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.

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*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.

 

Worldwide Candle Lighting Honors Deceased Children

Compassionate Friends Worldwide Candle Lighting 2013This Sunday, December 8, join families across the globe in lighting a candle at 7 p.m. to support those creating “a virtual 24-hour wave of light as it moves from time zone to time zone, ” honoring the memories of beloved children whose lives ended too soon.”*

This will be the 17th Worldwide Candle Lighting sponsored by The Compassionate Friends, an organization whose purpose is to support families grieving the loss of a child.

I cannot imagine how mourning parents, siblings, and grandparents feel. I cannot fathom the levels of pain they experience year after year as unfulfilled birthdays, holidays, and milestones echo within empty places in their hearts.

But all through the year I can acknowledge their pain. I can listen to their feelings and memories. I can share my love through kindness and concern through my actions. I can offer my tears along with my prayers.

And this Sunday, I can light a candle. To show your support, you can, too.


*quoted from  http://www.compassionatefriends.org/News_Events/Special-Events/Worldwide_Candle_Lighting.aspx

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.

Avoid Blaming or Shaming Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One

This post topic may seem obvious. After all, who would be so cruel as to dump blame or shame onto someone who is grieving? Unfortunately, it happens. Whether by deliberate intent or unwitting ignorance, it piles deeper distress upon those already experiencing the worst moments of their lives.Shame smiley blackground

Intentional blame is easiest to recognize and, sadly, is most often inflicted by another loved one. (Generosity requires I attribute such meanness to being overwrought by grief.) Intentional shaming and blaming  is accusatory and attempts to “punish” the bereaved or the deceased. It can be based in logic or completely without foundation.

“If you’d fed her the right way, she’d have never gotten sick.”
“If he’d been behind the wheel then he’d still be here; we should be burying you instead.”
“She’d have never gotten sick if you hadn’t taken that job.”
“He was healthy as a horse until he met you.”
“She’d still be with us if she hadn’t been such a lousy housekeeper.”

Unwitting or accidental blame is harder to recognize and, for the most part, is ascribed by well-meaning  but thoughtless friends, coworkers, and family.  It usually takes the shape of questions meant to better inform the would-be comforter. It can also be stated in misguided attempts to show “understanding.”

“Why didn’t you take him to the doctor at the first sign of trouble?” (Implies: if you had taken him then, he’d be fine now.)
“How come you sent her to that store that night?” (Implies: if you hadn’t sent her, she’d be fine.)
“Don’t you know CPR? So why’d he die?” (Implies: knowing CPR would have meant he’d survive.)
“If it had been my little one, I’d have found another doctor.” (Implies: mourner “should” have known more/better/different treatment was needed.)
“I’m glad I made my teenager take a defensive driving class.” (Implies: if you’d made yours take the class they’d still be okay.)

Questions and statements such as these only make the bereaved feel worse.  By stopping to think of the hidden implications of questions and comments you make to someone whose loved one has died, you can guard against unintentionally inflicting deeper pain.

(For anyone who has already willingly assaulted survivors with accusations, please reconsider. Apologies can mend some wounds, including your own.)