Another Father’s Day–DANG IT!

Father’s Day. For three weeks I’ve written, revised, and discarded post after post, trying to decide what to say. It’s the night before, and I still don’t know …

I’m blessed and grateful that my dad is still here. He lives nearby and continues to be a rock of solid reliability. I can’t remember him ever directing an unkind gesture or a loud word my way (though when he spoke my full name in a certain tone I knew I’d crossed the line).

When I was a young, naive newlywed I remember my mother once telling me she hoped I appreciated how lucky we both were to have such good, kind men in our lives. I thought at the time that I did fully appreciate it.

Looking back now, I see how clueless I was, how little I understood. Since then I’ve seen glimpses, peeks at the hardships inflicted on many women and children because of the actions (and because of the failings) of the men in their lives.

So again I acknowledge how blessed I’ve been — how blessed I am.

And yet …

It’s another Father’s Day — DANG IT! — and my husband, the father of my children, is dead. This is our fourth without him. You’d think I’d be “used to it by now.” I thought I would, too. (It took years, but eventually I got “used to” the absence of my wonderful grandfathers. Sort of.)

But I’m not used to it. Not at all. Chances are that the widows and widowers you know, the mourning parents and the bereaved children of your acquaintance, or the grieving coworkers in your office aren’t “over it by now,” either.

Here are a few things you can do to show them your support:

  • Say something. A text, a call, a private message, or a note can be brief. “I’m thinking of you today/this weekend.”
  • Take the kids of a widower shopping so they can do something special for their daddy who’s trying to do two parents’ jobs.
  • Take a small treat to a widow (and her kids) “just because” to let them know they’re thought of on a day when they’re even more aware (if that’s possible) of their loss than on other days.
  • Let them know their loved ones aren’t forgotten — and neither are they.
  • Invite and include (with sensitivity). If the kids in the troop are doing a daddy-daughter or father-son activity, TALK TO their widowed mother. ASK if she’d like a surrogate parent or relative to “step in” for the event or if she’d like to attend with her child. (The same applies to asking widowers about activities geared toward moms.)
  • Listen. Whether the death happened recently or years ago, sometimes the bereaved need to share memories of their loved ones or feelings about their loss.
  • Ask instead of assuming.
    • “Are there ways I can help you with …?”
    • “Would you like me to …?”
    • “Would you like to talk about …?”
  • Don’t dismiss or diminish their grieving.
    NEVER say:

    • “At least …” anything. (Saying “at least” literally makes it seem as if the loss isn’t that important to the speaker, so why should it be so important to the bereaved?)
    • “You should …” OR “You shouldn’t …”
      (No one has the right to tell someone else how to go about the emotions or the business of grieving.)
    • “I know what you’re going through.” (Each loss is unique.)

You can’t “fix” your friends’ grief, but you can — and should — comfort them by letting them know you support them in it.

 

A Widow’s Thoughts about Mother’s Day

What should you say to a widow or widower on Mother’s Day? In my last post*, I shared reasons the day can be difficult for many people. I told how my Mom’s death “still” impacts the way I feel about Mother’s Day, but I avoided expressing how I feel about it as a widow.

To be blunt, most widows and widowers don’t look forward to Mother’s Day — we dread it.** And yet, we still want it acknowledged.

I became a wife before I became a mother, so Mother’s Day was — for me — as much about being my husband’s wife as it was about being my children’s mother. My no-longer-little girls were in their teens and twenties when their dad died. For 24 years he’d honored me as his wife every Mother’s Day, over and above the way he honored me as the mother of his children. Suddenly, half the “wife and mother” adulation was wrenched from that day’s annual pampering.

Mother’s Day is confusing now — and painful. I’m still my husband’s wife, but as a widow — his widow — I have no husband. I’m still our children’s mother, but with their father deceased I’m no longer the “wife and mother” I was for more than half my life. Honoring my motherhood is interwoven with recognizing my severed wife-hood. Mother’s Day reminds me of what I had … and of what I’ve lost … and of what I still have. As I said, it’s confusing.

Handmade Mother's Day Card

My husband made this Mother’s Day card for me just a few months before his unexpected death.

How can you help a widow or widower through Mother’s Day? Here are a few practical tips:

  • If the loss is recent, saying “I’m thinking of you this Mother’s Day” shows more sensitivity than saying “Happy Mother’s Day.”
  • For a widow with children: Let her know you realize that Mother’s Day will be difficult without her spouse. Ask her if you can take the kids shopping or create an art project or craft or make a card with them. It’s not about the gift. It’s about having someone show her children that she’s appreciated — and that her kids should also express appreciation for her — without her having to prompt it. She’s no longer “just” their mother; she’s got to handle all the responsibilities that were once shouldered by both parents.
  • For a widower with children: Let him know you realize that Mother’s Day will be difficult without his spouse. Offer to help him in the same way you might help a widow with kids. He’s now handling all the responsibilities of both father and mother. Remember: He’s still grieving the loss of the mother of his children and he’s facing the lifelong pain of helping his children (no matter their ages) as they grieve their mom’s absence.
  • For widows and widowers without children: Let them know you’re aware of them, and, if it’s appropriate, let them know you realize that Mother’s Day may be more difficult without their spouses. Exercise discretion. Some may have wanted children but been unable to have them. Others may have chosen to remain childless. Don’t base your interaction on assumptions.
  • It’s better to say something than to say nothing. You won’t “make” your friends feel sadder by speaking of their lost loved ones or “remind” them of their pain. (The sadness always exists, simmering below calm exteriors even when time and “healing” have taken place.) Even hearing “I don’t know what to say” can comfort and uplift a mourning heart.

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*Mother’s Day Mourning

**I recognize that everyone reacts differently. Some widows and widowers may still look forward to the day. More of the ones I’ve spoken with, though,  view days like this the way I do.

Here’s one fantastic alternate (but overlapping) view by my widowed friend Julie Toone: Appreciation for Mother’s Day…

If you have other suggestions that might be helpful, please share them in the comments below.

How to Filter What You Say for Others’ Comfort

The ones at the center of the ring of loss/grief/suffering can dump whatever they want into outer rings. Those outside the core may dump into larger rings, but ONLY COMFORT goes from an outer to an inner ring.

Ring Theory of Kvetching, Illustration by Wes Bausmith

When you’re upset over the death of someone dear to you and dear to others around you, it can be difficult to filter what you say to whom. A little over a week ago, a reader on another blog* shared this illustration of “Comfort IN, Dump OUT” as expressed by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman in the Los Angeles Times post “How not to say the wrong thing.”  (Please read the full article at http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407)

The concept is simple. The center of the “Ring of Kvetching” is the person to whom the bereavement, illness, crisis, or other distress belongs — the patient, the dying, the widow(er), the orphaned, the laid-off, the divorced, the ripped-off, etc. People affected in peripheral ways — immediate family, extended family, closest friends, other friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc.–are in the outer rings.

Quoting the post by Silk and Goldman:

“When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘This must really be hard for you’ or ‘Can I bring you a pot roast?’ Don’t say, ‘You should hear what happened to me’ or ‘Here’s what I would do if I were you.’ And don’t say, ‘This is really bringing me down.'”

If everyone applied such a “comfort IN, dump OUT” filter, it would be much easier to support one another through all kinds of grief, not just due to the death of a loved one but to other losses as well.

It can be tough to see which ring is closer to the center than your own.

It can be tough to see which ring is closer to the center than your own.

Within grieving families, though, it isn’t always easy to figure out — or remember — whose pain is at the center of the rings. Families are filled with primary relationships that could all be seen as the innermost rings:

  • spouse — spouse
  • parent — child
  • sibling — sibling

Also important are these other familial relationships:

  • grandparents — grandchildren
  • aunts/uncles — nieces/nephews
  • cousins
  • godparents
  • “like family” or “family by choice” friends

Loss is loss. If you’re in the inner rings, try to remember that those closest to you and your departed loved one are also hurting. Be gentle with each other’s feelings. Try to think before you speak, especially in response to comments that seem hurtful or insensitive to your own loss. If you’re not sure whether the person you’re about to unload on is in a broader, more “distant” ring than you, err on the side of caution, offering only your condolences and willingness to listen.

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*Many thanks to Ana of the Nine+Kids for sharing the Los Angeles Times story and graphic in her comment on my guest blog post at The Sister, the Beast, and the Invitation to Love

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

Supporting Those Who Are Grieving–Video Clip

Julianna Sellers, a friend from one of my widow and widower support groups, created this five-minute video called “Supporting Those Who Are Grieving.” She answers the questions of what to say when you go to a funeral and what to say and do when you know someone who has lost a loved one. She also provides examples of what the grieving process is like. If you haven’t been through such a loss yourself, you’ll be especially surprised about what happens “after the one-year mark.”

In preparing this project, she researched many sites with similar themes, including this one (Thanks for the TealAshes.com mention, Julianna!) and Megan Devine’s refugeingrief.com (also referenced in the clip). Additionally, Julianna compiled the responses from an informal poll of the 1300+ members of our “W/W” group of all ages from around the world.

There are brief religious references in the clip, but all the suggestions she offers apply universally to the bereaved (and to those of you wishing to help grieving friends) regardless of religious affiliation or outlook.

If you know someone who has lost a loved one, please listen to what Julianna has to say.

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To learn more about Julianna, visit her blog at http://chaostamingmomma.com/.