The Sister, the Beast, and the Invitation to Love

Teresa Bruce TealAshes (1)Teresa Bruce edits and writes as a freelancer. For fun (and food) she gardens year-round in her chemical-free Florida backyard, yielding more produce divvied with uninvited critters than with neighbors and family. She’s proudest of raising three dynamic daughters—and taming the family’s odd (but beloved) shelter-rescued dog. Based on experiences of young widowhood, she shares “What to Say When Someone Dies” on her blog at TealAshes.com.

Be wary, I’d heard, when backing any wounded creature into a corner. Now I stood trapped at the Relief Society room exit, my hackles rising from crown to coccyx and my fingertips clawing crescents into clenched palms. Fight or flight? I’d have foamed at the mouth—if it hadn’t gone dry. My voice croaked, “No, thank you. I’m not coming.”

“Teresa, it’s your duty to support the activities. It’s not right to keep away.”

If I’d had enough saliva to spit venom, I might have used it. Instead, I bit my catty tongue. Give me credit, woman. I’m here now, aren’t I? For the first Sabbath in uncountable months (if not years), I’d remained at church from the Sacrament prelude through the end of RS. (Sure, I’d stalked through the foyer weeping through one talk, hibernated in the bathroom half of Sunday school, and played possum from the touchy third-hour topic by hunching over crosswords. But—today—I hadn’t burrowed into the car, migrated around the block, or gone home to roost during the entire three hours.) It was progress, and I’d been proud of myself—until now. I fervently wished I’d fled earlier.

“You should come! It’s been, what, a whole year?” She still impeded my departure. “You need to get out. Have fun.”

“I do. I did. Birthday. Last night.” Inside I snarled. Why am I defending myself? I’d laughed and sung during the all-women party (my first widowed foray into social fun for fun’s sake) with my dear evangelical friend’s close-knit sister-herd.

“There’s no excuse for you not to come this Thursday.”

Instinct demanded I bare my fangs. I shed the vestigial Sunday smile I’d evolved to camouflage me (from some fellow saints’ lectures on how my grieving disappointed their expectations). “I’m. Not. Going,” I hissed, drawing strength from my frustration. “I don’t want to hear about the history of Valentine’s Day, and I’m not making Valentine cards.”

“Why not? It’ll be fun.”

I gasped and retreated a step, but she closed the distance between predator and prey. Why not? My eyes felt feral boring into hers, and I growled. “My husband died. I have no Valentine.”

“You should come anyway. Make some for your girls.”

“HAH!” All pretense of tame communication stampeded. I swelled with unrighteous pleasure in the shock my bark drew from the woman—and from the heads swiveling our way. I knew Valentine’s Day was the last thing my daughters wanted acknowledged—Single Awareness Day, perhaps, but likely not even that. “No, they wouldn’t like Valentines. I’m not coming.”

 

I’d defended my territory and my cubs. Confident once more, I gripped my bag more tightly, preening to leave. Then the sister kicked me below the collar. “You’re not the only person who’s lost someone.”

I’d admit I agree—if you hadn’t knocked the wind from me.

“You should stop feeling sorry for yourself. I lost my mother! Do you know how hard that was?”

Yes, I do. I licked my wounds. Mine’s been gone longer. It still hurts.

“I miss her, but I keep going for my husband and family.”

Should I point out that your husband’s still here and your kids are all married?

“You have to start getting involved with life again.”

Sister, you have no idea how “involved” I am. Overwrought chameleon skin burned, frantically trying to mask my inabilities over the responsibilities of I’d all become “involved with” since his death: solo-parenting a grieving teenager and two college kids, earning a living, regularly attending professional organizations (and the soul-restoring book club that had kept me sane through his illness), tending my house, yard, and nonagenarian great-aunt . . .

“It’s selfish to just sit around crying—”

My creature self howled, then keened. You see me Sundays, and yes, I cry all through church—because I feel the Spirit closest here—except under attack like this! After decades attending services alongside my husband, you—accompanied by yours—cannot imagine the agony of his absence.

“—when you should be serving others.”

The latest blow cut my lament to a whimper so low I heard another voice. Turn away contention. Soft answer. Knows not what she says. I took a deep breath (and another sidestep), pulled a regenerated smile from my pouch, and fastened it in place. Alms in secret. Do thou likewise. I wouldn’t tell this sister how often prayers from despair’s deepest corners brought promptings to serve solitary souls in sweet, sacred anonymity.

“You really need to show up this time . . .”

Do unto others. Tamed into humility, I backed farther away, retreating to the room’s other exit. My voice almost purred as I turned toward the outdoor light of noon. “Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your husband. And have fun Thursday.”

Have whispered promptings to love tamed your raging beast?

32 thoughts on “The Sister, the Beast, and the Invitation to Love

  1. Man. I really hope, had I been there, I would have kneecapped this meddling “sister” so you could have slipped out the door. I have heard a couple of times that people can be cruel to those who are grieving when the grief doesn’t manifest in the way or duration they deem appropriate. Maybe at some point you would need someone to encourage you to attend an activity, but it should be a dear, loving friend, not some old busybody.

    Once, when I’d finally had a baby after struggling through a stretch of infertility, a sister in law called and told me how disappointed she was that she didn’t conceive the month after she stopped birth control (like last time) and that she now knew how I must have felt. Another sister in law, when we called to announce we were expecting, rather than expressing joy or congratulations, said “I thought you guys couldn’t have kids. Did you have to do infertility treatments? Were they expensive?” (Yes, I have hyper-fertile in-laws.) I was able to (mostly) laugh them off, but their oblivious insensitivity was jarring.

    I am one who tends to say more than I should, and this post is a sobering reminder to give others the benefit of the doubt and replace judgment with love.

    1. Lindsay, it sounds as if you’ve had your own challenges with people saying things they just didn’t think about. My husband’s illness created many silent symptoms within our family. I gained a greater appreciation that “in the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see,” because often well-meaning people said things that, had they truly understood, I hope they’d have left unspoken. It’s taught me to remember why I’m not supposed to judge them, just as I’d like not to be judged by them.

  2. Wow. I’m sorry she kept going after encouraging you to come to the activity. Honestly, when somebody says ‘no’ very clearly, it’s time to move on. Nobody has to right to compare losses because no matter the person lost, the experience is so personal and so different. I’m not sure I would have listened to the Spirit right then. :)

    When it’s been a rough day with the kids or an unwanted someone tries to insert themselves into my life again, I find that the Spirit will calm my heart and allow patience and forgiveness in, at least enough for getting through the next few hours. Thank you for the reminder to notice the influence of the Spirit during hard moments as well as hard periods.

    1. Tay, wouldn’t it be great if we could always, always remember to listen closer to the Spirit than to the people who “insert themselves” in unwanted ways?

      I fully agree about comparing grief. It’s one thing to draw on our own losses to help us understand another’s pain. That creates empathy. It’s entirely different to one-up or downplay another’s loss compared to your own. That opposes charity seeking “not her own.”

  3. I’ve had repeated experiences of the Spirit enabling me to speak gently (as opposed to ripping someone’s head right off their shoulders, as I cheerfully imagined, or telling them PRECISELY what I thought of them/their idea/suggestion/recommendation/judgement), which has initially frustrated – and later, comforted – me.

    Here’s to you having people run interference/knee-capping for you, and being able to smile in the face of stupidity (however theoretically well meant)!

    1. Kellie aka Selwyn, I love that you pointed out that–in the moment–it can be frustrating not to receive the “go ahead and rip their head off” message, but that–later–comfort comes in knowing you’ve not been the one to offend either the offensive one or the Spirit.

      I still can’t honestly say I’m “grateful” for the losses I’ve learned from, but I have learned to look for opportunities to run interference for others. (I try to be more a shin guard for the newly bereaved than a knee-capper for the clueless.) :)

    1. Thank you, Michelle. It has been almost three and a half years since my husband died, and “I’m sorry” is still one of the kindest, most healing things I hear.

  4. I’m so horrified and sad for this experience but I am not surprised. I have received or witnessed many “well meaning” active church members who think they are saying something comforting. Like the time someone told my grieving cousin, at her 11-year old daughter’s funeral that she would see her again so she shouldn’t be so sad. Or the time a family member told me I wasn’t utilizing the atonement in my life because I was sad a month after my fourth miscarriage. I really wish we all could be slower to push our will on others and rather than try to “teach” others in their grief – we should just offer love.

  5. Oh, Robin Marie, I understand how hurtful those well-meant comments felt for you and for your cousin; I was told the same things. I’m so sorry for your losses.

    Sometimes we forget that before the Master raised Lazarus, as he met with Mary and Martha, “Jesus wept.” Too often we rush to “comfort” those needing comfort, but I think it’s significant that we are first counseled “to mourn WITH those that mourn.” You’ve nailed what that means: “we should just offer love.”

  6. Thanks for sharing. I believe my stewardship concerning others is always to love and support. Rarely does that require that I tell someone to change their behavior. I resonate with George Albert Smith’s belief that loving/supporting others can effectuate the greater change in people:

    “Let us not complain at our friends and our neighbors, because they do not do what we want them to do. Rather let us love them into doing the things that our Heavenly Father would have them do. We can do that, and we cannot win their confidence or their love in any other way.” http://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-george-albert-smith/chapter-21?lang=eng

    1. Rachel Lewis, that’s a fantastic quote! I think it has important implications for how we should influence our family members as well, whether they’re family of bloodline, choice, or ward boundaries.

  7. Teresa…so sorry to hear this! This makes me feel so sad…it’s so NOT the way I think that Heavenly Father wants for us to “help” each other. I hope that most others in your ward treated you and your family much more gently!

    1. Thank you, Mindy. I was blessed with great support from my ward and from members of my community. In fact, this sister was deeply compassionate in her earlier dealings with me. I know her initial intentions were good, even if her insistence overrode them.

  8. Wonderful, raw, and articulate share, Teresa! How I would love to give you a huge hug of total acceptance, acknowledgement, and cherishing of your precious heart. Great reminder that our words are so very powerful.

    I have two teen daughters and a younger daughter too, and I have taught them that when they find themselves emotionally charged over an exchange of any kind, or when they feel righteously indignant and in desire of expressing a sharp-tongued retort or letter, to sleep on it for 24 hours, and take it vertically instead of horizontally, (to God instead of friends/family/the person) during that time.

    For me, it’s kind of a pre-decision to act with grace and humility the best I can during difficult situations with other humans, and give myself time to settle and allow the deeper feeling and wisdom of the Spirit to come through. Since I have the capacity to be a bit direct, It’s saved me many times, and taught me a great deal about the invitation to love myself and others in our imperfections.

    Your post inspired me to think of doing alms in secret not only by giving of oneself in physical acts, but in giving of oneself by meekly letting go and loving another, even when they have no idea how hurtful their words or actions were. Thank-you.

    So truly sorry about the loss of your beloved husband, and so proud of you for sharing your voice, your presence, and your story. Can’t wait to read your blog.

    1. Melanee, thank you for your kind words of condolence–and I accept your virtual hug offering!

      There’s great wisdom in teaching your daughters to wait overnight and take their retorts to Heavenly Father. (I can think of too many times I wish I’d done that.) To apologize later is good, but avoiding the need for it is better. I like the idea of pre-deciding “to act with grace and humility.”

  9. Thank you for this. Honest and real. And a great reminder to love first and worry about attendance record at mid-week activities last :)

  10. A friend shared this article with us and I REALLY liked it. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407

    It is a diagram of grieving shown with circles. Basically the one in the midst of the grief is allowed to express that grief how they feel.

    “Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring. Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings. When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.””

    This makes a lot of sense to me. I am sorry that was not your experience but thank you for this article. I appreciate hearing YOUR side and what the Spirit was telling you to do. Thank you for your example in dealing with that less sensitive sister.

    1. Ana of the Nine+Kids, thank you for the article link. I’d seen variations on the chart but not the original. This is the best graphic representation I’ve seen illustrating the concept that charity “seeketh not her own.”

      More than one bereaved friend has told me they wished black mourning garb were still the norm in all cultures. In some ways it would be easier for others to see grieving people wearing visual reminders of their losses. The “Comfort IN, dump OUT” ring would make a great button accessory to wear as well.

      Even within the innermost rings, though, there is still a need for compassion and self-censorship. Among grieving siblings who’ve lost a parent, for example, each grieves in their own way, which can sometimes lead to misunderstanding. There can also be significant differences in how a widow, her children, and her in-laws view and experience the loss of the same man who was spouse, father, son, and sibling.

  11. When I was in young women’s a woman in our ward lost her newborn baby. Our leader (who herself lost two children) asked her to come speak to us. At the time I didn’t understand why. I will never forget her telling us how she tried to be brave & strong like the pioneer women but that she knew that some days those sisters must have fallen down in the snow and just bawled. My leader knew that we needed to be prepared for overwhelming grief. That we needed to know that sorrow wasn’t a lack of strength and it as ok to not be strong. Maybe that woman probably was hurting from her loss but trying to repress it, and that was why your grief bothered her… No excuse, but I’ve found sometimes the hurting are the most hurtful.

    1. What an insightful YW leader you had, Yogamama. As the sister in your ward relayed trying “to be brave & strong” I thought of how often I was advised to do that for my kids’ sake. They didn’t realize how broken I felt. No matter how well I appeared to hold myself together, there were so many cracks in my vessel I had no oil to hold for myself, let alone for them. It was only by acknowledging my Savior’s ability to heal that the re-shaped “me” could be made strong again–after much tribulation.

      I think there’s validity that when others are also hurting, feeling the weakness of their own cracked surfaces, they may lash out to see others break first. Knowing that can help us judge them less harshly AND it can help us remember to handle those around us with care. Not all cracks are visible to mortal eyes.

  12. Yoga: “sometimes the hurting are the most hurtful”

    Sometimes I am given a brief and clear view of this in a painful relationship. It knocks the wind out of my sails which have been unfurled in righteous indignation and personal pain and helps me to remember to be gentle in response.

    It’s sobering.

    Thank you.

  13. wow ladies. thank you. i needed to hear from all of you today. virtual hugs to everyone and may we all be ever mindful that most people are dealing with personal pain. we tend to only worry about our own problems… then you talk to a friend or family member, maybe someone on the edge of your circle; really listen and learn that they have trials too… so many people are hurting but try to keep it together… we should never be their last straw… It is so easy to be self righteous and judgmental, so much better to be a daughter of our Heavenly Father… to follow his example.
    Lets just give it up for all the stupid things that people say without thinking, or maybe without listening to the quiet (non schizophrenic) voice in their heart. Once you get past it, you can really wonder WHAT the Heck?!

  14. JaiNel, as you point out, since everyone has that personal, most often unseen pain in their lives, it sounds like a worthy goal to begin every encounter with our own silent plea: “Let me not ‘be their last straw,’ please!”

  15. This post made me think of something that happened years ago. I had been recently diagnosed with a serious chronic illness that was incredibly painful. Nothing made me feel better. I had decided that since nothing helped, I would just get up and try to. Get throughmy day, even though it was really hard. This included going to church without fail, a difficult venture because we had to take a bus or bike, and both were difficult and painful for me.
    At the same time, a friend and neighbor frequently missed church for what I perceived to be minor ailments, certainly not on the scale of the pain I was experiencing. (At least this is what I was telling myself). I was pretty angry and frustrated with this friend. I never said anything to her, but I know I demonstrated my frustration with her in small ways.
    Looking back now, I am ashamed at myself and my mean thoughts. My friend didn’t deserve my mental censure and I certainly damaged a good friendship.

    1. Tiffany W, thanks for your candor in reflecting on how your physical pain influenced your perception and treatment of your friend. Hindsight is always clearer. Few of us are at our best in the midst of suffering–no matter the source. You’ve offered a poignant reminder that we aren’t always privy to the pain that motivates others’ words or actions.

      (I hope you’ve found ways to alleviate the pain of your condition.)

  16. This is a poignant article and thread. I’m surprised after the recent loss of my mother (3 weeks ago) that it’s already over and past news to everybody else. Healing will only come through the Savior and it takes time. The Spirit has whispered to me to go slow and just do the most important things. Teresa, that is what you were doing! Let us be kind to each other, “cherish one another, that we may all sit down in heaven together.” (words of Lucy Mack Smith)

    1. Linda, I’m so sorry about the passing of your mother. You’re wise to allow yourself time to feel. Even with the perspective we have, it hurts (such an inadequate word!) to lose people we love. After my mom died, an elderly sister in my ward told me she sometimes “still” cried over her mother’s passing two decades earlier. As she cried with me she hugged me and said, “Honey, it’s always gonna hurt. You’re always gonna love her. But it won’t always hurt AS badly. It won’t always hurt THIS way.”

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