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. 

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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.

 

“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).

 

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

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

Anniversary after Death

Anniversaries are different after a loved one’s death. And there are more of them than there were before.

My first wedding anniversary after my husband died was/would have been our 25th. (Note my confused tense. Since he was gone, did I still count each new year as an anniversary? Or did the numbers freeze at 24, the last we spent together?)

Ten months into widowhood, I was “still” in shock. I remember only two things about my first widowed wedding anniversary:

  1. It hurt too much for “happy anniversary” greetings to be welcome.
  2. It hurt worse not having it acknowledged at all.

The kindest contacts let me know they were thinking of me — and of my loss. I read my friends’ support in texts, emails, Facebook messages, handwritten notes, and cards. Others left phone messages I heard later (because I didn’t feel inclined to answering the phone that day).

If you’re wondering whether (or how) to mention your friends’ wedding anniversaries after they’ve lost their spouses, here are some tips:

  • Say something before the anniversary if you can. For many bereaved, the days leading up to are as hard as (if not harder than) the day of. Even a belated acknowledgment is better than none.
  • Avoid cheery, cliché greeting-card greetings.
    Don’t say, “Happy Anniversary” as if this year is no different (even though you do wish them happiness).
    Don’t say, “Have a wonderful anniversary” (because without their beloved spouse that’s not likely).
  • Acknowledge the loss. Anniversaries after death are inextricably interwoven with that loss. Phrases like these are helpful:
    • I’m thinking of you as your anniversary approaches.”
    • You’re on my mind this week. I know this anniversary will be different.”
    •  “I know you’re missing your sweetheart.”
    • You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”

At the start of the post, I mentioned there are more anniversaries after a death than there were before. Death marks a family’s calendar with its own darkly circled dates.

All the “typical” commemorations are there — holidays and birthdays and, yes, wedding anniversaries.

But for anyone who has lost a loved one (parent, child, spouse, sibling, best friend …) the death-added days are there, too — the death date, the funeral date, the day the death certificate finally arrived, the day the cemetery marker was installed, and (in cases where death was expected due to illness) the dates of first symptoms, first diagnosis, hospice care, etc.  All are anniversaries of their own sorts.

Even when death was expected (and perhaps welcomed) at the end of a long, productive life (ultimately impeded by a painful, protracted illness), such “sadiversaries” or “angelversaries” carry pain for the survivors as much as they bring remembered relief for the release of the sufferers.

(A quick side note here: As “happy” as I was for my 54-year-old mother’s release from the cancer that entrapped her body, and as “grateful” as I was that my 47-year-old husband was no longer imprisoned by the premature deterioration of his mind, I was — and still am — neither happy nor grateful that either of them died so young. I’d have much preferred decades more together. So, please. Please don’t tell me — or anyone mourning — why we should be glad or thankful for our loved ones’ deaths. Grieving is not compatible with Pollyanna’s “glad game.”)

I’d say all such dates are difficult to get through during the first year, but that would do a disservice to everyone who has lost someone close to them. Love has no time limits. Neither does grief. I mentioned not remembering much about my first widowed anniversary, but I don’t remember the second one, either. The shock of widowed fog (and other grief) can — and often does — blur more than a single year’s worth of seasons. 

We will always mourn those we’ve loved, but we won’t always be consumed by that bereavement. Given time and encouragement, we learn to live with the grief. We learn to live in spite of it. We learn to live forward again.

But as anniversaries approach — even years later — we can always use expressions of loving help and caring encouragement from our friends.

"The language of love is expressed in countless caring ways."

Snapshot taken by Mom, tucked in a Hallmark card from my late husband. Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

 

 

 

 

When Will Things Be Back to Normal for My Grieving Friend?

When will life get back to normal for a grieving friend? The short answer is simple: never. It won’t ever be the same.

The long-term answer is more complex. The reality is that when their loved ones died, so did the “old” life they knew. Almost as soon as the funerals end, friends of the bereaved settle back into “normal” routines. For them, “life goes on,” but for the bereaved it does not. (Please see my earlier post: Do NOT Tell the Bereaved “Life Goes On”.)

A couple of month after my husband died, I came across an old copy of a Life Change Index Scale.* It was a chart listing the “points” attributed to various stressful life changes. (Not life pauses or hiccups or bubbles. Changes.) For each pertinent event I’d experienced within a year, I was to add up the associated numerical ratings. At the bottom of the page, the scoring caution went something like this:

  • under 150 meant 30% chance of illness in the near future
  • 150 – 299 meant 50% chance of illness in the near future
  • 300+ meant 80% chance of developing illness in the near future

I actually laughed at my result. My score was over 750.

The reason I bring up this scale is that in every version I’ve seen since, the highest stress point value (100) is attributed to the death of a spouse. The deaths of other close family members are also highly ranked (63). For me, seeing those numbers on a black and white chart validated how off-kilter I felt. The first two words of the title — Life Change — acknowledged the irrevocable shift from my “old normal.”

Eventually, your grieving friends will forge a “new normal” path through life. This will likely take years. Yes, I said years. The minute by hour by day by week by month by year adjustments are huge, and the human mind and body can only handle so much at a time. Be patient with your friend, who probably won’t seem like himself or herself for a long time.

Early in my raw grief, I wondered when I would feel like myself again. Most people who’d been widowed much longer than me assured me that it would happen, but they alerted me not to expect it too soon. At first, I felt despair when they cautioned it took about three years for most of them. Three years?!? I didn’t know if I could make it feeling so horrible for three more days — how could I fathom feeling this way for three years?!?

The first year was difficult beyond description. My mind and body were so overloaded I have huge gaps in my memory. I look back over the things I wrote for myself in journals and in correspondence with other widows and widowers and, until I read my own words, I have no recollection of how I got through some months.

The second year was also brutal. During the second year I no longer felt the numbing effects of “widowed fog.” I’d thought the Year of Firsts was hard as I went through the first of every holiday and family commemoration without my husband. I’d experienced the same every-event renewal of loss the first year after Mom died, too. But during my second year as a widow, I was more aware of the increased responsibilities on my shoulders. I was more aware of how their father’s death impacted our children’s lives. I was beginning to learn to process the emotions I’d tried to ignore for the sake of getting through year one.

For me, the shift into “new normal” clicked into gear a couple of months before the third anniversary of his death. I’d known all along that — eventually — I’d be okay again. My faith had been at the core of that understanding, but it was an ethereal assurance. It took 34 months for me to begin to feel I was actually becoming okay again. That doesn’t mean I no longer dissolve into a puddle of tears from time to time, nor does it mean I don’t miss him anymore. I do both. Sometimes I still slip back into non-functioning hours when mustering the strength to hide in the pages of a good book is my best self-preservation tool. But even as I turn each page, I know when I reach the end of the chapter I’ll be able to step back into my life, my different life.

Please understand this about your grieving friends. They need time. They need your patience. They need your acceptance of how their grief impacts their lives.

I will always be grateful for those who didn’t rush me that I “should” feel or do what they thought appropriate. I will always appreciate those who did not shame me by inflicting “by now” or “already” assumptions upon me. I will always be indebted to them for listening to me without judgement. Please, do the same for your friends who’ve lost someone they love.

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*One such scale is available at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~eap/library/lifechangestresstest.pdf