Super Bowl, Super Grief

Super Bowl 50 may be a big deal to some folks out there, but for those who are grieving it may or may not matter. If you have friends who’ve lost loved ones within the last couple of years (or so), keep in mind:

  1. Invite grieving friends to watch the big game at your house with you.

    This is the most Super Bowl that gets watched at my house.

    This is the kind of Super Bowl that gets watched at my house.

  2. If you and yours don’t watch the Super Bowl, invite your grieving friends to join you in whatever you do — or don’t.
  3. If you’re having a tailgating party, invite them there.
  4. Mourning leaves people feeling bronco-bucked. They may need to immerse themselves in occasional fun to escape their pain for a while.
  5. Grieving makes your friends feel panther-mauled. They may need to curl up in their dens to recover in solitude.
  6. Living after losing a loved one is harder than you know, so cut them a bit of slack. Mourners may need a replay or do-over.
  7. Crowds storm the field after the game, but eventually the stadium empties. Well-wishers surround the bereaved up until the funeral, but eventually everyone else goes home, leaving the bereaved alone in their loss.
  8. When you’ve lost the highest-stakes championship — with death on the line — getting riled up over a football game can seem pointless.
  9. Mourners need fans to cheer them on with encouragement and support — whether they seem ahead of their game or whether they seem to be running behind.
  10. After the game, the losing team needs fan support and continued training. After the funeral, bereaved friends need ongoing support, too.
  11. If you’ve already asked mourning friends to join you but they said, “No thanks,” ask again (GENTLY). Invite them to change their minds at any time.
  12. Honoring traditions (such as pre-game parties with friends) can make the bereaved feel more connected to their departed loved ones and their living friends.
  13. Honoring those same traditions can make the bereaved feel more disconnected from their dead loved ones and their living friends.
  14. Mourners can feel happy and involved with their friends while also feeling sad and isolated from their friends at the same time in the middle of a party.
  15. Not being invited because they’ve lost loved ones makes mourners feel like they’re being unfairly punished.
  16. Just because your friends have lost loved ones doesn’t mean they can’t laugh at funny things. Sometimes mourners need to laugh.
  17. Laughing while mourning can feel so good it makes you cry.
  18. If players are sidelined due to injuries, they need medical treatment but still belong to the team; if mourners are sidelined by grief, they’re still your friends — so treat them that way.
  19. Sometimes players’ numbers are retired, never to be worn again; people sometimes see that as sad, but the team carries on with new players signed on. Mourning friends’ loved ones have gone beyond retirement, never to play or work or interact again; their family team will never, ever be the same.
  20. Super Bowl teams train and work out long before they set foot on the televised field in front of the world. Whether mourner’s have advance notice of bereavement’s demands  or they’re tackled by it without warning, grievers often feel vulnerable under spectators’ scrutiny.
  21. Mourners don’t need would-be coaches who’ve never mourned their loss telling them how to play through their grief.
  22. If you haven’t already asked your grieving friends to join you for the game, it’s not too late. (If you’re reading this after the game, it’s still not too late to get together doing something — anything — else!)
  23. Game day snacks might be the most wholesome meal your mourning friend has eaten since their loved one died. (Mourning appetites are weird.)
  24. Players sidelined with concussions are never told to get back out on the field to play again too soon. People concussed by the death of a life partner (or other loved one) should also never be told to get back out into relationship fields to play again too soon. (They’ll know when — and/or if — they’re ready again, so don’t give your input UNLESS they ask.)
  25. Tailgating means shopping ahead and prepping food before the big event; mourners may have trouble shopping or prepping food at all.
  26. Even if you don’t usually invite friends over for the Super Bowl, please invite your bereaved friends anyway. You don’t have to do anything fancy; just being there as a friend will help.
  27. Have a box of tissues nearby for commercials. Sometimes touching ads will touch off emotions of grief. Let your friends know you are okay with them expressing their feelings.
  28. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk (grieving or not). So don’t. Ever.
  29. Whether your friends lost their loved ones recently or long ago, keep in mind that annual events may strengthen and stir up traumatic losses.
  30. Last-minute invitations are better than no invitations at all. If you haven’t already done it, please, call, text, or message your grieving friends — NOW.

Whether you’re reading this hours or minutes before the big game, halfway through it, or long after, tell mourning friends you’re thinking of them. Acknowledge that even though they may feel alone, they aren’t forgotten and they don’t have to be alone all the time.

Let them know you care.

Grief Therapy and a Friend’s Counsel

A  few weeks after my husband’s death, a woman I hadn’t seen in years suggested I meet with a grief therapist. “My mom went to counseling after her husband died,” my friend told me, “and it made a world of difference for her. Counseling helped her cope.”

My friend’s sincere concern (and attempted consolation) touched me. I felt the kindness of her intention, but her words scraped at already raw emotions. I balked.

I may have nodded as she spoke, but I stepped back, putting a wider space between us while my inner voice screamed over her advice:

I don’t need a therapist, thank you very much, and this sadness isn’t something I need to fix. I don’t want counseling — I want my husband back. I want my kids’ father back! How dare you — who still have your husband — tell me someone can fix my mental health? He’s only been dead a month — am I supposed to be okay with that?

My husband was dead. Talking it out with a stranger wouldn’t return him to life. It wouldn’t return me from my new, unwelcome status as a single parent to my familiar role as a married, stay-at-home mom.

But before I could put words to that inner indignation, another old acquaintance approached who’d not yet heard THE news. “Hi, Teresa. How’s your husband doing? Where is he today?”

I opened my mouth to answer, not knowing what I’d say.

Sometimes, back then, when grief was new and raw and all-consuming, I couldn’t allow myself to utter the horrible words, “He’s dead.”

Other times, I couldn’t stop myself from blurting, “My husband died.” (Looking back, I pity the poor store clerks, fellow shoppers, and service professionals I encountered.)

So how did I answer the second woman’s innocent, caring question that day — on the heels of hearing another’s advice?

A wordless sob.  I spun and — sobbing louder — ran as fast as I could.*

I ran from the idea of counseling as much as I ran from the need to escape before really making a scene.

For more than a year after that day, my friend’s suggestion rattled around in the back of my mind, usually associated with feelings of flight. Meanwhile, I met and networked with many, many fellow widows and widowers and began networking with others who’d lost loved ones as well. From time to time, these peers mentioned grief counseling, and how glad they were they’d participated.  I always thought, “Good for them … but not for me.”

Counseling reframes grief, but it doesn't remove it.

Counseling reframes grief, but it doesn’t remove it. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Yet my friend’s words echoed: Counseling helped her cope … Counseling helped her … Counseling helped …

When I was ready, I realized it might do me some good. Even then, it took a couple of months more (and several dialed hang ups) to schedule myself an appointment.

It did help. It didn’t take away or diminish my loss, but it empowered me with tools to reframe my life’s “new normal.”

(Thank you again, my friend, for the gentle suggestion you gave me that day more than five years ago. I remain grateful for it!)

Before you gently suggest grief counseling or therapy for bereaved friends, keep in mind:

  • Grieving is harder than it looks, so avoid criticism or commentary that implies your friends are mourning and/or coping the “wrong” way. (Of course, if they are doing or about to do something harmful to themselves or others, stepping in is essential — just as it would be for any of your friends who aren’t grieving!)
  • Grieving takes much, much longer than you think. (Hint: Year two is often more difficult than the first 365 days after a death.) Please, remember they are still in mourning long after the funeral — and reach out to them.
  • Sometimes it helps to enlist a professional, but until mourners are ready, counseling won’t help.**  If you think it would benefit your friends, gently mention the idea once. Wait a couple of months before you bring it up again. Then wait another couple of months.
  • Remember: Grief is an emotional state born of love and triggered by loss, but it has real, physical components, too. Grief can’t be cured or fixed or treated any more than you can cure or fix the love at its roots. But coping tools can (eventually) assist in adjusting to it.
  • Like anything new, it takes time to become proficient. Never, ever, ever imply to a griever they should be (or get) “over it by now.” Don’t say that. Ever. No, never. (Can you tell how strongly I feel about this?)

In the meantime, let your friends know that whether or not they seek a professional’s help in learning to manage their grief, you’ll stand by them — no matter what.

___

*I ran as fast as a woman with nerve damage in her ankle could “run” away while clomping along with a cane. (But that’s a whole different story of life back then…)

**See the Mayo Clinic’s page on Complicated Grief for information on warning signs that your friend may need professional help adjusting after a loss. The symptoms listed are normal for grievers (and even to be expected) during the first six months, according to that website, but may also last much longer. However, if they do not diminish of if they intensify over time, enlisting professional help may be necessary.

Trauma after Death

I’m usually calm in crises, but I couldn’t remember how to dial 9-1-1.

lock screen, incorrect pin, dog, emergency call

The red phone icon would have let me dial for help without keying the pin number on my locked screen … if I’d remembered. (Screenshot of photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

I’d seen items in the road and eased the car around them.

Passing the parallel-parked cars — and the things strewn on the road — I realized they weren’t things. I threw the motor into park, blocking the road. My hands shook. I jumped from the car.

On the ground, a backpack hid someone’s back; a baseball cap covered his head. His upper body jutted into the street from between two cars.

“Sir, are you okay?” He was breathing but didn’t respond. I fumbled the numbers to unlock my phone. (I forgot about the red emergency call icon.)

The man lay facedown on the road. His legs and hips hung above the ground, tangled in an upside-down bicycle between the sidewalk and the street.

Another man snaked his motorcycle around my car to see what happened. He quieted his motor and stepped close to the red pavement under the baseball cap.

I entered my unlock code, then tried keying 9-1-1. “Don’t move him!” I yelled as Mr. Motorcycle approached the unconscious man. I knew never to move anyone with possible back injuries — but this passerby didn’t.

An employee from the nearby school hurried over. Calling “9-1-1” felt more complicated than it should have been. Again I hit the wrong combination of digits.

You'd think hitting 9 once and then hitting 1 twice would be easy...

You’d think hitting 9 once and then hitting 1 twice would be easy…

Mr. Motorcycle laughed, pointing at the spilled beer can nearby. “He’s not hurt — he’s just drunk.”

I finally got through to 9-1-1.

“Sir!” I yelled again. “DON’T MOVE HIM!”

Mr. Motorcycle ignored me. He tugged and pulled the bike from between the unconscious man’s legs, lowering half his body with a thud.

The dispatcher barraged me with questions I couldn’t answer. “I don’t know. I found him like this.” How old was the person, how long had he been there, did anyone else see what happened, did the fall make him unconscious, or was it the other way around … ?

She kept asking, as if I hadn’t already answered.

Meanwhile, my car blocked the narrow street; I needed to make room for the ambulance. I told Mr. Motorcycle and the school employee to stay by the injured man (to protect him from approaching vehicles).

The dispatcher reprimanded me, telling me not to leave the scene — which I wasn’t doing! — and interrupted my disclaimers.

My hands shook as I fastened my seat belt. “I’m putting you on speaker,” I told her. She demanded I not relocate my car but rather return to make sure no one moved the man. (She’d already heard me tell Mr. Motorcycle — and that he ignored me.)

With one hand on the gearshift and one on the wheel, I jumped. Mr. Motorcycle pressed both hands against my window, talking at me through the glass.

The dispatcher fussed at me — loudly — as I lowered the window.

Mr. Motorcycle had to leave before the bank closed (it was barely three o’clock) and would be “right back.” (At least, I think that was what he said — it was hard to hear over the dispatcher’s voice.)

That was the last I saw of him.

The school employee (thank heaven for her!) “stood guard” while I drove (seven whole car-lengths away) to an empty space alongside the curb. (If you’ve never parallel parked while a 9-1-1 dispatcher berates you for making room so an emergency vehicle can reach the emergency, you can’t imagine how long that short drive was.) “I’ve parked and I’m walking back to the injured man now,” I told the dispatcher.

“Don’t give him anything to eat or drink,” she warned.

“He’s unconscious!” (I’d already told her.)

“Paramedics are on the way,” the dispatcher said, “but if he wakes before they arrive, don’t let anyone feed him or give him anything to drink.”

Between the dispatcher’s assurance of help on the way and the siren’s affirmation that it was, a gut-punching thought took my breath: These first responders were coming from that station — the station whose paramedics entered our home that night.

Please, oh, please, oh, please, oh, please, let it not be them…

I’d seen them out before — the same team — at the grocery store. I’d fallen apart, emotionally thrown back to the ground of that traumatic night.

Please oh please oh please let it not be them.

But the side of the truck bore that station number.

Please-ohplease-ohplease-not-them!

I turned and faced the prostrate man. I wouldn’t look at the paramedics’ faces.

Too many PTSD triggers of that night…

Behind me a man said, “I remember you…”

Oh, please, no!

My stomach heaved.

“Weren’t you in my radio class?”

I breathed again — How long was I holding my breath? — and turned toward the firefighter who’d taught my CERT group about the science and protocols of amateur radio back when I got my ham operator license. Way back, before the night my husband died.

It’s okay, I told myself. Not them. 

But. What if the others were on duty that night?

I blurted a summary of all I’d told the dispatcher, then asked whether I needed to stay.

“No, we’ve got him now. Thanks for helping out. Good seeing you.”

As I turned away, I heard the injured man respond to the rescue crew. I felt tremendous relief; he was conscious, but I didn’t linger. (I scurried to my car to avoid seeing other rescuers’ faces.)

Then I drove away.

Life went on, for me, anyway. I hope and assume it did for that man…

pavement, stain

“Stained pavement only seems compelling if you understand the story that soiled it. … Learning the story of another’s grief will help you understand the marks of mourning on the soul.” — Teresa TL Bruce (TealAshes.com)

It’s been a couple of weeks since that afternoon. I’ve wondered about the man whose name I don’t know. (Did he have a head injury? Did Mr. Motorcycle harm his back?) And I’ve worried. (Is that his bicycle locked against the fence near where he fell? If so, why hasn’t he come back for it?).

After two weeks in the Florida sun and rain, as of yesterday the pavement still showed stains from that day. I can’t pass the street without remembering.

It’s made me consider other marks on the roadways, discolorations I never thought twice about before. Stained pavement only seems compelling if you understand the story that soiled it.

How many of us see the behavioral or emotional “stains” in those around us and walk by — or turn our backs — without practicing emotional triage? For those who are grieving, it’s not enough (and often not a good idea) to simply ask, “Are you okay?” or “How are you?”*

Make sure your grieving friends breathe deeply. Stand guard against those who would take advantage of their vulnerability. Offer support, even if it comes in a drink of water or a bite to eat. Help them back onto their feet — physically and emotionally. Don’t ride away just because you have other things to do. Listen to their words and their tears and their assertions.

Learning the story of another’s grief will help you understand the marks of mourning on the soul.

___

*Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 2–What to Ask When Grief Is New

 

People Aren’t Interchangeable (and Neither Are Their Pets)

Loved ones can’t be replaced. So please don’t suggest otherwise.

Loved ones can't be replaced, so don't suggest otherwise.

An empty blanket, an empty collar, and an empty ring: Loved ones can’t be replaced, so don’t suggest otherwise.

When people (or pets) expire, mourners can’t scoop up “bargain-priced offspring” from the children’s department; they won’t rush to the store and click a collar around a “brand new best friend” package in the pet aisle; they shouldn’t be driven to the mall for sniffing and squeezing current models in order to select a “ripe new spouse” from the potential mates display window. (At least, for most people it doesn’t work that way…)

Forgive me, please, if it sounds as if I’m making light of the seriousness of death. My intent is to point out the ridiculous assumptions made by well-meaning people who treat the bereaved in this foolish way.

For example, the first variation I heard on “You’re young. You can marry again” was less than 48 hours after my husband’s death. It was an (arguably misguided) attempt to assure me I need not feel lifelong devastation and solitude. But deep as I was in that personal place of raw, recent loss,  life as I knew it had already immersed me in devastation and loneliness.

I could no more have “replaced” my late husband while thus submerged (nor contemplated the idea of it) than I could have inhaled deeply from the bottom of a full swimming pool.

For those who mourn the death of a child, there’s nothing assuring in the agony-increasing comments of those who try to “comfort” them by promises of possible future children. Doing so ignores the life-altering, soul-searing loss of THAT precious, beloved child.

Pet owners face their own grief at the passing of beloved companions. Well-meaning friends might suggest it’s “only a pet” or “you can always get another one,” but the bonds between pet owners and their furry (or feathered or scaly) friends are as unique — and can run as deep as — friendships (and deeper than some kinships) between members of the same species.

More helpful than such “reassurances” of suggested “replacements” are acknowledgements of the loss. Offer comments like:

  • He was such a ____ [kind, thoughtful, funny, interesting…] soul. I’ll miss him, too.
  • I’m so sorry about the death of your ____ [child, parent, friend, sibling…]. I know you’re hurting.
  • Fluffy was a good ____ [cat, dog, hamster, sugar glider…]. She’ll be missed.

In time, grieving parents might have another child; bereaved animal lovers might adopt other pets; mourning widows (or widowers) might date and perhaps even marry again. But they might not. There may be reasons they cannot, reasons that are no one’s business but their own.

In the distant future, even if the mourning parent welcomes another child, even if the grieving owner takes in another pet, even if the bereaved widow(er) finds a second soul mate, each newly loved one finds his or her OWN place within the healing heart once broken by the death of the deceased.

Remember: Beloved souls aren’t interchangeable — even within species. You can’t remove one from a person’s life and simply plop another into the deceased one’s place.

Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 2, Religion

If you know me in person (or through my writing) I hope you’ll find this post title disconcerting. I hope you’ll think it seems downright odd for me to discourage would-be comforters from referring to religion as they console the bereaved, because I hope I’ve conveyed (in clear, though never in-your-face ways) how integral religion is to who I am.*

So in part 2 of Taboo Topics**, WHY in the heck do I insist you should not invoke religious topics when speaking to the bereaved?

Too many people spurt inconsiderate spiritual platitudes at mourners, reaching for the first handy sayings that come to mind.

Spraying spiritual platitudes on the bereaved is as effective in helping them as when inexperienced cooks spray water on grease fires — flames spread, burning a larger area.

Consider these brimstone-scattering thoughts as you approach your grieving friends:

  • Not all family members have the same religious views or attitudes. What offers comfort to one may deeply wound (or even offend) another.
  • Unresolved familial disagreements about faith-related matters may leave the bereaved feeling anxious or guilty. Pointing out those differences does not help.
  • No one fully knows any heart or soul but their own. Assumptions about the deceased’s “heavenward” status can cause mourners more pain than condolence.
    • Sometimes “outsiders” (even within a family) aren’t privy to all the circumstances of the departed one’s life (or death, or both). The deceased may have lived a praiseworthy public facade but presented an altogether different reality behind closed doors.Grief can be complicated for these survivors.
    • In cases where the deceased secretly (or openly) abused family members, feelings of relief may overshadow (or battle alongside) grief.
  • Survivors of suicide face offensive outbursts from people whose words can’t possibly be intended to console (“Suicide’s a sin, so your loved one’s going to hell”). Survivors also hear too many insensitive assumptions by those who may mean to console but who instead inflict more injury (“Don’t worry. God will forgive your loved one”). Never assume you know what prompted the suicide, and never make spiritual assumptions about it or about the survivors.
  • Avoid using these religious platitudes (and others like them):
    • “She’s gone home to God.”
    • “He’s in a better place.”
    • “You just have to trust in God’s will.”
    • “God needed him more than you do.”
    • “It was her time.”
    • “You’ll see him again.”
    • “It won’t be long before you see her again.”
    • “Heaven needed another angel.”
    • “Now you’ve got an angel in heaven watching over you.”

Remember, I’m not anti-religion. On the contrary. My faith has remained the one constant, the one source of comfort and sanity and security when the box of my life felt soaked in mud, ripped open, overturned, shaken out, and run over. Often I agreed with the sentiments of the platitudes (that he was in a better place, that I did trust in God’s will, that I knew I’d see him again…).

However, hearing them thrust upon me did not help. It felt like the people who said them wanted to cover up or erase my pain, as if it were a thing to be lightly brushed aside. What I needed was to have my loss acknowledged.

If you have an already established pastoral relationship with the bereaved, it may (as in it might possibly, but it might not necessarily) be appropriate to offer spiritual counsel, scriptural comfort, or doctrinal comments. But before you preach at your congregant, listen.

For everyone else who wishes to console a grieving friend, don’t bring religion into your condolences unless your grieving friend first invites you into the topic.

As in all aspects of grieving, LISTEN to the bereaved and follow their lead. IF your grieving friends express an interest in speaking of spiritual matters, by all means share your thoughts, but do so carefully and from your heart, not from the first trite words that come to mind.

___

*I don’t say this to be preachy but to acknowledge the core of my survival during the most difficult part of my life. My reliance on God’s unwavering love and my faith in His absolute awareness of me (and my grieving children) is what kept me going when my soul was flayed raw with grief.

___

**I talk about other taboo topics — politics, money, physical appearance, and legal status — in other posts.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the Washington Mudslide, and Other Tragic Headlines Bring Grief Home Again 

One look at grieving faces on the TV news sucks me backward to 3 1/2 years ago. The agonized sobs in sound bites shove me once more into that bleak, table-sized, hospital waiting room. Again I feel the doctor’s unthinkable, impossible, unbearable words rip into my heart and shred my world. In the days, weeks, and months that followed that moment, one odd symptom of my grief was that I couldn’t bear looking in the mirror. It only took a glance to see the grief that covered my features more completely than any mask could do. Mourning permeated my pores and rewrote the face they formed.

In earlier years I’d known families forever altered by publicly acknowledged deaths. Unavoidable traffic accidents and, in one case, intentional homicide, made their personal, private bereavement subject to local news coverage.* I’d witnessed their grief up close, but I shared only a thin shadow of a sliver of the pain of their losses. I remembered how I’d felt after the expected passings of my grandparents — and my mother — and after the unexpected death of my young adult cousin. I knew my own pain, but I also knew it differed from those families’ pain in their losses.

Now, in the present, I don’t know any of the  passengers and crew who went down with Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370; I’m not acquainted with any Washington residents impacted by the massive mudslide. Yet I recognize the faces of the survivors. I once wore similar expressions of shock and horror. I’ve felt that intense, disbelieving grief that colored both the appearance and the perceptions of my eyes.

Even so, I do not claim to understand their losses. I do NOT understand their losses. Even other survivors who share the same tragic circumstances alongside them do not fully understand one another’s losses, because every loss is unique.

Let me repeat: EVERY loss is unique. Some aspects of grieving are universal, though. Remember these points when your friends grieve lost loved ones:

  1. Acknowledge the loss. (A simple, sincere expression of “I’m sorry” is one way.) Follow up with them over the lonely weeks, months, and years ahead, particularly around the date of the death. Let them know you remember their loved ones, too, and that you remember the significance of the timing.
  2. Don’t make their loss about you and your woes. Supporting the bereaved means listening, not counseling, advising, comparing, or admonishing. Every person grieves differently, and such un-listening communications invalidate the bereaved for their ways. Don’t feel the need to fill contemplative silences, either. (What you perceive as uncomfortable may be comforting simply because you are there.)
  3. Find specific, physical ways to show your support, then act on them. Whether families are in shock over a sudden death or drained from the exhaustion of care-taking prior to an expected death, survivors will find it difficult (if not impossible) to carry out the day-to-day tasks of living. Even if they realize they need help, they may not be capable of asking for it. Asking, “Do you need any help?” is likely to get a negative reply, even if the need is dire. Lend a hand (with meal preparation, grocery shopping, laundry, child care, transportation, yard work, car maintenance, dish washing …). Don’t ask, “Can I help you with ___?” Instead say, “I’d like to help you with ___. Is today okay, or would it be better [give a specific alternative time]?”
  4. Avoid platitudes; bite your tongue on most of the “condolence” phrases that come to mind. To grieving ears they sound trite and insincere. (Some are even offensive, though their speakers intend them kindly.) To the bereaved, life does not “go on” as it did before, the cemetery or crematorium is not “a better place” for their loved ones, and whether or not the deceased is “at peace” does not diminish the survivors’ sense of loss.
  5. Let them know your thoughts are ongoing. Grieving is difficult, painful, lonely work, and it can help to know others are aware of that. Be specific in expressing your support:
    “I’m thinking of you and your family daily.”
    “You’re in my prayers.”
    “My Thursday morning prayer group will pray for you every week.”
    “I’m sending positive energy your way during my daily walks.”
  6. Where appropriate, offer financial support. Even small sums can make a big difference for families struggling to pay funerary costs and adjust to a lost source of income, too.
  7. Ask if they’d like to tell you about their loved ones. Give them “permission” to talk about them and say their names. Sometimes people fear that bringing up the name(s) of the deceased will bring sorrow, but in most cases the opposite is true. Offer the bereaved the chance to talk about their feelings if they wish, but don’t badger them into conversation.
  8. Don’t push your expectations of timing onto grieving survivors. Avoid words such as “still,” “already,” “yet,” “by now,” or “when.” Grief has no timetable, and grieving takes much longer than most people realize unless they’ve experienced a similar loss. Even then, some relationships, because of private concerns, may leave more complex grief issues to be resolved than others.
  9. Remember that nothing you do will “fix” their grief. You can’t bring back their loved one or make their lives “normal” again. Normal is gone. All you can do is offer your unconditional support, understanding, and strength as they make the most difficult adjustments of their lives.
  10. Repeat all of the above. The so-called “stages” of grief wax and wane. As bereaved family members slowly adjust to the shock of their losses, new situations and circumstances will arise that send them back to earlier, more intense phases. Your long-term, ongoing support will be as important in the future as your immediate actions will be now.

___

*See Grief Is Not a Spectator Sport

 

Don’t Bury the Living with the Dead

One aspect of grief that blindsides many mourners is the sensation of being forgotten after the earliest phase of their loss — as if they died, too. Immediately after a death, an amazing outpouring of loving support comes from family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. It is wonderful, but it fades away. As time passes the bereaved are still making tremendous, painful adjustments while their friends’ unchanged lives shift back into “normal.” Grieving survivors often feel as if no one cares for them anymore.

I’ve networked with thousands of widows and widowers since my husband’s death, so I’m drawing this example from my experience with this population of mourners (though the principal of post-funeral isolation applies to other losses as well). Bereaved spouses often find themselves no longer asked to join other couples they regularly socialized with before losing their partners. I’ve heard widows say they felt as if married friends didn’t trust them around their husbands anymore. (“As if I had any interest in someone else’s hubby while grieving and wanting my own!”) I’ve heard widowers say they felt as if they no longer mattered to anyone without their late wives. (“I guess the people I thought were ‘our’ friends were really just ‘hers.'”) I’ve heard widows and widowers from their 20s to their 80s say they “lost” not only their spouses but their friends, too. (“After my husband [or wife] died, it’s like I died to our friends, too.”)

Even if you’re afraid of saying “the wrong thing” to a friend who is “still” grieving, saying something — saying anything — is better than saying nothing at all. After my mother’s death I made the mistake of assuming that Dad would hurt more if I mentioned her to him than if I let him “forget” the pain of her loss. I held debates with myself on significant dates every year. I was hurting that she wasn’t with us, but what if he’d forgotten it was her birthday or their anniversary? Would my saying something about it make him remember and feel worse? It was ridiculous (and hypocritical) for me to think so, because I found such consolation in having others speak of her!

Between the bereaved and those not directly involved in that loss, a greater gulf can separate good intentions from the ability to offer meaningful, long-term consolation. Communication is better than assumption. In the weeks and months following the loss, ask the bereaved what support would most benefit them. Listen, then ask again a few weeks later, too, because they may not know themselves, and if they do the answers will often change.

It wasn’t until I began recovering from the initial shock of my husband’s death that I realized an inkling of my foolish assumption. I wanted people to remember his birthday as much as I’d wanted (and still want!) them to remember Mom’s. I didn’t feel like celebrating my wedding anniversary — our 25th was the first I faced without him — but I needed to have it acknowledged.

Whether your friend’s loss is recent or not, jot down some dates in your calendar now: the deceased’s birth and death dates, your friend’s birthday (and anniversary, if applicable). If you don’t know the dates, ask. Make reminders to acknowledge the dates when they approach. During the first year, let your friends know you’re thinking about them as “that” day of each month approaches. You don’t have to say why (unless they ask), but it will boost their spirits during tough times.