Think Before Recommending Books and Movies after a Death

I recently finished a book* several friends and associates recommended during the first two years after my husband died. Recommended might be too mild a word; they practically insisted I read it, yet something held me back, and I’m glad I waited until now, nearly seven years into widowhood.

I can almost imagine why they recommended this compelling work of historical fiction. Its vivid language, with three-dimensional settings and characters, made me feel I’d traveled into another era and community. It was a great read, yes — but it was a terrible recommendation for someone actively grieving.

“What were they thinking?” I asked myself — aloud — at least a dozen times over the three days while I read it. “What were they thinking?” At times I even exclaimed in all-caps volume that startled my dog. “WHAT were they THINKING?”

When I reached the end of the book, I sobbed. I’d shed a few tears within other pages, but these “The End” tears accompanied long, high, keening sobs like I haven’t released in years. Yes, years.

I can only begin to imagine how traumatized I’d have felt if I’d read it back then, while I was yet adjusting to widowhood and only beginning to develop ways of coping with my grief.

In the days after I finished reading, I couldn’t stop wondering: What were my friends thinking when they recommended this beautiful, breathtaking, heart-filled, heartbreaking story to me as a new, actively grieving widow?

A) Maybe the story of this character losing a loved one and falling utterly apart in the process will make my friend feel better about falling off the deep end herself. INCORRECT.

B) Maybe the story of this character’s tragic loss(es) will make my friend feel like her loss isn’t so bad after all. INCORRECT.

C) Maybe the realistic bereavement in this book will make my friend forget all about her own mourning. INCORRECT.

D) Maybe if my friend cries over these characters she’ll stop crying over her husband dying. INCORRECT.

Maybe they just weren’t thinking.

Almost as elusive as the answer to that question I asked (and re-asked) is the answer to a quieter, more introspective question: What was I thinking? Why didn’t I read it when they recommended it to me? Why did I wait?

I knew these nonfiction books focused on grief when I chose to read them, and I therefore found them cathartic — especially Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s “On Loss and Living Onward” and “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Many people find reading next to impossible while mourning. Grief distracts them too much for the concentration reading requires.

But reading anesthetized my distraught nerves and temporarily muted my pain. I read 286 books of fiction and nonfiction (including plenty of titles about grief) in those same first two years after my husband died. While my head lived in the pages of other writers’ stories, I laughed, cringed, empathized, and feared for them. Reading set aside my distress long enough for my body and brain to recharge.

Reading (and writing) while grieving saved my sanity. Sometimes, mindlessly watching TV shows or movies did too. But those offered troubling issues too.

About a month after my husband died, some of my daughter’s friends, meaning well, invited her to join them for a movie night. That was a fantastic gesture, and she’d have gladly attended to distract herself from her grief over her father’s death … if they hadn’t chosen The Lion King, in which the young protagonist is traumatized by the death of his father. (Many Disney films present a minefield of grief triggers for children, of all ages, who’ve lost parents.)

Watching Monk because I knew the main character suffered from the loss of his spouse (and because he also suffered from OCD, as did my late husband) let me channel my bereaved emotions in a metered, measured way. Watching a show (or reading a book) in which I didn’t expect to face a character suddenly mourning a loved one threw me into shoulder-shaking, gut-churning paroxysms of grief.

Fiction in literature and film can offer cathartic release of emotions, particularly when the grieving person seeks it out. Sometimes, a good cry over a fictional character might momentarily lighten one’s own bereavement. But it can trigger cascading meltdowns in mourners, especially if unexpected similarities smack them in surprise.

When inviting grieving friends to join you in a movie or urging them to read a book you enjoyed — and you should do these things as a way to offer support — please think carefully about the content. If characters die or suffer other significant loss, choose something else to share, or alert your friends ahead of time so they can decide whether to proceed.

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*It’s not the author’s fault this book pushed so many of my personal grief-trigger buttons. And I don’t want to make any of my friends who recommended this particular book feel badly for recommending it so many years ago. For these reasons, I’ve chosen not to name the title or writer here.

 

 

 

 

Mother’s Day Grief

 

I’ve put off writing about Mother’s Day this year, even though many folks now face this arguably difficult holiday for the first time while grieving loved ones. Within my own community, too many families carry on the best they can while bereaved over children, parents, siblings, spouses, and friends who’ve died in the last year.  

If someone you care about — or even someone you know only as a casual acquaintance — has endured the death of a loved one, please let them know you’re thinking of them. Whether they respond to your outreach or not, they will know they were offered your kindness, which those who mourn sorely need.

Sometimes grieving hearts stand shriveled alongside bright, cheery ones. Please take some time to look around you and see whose sorrowing soul you can help. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I hope these posts I’ve already written about Mother’s Day topics will encourage you with ways you can show tangible support to grieving friends:

While commercials may tout bright, fancy ways to commemorate Mother’s Day, please remember that comfort in grief often comes in the simplest ways. You don’t have to do something big to make a difference, but please do something.

 

Grief, PTSD, and Empathy

It’s not about me. It’s not about me. It’s not about me … I chanted aloud when alone, silently while surrounded. The reasoning side of myself knew this grief wasn’t about my grief — no matter how much it felt like it was.

I didn’t know the man who died as last year ended and this one began, but his brother and sister-in-law are my friends.

Shortly after I heard the news, I spoke with my friend. With her was a woman I’d never met before, but my soul recognized her expression, an affect exuding the shock of sudden loss. Just a day and a half earlier, her beloved life partner had collapsed — without warning — in their bathroom. Died without reviving. (As did mine, six years earlier.)

I knew nothing I could say would make it better. How could words — any words — alleviate the agony of their loss?

They couldn’t.

But say something to this newly bereaved woman I must. Must. MUST. MUST. MUST! Must approach — even in her in her unapproachable grief. Must extend sincere condolences — even in her inconsolable situation. Must … say … something …

Yet I — after facing my own similar loss; after networking, conversing with, being befriended by multitudes of widowed and differently bereaved souls; after writing thousands and thousands and thousands of words on the subject of what to say when someone dies (and what not to say) —

I struggled for what to say (and what not to say).

So, I said very little.

“I’m sorry,” I told her, then listened.

After a while, when it seemed appropriate, I said, “My husband also died suddenly.” Remembering the widows who spoke similar words to me, I added, “I don’t know what you’re feeling, but I know it hurts. I’m here to listen.”

She held herself — and her grief — with a quiet dignity. She spoke of her faith in God and how she’s trying to rely upon Him. I admired her attitude even in her anguish.

I remembered similarly drawing strength from my faith during raw, early mourning. My absolute knowledge of God’s love kept (keeps) me functioning. Yet I felt unconsoled and discomforted by those who tried to preach away my sorrow, as if they implied Godly love should negate — rather than enhance — my love-grief for my husband.

I nodded and listened. When she asked me to pray for her, I did. Promised to continue. I still do.

When she apologized for crying, I reassured her she need not. I acknowledged that tears of grief are tears of love. That as she mourned, she need not be ashamed of showing her love in that way.

When we parted, she knew another person outside her family cared about her bereavement.

When I got into my car, I cried for her and all the pain I know she has yet to face. (And I cried for myself as my body and soul felt again the raw pain and shock that enveloped my life six years earlier.)

A few days later, the Saturday morning skies loomed gray the day of the funeral. (As they were for my husband’s, six years earlier.)

Three steps inside the church hallway, my feet slowed. My hands shook. Lungs shrank.

PTSD threatened to do worse if I continued. Empathy insisted I proceed.

I could have turned around. Left the building. Driven away.

The funeral setting felt too familiar.

Like six years ago.

Again.

But it felt like few attended my husband’s funeral.

And I’d gained emotional strength from those who did show up.

And I’d gained physical strength from those who provided food for our family after the burial.

So, I stayed to offer what little support I could.

Despite the uplifting, sometimes hilarious anecdotes shared in the public celebration of this man’s life, and despite the beautiful, spirit-soothing music, my body recognized this was a family’s final, physical farewell to one they cherished.

During the service, I sometimes shook so hard I wrapped my wide scarf around my arms to hide them. My body insisted these traumatic triggers were mine to feel again now (and seemingly forever), but I didn’t wan’t to draw attention to myself.

It’s not about me, not this time. It’s not about me.

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

After the funeral, while the family and closest friends attended the graveside service, several women from two congregations prepared and set out platters of donated food. Sometimes I worked alongside the others in the kitchen. Sometimes I stepped away, seeking solace in solitude.

In the multipurpose cultural hall, empty chairs waited around linen-covered tables. On each stood a vase of cut flowers, also lovingly donated.

I thought about the exhausted relief and despair and closure and uncertainty I felt after my own husband’s funeral. How feeding myself had felt irrelevant until then, but feeding my extended, gathered family after this event became both impossible and essential — and I couldn’t have done it without my church sisters stepping in and caring for us all …

… as my church sisters and I were now doing. When this grieving family returned, we had a buffet large enough to feed the extensive group.

I watched their expressions — grief, relief, exhaustion, hunger, shock, sorrow, fatigue, appreciation — and remembered seeing the same on the faces of my family six years earlier. Many expressed heartfelt gratitude.

Did I thank the women who served my family following my husband’s burial? I’d like to think I did, but much of that day blurs in memory — it’s possible I didn’t. (If so, I’m sorry. Belated thanks to you all, whoever you were that day.)

It would have been easier — emotionally and physically — to leave before the service or not show up at all. But empathy, as painful as it can be, is a wise leader when interacting with the bereaved.

When you have the chance to step forward to comfort your grieving friend, listen. Listen to your friend. Even if it hurts, because it’s not about you.

Grief after Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Pulse of Grief, Six Months Later

Half a year ago, 49 people died without warning in an evil attack at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub. For six months, these victims’ loved ones — parents and partners, siblings and children, other family and friends — have privately and publicly mourned their beloved ones.  Just (or should I say already?) 26 weeks ago our city — and with television and Internet coverage, the world — ground to a halt in emergency response, physical recovery, and remembering.

In the 180-some days since those horrible, early morning hours, Orlando’s outward pace has accelerated almost back to normal in a deceptive echo of the trite, insensitive dismissal — “life goes on” — some shove at the bereaved.

"You Mattered" Pulse Birds (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

“You Mattered” Pulse Birds painted outside an Orlando business (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I have hope, though, that many hearts better understand the open-ended nature of grieving. Murals, T-shirts, store marquees, and hashtags all around town (#OrlandoStrong and #OrlandoUnited) display the love and pride my city’s citizens express in memory of the victims and in support of their loved ones. Surely, with such vivid visual reminders, we will keep these loved ones’ lost lives present in ways that will help their families rather than harm them.

I’m grateful for the media coverage focusing on the coming-together of disparate parts of our community. People who didn’t know any of those who were slain actively reach out to show their support for the people grieving them.

It’s important to remember, though, that most people mourning loved ones don’t have national or even local media reminding everyone of grief milestones — such as the six or twelve or eighteen or twenty-four months — since their loved ones died.

For many who grieve, such commemorations pass in lonely, heartbroken silence.  Death anniversaries — even “monthiversaries” — can be difficult. So please, reach out to those you know who have lost someone recently.

 

When Grieving Friends Go Quiet

“I haven’t heard from my friends since the funeral. Why don’t they return calls?” I’ve heard mourners ask this question — but others have asked the same question about those who are bereaved.

Yesterday one of my friends expressed concern over not hearing much from me lately. Also a widowed writer, she’d noticed my diminished postings here and on my Facebook page. *

Silence isn’t my norm, but this summer became a season of quiet.

Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

107 Degrees in the Car. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I don’t mean quiet in the sense of vacationing away from home or hiding out from Florida’s relentless heat.

I mean quiet as in stilled by Mom’s adage — If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all — mixed with an adulterated metaphor — grief’s got your tongue. (Sorry, cat. You’re out of this one.)

So now, nearly six years into widowhood, when grief’s got my tongue, near-silence results. (More on this later.)

I wasn’t always this way.

In the early months after my husband’s death, I radiated raw emotion. I sobbed in public and blurted nonstop without thinking. Grief shredded whatever filters I’d once had.

As shock faded, I began — gradually — to recognize strangers’ uncomfortable body language whenever I shoved the intimacy of my loss into their awareness. (It took nearly a year to rein my words in, longer to channel the emotion behind them.)

Worse were the moments acquaintances’ and friends’ expressions shouted wordless discomfort … then beat hasty retreats.

But I still needed to talk about my loss.  One of the greatest gifts you can give grieving friends is the assurance and presence of being there to listen — without judgement — over and over again.

Suppressed grief doesn’t disappear or go away — it drills deeper, cutting below the surface of already inflamed wounds, even damaging what may appear (from outside) to be healing.

Mourning is personal, even when the loss is publicly known and acknowledged past the deceased’s core family and friends.

Britain’s Prince Harry recently said, “I really regret not ever talking about” Princess Diana’s death.

I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for Harry and William to mourn their mother while the world watched and weighed in.

As much as I needed to talk through the traumas of my mother’s and husband’s deaths, I also needed to insulate myself. Wounded, I cocooned myself (and my kids, as much as possible) toward healing. Answering the phone took monumental effort; returning calls exceeded my capability. Opening emails overwhelmed me; replying no longer seemed possible, let alone expected.

Sometimes, like this summer, I return to similar silence.

I’ve written elsewhere of why July 4th renews missing my mother and about my first wedding anniversary after my spouse died — our 25th. Tiptoeing toward and through those dates (and a birthday) this month had me on shaky footing as my 30th anniversary approached.

Meanwhile, a couple of personal, below the belt blows left me reeling.

And horrific, ongoing public scenarios fill this summer’s news: The Christina Grimmie and Pulse shootings in my hometown. Violent murders and beatings by errant police officers, which prompted demonstrations of much needed awareness that #BlackLivesMatter. Attacks by rogue protesters against dutiful officers in Dallas and other cities. Political vitriol spewed between people (of otherwise seemingly good conscience and good sense). The plight of refugees around the world (including those my friend Melissa Dalton-Bradford volunteers with and writes about — see, for example, “Life in Limbo: The Ahmed and Shafeka Khan Story“) …

Maybe it's grief, not the cat, that's got your mourning friend's tongue. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Maybe it’s grief, not the cat, that’s got your mourning friend’s tongue. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Sometimes it’s grief, not the cat, that’s got one’s tongue.

Even if your silent (or blurting) grieving friends don’t call you back or reply to your texts or emails, keep reaching out. One day, they may have the strength to respond again, and knowing you’ve cared all along will make that possible.

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*Thanks again for reaching out, Shelby Ketchen! Your friendship is as full of honest encouragement as your writing. (Check out Shelby’s latest at www.BrokentoBlessed.com.)