Kids after Death, Children’s Grief Awareness Day

Children’s Grief Awareness Day is the third Thursday each November. As people in the U.S. gear up for the following week’s Thanksgiving celebrations, the day is meant to raise awareness that the holiday season can be especially difficult for children who are grieving.

It’s a time of year that’s hard enough for bereaved adults, and kids’ feelings run just as deep. However, children lack the ability to draw on decades of emotional (and verbal) experience to help them recognize and process those feelings.

It should be obvious that children need emotional support as they mourn. It should be obvious that as children grow up, milestone events sometimes prompt as much pain over their absent loved one as pride in their own accomplishment. It should be obvious that anniversaries and holidays and yearly commemorations are forever altered when a loved one is lost.

Sadly, sometimes even professionals get it wrong.

[A friend gave permission to tell this true incident, but I’ve omitted details for the privacy of those involved:]

Two months before the first anniversary of one parent’s death (prior to the start of the holiday season), the surviving parent of a high school student asked for a meeting with school counselors and teachers. The desperate parent sought ways to help the grieving student re-engage in education while the teenager worked through the natural ups and downs of mourning.

Two months after the first anniversary,  when the long-sought meeting was finally convened (amid a season of holiday decorations everywhere), the situation had grown more dire.

The school psychologist had not yet met the surviving parent — or student — until they sat across from the table that day. The school system employee opened a file and scanned it for about three seconds. She sighed, closed the file, and said, “I see your grades and attendance started slipping about this time last year. What happened?”

The parent and the student were too stunned to answer.

The school social worker (who had met the parent and the student earlier) leaned forward. As if cuing in her colleague via a stage whisper, the social worker relayed that the other parent died the previous year.

The school psychologist’s response was, “That was last year. What’s the problem this year?”

As if the parent’s death and subsequent absence no longer mattered.

Thank goodness other professionals get it right.

My children were young when my mother died. We’d lived in Mom and Dad’s house for two years, caring for her while he worked and she recovered from cancer treatment, and we stayed with them while she endured to the end of its return. So my daughters were very close to their grandma. Even as Mom’s health declined, she loved having her grandchildren snuggle up beside her for a story or a cuddle or “commersations” about their day.

The hospice nurses in and out of the house were attentive to my kids, even though my mother was their patient. They always bent down at eye level and spoke to my oldest. They talked with her about how they were taking care of Grandma, not to “make her better” but to help her feel as comfortable as she could.

After Mom died, the nurses cried with us. They gave our daughters each a small toy — a thing they could hold onto while part of their lives and household slipped from them.

One hospice nurse and counselor came back later to show the children they were still remembered — and to acknowledge they knew the girls “still” missed their grandmother.

These professionals’ one-on-one attentions reassured my daughters … and therefore eased one corner of my own bereavement after Mom’s death.

And therein lies all the difference.

If you know a child who has lost a parent, sibling, or other beloved one, please reach out. Acknowledge the loss. Ask the child’s parent or guardian how you can offer support.

Please be aware.

And wear blue in support of #childgriefday this Thursday. Learn more by visiting
http://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/.

Halloween Grief

My husband died about a month before Halloween. Fake tombstones and skeletons lined store aisles. I was a new widow, the unwilling owner of his cemetery plot. Holiday prop inscriptions labeled Rest in Peace were anything but peaceful.

Mock cemetery displays (complete with fake tombstones and skeletons) contradict the "peaceful" invocation to "rest in peace" (RIP). Many mourners despise them. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

Mock cemetery displays (complete with fake tombstones and skeletons) contradict the “peaceful” invocation to “rest in peace” (RIP). Many mourners despise them. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

He loved Halloween. He delighted in seeing our daughters’ excitement as they dressed up in costumes. I think trick-or-treating was as much fun for him as it was for them. Even when he had to work nights, his favorite annual activity at church was taking our girls “trunk-or-treating” right up until the moment he had to leave for his job.

That first year, just weeks after his passing, I sat in the decorated gym more out of habit (for our youngest daughter’s sake) than because I wanted to be there. I wasn’t quite numb anymore — the shock was beginning to erode — but I wasn’t myself yet, either (and wouldn’t be for a long, long time).

Sights and sounds buzzed and blurred around me. Kids played, adults conversed. I tried eating the food in front of me, but taste and appetite were as irrelevant as they’d been since the night my husband died.

I was an auto-pilot version of myself. I had no desire (or ability) to socialize, and the sight of couples enjoying the event together evoked irrational but undeniable guilt-inducing envy and resentment.

One woman, a person of refinement and decorum, sat beside me. She looked at me without staring yet she saw the pain I was too raw to conceal. “I won’t ask you how you’re doing,” she said.

I nodded my thanks, trying not to let the gathering moisture in my eyes spill onto my face.

“It just sucks,” she said.

Her words, so unlike the lexicon of culture and propriety I’d come to expect from her, were exactly what I needed to hear. Those three little words acknowledged my life had taken a turn, that the “fun” event was anything but, that my soul ached.

And in her acknowledgment of my hurt, a tiny bit of healing began.

Fast forward four, then five years.

Last year I manned games at the children’s trunk-or-treat. It was great fun, and I looked forward to doing the same again this year.

But grief doesn’t always behave in an orderly way. The closer I got to this year’s event, the stronger my aversion grew. Finally, I backed out of my plan to help. (And felt much, much better as soon as I did.)

I don’t mind the cutesy witches and ghouls and goblins decorating houses and buildings. I have nothing against the rows of tiny costumes and candy totes lining store aisles. I still think it will be fun to see little ones dressed up and going door to door again, yelling, “Trick or treat!”

But I still dislike neighborhood “cemeteries” like the one I photographed while out walking the dog early one morning. There’s nothing restful or peaceful about mock burial sites when you’ve had to buy a real one.

 

 

 

 

“Thought of You” Five Years Later

Five years ago my life ended.

In that same absent heartbeat, my new, alien life began.

No, I didn’t have a near-death experience, but without warning, Death got in my face, reached into my being, and ripped away my other half — my soulmate.

To say that it hurt … words don’t exist that convey the suffering of that severance. I didn’t think I could endure the agony.

I wouldn’t — couldn’t — consider ending my life to end the pain; I had three daughters who needed me. But there were times the idea was hard to squelch. More often, I daydreamed of going to sleep and never waking up.

Waking up — in that split-second flash of remembering he was dead — felt horrific, far worse than the sleepless tossing and turning that preceded it. Brief, eventual dips into nightly, exhaustion-induced, nightmare-ridden naps were never “restful.” Even within those nightmares I somehow knew that waking would bring a fresh slap in the face of the worst reality I’d ever faced: my husband was dead.

Life — as I knew it — was over. (The well-intended, misguided souls who “consoled” me that “life goes on” were wrong.)

It was

no

more.

Yet, relentlessly, without him, one unwanted sunrise after another, I “woke up and wished that I was dead, with an aching in my head . . . I thought of you and where you’d gone, and the world spins madly on.“*

I found myself drawn to communities of the widowed, and I connected more deeply with friends who’d lost children and other dear ones. In such company, the words which so frustratingly failed us when speaking with the non-bereaved weren’t necessary. Among fellow mourners, each grieving their own unique bereavement, all were fluent in the language of heart loss.

Back then, I struggled to get through a full day. The thought of enduring that degree of pain — at that intensity — for the rest of my lifetime . . . Ugh. (As I sit typing these words, even the memory of those awful months makes me shudder from shoulder to knee.)

I asked my fellow widows and widowers who seemed to have rebuilt their shattered lives, who seemed to know how to make it from one day to the next, “How long did it take? How long before you felt like yourself again? Before you felt you could cope again?”

Their responses gave me nibbles to ponder (I wasn’t yet up to food for thought), hope in future, and reasons to fight — for my own newly alien life. Their answers surprised, encouraged, and confounded me:

  • I’ll let you know if I ever feel like myself again.
  • The second year was harder than the first. I started getting my act together during the third.
  • I did what I had to do because there was no one else to do it, but I still don’t feel like myself.
  • It takes as long as it takes. Don’t listen to anybody who hasn’t walked in your shoes. There’s no set time for anything.
  • By five years I’d pulled my new self together. Give yourself time.

Five years? I thought. No way will it take me FIVE YEARS. No way I can last that long through this. No way.

From time to time since then, I’ve tried to take an objective look at where I am now compared to where I was before widowhood and where I was during the earliest months and years of widowhood. Along the way from Back Then to each new Right Now, at every self-evaluation I could see signs of progress — and of my own personal failure to thrive.

Overall, my progress has grown and my failures (for the most part) have shrunk from one stage to the next. But I always thought, It’s okay that I’m not “there” yet. I will be before five years. I am NOT gonna take that long to be okay again.

But now . . .

It has been five years.

And I am well. Not the same, but well enough. (At least, well enough for now.)

And, most of the time, I am happy again. (At least, happy enough for now.)

Among the widows and widowers I first met, someone (I wish I remember who, but too many memories from then are widow-fog obscured) shared the video clip, “Thought of You” by animator Ryan Woodward**, created the same year my husband died. The artist left the meaning open so viewers can relate their own circumstances to the story it tells. To me (and to many others who’ve lost loved ones) the animation, music, and lyrics together come close — very close — to conveying the feeling of new bereavement (which words alone can’t approach).

 

___

*Lyrics by The Weepies in “World Spins Madly On,”
http://www.theweepies.com/
**Ryan Woodward’s incredible site:
http://ryanwoodwardart.com/

___

(Happy angelversary in your better place, my dear.)

Putting the Widowed in a Box

I went for a checkup yesterday. I hadn’t been to that provider since the year my husband died, so I had to fill out a new medical history. How difficult filling out such forms used to be (and sometimes “still” is)! If you own or manage a business that requires personal information of its clients, make sure your paperwork and/or website includes “widowed” as a category.

At least this form offered me the option of "Other" where I could write in my own category: widowed.

At least this form offered me the option of “Other” where I could write in my own category: widowed.

I can’t count the number of times I sobbed through inadequate, limited options during the first year and a half after his death. (I do remember specific waiting rooms where people were leery enough of the crying woman to move to the other side of the room, sending not-so-furtive glances my way.)

When I was newly widowed,  EVERYTHING reminded me of my loss. It was hard enough coping with grief on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. I hated having to acknowledge my husband’s death in clinical black and white on the many forms I had to fill out — and there were a LOT of forms. It was excruciating to complete paperwork that ignored the existence of my life-altered status.

  • I was not “single.” (I’d been married for 24 years and hadn’t done anything that changed or negated that. Neither had my husband — except for his dying.)
  • I was not “divorced.” (See above.)
  • I was not “married.” (Even though both of the above still applied, my spouse was no longer there — he was NEVER coming home.)
  • I was “widowed.” (Still am.)

Too often, company  (and government) forms offer no appropriate box for widows and widowers to check under “marital status.” On paper I write in my own category, even when there isn’t an option (or enough space) to do so. But online forms can incite scream-inducing, option-lacking frustration.

(And yes, during that first year or so, I sat at my computer and screamed at such websites — and at whatever offices or organizations had sent me to them — even though I had never been a person who screamed. But I’d never been widowed before, either.)

It has been nearly five years since my husband died. Socially, I’ve come to see myself as single again — most days, anyway.  But legally, “widowed” still feels like a better fit.

I still check the “Mrs.” box (rather than the ones for Ms. or Miss).* Online, that often opens a dialog box for my husband’s contact information. (Good luck trying to reach him, I think.) If I leave blank his current address and phone number, or type “deceased” (or, when I’m in a snarky mood, if I enter the word “cemetery”), such sites red-line my responses with please submit a valid phone number and street address. (Sometimes that makes me want to scream again.)

I don’t appreciate paperwork forcing me back to the start, forcing me to redefine myself according to its guidelines.

As a widow, I’ve had to do enough starting over — and redefining — for myself.

___

*If you don’t know what a widow prefers to be called (Mrs., Ms. or Miss), ask her. She won’t bite, and she’ll appreciate that you respect her enough to want to heed her preference.

Live or Survive (the Song by TREN) and the Great Grief Dilemma

I heard “Live or Survive” by TREN this morning, and within seconds — before listening to the whole song again and again — I knew I’d share it here. Although this isn’t a song about grief,  its music nevertheless speaks to me (or should I say sings?) of the great grief dilemma I’ve faced with the death of each loved one. 

*Here’s the song:

Now, I realize TREN didn’t write this song to speak about grief. Their intention is stated on their Facebook page:

“Live or Survive” was written with a mission to play at the end credits of the last Hunger Games movie, by TREN (Taylor Miranda, Richard Williams, Eliza Smith, and Nate Young). The idea is that there comes a time when we must either fight for a chance at really “living life” or give in to circumstance and simply “survive.”https://www.facebook.com/wearetren/timeline (Twitter: @tren_music)

I’m a fan of the Hunger Games franchise. A big fan. (I won’t admit how many times I’ve read the books by Suzanne Collins and seen the movies.) I hope the producers jump at the chance to include this song. It captures the contradictions Katniss faces within herself as much as with her battle against The Capitol.

But that’s not why I feel impelled to share it here, where I write about how to help grieving friends, family, and coworkers.

What I heard was a reflection of daily battles with bereavement. “Live or Survive” captures the multifaceted impossibilities of what I call the great grief dilemma for the newly-bereaved: my life is over, but I’m still here to live it.

Consider these lyrics by TREN (in italics) — paired with grief-related thoughts I’m expressing in the present tense (to reflect new, raw grief):

  • “I hear the call, but will I listen?” — I hear the doctor’s words of diagnosis. Of pronouncement. I know their meaning, but I do not, cannot know what they mean, much less accept them.
  • “Flames pave the sky in the distance.” — My world tumbles upside-down. There’s air beneath my feet, and smoke obscures my eyes. Everything is altered.
  • “I know my place, but should I stay?” — I’m a wife, but my husband is dead. I’m my mother’s daughter, but Mom is gone. Who am I? (My friends — dear friends — who have lost beloved children are, and will always be, the parents of those precious departed souls, but these bereaved parents will forever straddle pain whenever someone asks the number of their children.)
  • “Something in my soul craves resistance.” — Denial doesn’t allow me to accept that my loved one is never coming back. Unfinished business or issues will never be resolved. It’s too much to take, so I won’t think about it. My brain is overloaded and my heart won’t let me.
  • “One by one, they drop and fall, hiding beneath already broken walls. Watch them burn to the ground.” — My plans, hopes, dreams, and expectations for the future have died with my husband. Hourly at first, then over days, weeks, and months, loss peels layer after layer from my being.
  • “Ashes of freedom never to be found. Traitor to the truth inside.” — Tethered by 24/7 caretaking, the death of my dear one delivers physical relief with a terrible, terrible cost. Survivor’s guilt means that (even if I believe it) I don’t want to hear how wonderful it is he’s no longer suffering or how glad anyone is that she’s in “a better place.”
  • “Can you stand tall against the tide?” — Grief assaults me in waves that knock me to my knees. Mourning often submerges me. Standing requires strength I don’t have.
  • “Will you put your hands in the sky?” — How can I go on? I give up. I can’t do this on my own.
  • “Or curl them into fists and fight?” — I snap at everyone around me, stuck in fight-or-flight battle mode. Uncharitable words I’ve never uttered chip at my defenses until I’m even fighting myself just to keep a civil tongue.
  • “Live or survive. Live or survive.” — If one more person tells me “life goes on,” I’ll scream. Loudly. Because it doesn’t. His didn’t. And yet … and yet … I can’t deny I’m still here. But I’m not living. Not really. Barely.
  • “Gotta pick a side.” — I have to decide. Will I ever do more than go through the motions? Will I ever want to live for myself?
  • “Can you hear them calling?” — Too many calls. Not enough calls. Don’t demand I do things now. I’m not ready. Don’t ignore me, either. I need to be called. I need to know I still matter, even though the one who mattered to me is gone.
  • “Can’t waste time.” — I can’t even tell time, let alone track it. Once-simple, 30-minute tasks take hours. Seasons surprise me. Yet funerary and other business matters demand timely attention my mind can’t pay.
  • “Revolution falling.” — My worldview’s shifting with my upside-down universe. Except for the innermost core of my being (a knowledge that God loves me and will somehow carry me through this), I take nothing else for granted but unpredictable change.
  • “I will not stand by.” — I can’t stand seeing others mourning — it hurts too much! — but I won’t stand apart (or depart) from them either. If I can help ease another’s loneliness, isolation, sorrow, insecurity, or confusion in their grief, I have to try. I have to. (Hence, this site.)
  • “Courage at the core. Go before the fear sets in.” — It requires unspeakable, exhausting courage to manage routine business matters. I count my breathing before asking for help and stave off the panic until I hang up. It takes days to muster the will to make a single phone call, and once I psyche myself up to it I must act. Fast.
  • “Stronger than before.” — Hour by hour. The only way to survive this. (If one more person says “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I may remind them that didn’t work so well for my husband. Loudly.)
  • “Never let your faith give.” — My trust in God’s plan for my life takes a back seat to my trust in his love for me. (Back seat? On second thought, trust in “the plan” rides on a rickety trailer pulled far behind the vehicle of love where I’m seat-belted in place. It’s still there, but not easy to reach. For a time.)
  • “Live for something more.” — It’s not possible to live when your other half is severed. Only half a being remains. So when I do learn to live again, it will have to be for something more.

It’s been 56 months since my husband died and nearly 20 years since Mom’s passing. am living again, and life is good, thanks to time and work and practice, but I’ll never “get over” loving the ones I’ve lost. No one does. Rather, we learn to live in spite of our bereavement. Sometimes, though, events (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, or nothing identifiable) will reactivate waves of grief. When they strike again, I’ll remember I have options:

“Will you put your hands into the sky?
Or curl them into fists and fight?
Live or survive.”

___

*If you enjoyed TREN’s music as much as I did, please like and share it using #liveorsurvive and #tren. When Mockingjay — Part 2 is released, I’d love to hear “Live or Survive” on the soundtrack!

Mourning on Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day hurts. I don’t like dwelling on the downside of death (although that may seem like a strange thing from someone who writes about grief), but the best way for me to get through every second Sunday in May is to close the blinds and hunker down in solitude.

Sometimes the light of love (and its loss) shines brighter against the darkness of grief.

Sometimes the light of love (and its loss) shines brighter against the darkness of grief.

It wasn’t always like that. As a kid I picked flowers, drew cards, and poured adulation on Mom. As a young adult, then a new bride, and eventually a mother myself I appreciated her (and my grandmas and aunts) more deeply than before. My cards and gestures of appreciation (which once seemed so grand) paled next to Mom’s lifetime of service — though my daughters’ creative endeavors for me melted my heart.

After Mom died, Mother’s Day went dark. I still went to church that day, but mostly for my children’s sakes. (I wanted them to see me attending weekly even if I didn’t feel like it, and I knew they and their peers had practiced a song for all the moms.) I enjoyed their lovely hugs (and songs) and cards and “interesting” breakfasts in bed that one day of the year.

But the moment memories of Mom meandered into the day, renewed mourning overtook me.

Over the years I’ve learned to live with my mother’s loss, but there were always certain days per year — like Mother’s Day — wherein the pain of being a daughter without a mother hit me again. Hard.

Those hits became all-out assaults after my husband died. The pain of being a wife without a husband knocked the breath out of me.

This is my fifth widowed Mother’s Day. It’s easier … and yet it’s not. (My plastic smile will be a little more convincing as I smile at the children singing at church this year, but I know better than to bother wearing eye makeup.)

If you know someone grieving this Mother’s Day, let them know you’re mindful of their loss. Let them know you’re thinking about them. Let them know you know this year is different than it was.

Don’t say you know how they feel, because you don’t — especially if you’ve never suffered a similar loss. Only bereaved mothers, for instance, can nearly understand the raw feelings of other mothers who have buried a child. Acknowledge the unique, personal, presence of their grief.

Some people need interaction with others to distract them from tender days like this. Reach out and invite them!

But if they ignore or decline your invitation or phone calls, don’t take it personally. They might be like I am, needing to hunker down this year, but also appreciating messages of support. (I’m keeping the “Please do NOT disturb” sign on my door all day.)

Whether they take you up on your offers or don’t bother responding, let them know you’re aware and you care.

Pets, People, Death, and Grief

(I’ve composed this post — in my mind — dozens of times since February, but couldn’t bring myself to word it while my 13-year-old dog’s kidneys were failing. She rallied for a miraculous while, but this week her energy and appetite declined. For her sake, I had to let her go. Now that she’s gone, I can’t not put it into words.)  

Two weeks after her diagnosis, my dog rallied for several weeks. Each extra day was a gift!

Two weeks after her diagnosis, my dog rallied for several weeks. Each extra day was a gift!

If your friend lost a beloved pet (or person), remember that grief is the body’s natural (though awful!) response to losing someone with an emotional connection.

  1. Pets are not people,
    but
  2. Pets are people, too.

Huh? Didn’t I just contradict myself? Yes.

And no.

Pets are not people. Their bodies have different biological rhythms, their life spans (for most species) will run out long before their humans’ lives do, and they are 100 percent physically dependent upon the people who care for them.

Kind of like children. Their bodies have developing biological rhythms that differ from those of their parents (think of newborn sleeping, eating, and um, diapering needs), their life spans (with tragic exceptions) will outlast their parents’ lives,  and for years they are 100 percent physically dependent upon the people who care for them.

As we care for our pets, our children, our elderly relatives, our spouses, and our family-by-choice friends (whose bonds of kinship in some cases exceed those crafted in blood or in law), we join our hearts, minds, and extremities (hands, paws, wingtips, scales, fins …) with theirs.

We and they become family. We serve them, they serve us. We love them.

And when they leave us, they take that joined part of our hearts, our minds, and even the feelings of our extremities with them.

We mourn them.

As with other losses we’ve experienced, we can draw upon our own pain to help us better understand those who are mourning. But we must never, ever compare our losses or one-up “my grief is harder than your grief.” Ever.

I’m mourning my dog. Every part of my house and every part of my day reminds me of her absence. It HURTS. But as much as I love and miss her, this grief is not the same grief I felt after my husband’s death or my mother’s. It’s a different, less intense grief.

And yes, each “new” grief brings back a degree of the shock and the pain of each “old” source of bereavement.

Several people who dearly, deeply love their pets made comments they intended to help (but that did the opposite). When I needed to express my grief over the man who fathered my children, I didn’t appreciate hearing anyone say they “knew” how I felt because they’d had to put down a sick dog once several years earlier or they were dreading “going through” what I was experiencing when the inevitable happened to their pets.

My daughters didn’t appreciate similar comments comparing their dad’s death to the passing of friends’ cats, either. I don’t mean to imply that the loss of a pet is insignificant, because it does matter. When you learn a friend’s beloved fur baby has passed, by all means, speak up and share your condolences! (“I’m sorry about Flipper. She was a good goldfish.”)

But don’t rush in to judge or suggest courses of “replacement” — and this applies to the loss of  a person as well. (Do NOT ask whether — or when — they’re going to get another dog, cat, spouse, or child. Do NOT ask how soon they will start visiting animal shelters, dating, or “trying again” for another baby!)

Comparing losses or rushing to “replace” those we’ve loved doesn’t work. Think of it like this: Would it be better to lose your dominant hand or one of your legs? Which of your senses would you choose to lose? Who would you prefer to mourn when death steps into your circle of loved ones?

All loss hurts. All grief has to be worked through.

Let your friends know that you know they are hurting. (“I’m sorry about Donatello. I know you’re going to miss that sweet, stubborn donkey.”)

Be there with them. Bring tissues or chocolate or music or whatever your friends will find soothing.

Share your memories of their beloved. (“Remember the time Bunny chased that obnoxious salesman away? Good ole rabbit…”

Send word. Drop a line of text, a Facebook comment, an email, or (gasp!) an actual note or letter. They’ll be appreciated.

Many of my kind human friends have already done that for me. I thank you. You are amazing, and your compassion has brought sweetness into my saddened heart as I mourn my beloved, ever-faithful fur friend.

___
Helping Your Child When the Family Pet Dies” by the ASPCA includes some validating suggestions and further links at the bottom of its page.