Fireworks of Grief

July Fourth weekend, 1992. 

Their home phone rang as my parents walked back in the door after visiting Mom’s aunt over the holiday weekend. It was Mom’s doctor — not his staff — on the other end. “Where have you been? We’ve been calling for days. We’ve got you scheduled for surgery.”

Mom hadn’t told me about the biopsy — or even about the lump that prompted it. She hadn’t wanted me to worry. My first inclination of something wrong was when an uncle called to ask me if I’d heard the results. “No,” I’d assured him. “There’s nothing the matter. They’d have told me. You must be mistaken.”

Back in January she’d had her annual exam and mammogram. All was clear. In April she’d seen a small lump in the mirror (it was visible but not palpable) and she’d made an appointment. Her doctor recommended a biopsy. She had the biopsy and left town for the weekend.

The cancerous cells had already burst through all the lymph nodes.

Surgery, radiation, and chemo followed.

My husband and I moved our family from Arizona to Florida to care for her as she recovered while Dad continued working nights. She did well and returned to work.

20150704_multiburst fireworks

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

July Fourth, 1995, after watching the fireworks, we walked in the door and found Mom (who’d stayed home with a slight headache) slumped against the hallway. It was the first visible symptom that breast cancer had resurfaced, this time in her brain and spinal column.

The following week we learned it was terminal.

It’s been 19 years since that second devastating Independence Day. In the intervening years our family sometimes rekindled the positive traditions of early times. After my husband’s illness and death, though, the redoubling of grief made — still makes — the Fourth (like most widowed holidays) harder to manage than it used to be.

It’s not easy to construct new traditions. It’s not easy to “get over” grief when you miss loved ones who “should” be sharing special days. Please be patient with your grieving friends. Invite the bereaved to join you in your celebrations. Ask them about the traditions they cherish. Acknowledge your awareness of them, let them know they are not forgotten, even though they may be alone in their loneliness on Independence Day and other holidays.

On Grief and Recovery: Holiday on the Drive and Stepping Back into Community Tradition

For as many years as we’ve lived in our neighborhood, its main throughway has hosted an annual Holiday on the Drive at the beginning of every December. Last night, after a six-year absence, I returned. (I can’t recall the reason we didn’t attend six years ago, but I’m all too aware of why I stayed away since then — until last night.)

As in years past, no cars hurried north or south. Instead, the street filled with merchant booths and food carts, church outreach tables and school sports boosters, moonwalk castles and live performers. Seasonal lights and decor shone in competition with the brightness of little faces queuing up at the park gazebo to whisper wishes in a certain red-and-white clad, elderly bearded gentleman’s ear. Families and couples strolled, pushing strollers and trailing leashes; teens in twos and threes roamed; babes (and dogs) in arms reached for things they saw (and smelled). Holiday music flowed from speakers and shop doors; horse hooves clip-pe-ty-clopped ahead of a laden carriage; dishes and glassware clinked as waiters called out orders; silvery peals of laughter — especially from the children — tied all the lovely din together.

I saw no holiday sweaters this year in the balmy (73 degrees Fahrenheit) evening air. Even if we’d had a bitter, humid cold snap, like the last time I attended with my husband, the warmth of community camaraderie would have kept me glowing. It, like its predecessors, was a happy, forward-looking event.

And that is why, until last night, I couldn’t face it during the years since my husband died.

It’s easy for most people to understand why we didn’t go while my husband was so ill, even if they didn’t comprehend the nature of his malady. After all, illness is illness, and if you’re too sick to do a thing you shouldn’t be pressured into it. People (for the most part) “get” that. They’d not shake their heads at a feverish person for choosing not to hike in either arid deserts or snowy mountains.

Some friends and neighbors understood why I didn’t — couldn’t — go that first year. Less than three months into widowhood, I was still in shock.

What those outside a family’s grief may not “get” is that grief makes you heartsick.

While I was “fevered” with actively grieving my husband’s loss, I wasn’t capable of stepping into that warm, familiar, comfortable climate of tradition — not without  him. But now, heading into my fourth Christmas season as a widow, the fever has broken, the acute breaks are mending, and I finally felt ready to step back into tradition, albeit stepping at a different pace now.

I kept thinking, as I walked along last night, there was something else I wanted to do, something I ought to do — besides share the night with my husband. At home hours later, I remembered I’d wanted to take a picture. But like many tasks along my widowed journey, I forgot.

Next year I’ll remember to pull out my phone and snap a picture. Maybe I’ll even bring my dog.

Beware of “Happy Halloween” and Other Hazardous Good Wishes

I could scarcely hear the words “happy Halloween,” let alone say them a month after my husband’s death. It felt as if plastic front yard gravestones mocked my recent cemetery experiences. Fake coffin lids lifted by glow-in-the-dark skeletal hands called to mind the most heart-wrenching purchases I’d ever made. And with death on my mind as it uprooted my life, I couldn’t muster even an artistic appreciation for well-applied “rotting corpse” or zombie makeups.

These gruesome decorations weren’t to blame for my aversion to the cheery greeting (though they certainly didn’t help).

Take your grieving friends some favorite candy (or a healthier treat) to show you're thinking of them, but consider skipping the "Happy Halloween" greeting.

Take your grieving friends some favorite candy (or a healthier treat) to show you’re thinking of them, but consider skipping the “happy Halloween” greeting.

How could it be a “happy Halloween” without my husband? He’d doted on our kids’ annual costuming, and we’d worn more-or-less matching tacky jack-o-lantern shirts most of our 24 years together.

Facing that first quasi-holiday after he died forced me to realize our annual  family traditions would never be the same. In that first year, I wondered whether any such celebrations could ever be “happy” again.

I braced myself against each turn of the calendar. We muddled our way through that first year, altering some traditions, discarding others, and auditioning new activities for tradition-worthiness. Some were outright flops. Others became instant new favorites.

Month by month, my daughters and I found new joys to anticipate.

Along the way to finding those new joys, during that difficult year of “firsts” I appreciated the thoughtful good wishes which acknowledged awareness of our changed circumstances.

Some helpful salutations included:

  • “May you be blessed this Thanksgiving. We’re thinking of you.”
  • “We hope your Christmas will be filled with fond memories.”
  • “May the New Year bring you hope and healing.”
  • “I’m guessing this will be a tough Valentine’s Day. Hang in there.”
  • “Thinking of you with love this Easter season.”
  • “I know you’ll miss your husband this Father’s Day.”
  • “Treat yourself with kindness on your birthday.”
  • “I’ll be thinking of you on your 25th anniversary” (my first as a widow).

As I worked through the raw pain of that first year’s grief and headed into the next, I became better able to handle more trite salutations like “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year.”

(I’m still not fond of “happy Halloween,” though, no matter how cute the trick or treaters.)