Mother’s Day Mourning

With Mother’s Day looming, my grief ratchets up several levels. It’s been over 18 years since Mom died, and I’m dreading this year’s annual event as much as I have each year since her death. It’s a selfish misery — I acknowledge that — because my mom deserved the “World’s Best” title that’s printed in flowery fonts on all kinds of merchandise this time of year.  Too many dear friends had opposite relationships with their mothers, so I truly appreciate how lucky I was.

I ought to spend Mother’s Day bathed in a warm glow of gratitude over how incredibly blessed I’ve been that my mom’s heart and hands shaped my life. But I miss her. I miss her.

She was an adoring grandmother, and I wanted my children to grow up with her creative, optimistic, spiritual, fun-loving, nurturing, curious, accepting influence and presence in their day-to-day lives. I feel cheated that they could not. I miss her for their sakes as well as my own.

My Mom (from family photos of Teresa TL Bruce)

My Mom (from the family photos of Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com) 

Mom was my best friend.  (She was everybody’s friend. When I was in high school, one boy I dated sometimes called our house to talk to her.) Typing these words about her reopens the rip that began tearing around my heart the moment I heard the word “cancer” over the phone two short years before it took her. I “still” miss her.

My deep longing for Mom’s voice and warmth, for her wisdom and presence, isn’t the only reason I dread the advent of every Mother’s Day. Years ago I attended a church council planning discussion of upcoming tributes and honors for that year’s commemoration of the day. The suggestions were thoughtful and generous, but as I listened I became more and more uncomfortable until I finally blurted, “Lots of women hate Mother’s Day.

All eyes turned toward me. Other women in the room nodded their heads, but most of the men looked as if they’d been slapped. The first to recover his speech asked what I meant, and as soon as I began explaining, my church sisters’ voices joined mine:

  • “We can’t live up to the glowing superlatives on the cards.”
  • “Do you know how many women want children but can’t have them?”
  • “Some of us had terrible mothers. We don’t get along with them at all.”
  • “Some of us have bad relationships with our kids, and Mother’s Day makes it even worse.”
  • “I’ve hated the day ever since my mom passed on. It hurts too much.”
  • “And it’s agony for the ones who’ve lost a child.”
  • “And women who’ve miscarried …”

A few mouths remained open when we’d finished. One by one, all in the room acknowledged that a special sensitivity was needed in planning that particular Sunday’s services.

Men and children also struggle with missing their deceased mothers, or they may feel conflicted about poor relationships with theirs.

In the years following Mom’s death, I dragged myself into the chapel for every Mother’s Day service (though I’d have preferred staying at home to linger over my annual child-poured breakfast in bed, a bowl of Cheerios or Lucky Charms*) because that’s what I felt I needed to do, what a “good mom” should do. All the children in the congregation — including my own — were singing to all the moms, and I did want to experience seeing and hearing my daughters beam as they sang “Mother, I Love You.” That part I didn’t mind — it was always delightful! (You never know what you’ll see and hear where kids are concerned, no matter how well they’ve practiced ahead …)

But it hurt to be there. I knew the shortfalls of how my mothering compared to my mom’s. (Did I mention how great she was?) And I missed her.

What helped make it easier? While it’s true that time eased the sharpest of my grief’s pain (though it’s not true that it “heals all wounds”), eventually, at least in part, there was one thing that comforted me immediately. Whenever someone acknowledged awareness that I mourned Mom’s absence, the weight of my grief lightened enough to keep me going. It still does.

  • It always helped to hear, “I’m sure you’re missing your Mom. I’m sorry.”
  • It never helped to hear, “Don’t be sad.”
  • It never helped to hear, “Are you still upset about your mother?”
  • It can be helpful to say, “You’re in my thoughts as Mother’s Day approaches.”
  • It’s also appropriate to say, “I’m thinking of you this Mother’s Day weekend.”

As with other aspects of mourning, the best condolence you can offer is the comfort of your presence, the reassurance of your willingness to listen, and the sensitivity of your acknowledgment of the loss.

___

(*In case you were wondering, I have no affiliation with General Mills — or any cereal-making company. Cheerios and Lucky Charms just happen to be my favorites.)

“Other” Grief (Not Triggered by Death)

For a while I’ve mentally composed this post about “other” grief triggered not by death but by different forms of loss. Not every person has experienced the death of a loved one (yet), but anyone mature enough to read these words has likely suffered their own significant losses, perhaps even grieved them.

If you’ve lost a job, you may have grieved the loss of income or the loss of stability. You may have grieved losing access to the company car (or to the “hottie” in the next cubicle). It didn’t matter that you–or your friends– “knew” you’d find another (source of funds, transportation, or “admiree”). What mattered in your moments of pain was that the situation was awful. It hurt. Long after you may have found your dream job, memories of that loss can still bring pain.

If you’ve lost your health, you may have grieved that loss. Whether illness impacted the whole sum of your parts or injury impaired the function in some of those parts, you might’ve grieved its physical (and/or emotional) pains. Even temporary conditions (a broken leg, a bout of the flu during vacation, a severe allergic reaction …) can trigger acute grief, though it soon fades. More life-altering diagnoses (an amputated limb, a loss of sight or hearing, a metabolic or mental condition, or the awful C-word — cancer …) can cause feelings of grief and despair that may take years to overcome. Life-altering means just that: life is never the same again.

These sources of grief are no less “real” than the death of a loved one. Your friend, relative, neighbor, coworker, random acquaintance or even your arch enemy who stumbles into such sources of “other” grief needs your kindness and understanding. You can apply tips from my related posts — and from sites listed on my Helpful Grief Resources page — to help you support them through whatever crises they face.

In some instances, their grief will be short-lived. They’ll find a better job or have their cast signed by a favorite celebrity. They’ll schedule another “once in a lifetime” trip in place of the one they spent puking instead of parasailing. They’ll heal. In other cases, the grief may linger long after you have “gotten over it” in their behalf; they are the ones still working their ways through the traumas. In either case, the most important grief to your grieving friends is whatever loss they are are feeling right now.

By all means, when comforting your friends, remember how you felt when you grieved your own “other” grief. You may not be a cat person, but you can remember the loss of your childhood dog to help you console the friends who mourn their cat. Draw upon the pain you once felt to help you relate to theirs. But don’t compare it aloud. Comforting them is about them and their pain, not about you and yours.

Has this reminded you of your own “other” grief? If so, please scroll down and share what it was (or is). What helped (or didn’t help) you deal with your “other” loss?

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.

More about Hugs–and Tears

A couple of weeks ago, two women at my doctor’s office offered  much-needed hugs — for opposite reasons that both connect to my widowed status. Here’s what happened:

When I check in at the front desk, the young woman behind the chest-high counter asks me to review my medical records. Routine stuff, right? Wrong.

I glance at the page and feel my forehead go pale. In the seconds it takes to process the written emergency contact and financially responsible party, my fingertips already dampen the page. My lungs feel as they did when a year-older bully punched me in elementary school. My stomach lurches as it did  three years earlier, the first time my trembling hand scrawled “widowed” between the mutually exclusive yet equally accurate options of “married” and “single.”

Between blinks at those small, inked symbols, I’ve been transported back to the most traumatic period of my life.

With the offensive paper shaking in my hands, I lean forward, resting my forearms on the countertop. I hate that tears rim my eyes — Snap! — just like that. Three years of progress in learning to “handle” and “manage” my grief — gone.

“Ma’am? Ma’am? Are you okay?”

I nod-shake my head in an indecipherable up-side-to-side-and-down gesture, still unable to draw in breath enough to speak. I feel badly for the poor girl (about my oldest daughter’s age) staring up at me from her monitor and keyboard. It isn’t her fault that three years’ of “updated” information never made it into the office database. I feel the impatient stares of other patients in the growing line behind me.

When I finally manage to inhale, my first words come as unfiltered as they did three years ago, back when I  began nearly every conversation  the same way. “My husband died.” Now I add, as if needing to justify my display of emotion, “I already changed it on the forms, but he’s still written here.”

The young woman stammers out, “I’m sorry.” She looks nearly as distressed as I feel.

Once I manage to cross out  my husband’s name and information — Ouch! — and write in my current contact and ID numbers, she promises she’ll input it immediately — so I won’t have to face that again.

Fast forward 30+ minutes later, inside the exam room.

In walks the doctor, who does a double-take when she sees me. “You’ve lost weight [16 pounds so far!]. You look terrific! And you don’t have the cane with you anymore? Tell me what’s been going on.”

I share the miracle of healing that let me ditch my cane after 10 years and 5 months. I show her the story I wrote in my copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive for Kids and tell her of my other published work. I answer questions about my daughters’ well-being.

My doctor beams at me with unfallen tears glistening. “You’ve come so far after such a hard load of grief. May I give you a hug?”

Earlier in my grief (as I stated in “To comfort the bereaved, give hugs–but ask first!”) I was prickly about being touched. Sometimes I craved the embrace of a friend almost as much as I craved my husband’s hugs. Other times, I couldn’t stand any hugs that were not his — especially not from unrelated men.

Now, though, I welcome her hug as much as the compassion that prompts it.

Fast forward again, this time back in the lobby,  standing in another line to check out. The young woman who witnessed my tears earlier leaves her desk and approaches me. “I’m really sorry about before,” she says. “Would it be okay if I give you a hug?

Again, I welcome it.

Whether in celebration or sorrow, whether accompanied by tears of rejoicing or despair, a hug is a wonderful gift and healing tool — when asked and applied appropriately.

For Grieving Children, Wear BLUE on Children’s Grief Awareness Day

Image from the Children's Grief Awareness Day Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=346620602055569&set=a.121173784600253.18290.121173094600322&type=1&theater)

This HOPE Butterfly image is from the Children’s Grief Awareness Day Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ChildrensGriefAwarenessDay

Children’s Grief Awareness Day is November 21 this year.* Please wear blue to show your support for grieving children!

Children grieve as deeply as adults, but they lack the maturity and experience to identify and put words to their feelings. Their needs and attention-demanding behaviors may be overlooked or misunderstood by their own surviving family members, friends, teachers or other school officials.

Here are some things NOT to say to a grieving child (of any age):

  • “You’re the man [or lady] of the house now.” This is a cruel burden to place on a child, especially one who is grieving!
  • “You need to take care of your [surviving parent or siblings] now.” While compassion for one’s family is worthwhile, the job of a child is to be a child, not a head of household. Children (especially older teens) will resent being told what they should do, especially if it is an area they are already considering on their own.
  • “God needed him/her more than you did.” Really?! To grieving children, no one (especially not an all-powerful God) could “need” their loved ones more than they do!
  • “God took him/her to heaven.” To very young children already facing traumatic upheaval, the notion of God (whom they cannot see) randomly “taking” people can be frightening rather than comforting. To older children, whose fledgling faith may be quavering in their bereavement, such statements can prick rebellion rather than consolation. Allow children’s immediate caretakers to address all faith-related aspects of grieving unless they specifically ask for your input.
  • “At least you had your [parent, sibling, relative, friend] for X [years, months, days]. That’s longer than some …” Instead of acknowledging the significance of a child’s loss, this (and every other “at least” statement) demeans the reason the child is mourning.
  • “Don’t cry” or “He/she wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Crying is an essential part of grieving, and sadness is a natural response to separation from loved ones. Suppressing such emotional expression can be harmful.

Here are  HELPFUL things to say to a bereaved child (of any age):

  • “It’s okay to feel ____.” Fill in the blank with whatever emotions you see the child displaying. Naming the emotions will help the child identify and label otherwise overwhelming feelings. Being angry, sad, confused, frustrated, afraid, and resentful are all normal responses to grief. A child also needs “permission” to feel happy and optimistic about things, even while grieving. Experiencing and enjoying moments of play are an important part of processing difficult feelings!
  • “Would you like to talk about your [friend, sibling, parent, grandparent, etc.]?” Children take their behavioral cues from the adults around them. However, family members are likely to handle their collective grief in individual ways. The bereaved–including children–should never be forced to discuss their absent loved ones, but they should be offered opportunities to do so.

For more on how you can support Children’s Grief Awareness Day, visit the website: http://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/cgad/index.shtml

You can also show your support by visiting and clicking “Like” on the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ChildrensGriefAwarenessDay?fref=ts

Tweet awareness: #CGADHOPE

*Children’s Grief Awareness Day is held the third Thursday each November (one week before Thanksgiving) as a way to build awareness for the special needs of grieving children, particularly during the holiday season.

When Someone Dies, Do NOT Say, “I Know How You Feel.”

Never tell a grieving person, “I know exactly how you feel”—because you don’t.

You really don’t.

Each survivor’s grief is as unique as it is personal.

Picture your coworkers, classmates, relatives. Do you relate to them identically? I don’t mean answering to the same boss, the same teacher, or the same great-grandma. Do you interact the same with everyone at work? Do your classmates get along equally? Do your siblings share identical relationships with your parents (or your children with theirs)?

Of course not.

Although every grieving parent commutes to work inside the Office Building of Loss, and each shares a suite with at least one other person, each must employ individual skills and equipment to complete assignments for their tyrannical boss.

Even though parentless children enrolled in the Boarding School of Bereavement attend classes together, all must write long-answer exam essays in the unfamiliar tongue of separation and carry their own belongings from dormitory to desk day after day.

While surviving spouses are forcibly relocated to the lonely—yet far too crowded—neighborhood of Death Did Us Part, each widow(er) must maintain sole upkeep on a once-shared mortgage, even while working within walls irreparably damaged by the move.

No matter how many coworkers, classmates, or relatives you share with the bereaved, grief is non-transferrable—one size does NOT fit all.

After my husband died, I knew that people expressing condolences intended support and comfort; I appreciated their efforts. However, each time yet another well-meaning person said, “I know what you’re going through,” I wanted to scream: No, you DON’T know (… you’ve never married, your spouse is alive, you divorced your husband, your third-cousin’s death isn’t the same as my husband’s …) because you have NOT been through THIS!

Ironically, most other widows (and widowers) did NOT say they knew how I felt! Instead, they acknowledged the uniqueness of my grief—and their inadequacy to comprehend it.

  • X and I raised our kids before he passed, so I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
  • “I feel for you. We said our goodbyes before Y died. I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you.”
  • Z and I weren’t married as many [or as few] years as you and your husband were, so I can only guess how you’re feeling right now.”

Those who verbalized their lack of understanding made me feel best understood.