New Year, New Grief after Death

As the world counts down the end of this year and anticipates the beginning of the next, news outlets will no doubt remind us of 2016 celebrity deaths: Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, George Michael, John Glenn, Florence Henderson, Janet Reno, Gene Wilder, Muhammad Ali, Christina Grimmie, Prince, Chyna, Patty Duke, Harper Lee, David Bowie, Alan Rickman … Many famous people left behind sorrowful fans who regret their absence — and grieving families who lament and mourn them.

If you haven’t recently buried a loved one, you might think the new year promises solace — a fresh start — to grieving friends. For some, replacing a calendar marked by death’s heavy hand offers healing.

Turning calendar pages can refresh old grief (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Turning calendar pages can refresh old grief (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

But getting through holidays without deceased loved ones can feel disloyal, pointless, or any other strong emotion, and when the calendar changes, years shared with dear ones are forever left behind. For many mourners, the new year symbolizes further isolation from beloved ones.

New Year’s Eve/Day celebrations often trigger renewed grief. Traditions like listing resolutions, counting down to midnight, swapping ball-drop-watching stories, serving New Year’s Day black-eyed peas) — all can provoke painful reminders of bereavement in those who may have begun adjusting to earlier losses.

Anticipatory grief also rises at year end. For those facing a terminal diagnosis (their own or a loved one’s), realizing the coming year might — or will — be their last can be devastating.

In marriage, I’d grafted myself — mind, heart, body, and soul — to my husband; we’d been one. His death ripped apart that grafting, leaving me an incomplete fraction of myself — not whole — a walking wound, more a jagged hole than a functioning human. It shattered me.*

I wasn’t the only widow (or other mourner) who lamented, “Why am I still here? Why couldn’t it have been me?” During restless nights when waking alone felt almost as awful as going to bed alone, I’d have welcomed a passive exit in my scant sleep. Lest you misunderstand, please note: I didn’t, I don’t, and I won’t consider hastening to join my late husband.* (No way — I have daughters, other family, and friends who need me and whom I love and need, too.) But sometimes the brokenhearted agony of raw grief exceeded bearability.*

You can’t lessen the pain of grieving a loved one’s death at New Year’s (and beyond), but you can make sure your friends don’t have to endure it alone. How?

  • Acknowledge it’s a difficult time of year, whether the loss is recent and raw or even years ago. New Year’s Eve and Day can reopen grief’s wounds. Friends validated my loss by acknowledging and accepting my sorrow (rather than ignoring or trying to “fix” it).
  • Invite grieving friends to join in your celebration or commemoration of the event. Tell them you’d like them with you for your sake (“I’d like your company”) as well as for their sakes (“Please join me so you won’t be alone”). If they decline (as I often did), assure them the invitation remains open if their circumstances or feelings change.
  • Repeat the invitation, but don’t push. Offer bereaved friends the choice, but respect them to know best whether solitude or socializing will help. For some widowed peers, going to friends’ homes to ring in the new year lifted their spirits better than staying home. For me, some years I’ve needed to stay home watching chick flicks with my daughters; other years I’ve gone out dancing with friends. (I’ve yet to decide which I’ll do this year.)
  • Offer an oasis. Sometimes mourners happily engage with friends (and strangers) one moment but feel hit by tsunami-sized waves of grief the next. Let grieving guest(s) know ahead of time where they can find a few moments to themselves — sometimes crying in private helps channel emotions — but assure them it’s okay if they cry right there beside you and other guests, too.

If mourning friends choose not to join you, continue offering an oasis of listening, awareness, and concern.

If your friends lost loved ones this year, please reach out to them during this rough week. Even if the loss doesn’t seem recent to you, it still is to them. (For many mourners, the second year after a death can be as hard, if not harder, than the first.)

Express that you’re aware this year is different for your grieving friends when life moves on for the rest of the world January 1. (Don’t, however, tell mourners “life goes on” — for their loved one it didn’t.) Be there for them — not only New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day but in the 365 (and more) days to follow.

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* PLEASE seek professional help if you (or anyone you know) feel so overburdened by grief or loss (or any other reason) that suicide seems like an option. Do it now. If not for your own sake, then for those around you, get help now. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in the U.S.; outside the U.S. you may find resources at this  list of international suicide hotlines.

(Forgive my overuse of single asterisks above. I wanted to call as much attention as possible to this notice.)

Elements of this post may seem familiar; parts are adapted from my earlier New Year, New Grief and New Year after Death posts.

For more on what to say (and what NOT to say) to the newly bereaved heading into the new year, see Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death.

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Within hours of posting this the day after Carrie Fisher’s death, I learned that her mother, Debbie Reynolds, also died. I’ve edited the above text to include her name as well. I sincerely offer my condolences to their family as they grieve this heartbreaking double loss.

Grief on the Fourth of July

I’ve always loved the U.S. holiday called Independence Day, but for twenty years I’ve struggled to enjoy the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate it. Contradictory? Perhaps, but holidays after a loved one’s death can become complicated, contradictory things.

20150704_stars and stripes fireworks burst

“Stars and Stripes Fireworks over Orlando” photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

On the one hand, maintaining annual traditions can give survivors a lifeline of continuity in a time when their lives have been demolished by death. Things will never be normal again, so holiday celebrations and commemorations can — for some mourners — offer the comforting familiarity of ritual. For the first couple of years after my husband died, only at the last minute did I remember to buy hot dogs, potato chips, dip, and soda (our family’s traditional Fourth of July junk food)  — primarily because our kids expected it.

On the other hand, for some who grieve, carrying on with past traditions (as if nothing has changed) hurts more than it helps. Also in the first year (or two) after my husband died, I felt raging jealousy and resentment for those going about their days as if everything was okay — because to me it wasn’t. I couldn’t make myself display any of our household Independence Day decorations I’d made and/or purchased during our twenty-four years of marriage. (In fact, on this my sixth widowed Independence Day, that bin remains untouched. Maybe next year.)

If your friends have lost loved ones recently, please be sensitive to their grief this Fourth of July (and in holidays yet to come):

  • Acknowledge that this holiday will be different (if not downright difficult) for the bereaved. Don’t be afraid of reminding them of their loss or “making” them sad; they already remember their loss every minute of every day. What they need is to know someone else does, too.
  • Invite them to join you in cookouts, picnics, beach trips … whatever you usually do to celebrate. Tell them the invitation remains open if they decline. Don’t push — they may really need space — but do make certain they are welcome to change their minds later.
  • Don’t take it personally if they turn you down, won’t RSVP, or don’t return calls or messages. In the early months after my husband died, sometimes I answered the phone only for my immediate family but let other calls go to voicemail. (It wasn’t them, it was me.) It took me more than six months to be able to even think about attending social gatherings (and it took longer to actually go).
  • Ask them how they usually celebrated the holiday with their deceased loved one. Most mourners are grateful for the chance to speak about the ones they grieve.
  • Tread lightly with greetings like “Happy Fourth.” Of course you want your friends to be happy, and happiness is possible even while grieving, but when grief is new and raw, a safer, more considerate message might be “Thinking of you on the Fourth.”

(To find out why I’ve had an aversion to July 4th since the 1990s, see Fireworks of Grief.)

One more thing. While you’re enjoying whatever it is you like to do on this national holiday, please take one moment (or more) to reflect on the gift it is to be able to celebrate as you wish. The freedoms we too often take for granted were purchased by the labors — and the lives — of many to whom we owe a debt our gratitude can never repay.

 

 

Healing and Grief — “Well under Way” or Not?

A  reporter covering one of the funerals for a victim of the Pulse nightclub shooting a couple of days ago said “healing is well under way.”

I disagree. 

photo provided by and with permission of https://www.instagram.com/harmonyebee/ #OrlandoUnited #OrlandoStrong

photo at Orlando vigil provided by and with permission of harmonyebee #OrlandoUnited #OrlandoStrong

I don’t dispute that in the wake of this tragedy, kindness and generosity abound. The outpourings of support proclaiming #OrlandoUnited and #OrlandoStrong reveal facets of the goodness surrounding my city and, in fact, the world.

That’s as it should be, and it will aid future healing.

But this — scarcely a week later — is far too soon to say “healing is well under way.”

Grieving is a journey without shortcuts. Mourning takes time, but right now, the traumatized and injured survivors and the victims’ families are in shock. (As a community, we all are.)

The grief that comes with the first onslaught of knowing your loved one has died is a loud, brutal bullying earthquake. It rattles your body and soul so hard you are forever altered. You may resemble yourself on the outside, but you know that’s not you anymore. The cells inside you have tumbled, twisted, crumpled into positions and shapes nature never intended.

That kind of upheaval takes time to recognize, time to adjust to, time to heal into. Note, please, that I said “heal into,” not “heal from.”

When author C.S. Lewis’s wife died, he vented his grief in a series of journals meant only for himself. Later published as A Grief Observed, it was one of the most healing, cathartic books I read after my husband died. The agony Lewis poured unfiltered onto the pages reflected the scattered, shattered state of my own emotions.

He compared grieving his wife to an amputation. In time the wound itself would stop bleeding, the tissues would seal, and he would learn new ways of “walking” as a widower — but that accustomed limb would always be absent, and that different way of moving about would never be the same.

He would heal but never again be whole.

How long before it’s acceptable to say Orlando’s “healing is well under way”?  I can answer only with another question: How long does it take to heal from the sudden, traumatic, much-publicized loss of your loved one? (Go on. Pick a figure. Decide how long you think it might take until you’re healed or “over it.” Double it. Double it again. For good measure, triple it. You might be getting closer — or not.)

My mother died as peacefully as possible after a brave and dignified battle with cancer over 20 years ago. My husband died without warning due to medical causes never fully identified over five years ago.  I no longer actively mourn them every day, but for years I did.

For years.

Every day.

I think I’d been widowed about a year and a half before I realized — for the first time — I hadn’t cried over him that day (which realization, of course, made me cry again). A year and a half.

To say “healing is well under way” at less than two weeks is inaccurate at best, injurious at worst. No one should be made to feel rushed in their grieving or as if they’re “failing” by not following another’s expectations.

My life now is rich and full and I love it — though five-plus years later I still face obstacles and hurdles my late husband’s death raised, challenges which, frankly, I’d much rather not have to deal with.

And there will always be days and dates that make “healed” wounds ache and reboot the pain of loss — like Father’s Day, with the father of my children no longer alive, or my would-have-been-30th wedding anniversary next month …

For mourning families and friends, for recovering injured (and traumatized) survivors, for the LGBTQ community who were targeted by the evil shooter, for the employees at Pulse and surrounding businesses, for the first responders and medical personnel, for the greater Orlando area at large — life will never be the same again.

In time and with nurturing care, there will be healing, and every kind act aligns us in that direction.

But it does take time. If you know someone who has lost a loved one, find out birthdays and other significant dates. Enter them in your calendar. And commit to keep reaching out — not just now when the tremors are still visible but in the weeks, months, and even years to come — when mourners are settling into their shifted foundations.

Your long-term acknowledgment will help healing begin to get better under way.

 

 

Wedding Anniversary and Grief

When my husband died, our wedding anniversary was forever changed. The looked-forward-to date that used to celebrate the joining of our two lives became a date I dreaded. It was another sharp reminder that the man I’d shared my life with would no longer be part of our future plans, that the father of my children — the only person who knew and loved them as much (and as well) as I did — was gone.

Golden heart for a golden anniversary, from an old greeting card (photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Golden heart for a golden anniversary, from an old greeting card (photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Wedding anniversaries have been on my mind a lot lately. One of my daughters recently married — a joyous occasion!– and my own 30th anniversary is approaching.

So when Shellie posted this comment (see Anniversary after Death) …

My father-in-law passed away March 31 and this June would have been my in-laws 50th wedding anniversary. I want to acknowledge the day, but I am unsure what would bring my mother-in-law any peace or happiness on this difficult day (I feel I should have some kind of idea since my husband and I have lost two children but a wedding anniversary is completely different, and I am at a loss), any advice would be greatly appreciated.

… I had to give more than a brief reply.

Shellie, I hope you’ll forgive my turning your request into a public post. (Everyone else, I hope you’ll forgive me for addressing the rest of this post directly to her.)

I’m sorry for the loss of your father-in-law. I remember how it felt to me (and still feels) after my father-in-law passed, but I can only begin to imagine how much harder it must be for you while also feeling for your husband in his grief. (My late husband passed before his father.)  And I’m deeply sorry to learn that two of your children have died. That’s a degree of loss I cannot fathom.

But I can speak as a widow. Thank you for already looking for ways to reach out to your mother-in-law as her anniversary approaches. You are right that “a wedding anniversary is completely different,” but loss is loss.

Chances are, the kinds of things your friends and family say or do that have brought you peace after your children’s deaths (as much semblance of peace as is possible) are the same kinds of things your mother-in-law needs from you.

Keep in mind, though, that whereas you and your husband share the devastating loss of your two children, your mother-in-law now shares her wedding anniversary with no one.

love is the richness people find as they share in each other's lives

It’s possible the days leading up to the date may be as difficult for her as the day itself. With her loss so recent, “peace or happiness” may or may not be yet within her ability to appreciate while shock is still ever-present.

You’ve already expressed your desire to acknowledge the day, and that’s one of the best things you can do. Let her know ahead that you’re aware the anniversary is coming. Let her know you realize it will be a difficult, emotional day. If you live near enough to be with her in person, be there. Regardless of your distance or proximity, send her a card or handwritten note that will arrive on (or before) the anniversary. (“Thinking of you on your anniversary” is a better greeting choice than “Happy anniversary.”)

Above all, listen to her.

If she says she needs space or solitude, respect whatever boundaries she expresses, but keep communication open. (So far, solitude is what I’ve most wanted on my widowed anniversaries, but not everyone feels as I do.) If your mother-in-law says she wants to spend the day by herself, be sure you call to let her know you’re still available if she changes her mind.

Ask if she has ways she’d like to remember or reminisce on that day — IF she wants to discuss them. For some newly widowed, sharing memories is a comforting, healing process. For others, it’s too painful for a while. Again, listen to what she says.

Your mother-in-law might be too overwhelmed by grief to initiate suggestions, so consider offering ideas. Suggest a favorite (or new) restaurant with a friend, a quiet dinner with family, an afternoon involved in a favorite hobby, looking through old photo albums, reminiscing … The options will vary based on what you know of her and her late husband.

Some widows and widowers spend their anniversaries doing service activities in their late spouses’ memories or visiting places they once enjoyed together for old times’ sakes. I know others who spend their wedding anniversaries trying something new, just for themselves.

If your mother- and father-in-law made plans for how they would commemorate their golden anniversary, find out whether she wants to fulfill them (in whole or in part). Doing so might give her a sense of carrying his memory forward with her — or it may be too painful without him. (Again, listening to her is essential.)

Unless she requests it, a party is probably not something she will be up to this soon after his death. (I had difficulty mingling in public for most of the first year after my husband died — and at times it is still hard five and a half years later.) Avoid surprise parties. Emotions are too on the surface. Of the thousands of widows and widowers I’ve networked with, I have yet to hear of any appreciating surprise parties of any kind.

I hope this gives you some ideas of how to help your mother-in-law through her 50th anniversary, Shellie, but you were already on the right track before you posted your comment. You already knew she needs acknowledgment that she and her husband spent half a century together.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

 

April Fool’s Day, Grief, and Humor — To Joke or Not to Joke

A woman gets into a car and snaps her fingers as she says to the driver, “I hear your husband died — just like that. Are you kidding me?”

As if I were the kind of person who would joke or kid about a loved one’s death.

The punchline in this true tale is that I didn’t punch her. (I tend to keep both hands on the wheel at 55 mph.) “Umm … no, I’m not kidding, and I really don’t want to talk about it right now” (what with concentrating on the doings of other I-4 drivers and not wanting to obscure my vision by crying).

She honored my wishes — sort of — for a full mile (which, at highway speed, wasn’t long enough) before opening her mouth to address the sudden death of someone else. “I had a friend whose husband keeled over without warning,” she said, sounding more thoughtful than she was being. “It really tore her up for a long time. She was never the same after that.”

Compared to her conversation, I-4 traffic seemed calming. My heart pounded as I gripped the wheel tighter and said, “I really, really don’t want to talk about this right now.” All of a month into widowhood, my very nerve endings were raw with emotion.

This time she stayed quiet nearly half a mile before opening her mouth again. “Your poor girls must be devastated. Weren’t they close to their father?”

“Be quiet,” I said too quietly. 

She continued, asking how on earth I was going to handle being a single mom.

“Stop. Talking!” I said. Louder.

She returned to the topic of how awful it was for her friend who never recovered after her husband’s death.

“BE QUIET!” I bellowed as loud as I could, far too loud for the confines of my car. “I DON’T WANT YOU TO SAY ANOTHER WORD — NO! NOT! ANOTHER! WORD!” The last part came as she began protesting. “DO NOT SPEAK AGAIN unless you want me so upset I drive this thing RIGHT OFF THE ROAD because I can’t see!” (Whether from rage or tears, I didn’t clarify.)

I’m not a screamer or a yeller. Never have been (except when cheering for my children and their teammates). But that day … I don’t think I’d ever been so angry at another human being , not counting the hospital orderly who asked, “How’re ya doin’?” while handing me the phone with the medical examiner’s office on the other end … But, no, he was at least doing his job — albeit horribly — while this woman just prattled on and on and on against my repeated requests otherwise.

I pulled off the highway and found our destination, bristling even at inane comments about the weather and the route.  I parked, found the hostess who’d invited us, and, car keys still in hand, pulled her aside. Without explanation, I said, “I’m sorry, but you need to find someone else to take her home.” I inclined my head toward the woman I’d given a ride. “I’m leaving.”

I had to take back roads to my house, not trusting myself to the interstate again.

To this day, the phrase “are you kidding me” screeches like sound system feedback against my psyche.

There really is no time or place or circumstance for anyone but the bereaved to be “kidding” or “joking around” about whether a loved one is dead or dying.

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A sense of humor in a grieving heart is a beautiful but delicate thing. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

A sense of humor in a grieving heart is, like a spiderweb, a beautiful but delicate thing. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Gentle, harmless April Fool’s Day pranks can be fun, but think twice — and then think twice again — before planning pranks on someone who is grieving. Humor is important and essential, but weaving humor into mourning requires intricate knowledge of the bereaved and delicate application. New, raw grief can make a person’s beautiful sense of humor into a fragile construction, as easily damaged as a spider’s web.

Before my husband died, I pulled April Fool’s Day pranks on my family every year. We’d also invite young missionaries from church to our house for dinner every April 1 and feed them foods that weren’t what they seemed. It was a fun tradition we all looked forward to.

I’ve only done it once as a widow. It seemed like too much trouble for a few laughs over a meal. This year, work deadlines and other projects mean I’m not likely inviting anyone over, but I may arrange a couple of small surprises for a few close people … (Shh … don’t tell …) 😉

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Grief hurts. It’s sad and sorrowful and all-consuming. It’s easy to be swallowed by it, so when the bereaved have a chance to laugh and breathe the healing air of humor, it usually helps.

Laughter over funny things the deceased said or did can be especially healing. Most mourners yearn for a connection between their loved ones and those around them. If laughter turns to tears, that’s not a bad thing. When bereaved emotions are all-consuming, releasing one often releases another.

Mad Libs became a part of our family's humor culture that we continue to enjoy.

Mad Libs became a part of our family’s humor culture that we continue to enjoy.

Don’t be afraid to laugh with your grieving friends. Invite them to a funny movie or to play together a ridiculous party game at your house like Curses or  Mad Libs.*

Do tread lightly with grief-related humor. It’s one thing for a pair of widows to share a joke about the “joy” of not waking to anyone’s snores; it’s altogether different for someone outside that degree of grief to make light of what is yet another aspect of forced change.

Above all, LISTEN to what your friends say and honor their requests.

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*Mad Libs are a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC. (As of this writing, I have no affiliation with Penguin Random House.) I’ve enjoyed these fill-in stories since I was a kid (and often wrote up my own versions); my husband and I introduced them to our kids when they were little, and they remain a family staple of road trips. And I have to say, my kids and I treasure the pages of our Mad Libs books with my late husband’s handwriting.

Regarding the game Curses, I’m not sure who came up with it, but the times I’ve played, I’ve laughed hard enough to cry — in a good way.