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In the midst of COVID-19, death and its aftermath, grief, have become a mainstay in the news cycle. Every day the television news broadcasts tell us how many individuals have been infected by the coronavirus and the number of deaths as a result. While everyone has experienced major life changes because of the pandemic, many people have been touched by the COVID-19 epidemic in the ultimate, most tragic way. Many of us have lost friends or loved ones or our friends and family have lost someone and are grieving.

The pandemic has greatly changed and interrupted our culture and rituals around death. Because of shelter-in-place and social distancing regulations, people are sick and dying in facilities alone. Viewings and funerals are being conducted virtually and with limited numbers of mourners. Our rituals of sitting with a family and grieving with them or taking food to them have halted. This has left many people with the inability to process grief as they normally would. It also has created confusion for many of us that are trying to help others with their grief. (Check out this great blog on how to mindfully deal with difficult emotions.)

Beyond the direct impact of the pandemic, it is important to recognize that people can grieve a variety of things in addition to the death of a friend or loved one. This includes the loss of a job, the loss of a family pet, the loss of home and mementoes, or the loss of a relationship through divorce or separation. Many people are even grieving the loss of normalcy our “new normal” has created. We grieve not being able to attend weddings, graduations, and celebrate birthdays the way we normally would. 

How do I help my loved ones as they grieve? How do I help my spouse as they grieve?

Remember That Grief Is A Normal, Healthy Emotion

Jonathan Trotter of the Gottman Institute wisely suggests, “The next time you come across someone who’s grieving a loss, remember that they probably don’t need a lecture or a pithy saying. They don’t need a cliché or a vapid truism. They certainly don’t need you to outlaw their grief.” By “outlaw their grief” he means, “Allow grief, in your own heart and in the hearts of others. Don’t send it underground.” Grief isn’t something that needs to be suppressed, hidden, or to feel ashamed about. 

Often when we are close to someone who is grieving, we are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so we say nothing and avoid the subject of their loss. This can reinforce the idea that grief is a bad emotion and close avenues for people to express and process their grief.

Recognize That Grief Is A Multifaceted And Complex Emotion

Are you aware that there are actually 5 stages of grief? 

  1. Denial
  2. Anger 
  3. Bargaining 
  4. Depression 
  5. Acceptance  

These stages were originally developed by psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross as a way for people to process their impending death. It is now often used as a way for family members to process the death of a loved one. Be careful with trying to use this as a “blueprint” for your spouse. Not everyone goes through all of these stages. It might seem logical to you that they go through each stage in a linear fashion. However, that is not the case. Grieving can be cyclical and has no specific time frame or stages. Your spouse might feel acceptance one minute and anger the next. Don’t try to use the “Five Stages of Grief” as a roadmap or a guide.

Relationship expert, Patty Howell shared this after the loss of her husband of 40 years, Ralph: ”Tonight, 11 months down the road… I just feel depressed. Depressed that my life will never feel happy again. The funzies I’m trying to cobble together just don’t add up to very much at all… it just doesn’t compare with the love that Ralph and I shared… Doesn’t compare at all!”

We All Grieve Differently

Grief impacts us differently. Some of us want to be around people while others withdraw. Others want to talk about what they are experiencing while some prefer to process internally. Some experience an increase in appetite while others have no appetite. Your spouse may sleep more or not be able to sleep at all. Remember, grief affects us physically and emotionally. It is important to remember that there is no timeline or guidebook for grief. 

Misunderstandings about grief can be particularly damaging to marriages. It is easy to “judge” our spouse’s grieving or “judge” how supportive our spouse is to our own grieving. This can quickly lead to tension, anger, and deep-seated resentment. “Death in the family” regularly shows up as one of the top stressors in a marriage. Work so that grief drives you toward each other instead of driving you apart.

Feel What You Feel

As we support someone grieving, we have to give them time and be sensitive to the space they need, but we don’t need to be afraid of them or afraid of asking them what they need. Don’t be afraid to ask how they are feeling or questions like what their favorite memory of their loved one is. Your spouse will let you know if they aren’t in a place emotionally to talk. Respect that. We can’t hurry them through the process. We can’t tell them to “get over it” or “move on.” We can continually tell them that we are there for them to support them however they need it.

They’ll also experience a variety of emotions: sadness, anger, abandonment, overwhelmedness, even relief or joy—sometimes within minutes of each of other. There will be times when sounds and smells evoke smiles of remembrance or tears of sadness. “Firsts” might be especially difficult for your spouse—the first Christmas without their friend or loved one, the first birthday, Thanksgiving, and so on. Be on the lookout and be sensitive during these times while you also remember that grief can “spring on” your spouse without any apparent trigger.

It is painful when someone you love is in pain. All we can do is support them as they deal with the loss. Having unrealistic expectations that your spouse isn’t grieving “right” or that this will be a speedy process will only make matters worse. Don’t project how you are grieving or have grieved onto your spouse. Grief is something that everyone navigates differently.

As we walk this journey of grief for and with our loved ones, recognize that losing someone who is important to you is not just a single moment in time, but something that changes you at your core. It will become part of your spouse’s life story and part of your marriage. Our loved one may be gone from our physical presence, but the life they lived and the memories that they left will be with us forever.

Several years ago Carol Courtney found herself in an interesting position. Her mother called to say that her father was in the hospital due to breathing problems. As a healthcare professional, all kinds of things were running through Courtney’s mind.

“I knew he had been having episodes where he would black out, but not pass out. This made me think he was having respiratory issues,” says Courtney. “As time went by and I kept asking my mother for information, I realized she did not know the names of my father’s doctors nor did she have any idea what was happening other than he had breathing issues.”

As a nurse, Courtney knew that this lack of information was not uncommon for people who are unfamiliar with healthcare.

“Most people are intimidated by doctors, are often afraid to ask questions or don’t know the right questions to ask,” Courtney says. “My goal was to get my father out of the hospital. In spite of trying to coach my mom from a distance on the kinds of questions she should ask, what to say and how to get to know the physicians, when my father was discharged she did not know his diagnosis or the care that would be required to keep him at home.”

At this point, Courtney decided to take action. She wrote down every question she had before calling the physician. She knew from experience that if you ask the right questions you will get the answers.

The key is knowing what to ask.

“From my conversation with the physician I learned my dad had terminal pulmonary fibrosis and he was expected to live approximately three months,” Courtney says. “I was the one who told my parents about pulmonary fibrosis, what the coming days would probably look like and what we needed to do to make this time as pleasant as possible.”

This is when things tend to get tough for families, explains Courtney. The stress can fracture a family’s ‘fault lines’ and lead to a falling out – right at the time when the dying person needs their support.

“I knew we had a very short amount of time to do what I considered important business,” Courtney says. “My mom emailed all of Dad’s relatives and friends and explained that he was terminally ill. She invited all of them to come for a visit as soon as possible. My dad died 11 weeks after being discharged from the hospital. But, in those 11 weeks, 32 people came to see my father. We laughed, cried, shared stories and truly enjoyed each other’s company.”

Courtney’s sons brought their grandfather tons of chocolate when they came to visit him. He loved chocolate, but hadn’t been allowed to have it because of high cholesterol. They had a serious party!

“When my father died, his funeral was truly a celebration of his life,” Courtney says. “This whole experience changed my focus in life. I realized I was passionate about helping people finish life well. My goal is for people to have reconciliation and celebration before they die.”

Most people don’t want to think about dying or planning what they want that process to look like. That includes arranging their funeral.

“Talking about the end of life and what you want it to look like with your spouse and children is revolutionary,” Courtney says. “I encourage people to plan and communicate about what they want and how their family and friends can help. They can take a methodical and thorough approach, and end life well.”

Most people live as if tomorrow will come for sure. But what if something tragic happened and you were no longer here? Who would inherit your house, your collectibles from one generation to the next, or your pictures?

“Most people assume that if they are married and don’t have a will, all of their assets will automatically go to their spouse,” says attorney Harry Cash. “This is not necessarily the case. If you don’t have a will or don’t hold all of your assets jointly, the state determines where your assets go. If one spouse dies and there are children, the surviving spouse gets at least one third of the deceased spouse’s assets, but the deceased spouse may have intended for everything to go to his or her spouse at death.”

A RocketLawyer.com survey found that a stunning 50 percent of American parents do not have a will. Of those age 55-64 (the baby boomers), 41 percent do not have a will.

The top reasons for not having a will were:

  • Just haven’t gotten around to making one;
  • No sense of urgency;
  • Didn’t think they needed a will; and
  • They don’t have a will because they don’t want to think about death.

“This is not something you want to leave to chance and hope for the best,” Cash asserts. “A will allows you to specifically state what you want to happen to your assets when you pass away. If you have children, you have the opportunity to say who will care for them until they are 18. You also can state specifically that if you pass away and your spouse is still living, all of your assets go to your spouse. Even though people don’t like to think about death, this document could save your loved ones from a lot of angst.”

What you need to create a will:

  • A list of significant assets.
  • Documentation of employment benefits statements, insurance policies, deeds to real property, partnership and business agreements.
  • Determine who will inherit your property.
  • Choose an executor for your estate. Every will must name someone to serve as executor, to carry out the terms of the will. Let that person know you are naming them to perform this task.
  • Identify a guardian for your children. If your children are under 18, decide who you want to raise them in the event that you and their other parent can’t. You should also pick someone who can manage your children’s property.
  • Identify other decision-makers to carry out your health and money choices for you if you cannot.

“The last thing a grieving family member needs is to deal with uncertainty when it comes to dealing with the estate of a deceased family member,” says Cash. “Preparing a will doesn’t take long and could be the single most important thing you do for your family.”

Christi and Matt Broom married in 2005, got pregnant on their honeymoon and welcomed their son Bryan into the world in 2006.

“Bryan was perfect,” says Christi. “I had a great maternity leave over Thanksgiving and Christmas. I planned to return to work in January. It was Sunday morning. I remember waking up at 4 a.m. to feed Bryan and then I went back to sleep until 6 a.m. When I woke up at 6, something was clearly wrong. Bryan looked like he was struggling to breathe, so we called 911. When the ambulance arrived, they checked his vital signs and said everything appeared to be normal. We asked to be taken to the hospital anyway.”

What followed were days of many questions with few answers. Everything the doctors thought it might be, it wasn’t. But one thing was for certain, Bryan was a very sick baby.

“On Monday a CT scan  showed that his brain was swelling which took them in a totally different direction trying to figure out what was wrong with our son,” Christi says. “Although he seemed so sick and fragile, the medical personnel reassured us that babies are resilient. I think everyone thought they would figure this out and we would be taking our baby home soon.”

Another CT scan showed Bryan’s brain continuing to swell, but no one could figure out why.

“They encouraged me to go home and get a good night of rest,” Christi says. “We got home at midnight and at 3 a.m. they called us back to the hospital. When we got there, they told us Bryan’s brain had swollen to the point of death. We both sat in the room totally confused. What had just happened? We honestly believed we would be taking our son home in a matter of days. Nobody had any answers. Everything was a blur.

“Somewhere along the way, we spoke with the organ donation people because every organ in Bryan’s body except his brain was perfect. We decided to donate his organs.”

Christi describes this moment in time as if it were an out-of-body experience. They were just going through the motions. As they walked to their car when leaving the hospital, she realized her husband was carrying a car seat.

“Those next days and weeks were complicated,” Christi remembers. “It was like walking into the unknown and having no idea how you are going to make it through the next minute because life as you knew it has been stolen from you. It was a fearful and confusing time. A handful of people shared that this had happened to them and wanted to offer support. I didn’t even know how to truly appreciate that at the time, but I remember seeing someone I knew who had lost a teenage son years ago. I went up to her, hugged her and said, ‘I remember praying for you, but I had no idea it hurt this bad.’ I felt like I was in a club nobody wants to be in.”

If you are experiencing this pain, Christi hopes what she learned from her journey can help you.

“If you are ever going to get to the other side you have to feel the pain – and that’s the worst part because nobody wants to hurt that bad. The emotional pain is so very real. You want to push it away, but the only way to heal is to allow yourself to feel your way through the pain. It is super scary because you have no idea how long it will take for it to go away. You think you will never be happy again. You can be happy, but you have to be willing to experience the raw emotion versus trying to stuff it and avoid it.

“Sometimes you just have to let yourself cry,” Christi says. “Things would catch me off guard and the tears would flow. I learned that was really okay and part of the healing process.”

Working with a bereavement counselor from Hospice of Chattanooga and someone from the organ donation agency helped the Brooms as well.

Christi also encourages accepting help from others. Let them clean your house, help you pick out what to wear or cook meals for you. Anything you don’t have to make a decision about can make it easier.

Through all of this, Matt and Christi grew closer.

“My husband lost his father at a very early age and his first wife died when their daughter was two,” Christi shares. “Experiencing this helped me understand the pain he had been living with for many years. We leaned on each other a lot. Sometimes we still struggle, but our bond is strong.”

Eleven years later, the Brooms have three beautiful daughters – ages 18, 9 and 5. While the pain never completely goes away, they do experience happiness.

“I remember someone putting a book right in front of my face, so close that I couldn’t see anything else. They said that in the beginning, you only see what is right in front of you. As you slowly move the book further away, you begin to see more. The pain is always there and you see it, but you experience other things too. Our life is rich. We enjoy our children and try to take it all in knowing that every day is a gift.”

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on September 3, 2017.

Looking for more? Watch this episode of JulieB TV on this topic.

One of the biggest challenges of parenthood is explaining to your children about bad things that happen in our world. How do you talk with children about violence, death and other issues that are often difficult for even adults to handle?

Examine your own feelings first. It is difficult to talk with your children if you have not evaluated your feelings about what has happened.

For example, talking about death makes many people uncomfortable. Our first inclination is just not to talk about it. Somehow we believe that not talking about it will protect our children. The truth is, instead of protecting, we may cause more concern. It is our responsibility as parents to teach our children constructive ways to deal with tough situations.

Bad things happen and parents need to be armed with appropriate ways to deal with the bad things that happen as well as the feelings that accompany the situation. Children need information, comfort and understanding to help them process different experiences. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers.

Is Silence Really the Answer?

While your first inclination may be not to talk about what has happened, often the best thing you can do for your child is to engage them in conversation. You don’t have to say everything at once about a topic. It is best if you don’t because children are easily overwhelmed.

When trying to talk with children about bad things:

  • First, listen carefully to your child.

  • Try to clarify exactly what your child wants to know – sometimes we make assumptions and give far more information than the child needed.

  • Keep your answers simple and brief.

  • Be honest.

  • Be sensitive to their need to talk about the issue – not talking about it can make children more anxious.

What if I blow it?

Sometimes parents choose not to talk about a subject because they think they are going to blow it and saying the wrong thing will harm their child for life. The truth is, sometimes we do blow it as parents and that is okay. It is rare that one conversation will cause irreparable harm.

Tell the truth

Honesty is the best policy. This does not mean that you tell a child everything about a situation. There are some things that a child does not need to know. You should share enough information to help them understand what is happening and to help them deal with their feelings. Whatever you do, do not be dishonest.

Teaching children about feelings

One of the most important aspects of helping children understand bad things is helping them identify and deal with their feelings. Feelings are not good or bad, they just are, but how we choose to deal with those feelings is significant. Children can often sense when something isn’t right. This can produce anxious feelings for a child.

Children seem to intuitively know when something is not right. Children want their world to be neat and ordered. When something seems out of kilter, children tend to react out of fear and anxiety. Parents can help ease some of these feelings by talking about the situation and helping children identify their feelings. This exercise gives children valuable information they can use for the rest of their life. Children need a strong vocabulary of feeling words (afraid, anxious, scared, sad, mad, happy, excited) to attach to what is happening inside. To say, “This is a sad thing,” or “This is scary,” helps children to understand that feelings are natural and normal. This is all part of life.

In this process, the message you’ll want to send your child is, “We can find ways to deal with this.” 

To quote Mister Rogers, “Whatever is mentionable is manageable.” Asking questions such as, “When you are scared, what makes you feel better?” helps children begin to process and feel like they have some control over the situation at hand.

There are no cookie-cutter approaches

Finally, experts caution that each child will respond differently to bad situations. Some children will become very quiet while others will become very active and loud. Don’t be afraid to trust your intuition. You know your child better than anybody else. As a parent, your job will be to stand by your child and guide them as they deal with their grief, anger, pain, feelings of uncertainty and sadness in their own way. Our world is a changing place. We can help our children feel safe and more in control by helping them to talk about these issues. Through this process, your child will learn one of the basic rules of life that with time healing can take place and things often get better.

Experts suggest that you:

  • Listen carefully to what your child says.

  • Try to clarify exactly what your child wants to know – sometimes we make assumptions and give far more information than the child needs.

  • Keep your answers simple and brief.

  • Be honest.

  • Be sensitive to their need to talk about the issue – not talking about it can make children more anxious.

Needs of a Grieving Child (taken from Hospice.net)

  • Information that is clear and understandable at their development level.

  • Reassurance that their basic needs will be met.

  • Involvement in planning for the funeral and anniversary.

  • Reassurance when grieving by adults is intense.

  • Help with exploring fantasies about death, afterlife and related issues.

  • Ability to have and express their own thoughts and behaviors, especially when different from significant adults.

  • To maintain age appropriate activities and interests.

  • Getting help with “magical thinking.”

  • Being able to say goodbye to the deceased.

  • To memorialize the deceased.

Help Your Child Build a Strong Feelings Vocabulary

Happy

Proud

Strong

Important

Cared for

Appreciate

Respected

Honored

Cheerful

Liked

Courageous

Hopeful

Pleased

Excited

Smart

Gloomy

Impatient

Unhappy

Disappointed

Helpless

Uncomfortable

Resentful

Bitter

Sad

Hopeless

Guilty

Unloved

Hurt

Angry

Abandoned