Grief Resources: You Don’t Need to Grieve Alone

I don’t recall there being any grief resources beyond the middle school guidance counselor when my mother died when I was 12, so I have been pleasantly surprised by the richness of resources available to me in dealing with my husband’s death. I’ve found that not only are there good resources available on grief in general, there are many on specific flavors of grief, such as losing a partner, losing a parent, losing a child, and miscarriage.

In case it would benefit others, here are some that I have found very helpful.

  • Personal connections. When my dog walker heard that my husband had died, she offered to put me in touch with a friend of hers who is about my age and was widowed three years ago. I texted the woman and we immediately became friends. I appreciate being able to talk to another widow who, like me, lost their partner relatively young, and also has a teenager at home. When the first conversation you have with someone is about one of the worst things that ever happened to you, you tend to bond pretty quickly.
  • Facebook groups. My new widowed friend told me about a few Facebook groups for widows she belongs to and cautioned me about a few other Facebook groups for widows. It turns out there are many, many Facebook groups for widows, with many different angles: groups for religious widows, non-religious widows, widows in Colorado and other specific locations, widows who like to travel, young widows, widows with young children, widows curious about dating but not ready yet, widows ready to date, widows of color, widows who lost partners to suicide, and more. Of course, there are the occasional trolls in some groups (thus the warning from my new friend about a few of the groups that seem to attract more than their fair share of trolls), but I suspect the widow groups are more susceptible to trolls than other grief groups might be because of gendered norms around women’s behavior (for example, a widowed woman is a cheating whore if she ever dates or has sex after her partner dies).
  • Websites and Blogs. A google search of “widow support” turns up the usual millions of website hits, and you can do searches for other types of bereavement by typing in the type of loss you experienced and the word “support” (loss of parent support, loss to suicide support, etc.). Some of the websites I’ve found particularly useful are Megan Devine’s Refuge in Grief, End of Life University blog (and podcast) and Cake. I also came across this website with tons of resources for folks who have lost a child or a pregnancy.
  • Trips. There are organized trips, conferences, and cruises specifically for widowed people! I am seriously considering attending Camp Widow in March, a three-day conference by and for widowed folks. Several folks I met at a widows’ picnic (see details below) had been to Camp Widow in the past and they all had rave reviews; several had gone multiple times. There are raft trips for grieving folks and cruises for widows.
  • Groups that meet in person. The funeral home I went through to have my husband cremated also recommended a local organization that hosts both in person and online support groups; I suspect you could call any reputable local funeral home to get information on grief groups in your area. I’ve heard from other widows that hospice organizations also can direct folks to local grief support groups. Through the Camp Widow website, I learned about an international organization for widows that has a local chapter. I contacted the local chapter and learned that there was an upcoming widows’ picnic, which I attended. And despite whatever image pops into your head when you imagine a widows’ picnic, this event was full of laughter and four-letter words, which to my mind, are two key ingredients for a good time.
  • Online support groups. I went to the meetup website and did a search on widows in Denver and found all sorts of online events. Similar searches using terms like “lost a parent” turned up many options.
  • Podcasts and Ted Talks. A friend recommended the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and I second the recommendation. Folks at the widows picnic told me about two good ones for adults who have lost a parent: Dead Parents Podcast and Dead Parent Club. If you search Ted Talks for “grief,” you’ll find over 200; I’m working my way through the talks on this list.
  • Workshops. A friend just told me about these online workshops for processing grief through writing.
  • Journals. I’ve previously mentioned a grief journal that ended up being thrown across the room; don’t get that one. I highly recommend Megan Devine’s How to Carry What Can’t Be Fixed, which is flexible enough to be useful to folks who have lost a partner, parent, child, or someone else, and uses writing but also sketching, collage, and other creative activities.

What I’ve mentioned here is just a taste of the many wonderful grief resources available right now, and while I have found the particular resources I’ve mentioned helpful, they may not be the right ones for you, and that’s ok, because there are many, many others out there. My point is that you don’t need to be completely alone in your grief.

Talk about Grief (It Will Be Messy)

I’ve posted recently about some of the dysfunctional ways we respond to grief and loss, such as asking “How are you?” with the expectation of a brief and positive answer and measuring and scoring grief. Ira Glass notes in the first segment of the recent This American Life show devoted to grief that because of COVID, a very high number of Americans are now grieving. We would all benefit from learning how to talk about grief better.

I think Americans have a very low ability collectively to sit with uncomfortable feelings such as grief. We try to glibly glide right past them or encourage people to “get over it” quickly. We tell ourselves it’s rude or awkward to bring up grief in conversation, so we don’t, but the truth is that by pretending grief isn’t happening, we make it that much harder to talk about grief and we imply that people who are grieving are a problem and they need to hurry up and “get over it” so the rest of us won’t feel so uncomfortable.

In the past I have told myself that I am doing a grieving person a favor by glossing over their grief. I have told myself that they are surely not interested in sharing their grief with their colleague or casual acquaintance or boss or whatever I am to them. Perhaps they weren’t, but what I realize now is that it is not up to me to decide what they are interested in. If somebody’s grief makes me uncomfortable, that’s my problem. My job as someone who cares about a grieving person is to be willing to be uncomfortable in order to offer them comfort.

On that note, today I want to focus on some of the responses I have deeply appreciated:

  1. Rambling, inarticulate voice messages from folks that were incredibly touching because they were rambling and inarticulate. The very act of reaching out when you don’t know what to say shows that you recognize the gravity of the situation and you’re willing to risk being awkward to acknowledge someone else’s pain. It is a selfless act in which someone lets go of the ruse that they have answers. Through its own awkwardness, it sets an expectation for an awkward response.
  2. Cards, notes, and emails in which people shared a specific memory of my husband or an aspect of him they would particularly miss. To me, this is so much more meaningful than offering advice or an inspirational quote because it is personalized and indicates an understanding that my grief over my loss of my husband is different from any other grief. Even just one sentence that is personalized—one friend who didn’t know my husband well simply wrote “I remember him as a genial presence at your dinner parties”—comforts me by testifying to the mark my husband left on the world.
  3. Explicit recognition that it just sucks that my husband is gone. The acknowledgment of my loss and the high suck-factor without any attempt to identify a bright side recognizes that negative emotions are completely normal and conveys that I will not be judged for being awkward or teary or morose.

All of these responses demonstrate that another human is trying to connect with me, trying to comfort me, and recognizing that there really is no comfort possible right now, that things are just going to suck for a while and then after a while, they will suck a little bit less. To my mind, there is no one “right” thing to say—any response to grief that acknowledges that grief is normal and that the pain is real is a “right” response. These responses I’ve highlighted resist the social expectation to keep conversation light, positive, and “fun.” (I’ll post at some point in the future about why the concept of “fun” often makes me cringe.)

And while I think there are some wrong things to say (examples I’ve heard are “you’re still sad?” and “how long do you think you’ll be like this?”, which imply that because my grief is a downer for someone else, I need to get over it), even those can be mitigated with a heartfelt, “Oh, that wasn’t what I meant, let me try again. This is really hard to talk about for me.” In fact, asking for a do-over is a strategy I appreciate because it acknowledges the dysfunction embedded in our default ways of dealing with negative emotions and it immediately aims to repair the harm done by the original statement.

So please, be awkward. Say the wrong thing and then catch yourself. Allow yourself to not know what to say and talk anyway. Acknowledge grief in whatever uncomfortable, messy, honest way you can.

Measuring, Scoring, + Ranking Grief

Neoliberalism tends to boil everything down to a number at some level. We measure, we compare, we assess, we score, we set SMART goals. We have all sorts of platitudes about how beneficial this quantification is: what gets measured gets improved, without goals we’ll never grow, how can you know you’re doing better now if you didn’t measure where you started, etc. The underlying premise of these platitudes is that we must always be improving or growing, which to our neoliberalized ears sounds normal and even common sensical.

I will in a later post talk about what is wrong with the assumptions themselves, but for now I want to focus on how this impulse to measure even impacts our expectations and responses to grief.

Since my husband died, I’ve noticed many examples of the impulse to measure applied to grief:

  • Some people have told me I’m “doing well,” which I think they meant as a compliment, but it implies a measuring stick by which I could be doing “not well” or “really well.”  This assumes a baseline expectation of what “well” looks like. Someone today emailed me to find out if I am doing “better” this week than I was last week (they hoped I was). All of this reminds me of the ratings my university gives for performance: exceeds expectations, meets expectations, or does not meet expectations. I suppose if I am deemed by others to be “doing well,” I am either meeting or exceeding expectations. The implication is that other people’s measure of how I’m doing should matter to me. (For the record, it does not.)
  • Then there’s the grief contest, in which someone compares my grief to theirs. People have suggested that my grief over my husband must be more or less than grief they have experienced when they lost a parent, child, sibling, friend, or pet. Another version of this is the comparison of one type of loss to another; for example, someone asked me which was worse, my divorce or being widowed, and I have to wonder why it matters to the person who asked.
  • A journal marketed to widows invited me to rate how well I am coping with my husband’s death and identify areas for “improvement.” I responded by throwing the journal across the room and cursing at it, which probably brings my coping score down significantly. The implication of rating my grief and identifying where I can improve is that I should strive to be a “better griever” today than I was yesterday—that there should be a steady upward trajectory in my coping skills.  

All of these impulses to measure grief assume at some level that grieving is a phase that will end and that if we do it well, we can get to the finish line faster. Even the grief contest question about whether a divorce or being widowed is worse hinges on this logic—if being widowed is worse, then we can figure it will take longer to get to the finish line for being widowed than for being divorced.

While I find all of these impulses to measure grief problematic, I don’t fault the individuals I’ve alluded to here. I am sure that before my husband died, I compared griefs and tried to measure grief, despite having lost my mother, several good friends and colleagues, and beloved pets. Experiencing grief doesn’t necessarily equip us to resist the neoliberal air we breathe. When something feels common sensical, we do it without thinking, and until my husband died, I responded to grief in others without thinking.

I’ll talk in a later post about the intersections of disabilities studies and grief I am finding; for now, I’ll simply note that all of the “measuring grief” comments I’ve heard echo “measuring disability” comments I’ve heard. I’ve been complimented for handling my vision impairments well, I’ve been asked do I think losing my hearing would be more or less difficult than losing my vision, and I’ve been asked to score my vision impairment coping. Whether it’s focused on disability or grief, this urge to measure and assess rests on a foundation of ableist assumptions about what’s “normal.” For example, the question about which disability or grief is worse suggests that “normal” is no disability or grief and that some forms of disability or grief are closer or further from “normal.”

My experience of the grief I’ve felt in the month since my husband died is that how it goes one day is no indication of how it will go the next. Things I can handle one day are not necessarily things I can handle the next day. Scoring myself on how I handle things or aiming to handle things better today than I did yesterday does not feel useful or helpful in any way. What does feel useful or helpful is simply allowing my grief to unfold in whatever way it needs to on a particular day. That means I spent more time in bed yesterday and the day before than I did on any day last week. It also means thinking about grieving not as a phase I am going through but as a part of my life moving forward. There is no finish line, just a long winding path into the distance.

Company/Organizational Policies and Not Being a Jerk

When I became Writing Center Director in 2008, I was amazed by the high number of “no shows” – that is, students who didn’t show up for their appointments. I worked with the staff to put some practices into place, such as calling students to remind them of their appointments the day before, to reduce the no show rate, and while we were able to bring the rate down, our no show rate remained in the double digits. A few years later, when we adopted an online appointment system, we implemented the pre-loaded script that automatically blocked anyone from making an appointment after three no shows. That had no noticeable effect on our no show rate, either, but it made me feel like I was “doing something.”

A couple years ago, I decided to try a new tactic. Instead of blocking people who have three no shows, I set up our system to send an email to anyone who was a no show that basically says, “Hey, we noticed you missed an appointment. Everything ok?” No stern reminders of our three-no-shows-and-you’re-out policy, no guilt trips. Our no show rate remains unchanged, but now I regularly get emails from students who missed an appointment thanking me for checking in and sometimes giving me a glimpse into the complicated lives they lead that caused them to miss an appointment: childcare fell through, they were up late because of a chronic health condition and overslept, they got called into work unexpectedly, their car got stolen, their doctor changed their medication and adjusting to it has made life more difficult. Sometimes the information they give me provides an opportunity for me to refer them to offices on campus that can help; sometimes all I can do is convey my sympathy for their situation.

Here’s the takeaway: I can be a jerk and block them from making future appointments or I can be compassionate and connect with them as a human, but the no show rate will likely remain the same. I prefer to be compassionate and connect as a human. There is no benefit to the Writing Center, me, or the student if I block a student trying to adjust to a new medication from making appointments.

Earlier this week, the company that we rented my husband’s CPAP machine from came to the house to collect his CPAP machine. They did not know he had passed away—all they knew is that the usage data being communicated to them by the machine indicated my husband hadn’t used the machine at all in a few weeks. According to our rental agreement, that is “noncompliance” and after three weeks of noncompliance, we are obligated to return the machine.

So, on Tuesday morning, while I was in a meeting, I got an email saying someone was on their way to the house to get the machine. Twelve minutes later, sure enough, someone knocked on the door and demanded the machine. Because I was in a meeting and not checking my email, my daughter answered the door, assumed I had been expecting the machine pick-up and handed over the machine along with some other items she mistakenly thought went with it. It wasn’t until after my meeting, when I saw the email and read the “receipt” they later emailed that I realized what had happened.

The receipt said “patient not compliant, we need our equipment back.” The receipt also indicated that my husband was “not home” at the time.

This is a great example of enforcing a policy like a jerk, just as I was doing in the Writing Center when I blocked students who were no shows from making future appointments. I’m guessing the company’s noncompliance rate is like the Writing Center’s no show rate: fairly stable whether the company acts like a jerk or shows some compassion and connects with patients on a human level.

Do you have policies you implement like a jerk in your classroom, department, or workplace? Can you imagine ways to replace being a jerk with showing compassion and connecting on a human level?

**The CPAP company, if you’re interested, is AdaptHealth and they have not acknowledged my messages about how they handled the CPAP machine retrieval.

Grieving in the Workplace (and Beyond): The Dreaded Question, “How Are You?”

My amazing husband, Tom DeBlaker, passed away on June 19. I’ve written in this blog about becoming his caregiver after his stroke. Now I am navigating being a widow.

One of the toughest aspects of grieving is being asked an innocent and well-intended question: “How are you?”

I know no one asks this question maliciously. No one is trying to put me on the spot or make me feel inadequate in my expression of grief. Most people who have asked me this question since my husband died know that I just lost my husband, and many of them, in fact, after asking me how I am, immediately follow up with something along the lines of, “Oh, what a terrible question, but I don’t know what else to say.” We are used to asking the question as part of a greeting; it’s a default for us and we have to think deliberately to deviate from it.

I ask struggling people “how are you?” too. Since my husband died, I’ve caught myself asking his mother, brother, and son, “How are you?” I’m talking specifically here about asking the question of people who are grieving, but this question is one that also causes anxiety for folks with disabilities. My husband often struggled to answer the question “how are you?” when he was wracked with pain or frustrated because of the constant challenges his environment presented for him. He wasn’t fine and didn’t want to imply that he was, but he also didn’t want to let loose with a litany of his troubles.

I’m now looking for an alternative to the question. The brilliant Kat Vellos discusses what’s wrong with the question in general—for example, the way it is used socially assumes that a short, to the point answer can be provided—and offers many better alternatives here. What makes Vellos’s suggestions particularly useful is that they are broken down by whether you are communicating by text or in person and by whether you are ready to “listen deeply” or not.

Most people who have asked me “how are you?” since my husband died are friends and family who are genuinely interested in how I am doing. I’ve been responding with “crappy” and “not great” or just a shrug, although I went to a coffee shop today and when the barista asked me how I was, I got choked up and then kind of mumbled, “Oh, you know . . . “ Tom’s mother said she is responding to the question by simply answering, “I am.” She said it’s the only response that feels accurate to her. With the exception of the barista, the people asking me how I am know that I recently lost my husband.

When I do go back to work, I’ll be asked the question by folks who don’t know that my husband died. Simply answering “fine” will work because they will, for the most part, be asking as a form of greeting rather than as an authentic inquiry about my well-being. But “fine” doesn’t feel right to me when I’m not fine, and damn it, it’s ok to not be fine! I could try, “Today is a tough day, but I’ll get through it,” which feels more authentic and is vague enough to—I hope—not invite follow-up questions. There’s also the slightly evasive, “I’m ready for this meeting” or whatever is the reason I’m seeing the person.

I think I’ll pilot “good enough, thanks” the next time someone asks me. It’s short, doesn’t invite conversation I don’t want to have, acknowledges the social function of the question, and is likely true, implying that I am “good enough” to have the meeting or conversation or whatever has brought us together.

I’m going to use Kat Vellos’s list of alternatives to break myself of the habit of asking “how are you?” Some of the suggestions she offers that I like are “It’s good to hear your voice” (for a phone call) and “It’s good to see you” for a face-to-face meeting.