Say his name: the #1 tip, and my reality

A long time ago, I wrote this post in draft. It didn't get very far.

But the topic is MY NUMBER ONE TIP for how to help a widowed person: SAY THEIR NAME. And it's also why I HATE that everyone ELSE thinks the number one topic on "how to help" is what NOT to say to a widowed person. Everyone publishes the list of what not to say. Because it's good SEO. People WANT advice. Magazine editors think it's "not as depressing" as the actual articles about our lives after loss (WTF?). Even grief counselors and "community leaders" dig into this topic with zeal.

Which SUCKS because it spreads the idea that you should be afraid of saying the wrong thing about a widowed person, when the chief problem of most widowed people after about the first two months is that NO ONE WILL TALK TO THEM.

In general, widowed people feel isolated. Sometimes, they feel they must have leprosy because so many people avoid them. (Don't think we can't tell. For a while we're in a fog, but we can be very perceptive, too, and more than a little paranoid.) I often hear from friends and neighbors who "would like to help" that they are sure the widowed person's close friends and family are in some kind of inner circle and stick around and support the widow. Sometimes, the closest people feel the most threatened or fearful. Widowed people describe their communities "disappearing" around them after the casseroles end. It's not universal, but in the U.S. and Canada, the rearranged rolodex is THE most common complaint by far.

Well, it underlies the most common complaint: people acting awkward and saying stupid things. But the lists of "what not to say" don't help.

I, for one, do not want to encourage people to be frightened of someone who has lost a partner. Many widowed people (not most) know that stupid things are not intended to hurt them, but they feel pretty damn alone when they hear "He's in a better place," or "At least you had a chance to say goodbye." (Let alone, "did he have life insurance?")

So why did I make the "Shit People Say to Widows" video? Because it does unite us as a community, because I thought it was a chance to see the topic through each other's eyes for 3 minutes, and because it was fun as hell and funnier than.

Back to the topic: SAY HIS NAME. I felt I couldn't blog in an honest way about it because I was a pseudonymous blogger.  (Maybe I overthink things a little? RILLY?) Plus, the tips are really part of another project that isn't public yet. :-) Now I have done enough for the widowed community that I have a name, a real name, as myself: not just as Supa. (Though many people call me Supa anyway.)

So I'm "coming out." My name is Robin Moore (for the few of you who don't already know me). My first husband was Kevin MacDonald.

So, SAY HIS NAME, or her name, a lot. Say it a week after they died. Say it a month after they died, and a year, and two years, and ten years. Say it when you think of it. Say it in front of the widowed person, say it in front of their children. It's okay; it won't "remind" them of the loss. No one loses a life partner and just tries to forget it.

When people don't say his (or her) name, it makes the family feel like they are the only one who remembers their loved one. (I'm going to stop saying "or her" but I hope you know I mean widow OR widower and him OR her, and they didn't have to be married or straight to have a similar set of feelings or experiences after losing their partner. Do don't back out on some legality.)

Write his name in a card and you share a memory, whenever you think of it, even if it's years later (it will be less likely to get lost than it would have been right away!).  Write his name in a card for the anniversary of his death, or on his birthday, or on their anniversary, or call and say his name. Most people like to not be the only one remembering these dates, and they can't help but recall the dates because seasons keep changing and other dates keep appearing and you can always smell and feel when it is in the year in some vague way. Remembering is not an act of will, or from the brain. Time and life are all around us everywhere and if we are well, they are in our bodies. 

So, share a photo if you find one while cleaning up. Share a song or a silly story on a holiday. Call, email, or write a real note. Even if you have been out of touch in a while. Even if you USED to be scared of the widowed person.

As time goes by (and when I say "time," I am specifically talking about periods of more than five years), the traumas turn to memories, the sad memories become fond ones, many details get lost, and with enough time, the widowed person might even forget the date of their anniversary. That doesn't mean they will think it never happened; it will not remove the events of their life "before" from their life. And every experience will include the absence of that loved one, even if it not quite the first thing to come to mind. And no -- these memories do not threaten my new husband, any more than his ex-wife's name threatens me.

So, say his name. Show your friend that you remember him, too. He's not just a loss. He was a person and a very big part of your friend's life for a pretty long time. He didn't just disappear when he died (though it can feel like a disappearance for a little surreal while). He changed the people he loved. (This is true in divorces, too. You can't just "un love" someone or "un live" the life you already shared. Let's be human, please!).  

I'm sharing, above, the memorial quilt from my church, on which I embroidered his name during support group one night. I thought I was doing a terrible job, and I switched the thread midstream because I thought it came out too lumpy. It looks fine to me now. Every time I'm in church the quilt faces me. His name is among hundreds of other names. Each quilt records decades of love -- fathers, mothers, lovers, grandparents, and children. We have a whole quilt devoted to children who died, and it's comforting to see the range, from newborns to M.D.s.

They can't be forgotten. They won't be forgotten. Don't you act like you forgot.

Say his name.


Kids and the School Shootings: 7 Tips Left Out of EVERY Article I've seen

I couldn't keep silent.
Tell your kids you don't understand, either.

There are some VITAL points being left out of EVERY article I've read about "how to talk to kids about the school shootings in Connecticut." Yes, my heart is heavy; yes, it's terrible, and yes, many of us are having knee jerk reactions about gun control, religion in schools, and so on.

But, as a widow and parent of a sensitive, resilient 8 year old, this is in my wheel house, it affects you TODAY, and it's important. So I'm just going to write about those bits that have NOT shown up in the many articles shared by my more than 2000 FB friends, on my neighborhood, PTA, official school, and church list servs.

In general, these tips will help you with elementary school age kids but they may be useful for your own emotional health or with talking to older kids or even adults. Every child is different -- listen to your instinct and your experiences about your own individual child and do what works with your own parenting style. If you recognize something negative about your parenting style from what I say... well, crises can teach us things, and today is a new day. 

So listen up.
  1. Make your words honest and age appropriate. DO NOT LIE to your kids and do not try to conceal what happened. You WILL learn a lot if you listen well to their questions FIRST and this in some way works best if you talk less, and if you don't start the topic. You do NOT need to give them more details than they ask for. Many articles have been saying, "don't bring it up" and I hear a lot of parental discomfort with this point. Well, this does depend on the context. You may feel the need to control the story -- and at some ages, in some school situations, this may make sense. I find if I keep in mind that phrase -- honest and age appropriate -- it helps A LOT.
  2. Be honest about your own feelings. OK, this is mentioned in SOME of the articles but it's too important for ANYONE to skip -- and it is the one, that, in my experience, parents are most likely to be uncomfortable with. One of our most important tasks as parents is to demonstrate to kids that feelings -- sadness, anger, fear, helplessness -- can be overwhelming. It is not their fault, it's not only them, and it's part of being human. As they grow, they will learn (from you!) how to manage this sense of overwhelm... which is VERY scary, especially at younger ages. DO CRY in front of your kids. If they don't like it... help them understand it's natural and you can't control it (or maybe, you might say, "it's dangerous to cry while driving. Mommy's going to pull over for a minute." It is also up to you to model for them how to handle this intensity. 
  3. Share also HOW YOU DEAL with intense feelings. Do you hit, clam up, try to shove it down? Your kids can tell EXACTLY what you are doing. My daughter notices from tiny movements of my eyes or lips when my thoughts or emotions have shifted. Don't think you'll be successful at hiding your feelings from your child. If you're in a bad mood, you can say so. If you're sorry you reacted a certain way, say so. DON'T apologize for your feelings or for healthy manifestations of those feelings. Play loud music, go for a walk, have a comforting snack. Drink water to remind yourself to take care of yourself. Breathe to calm down. These are sophisticated tools peddled by gurus, but you know them. SHARE your good ways of coping with your child. (If alcohol is part of your coping, you probably want to hide that, okay?)
  4. Depending on your child's age, share your uncertainty. An important part of your message is that you, as parent, are not able to control what happens outside in the world but you will always listen and you will always (poof!) be honest. Caveat: this is less useful for younger age kids who may feel scared. You should reassure them that they are safe and that you and everyone (school staff, police, local and national government) is doing everything they can to keep kids safe -- and that these terrible things do not happen very often. A side effect of providing this reassurance is that it may remind you, too, of a larger perspective and your real safety.
    If your child asks a question you can't answer, say "I don't know" or "I wish I understood, too" or share something from your faith tradition. DO NOT TRY TO CONTROL THE STORY and do NOT force your point of view (religious, political, whatever) on your kids. This makes you look "shut down" to them when you MOST want to be open to their questions.
  5. Give kids time to process. Understand that kids learn things AS THEY GROW. We often explain children's grief -- and many other topics in emotional and cognitive development -- as "like peeling an onion." Children's feelings and thoughts unfold in layers. You may have a concise and terrific talk with your kids and they don't ask questions. You may be disappointed or push them. Let them lead you -- they may just want to go off and play. They will ask more questions later IF you make it clear that you are listening, not terrified of the topic, not reactive, do not have an agenda, and that you are fine with them being "slow to understand." (They're not slow -- but parents are often impatient). Big topics tend to unravel slowly, to be understood over time. New contexts, other developments in their lives, and the cognitive growth that is the main quality of childhood, will mean that they ask you similar questions over time (take each one seriously... they are actually asking something different). It will mean that a question pops up when you least expect it or when some rigid family member is visiting. You can handle it by being....
  6. I'll say it again: HONEST AND AGE APPROPRIATE. Keep this in mind, because every few months, as your kids grow and learn, and the new questions come up, the meaning of "honest" and of "age appropriate" will change, too. 
  7. Respect your own feelings and understand that your experience of this may be completely different from your kids' experience. It's okay for you to take care of yourself, too. Get comfortable with the fact that you can't control the world and that our own feelings can sometimes feel like "too much." Your comfort level will enable your children to "hear" that you are open to questions -- even though we know you don't want to handle this terrible topic AGAIN. Dealing with "shit that happens" (in all forms) is part of parenting and part of our world and you can handle it.
Okay, end of lecture. No, not quite:

I learned this stuff from being a widow and parenting my grieving child. BUT, the more I learned... the more it was really about my own spectrum of emotions and accepting responsibility for parenting in an uncertain world. Parenting a child through this kind of crisis is not all about "grief" -- a topic that too many people find intimidating or frightening. Most of these tips are really about life. When you really think about it, there is very little in our kids' lives we can control. But we CAN help them through it, and we can learn from them.

I know these tips are not concise. I know there is a lot of intermingling and melding and overlap between them. I wrote this quickly and when have I ever done that?

And it's not complete. I'm assuming you've already read at least 6 articles. I still hope it is helpful.

Please, share. 


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