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.”)

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.)