What to Say to Grieving Parents after a Child Dies

Parents mourn their lost babes of every age. Whether children died in utero or during infancy, whether they perished as toddlers or tweens or teens,  or whether death took them by surprise accident in young adulthood or inch-at-a-time illness in middle age, they died out of order. As humans, we’re wired to expect that children won’t die before parents, so when it happens, it’s unthinkably cruel, indescribably painful.

If you’ve wondered how to console friends who’ve lost a son or daughter, bless you. Too often, bereaved parents lament over deepened, inflicted pain from ill-thought comments. Or, when grieving parents most need support, they feel the added ache of uncomfortable, abandoned absence from those who avoid them.

I’ve not suffered the death of a child, although I’ve witnessed friends in such agony. I’ve listened to them and sat with them in their losses. But seeing and hearing and sitting isn’t knowing. Empathy extends only so far.*

Here’s what my friends have taught me as they’ve grieved their dear children’s deaths: 

weeping photo, cemetery, Babyland, grief, TealAshes.com

“Weeping Angel in Cemetery’s Babyland” (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

You can’t fix grieving parents’ pain, but you can avoid worsening it.

  • Don’t tell bereaved parents “I know what you’re going through” or “I understand.” You don’t.
    • Losing your loved one may have introduced you to the pain of grief — and it’s good for you to remember that pain to help you attempt to empathize — but your loss didn’t teach you the intimate rending of self that happened to your grieving friends when their child died.
    • Few bereaved parents tell other grieving parents they know how the others feel — even if their losses seem similar. (Some might remember how they felt when they lost their own child while acknowledging the deep, unique, rawness of the newly mourning parents’ pain.)
  • Stop saying “at least” in any context. There’s nothing “least” about the loss of a child.
    • “At least” minimizes the significance of the loss, which grieving friends need validated and acknowledged, not diminished.
    • This includes not saying “at least your child lived x long …” or “at least your child won’t have to …” or “at least you have faith in the hereafter …” or “at least” anything.
  • Allow grieving parents the right to express (or not express) their faith in their own terms. Friends who believe in hereafter reunions with their beloved children nevertheless agonize over their here-and-now separation until then. (Those who preach or sermonize at them often counteract the comfort they intend to convey.)
  • Never suggest how “lucky” the parents are they won’t have to endure the hard parts of parenting their deceased child. They would gladly endure sleepless nights, endless diapering, terrible twos tantrums, teen angst, college costs, and every other parenting so-called hardship with their beloved child.
  • Never speak of replacing the deceased son or daughter. Loved ones aren’t replaceable.
  • Avoid telling mourning parents they “should” anything.
    • Not how they should …
    • Not what they should …
    • Not when they should …
    • Not why they should …
    • Their loss requires their timing and readiness and processing and coping and surviving.
    • Only they will know when they are capable of accomplishing more than breathing — which will be hard enough for months.
  • Avoid asking “How are you?”
    • It’s impossible to answer. Grief hurts too much. It’s in every cell. It overwhelms and overrides.
    • “Hello” works as a greeting. “How’re you doing?” does not.
    • If you catch yourself uttering the habitual “How are — ” turn it into “How glad I am to see you.”

You can offer increased support to your grieving friends by saying:

  • “I’m so sorry.”
  • “I’m here.”
  • “Would you like to tell me about [speak the name of the deceased child]?”
  • “When you feel up to it, I’d love to share some of my favorite memories (or photos) of [name the child who died] with you.”
  • “It’s okay to fall apart. You don’t have to be strong.”
    • Telling bereaved parents they have to be strong (for each other, for other children, etc.) only reinforces how weakened and fractured they feel. Let them know you and others are there to pick up the pieces they can’t lift.
  • Acknowledge that mourning hurts without claiming you know how your friends feel. Acknowledging grief’s powerful, painful paralysis validates your friends’ pain.
  • “I know grieving hurts and saps your strength. Please let me ___ for you.”
    • Instead of saying, “Let me know if I can help with anything,” be precise. Fill in the blank with specific tasks or services you can render for your friend.
    • Say: Please let me …
      • … bring you a drink of water, an aspirin, a soda …
      • … take your other kids to the park, out for ice cream, to buy funeral outfits, to school …
      • … walk your dog, clean cages or litter boxes, gather eggs, groom horses …
      • … breathe alongside you, take a walk with you, drive you to …
      • … call funeral homes, come to the cemetery, house- or pet-sit during the funeral …
      • … make phone calls to friends, family, employers, creditors  …
      • … mow the lawn, weed and water the garden, shovel the sidewalk, sweep the porch …
      • … fill the gas tank, check the tires, drive to the airport to pick up or take back family …
      • … bring a meal or a snack [where culture and tradition permits] …
      • … take you to lunch or bring you to my house for dinner …
      • … cover your mirrors [for those who sit shiva] …
      • … wash dishes, make beds, vacuum floors, wash windows, clean bathrooms, do laundry …
        • However, please DO NOT TOUCH anything belonging to the deceased child without explicit permission to do so. Parents (and siblings) might need to see the bed left a mess or smell their child’s scent on a dirty shirt or keep a tower of blocks in chaotic disarray where they last fell.

You can also offer comfort to grieving families through these actions:

  • Follow through on the activities you offered to do in the list above.
  • Listen to your bereaved friends — parents, grandparents, siblings, and other kin to the child who died. All are hurting. All need the safety of being able to vent without being judged or disciplined for expressing their emotions.
  • Mark the child’s birth and death dates in your calendar, and then …
    • A month before, a week before, and the day of, let your friends know you’re aware of their child’s upcoming birthday.
    • During the first year (and beyond), be aware that most bereaved parents dread the death date’s day of the month every month as it ticks off another milestone of their child’s absence.
    • Let your friends know you are thinking of, praying for, and hurting for them — and remembering their absent child — around these dates, especially near the sixth-month and annual death dates. The death anniversary will be difficult. Reach out.
    • Feelings will also be tender near the start and end of the school year when your friends will continue to be aware of what grade level their child would have entered or graduated from. Reach out in acknowledging support.
    • Repeat every year — unless your friends ask you not to bring it up anymore. Respect their wishes while continuing to reach out in nonspecific, loving support.
  • Listen again.
  • Listen later.
  • Listen longer.
  • Listen in silence.
  • Listen over the phone.
  • Listen in person.

Cut mourning parents some slack if they ignore phone calls, bail on social engagements, or don’t seem like themselves. They aren’t themselves anymore. Part of their self-identity (as Son‘s Mom or Daughter‘s Dad) was shattered.

  • They are still parents to their deceased child — and always will be — but will never again have the opportunity to physically parent that beloved child. That’s not something anyone “gets over.” Ever.
  • In time — much, much time — and with understanding support, your friends will eventually learn how to live onward again despite their grief.**

If you have children the same age as your friends’ deceased child, be aware that bereaved parents might seek more interaction with you and your family — or less. Continue reaching out either way.

And listen.

___

*Please forgive me, my dear friends who’ve mourned children, if I’ve tread on tender feelings or gotten this wrong. You’ve taught me more about endurance and living with loss than I’ve learned on my own, and my intention is to honor the grief you’ve borne for the children you’ve lost and continue to love.

**The title of my friend Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s book, On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them, came to mind as I wrote of living “onward again.” I’d planned to type “move forward,” but her better word landed at my fingertips instead.

 

Grief after Holidays

You’ve packed lights and ornaments away, hauled your tree to the curb for recycling (or tucked it back into a box), and started (or at least outlined) your battle plan for losing holiday pounds. “The holidays” are past. Whew! It’s time for a return to the security of normal routines … unless you’re grieving.

Emptied of adornments and social obligations, the post-holiday season sometimes leaves mourners feeling more bereaved than before. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Emptied of adornments and social obligations, the post-holiday season sometimes leaves mourners feeling more bereaved than before. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

If your friends are mourning recent losses, the emptiness of bereavement may surge in the post-holiday “normalcy” of unadorned surroundings and cleared social calendars.

Have you ever unwillingly started over? Imagine waking up one morning to discover your contact lists, calendars, medical records, project files, programs, passwords, accounts, data, and personal property were all gone — vanished. Multiply that by a thousand or so, and you might glimpse the disconcerting reset death writes into the hearts and minds of the bereaved. (If a loved one’s or business partner’s death left unknown account passwords or nontransferable titles, this revision upends emotional, mental, and practical matters.)

When my husband died, our family patterns shut down without warning. The agonizing rebooting left no backup files, and those of us left behind faced unfamiliar operating systems written in a foreign language not compatible with our hardware.

In the earliest months after, I observed that others’ lives continued exactly as before. I even recognized myself as more-or-less alive, so in fragmented slivers of my shattered self I (eventually) acknowledged that life continued, sort of. I didn’t want (or need) to hear “life goes on” from those who meant to comfort me. Life for my family was forever altered — our lives did NOT “go on” as they had before.

When loved ones die, “normal” no longer exists. Please, don’t tell a mourning friend “life goes on,” because for their loved one it didn’t; for your friend, life now goes differently.

In the past year, many of you neighbors dropped off casseroles, friends attended funerals, and well-wishers sent notes of condolences to coworkers, family, or even passing acquaintances who lost loved ones. Well done. Thank you for reaching out to comfort and console your grieving friends and coworkers. (On a personal note, I’m forever grateful to those of you who have comforted me and my family by mourning alongside our trials and triumphs through the years.)

Now, whether you did or didn’t step up at soon after your friends’ loved ones died, pardon me for sounding bossy, but GET BACK TO WORK at it. (Please.) Your grieving friends may need your support more now than they did in the earliest days, weeks, and months.

For friends whose loss(es) occurred recently, the blurring fog of shock probably obscured transitions from the old calendar year to the new. As they reawaken to the disorienting world around them — life as they did not know it before — caring gestures of friendship and concern may help them reorder their surroundings. They won’t be ready to rebuild yet, but gestures of kindness (whether messages of ongoing awareness or invitations to interact) will help newly bereaved friends begin to feel the ground under their feet, even if they aren’t yet strong enough to stand upon it.

For friends approaching anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths (whether in the first year or beyond), such demonstrations of caring and commitment are just as important. People need to know their beloved departed ones aren’t forgotten. Let them know you’re aware it has been a year (or two) since their dear ones died. Make note and mention them on birthdays their loved ones won’t be present to celebrate.

Let your friends know you respect their grieving as acknowledgment that love lives on, even past death.

___

(This post is a revised version of 2015’s Grief Reboots after Holidays.)

Christmas Joy, Christmas Grief

It’s been (early) Christmas at my house for more than a week now; we’re wrapping up (or should I say we’ve already unwrapped?) our holiday celebrations — all but the church service — before December 25. It’s been wonderful having my kids here and celebrating together — this has been a lovely holiday season, our seventh without my husband, their father.

During a few moments, though, “old” grief barged in, casting its shadow across the glow of today’s Christmas lights and shoving me back toward the way I felt when grief was raw:

Mom's Christmas Angel (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Mom’s Christmas Angel (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Glimpsing maroon-and-red hanging from a store display and thinking — just for a second — Ooh, I think he’d like those colors — before I remembered it’s been seven Christmases since I got him a new shirt …
  • Looking up from the yogurt aisle at Walmart to see one of the three paramedics who came to our house the night my husband died … I backed up, turned away, fled to another aisle, and doubled over in the holding-a-shopping-cart equivalent of putting my head between my knees … (My brain knew I was okay, that it was in the past, but my body didn’t. I shook and trembled on and off for hours after, and had to talk myself into sleeping that night for fear of nightmares returning — as they sometimes do.)
  • Placing the star atop the tree and flashing back to my husband lifting our daughters over his head when they were small so they could set the star or an angel at the top …
  • Setting the felt angel my mother made decades ago into the Christmas tree branches and missing her all over again …
  • Realizing with gratitude that my wonderful son-in-law brings our holiday household back to five members … and wishing my husband could be here to get to know and love him too …
  • Relishing the new Star Wars movie with my firstborn daughter beside me and recognizing my hand reached for his at my other side, darn it

For the most part, in day-to-day life, I’ve learned. I’ve grown. I’ve adjusted to living without him at my side. As I’ve shared above, sometimes it “still” hurts, but not as sharply as in the traumatic first and second years after his death.

Much felt hazy in widowed fog back then. Yet I remember the numerous people who attempted to console and comfort me during those difficult, raw years — especially during the holidays. I appreciated them for speaking and reaching out — for not ignoring me — even when some of their efforts were less comforting.

  • Some told me not to cry, that he wouldn’t want me (or our kids) to be sad. I couldn’t help thinking, would he want me to be happy he’s not here? 
  • Others said in time I’d “get used to” living without him (and several years later I have), but that didn’t help me feel better then — it made it worse; it felt like they wanted me to forget about him by discounting the painful grief that was (is) interwoven with my love for him.
  • A few admonished me to “keep it together” for my kids’ sakes. “Don’t let them see you cry,” they said. “You’ll spoil their Christmas and make them afraid to go back to school” (my older daughters attended college out of state during those first few years). But my kids and I were still learning our way through grieving, and suppressing grief is far more harmful than expressing it. I wasn’t crying every minute of every day (though it sometimes felt almost that much), but I didn’t benefit when others told me to hide my tears.

I also remember the many kind, supportive words and gestures that lightened my emotional (and physical) burdens while acknowledging my bereavement during those earliest grief-filled holiday seasons.

  • “I’m thinking of you.”
  • “You’re in my prayers.”
  • “I know you’re grieving her during this season.”
  • “I know it’s not the same without him.”
  • “Would you like to talk about him? About his favorite parts of Christmas?” (Sometimes I did want to talk about it. Sometimes I didn’t. But it felt like I mattered whenever they asked.)
  • One woman called to ask what kind of cookies my youngest daughter liked. A few hours later, she texted to say she was on her way to drop off a plateful.
  • Unexpected gift cards (and cash) helped offset expenses and made me feel less alone in providing for my family’s needs.
  • Cards, letters, emails, and texts offered tangible, visual evidence of others’ awareness.
  • Phone calls offered the same, even when I let it go to voicemail to listen later. (Sometimes I could not summon the emotional effort to answer or reply, but I did appreciate them.)
  • Invitations to join others in holiday gatherings proved I hadn’t been forgotten. Even though I couldn’t muster the strength or will to accept them (and I may not have even responded to some of them, I’m sorry to say now), it meant a lot to be asked.
  • A few of the men from our congregation — my husband’s church brothers — stopped by with a Christmas tree a couple of months after he died, when I’d all but forgotten about readying myself, let alone my house, for the holidays.*

Think back over your year. Did any of your friends lose loved ones? If so, please reach out to them. The holidays can be especially lonely and difficult while mourning. It’s not too late — it’s never too late — to say, “I’m thinking of you” — unless you never say it at all.

Wishing you and yours moments of peace and joy in your holidays. If’ you’re mourning this season, I hope those around you will reach out and show you they care. 

___

This is only a portion of the debris cleared away by the men from church that day. The "bushes" behind the trash bags are piled limbs hauled out to the street. (The poor lighting reflects my scattered state of mind at the time. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

This is only a portion of the debris cleared away by the men from church. The “bushes” behind the trash bags are piled limbs hauled out to the street. (The poor lighting reflects my scattered state of mind at the time.) Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

*The day our church brothers brought the Christmas tree, they did more than that. They opened their eyes and looked around as they hefted the pine out of a pickup truck and into the house. While setting it up in the stand, they asked, “Sister Bruce, do you have anyone helping you out with your yard?” (By what they’d seen, the answer was obvious, but to their credit they asked anyway.) To read about the amazing service they gave my family soon after, please see Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 3 — What to Keep Asking.

 

Don’t Speak Ill of the Dead

For centuries, social decency taught: “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” It should make obvious sense: Don’t complain to a widow that her late husband was a lout. Don’t shush crying, orphaned children that they’ll be better off without their neglectful parents. Don’t tell a bereaved father his son would have messed things up worse if he’d have lived.

Use caution if you're about to say something unkind about the deceased. You'll need to stop soon.

Use caution if you’re about to say something unkind about the deceased. You’ll need to stop soon. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Don’t say good riddance about the death of someone else’s dear one — even if you think it’s true.

Perhaps the widow mentioned above would be the first to agree her late husband was a lout. If so, it’s her right to say it — when and if she’s ready — not anyone else’s.

Perhaps orphaned children themselves, whatever their ages, recognize they’re better off forever freed from their parents’ neglectful (or even harmful) pseudo-care. If so, it’s their right to say it — when and if they’re ready — not anyone else’s*.

Perhaps the bereaved father himself will believe his son wouldn’t have amounted to anything. If so, it’s that father’s right to say it — when and if he’s ready — not anyone else’s.

It’s true one-on-one with people you know, and it’s true on a larger scale with people you know about.

When a public figure passes — celebrity, activist, politician, criminal, terrorist —  it’s easy (perhaps too easy) to jump onto social media and chime in. Oh, what a loss! The world will miss them! or, in the case of a person of infamy,  Oh, it’s about time. Too bad they didn’t go sooner

For the most part, these public figures chose to live in a way that made their comings, goings, achievements, or even atrocities matters of public record; those actions are open to public scrutiny. Their deaths, however, belong first and foremost to their families and closest friends. Private grief supersedes public accolades and animosity.

When someone famous dies, whether it was a person I admired or a person whose actions I loathed, my first thought is for their family and friends; they’ve lost someone important to them.

Speaking ill of the dead doesn’t harm the deceased, but it does inflict cruel, additional pain on their survivors.

Historians will sort the late heroes from villains. For the sake of their surviving friends and family, the rest of us should bite our tongues (or sit on our fingertips) if we’re tempted to say anything that’s neither consoling nor kind.

stopinlotbyteresatlbruce

___

*Bereaved children should receive access to counseling with a licensed therapist who specializes in children’s grief. Adult caretakers should encourage kids to express their feelings without imposing adult judgement or views on the children’s perceptions.

Walking on Eggshells When Someone Dies

Does knowing what to say when someone dies feel like walking on eggshells?

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

(Walking on Eggshells photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

You wouldn’t knowingly step barefoot into a kitchen littered with sharp, slippery shells. Who wants to walk on a surface that’s messy at best, hazardous at worst? But you can’t ignore what’s there. Before entering to clean up the unacceptable disorder, you slip your feet into shoes and grab supplies to help you remove the rolling shell-shards and wipe up the white-and-yolk smears.

Mourning friends’ emotions can seem as hard, thin, fragile, slippery, or sharp as broken eggshells, but you shouldn’t ignore them or their loss, either. Please, please enter their grieving space, but tread lightly and bring appropriate resources as you walk with your mourning friends through their emotional eggshells of grieving.

(Before I take this analogy further, let me be the first to admit where it breaks down: You can completely clean and disinfect a floor, making it good as new, like nothing ever spilled there; you CANNOT straighten or sanitize grief. The bereaved who mourn their spouse, child, sibling, parent, cousin — anyone dear to them — will NEVER be the same. Given abundant time and support, they’ll someday learn to function well again and may no longer display the sharp, messy, slimy aftereffects of grieving — but only after they’ve woven and worn-in an all-new carpet to cover the permanently stained, scratched, and scorched surface beneath.)

  • Acknowledge you’re aware your friend is hurting — and that you know you can’t fix their grief. Not even all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and women can fix the breaks of bereavement.
  • Lament the loss and LISTEN. (“I’m so sorry your friends died. I’m here to listen. Would you like to tell me more about her/him/them?”) If your friend says something you disagree with, this is NOT the time to argue. Your role is to be a safe sounding board. Don’t take their short temper or lack of attention personally — it’s not about you when their world has shattered.
  • Pick up the practical pieces you can.* Offer to do specific, tangible tasks (drive carpool, bring groceries or meals, wash laundry or dishes or the dog, mow the lawn, tend the kids, make phone calls …).
  • Wipe up the mess — without judgement. Grief can cause torrential tears, erratic emotions, disrupted digestion,  sickly sleep, distressing distraction … in short, mourning is messy. Bring the softest tissues you can find, offer assistance with upcoming deadlines, invite the bereaved into your circle and activities (without reproach if you’re turned down), and reassure your friends that it’s okay for them to grieve in their own way**.
  • Return often. Grief’s relentlessness is as certain as gravity. Eggs will fall, crack, and roll all over a cleaned kitchen floor. Mourning will hit without warning, cracking life into a fragmented shell of what it once was. As your grieving friend begins to adjust, shock wears away, allowing new waves of grief to resurge as they confront the ongoing realities of living without their loved one.

Tread lightly while stepping alongside your mourning friends, but DO walk with them. And don’t be afraid of the mess as you clean up crushed eggshells with them along the way.

___

*Exercise CAUTION when helping with physical things within the deceased person’s home or office. Do not rush a bereaved person into any decisions, but ALWAYS ASK before throwing away or laundering items. What you may see as an old newspaper to be thrown out, your grieving friend may see as the last crossword puzzle their loved one finished. The pillowcase you wish to strip in order to provide your friend with fresh bedding may contain the last scent of their loved one.

**Everyone grieves differently. Avoid telling your friends they “should” (or shouldn’t) anything. The only exception is if their actions or (inaction) cause immediate or imminent harm to themselves or others.

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.

 

 

Grief, Fear, and Reassurance after Death

When a friend asked whether I’d heard of people experiencing irrational fears after losing loved ones, I nearly laughed, not at her question, but at myself.

Irrational fears after a death? Oh, yeah. I’m afraid that yes, I have been scared (and somewhat scarred) by those …

(Sorry. Couldn’t resist the pun. Chalk it up to warped, widowed humor.)

In the first couple of years after my husband’s unexpected death:

If I needed to run an errand on the other end of town, I faced a frightening dilemma: 25 minutes on the highway with lunatic drivers speeding, or 45 minutes on back roads with crazed drivers running red lights and stop signs. Which would get me home quicker? More safely? At all?

If my doctor wanted me to try a new medication, did I dare? What if I was one of the few for whom death was listed (in infinitesimal print) as a possible side effect? I had a dependent child at home — could I take that risk?

If my daughter ran a fever, my mind forgot the existence of common culprits like a cold virus or other seasonal bug. I googled symptoms of meningitis and other serious ailments, afraid to have her doctor confirm my worst fears, but also afraid not to take her in for an exam.

One day my daughter’s severe lower abdominal pain and fever prompted the pediatrician to send us straight to the hospital. The same hospital where, less than a year earlier, a doctor prefaced the worst news of our lives with “Unfortunately …”

My daughter was beside herself, tense with pain and fearful of the unknown.

I was determined to “stay strong” for her — like so many people had admonished me to be over recent months. But my hands trembled, and I fought to keep my voice calm. Walking into that same doorway and down those same halls was like walking into a nightmare — while fully awake — terrified of history repeating itself. It felt like every step forward sent me ten steps back into the trauma of that night months before.

On that night I’d entered with confidence in the skills and abilities of the city-sized staff and the wonders of modern medicine. This time, I entered with spine-seizing fear.

But I knew I had to stay strong for my daughter because she needed me (and because that’s what people told me when they saw me cry). So I swallowed my fear whole and spoke past the lump burning in my throat. I murmured the same words in the same tone I’d uttered countless times during two decades of parenting our three children: “Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’ll be okay.”

“No. You can’t say that anymore, Mom.” 

Silence. 

She was right.

Wrecking-ball-to-the-gut silence.

Months earlier we’d been catapulted into the worst outcome — the one too awful to have considered that it might have been possible — and in crash-landing everything changed. Up meant fifty degrees sideways; left and right were mushed together somewhere beneath us; light illuminated nothing; the blinding brightness of dark stung our eyes.

“It’ll be okay” no longer sounded reassuring or hopeful. Guarantees were gone, replaced by uncertainty.

I later learned I wasn’t the only widowed parent who — alongside grieving the death of a spouse — mourned the loss of a child’s innocent trust that life goes on. Because sometimes (and eventually for everyone) it doesn’t. Not for the one who died. Not for the ones left mourning.

When their world has turned upside down, children (and adults) sometimes revert back to behaviors from a time they felt more secure. As a newly widowed mom, I sometimes caught myself saying quietly but aloud, “I want my mommy.”

Children who’ve lost a parent (or other caretaker) to death sometimes become clingy, once again exhibiting the separation anxiety they already outgrew. It’s not uncommon for them to whine or cry when the remaining parent leaves for work (or for anything). In an odd role reversal, kids may demand, “Where are you going? Who are you going to be with? What time will you come home? Let me know when you’re on your way back …

Grief often disrupts sleep. Children who haven’t used night lights in years (or ever) may refuse to sleep in the dark. Others may be unable to sleep alone. Nightmares (of the circumstances of the loved one’s death or fears about what follows) can be so intense that surviving family members may try avoiding sleep altogether. (My nightmares and night worries were so intense I cracked a molar clenching my teeth in my sleep during the first year after my husband died.)

Telling grieving kids (or adults) to “stop worrying” ignores their genuine (and logical) distress. After all, the fact that one parent already died irrefutably introduced them to the reality of mortality.

A healthier way to reassure them is to acknowledge their reasons for concern and to encourage them to express their fears. Older kids (and adults) might write in a private journal or in letters to their deceased loved one. Younger children might draw pictures or role-play with stuffed animals or dolls.

To help mourners (of all ages) as they face the many fears that accompany bereavement, give them the benefit of time with friends who let them talk — without judging them for how well they are (or aren’t) handling their grief.

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(In case you were wondering, it really was okay that day in the hospital. But ever since, I fear I’ve been reluctant to say, “It’ll be okay.”)