Thursday, September 26, 2013

How to help in times of grief

By Tammy Ruiz
Guest Contributor

When Mary asked to wrote a post for this blog, we discussed possible topics and one she floated was the awkward aspects of social relationships after death and how to minimize those. As I am currently living that situation, I thought it was ideal.

I work as a nurse caring for women and families after pregnancy loss and infant death. I spend time with each mom talking to her about how to reenter her previous social relationships. While different deaths create different dynamics, it's good for those around us to peek into our worlds. I may write about the bereaved moms I care about in another post but I want to share something from personal experience today.

I am a 48-year-old Catholic mom and nurse. One year and a few weeks ago I had a bustling house with seven people in it ... I got up on a Saturday morning ready to run to the store to get my husband some soda - he hadn't felt well the night before (he thought he had the flu) and opted to sleep in the theater room lest he get anyone else sick. I went to check on him only to find him dead on the floor. He was young and seemingly very healthy...he was a recently retired Marine Officer who had run marathons - his death was a huge shock.
Tammy Ruiz at her husband's funeral

Because of my work, death was not totally foreign to me, but (of course) nothing prepares you for a life change this profound. In the immediate aftermath of his death, I was so touched by the outpouring of kindness...but even when experiencing it myself, I considered "What parts of this are helpful, what am I really looking for from people?" because I wanted to be able to share what I learned at some point. One day - in the midst of card /flower/fruit basket madness - I realized that as much as I really appreciated each kind gesture, my most primitive need was to know that 1) people had heard the news and 2) it was important to them.

Yes, when the rubber really met the road, I just really wanted to know that my loss was important - whether people expressed themselves grandly or simply, I really did want to hear from them. Even though I would have liked to talk to everyone on the phone, I certainly didn't have time or emotional energy for it, so receiving a combination of cards and calls was ideal. I hardly read the preprinted text of cards, I just wanted to see who wrote it and if they added could have been a Congratulations on your Bar Mitzvah card for all I knew (one goofy friend did send one of those and it made me laugh). I found it most comforting when people told me that I had been on their mind ever since they heard the news. It was very encouraging to know I hadn't been forgotten.

One last comment about gestures of tough economic times, many people have significant financial challenges and there is no shame in it. Please don't feel obligated to do more than you can afford. I received a few gestures that were so sacrificial they were like the widow's pence...while they warmed my heart, they also broke it as I was very concerned that my friends would suffer from it. Your prayers and words of kindness will be treasured by those who really care about you - please don't spend your Cheerios money on flowers.

There were a few people who I considered myself "close" with who I never heard a word from. The understanding gracious side of me realizes that they may have been afraid or uncertain, but my needy hurting side said "we were friends for 30 years and you couldn't reach out at all? really?" The worst for me was a friend who said NOTHING to me then sent a form letter solicitation asking for funds for a missionary trip. I resisted the urge to tell her exactly what I thought about that; in my state of mind, it wouldn't have been tactful.

Rebuilding came in different stages from "Immediate Crisis" to "Dust Settling Over Chaos" to "Calmer Transition" to "Remaking my Life"; waves of grief sent me back to crisis for short spurts, but mostly I moved forward. In the last few months, I have noticed a trend that I want to share.

Being an integrated person is one of my goals, not compartmentalizing different parts of my life into boxes. I am right now STILL a bereaved widow but ALSO a young(ish sort of) person newly single who has a new relationship. I met my husband when I was a teen and we were grandparents when he died - he will ALWAYS be a part of my life...his death will ALWAYS be profound to me. If I waited until those things were no longer factors to fully create a new life for myself, I would wait forever and I have decided not to do that.

I get an overwhelming sense from people that they are willing to talk to me about EITHER my old life and grief OR they want to talk to me about my new life, but few people are willing to do both. For me the most painful example of this was at a social gathering where I sat in a group of five, two married couples and me. Awkwardly, they began to share stories of their courtships and marriages and I felt like a big sore thumb...if I want to participate, do I refer to my former marriage or new romance either of which will make them uncomfortable. I went for the 'new romance' and I got a death-stare multiplied by 4. The flip side of that experience was a coworker who dodged behind doors to avoid me after Dave died yet as soon as I started dating she approached me all full of encouragement and congratulations.

I have come to really value the few people who are brave enough to let me really be myself...a person who is just as likely to cry over a memory as I am to gush over a rose from my boyfriend. Maybe to some folks, absorbing the fact that both of these factors are (and will remain for the foreseeable future) real to me seems terribly weird. Yes it is, but let me assure you, when your spouse dies suddenly and young, a LOT of things are weird. To this day I use words that I can still barely believe apply to me even as they flow from my tongue "single mom," "widow," "late-husband," "estate, "girlfriend/boyfriend." (I really need new terms for "boyfriend" is a military Colonel and Special Agent...I feel silly using this to describe him.)

If you have a friend going through this and really want to be there for her (or him), be a person who does not put up the walls I so frequently perceive ...let them be real and whole even when that means you aren't sure what the heck will come out of them next. If you are reading this and it terrifies you because you can't imagine your husband dying suddenly, while I will tell you that yes, it IS horrible, God won't leave you to experience it alone...He will be close in a thousand ways that you can be thankful for (like NOT having told my daughter to "go check on your dad") and He won't leave you to suffer alone.

Tammy Ruiz has been a nurse for 28 years and spent most of her career in Neonatal Intensive Care. For eight years, she has been a Perinatal Bereavement Coordinator - caring for women and families suffering miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death and SIDS. Part of her work involves assisting parents in preparing for births when the baby has received the diagnosis of a life limiting condition (often called "Perinatal Hospice"). In addition to her nursing education, she studied (but did not become certified in) Clinical Pastoral Education at a Catholic Hospital in the Midwest. She has been on EWTN and speaks regularly to physicians and nurses on the topic of perinatal loss care. Her career was both fragmented and enhanced by having 14 different jobs because of moves for her husband who was an active duty Officer in the USMC. A convert to the Catholic Church, she was recently widowed after 26 years of marriage. She has three quasi-adult children and one super-cute grandchild.


  1. I'm so sorry for your loss and glad for your new life. As a person who often doesn't know what to say at times like these, it's helpful to know what helps and what doesn't. I remember a friend told me after her father died that she was having issues in her family because she hadn't "gotten over it" by the time other family members had. She said that people grieve in their own way, on their own timetable. When my own father died, I realized she was right. Thanks for sharing your own experience.

  2. New reader here--so thankful you took the time and effort to write about your sad experience. I'm young and haven't experienced much death yet, and I've heard many people in different kinds of crisis echo what you said about the worst thing being when friends avoid you or don't say anything at all. That should be obvious, but it's dangerously easy to rationalize it when you feel so useless and can't begin to understand what it's like to lose someone.


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