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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.

It’s been 10 years since Ron and Nan Deal unexpectedly said goodbye to their middle son, Connor.

“You never expect to outlive your children,” says Ron Deal. “We actually joked about the fact that Connor, who was 12 at the time, was the healthiest of our three boys. The other two could come down with the flu and Connor kept on trucking. One day, he got a headache. We gave him ibuprofen and sent him to bed early. Ten days later he was gone.”

The Deals have no idea how Connor contracted MRSA, an infection that is very difficult to treat.

“I love talking about Connor and at the same time, I hate talking about him because it is so incredibly painful,” Deal says. “I now talk about life before Connor died and life after Connor left us, and I long for the innocence of before. I am keenly aware now that life can turn on a dime and you will never be the same.”

When talking about the grieving process, Deal shares that early on, it felt as if they were buried up to their necks in mud.

“You can’t walk and can’t move,” Deal says. “In the beginning, I think my wife and I grieved similarly, but as time moved on, we have grieved differently, which has meant we have to pay really close attention. After Connor’s death, I went for years literally not able to experience joy of any kind. My wife didn’t smile or laugh for a year. The grief just consumes you and you feel like a shell of a person.

“My sister saved us,” Deal says. “We really went numb for a couple of years. She would show up once a month for an entire year just to be with us. The kids were thrilled because she would cook for them.

“Once we got to the 3-year, 5-year marks, I found that I could compartmentalize my grief to some degree, but then out of nowhere a song or a smell would take me right back to that place,” Deal shares. “Nan has carried it with her 24/7 like a parka you never take off.”

The Deals learned they had to be intentional about talking and engaging with each other. Through the grieving process, Deal says they learned many other lessons, too.

Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing after Loss is a must-read for anyone entering into a hard space with someone who is grieving. If you haven’t walked this road, just show up. Step into the living room and be present. You can’t fix it.”

When you lose somebody, studies show that about a third of people in your life are helpful. Deal learned it was his job to seek out the therapeutic third and hang around them.

He found that sometimes even extended family members weren’t part of their third when their grief was big. During the early years, the Deals were never at home for the holidays or on Connor’s birthday, but they made it a point to go be with safe people or get involved with an activity where the day passes quickly.

Deal maintains that in any loss in our lives, we need to find an expression of that loss equal to the magnitude of the loss. You have to find some radical way of blessing other people.

“Give expression to your grief and sadness, especially those you share it with,” encourages Deal. “You will be tempted to isolate yourself. Don’t do that. You have to get outside yourself.

“Through a crazy series of events, we ended up going to Ghana, West Africa, working with a ministry that rescues trafficked children,” Deal says. “They raise and educate them. We decided to build an art center in Connor’s name that provides therapeutic, emotional and psychological support for them in the healing process. We get to go once a year and be with the children. Connor would love it! He was artsy and musical. There is a lot there that is him. My grief is alive when I am there. I can’t get Connor back, but I can bless others. These are children who have been sold into slavery. To be a small part of rescuing them and helping them heal is such a joy.

“Serving others is not denying your own sadness; if anything, it’s saying I know what I am going through and I need to do something with this energy. You do that with tears and you do that with action.

“We had a counselor to help guide us through this,” Deal says. “The seasons change and with it comes a new little hurdle. It’s helpful to have a professional to walk with you over the course of time.

“The grieving process is not a sprint or even a half-marathon. It’s a full-on marathon and you have to stay after it. There are lots of ripples from the grieving. Some are beautiful and some are painful. It is a long road. Over the last 10 years we have seen beauty out of the ashes, but it doesn’t get rid of the ashes.”

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on February 17, 2019.

See an interview with Ron Deal on this topic on this episode of JulieB TV.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

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