was it because I already knew the answer (perhaps I’d channeled my inner-psychic to anticipate and answer their question)? Or was it because my too precise answer was detailed to the point of confusion?

I couldn’t answer a simple, “It’s been four months,” and leave it at that.  No, I had to say, “It’s been 4 months and 2 days (if you go by the date) but it’s been 4 months and 5 days (if you go by which week of the month and day of the week it is). If you’re counting a month as 4 weeks , then it’s been 4 1/4 months, plus another 5 days, but it might be easier to call it 4 months and 12 days.”

(By this point the kind soul who’d bravely addressed the calendar-crazed widow probably remembered the snarky adage that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Mistaking my pause for an end while searching for escape , my poorly rewarded friend would back away slowly, probably recalling Boy and Girl Scout merit badges earned for escape from rabid creatures. Avoid eye contact. Don’t make sudden moves. If bitten, seek immediate medical attention!)

Alas for my friend, I’d paused only to catch my breath. “It’s really been more than 4 months, because that night of the 3rd week of the month was earlier this week and because the date of the week was a couple of days ago. It’s actually been 17 weeks and 5 days. But it’s  been 124 days, so that makes it more like 4 months and 4 days, counting 30 days per month.”

As much as I needed and appreciated hearing the question, the same person seldom asked “How long has it been?” twice. (Can’t imagine why …)

From this side of a little over 3 years later (Aren’t you relieved I left it vague this time?), it sounds a little nutty.  Okay, I admit it sounds nuttier than a jumbo bag of mixed varieties, most with slightly cracked shells.

It was obsessive, yes, but here’s the part you need to understand for the sake of your grieving friend:

My compulsive calendar counting  was as normal as  it was essential.

It wasn’t until I connected with a network of thousands of young widows and widowers that I realized it wasn’t morbid for me to know — and yet be confused by — the exact number of days, weeks, and months that had passed. I wasn’t alone in my obsession over “how long” it had been! I. Wasn’t. Alone.

It took time — more than 17 months (or more than 68 weeks, or  476 days …) — before I understood why this was so important and automatic for me (and perhaps for the others).

Think of traveling before September 11, 2001. Now think of the trauma of that day (or any other “big” date that impacted your life). Think of traveling immediately after that day as compared to today.

Everything changed.

The loss of my husband did that. It destroyed my internal packing and security checklists. It rummaged through my heart’s luggage and tossed it onto the Tarmac. It permanently rewrote my itinerary.  Everything shifted into the Departure column. Grief reset my life schedule.

No wonder my brain couldn’t let it go.

Grief Can’t Be Scheduled

Grief can’t be scheduled.

When it comes to timetables for how long a person will grieve in a particular way, there’s one rule that applies to everyone: there is no timetable.

Processing grief takes as long as it takes and can’t be rushed — so don’t try to speed it along.

When you want to comfort or support someone whose loved one has died, avoid making comments like:

“Are you feeling better yet?”
“I thought you’d be more like yourself by now.”
When are you going to get over it?”
“Why haven’t you already …  [anything!]?
“Are you still sad?”
“But you were doing better, so why are you having a hard time again?”

These and other “time trigger” words indicate disapproval to the bereaved. Hearing your expectations of what you think they “should” feel or accomplish does not motivate or inspire grieving survivors toward healing. Rather, it reinforces the enormity of change wrought in their lives. Consider, for a moment, what the bereaved have been doing with their time and energy.

Working through the emotional pain of grief is exhausting. In the earliest weeks and months after my husband’s death, getting out of bed in the morning or, more often, rolling off the couch (as most nights I couldn’t face our empty bed) took as much physical strength and concentration as I could muster. Not that I’d slept much or well in either place. Showering and putting on clean clothes was daunting. Remembering to fill my lungs and to empty my water glass on a regular basis required excruciating effort. On top of that, I took on the legal and financial tasks of closing his accounts and tending to all the “costs of death.” (If you haven’t done this, I’m glad for you. If you have, you’re wincing now, aren’t you?) Most importantly, I was a widowed parent — all the responsibilities of parenting were mine alone.

In summary, I didn’t sleep, seldom remembered to eat or drink, and shouldered sole responsibility for upkeep of finances, house, yard, and car — as well as my far more important daughter (and the dog). I was mourning the loss of my husband and all our future plans.  I was mourning the loss of my children’s father and all that they were mourning, too.

So on days when I managed to arise from a soft surface, wash my face and brush my hair, slip into appropriate attire, and venture into public, I felt pretty good about my accomplishments! Until I met someone who greeted me with their expectation of my “recovery” timetable.

Then I just wanted to crawl back to bed.

When you talk with your grieving friends, tell them you’re proud of them for whatever they have achieved — no matter how small it may seem to you. Let them know it’s okay they’re feeling whatever emotions are roiling at the moment. Reassure them they’ll get wherever they wish to go whenever the time is right for them.

You might just leave them with a smile that keeps them out of bed for the day.

(And if your distraught friend needs a day to climb back into pajamas, hand over your teddy bear.)