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Grief and Communication: Finding the Right Words

"Don't hurry yourself or let anyone rush you. Share the pain of your grief with safe people who will listen to you and appreciate what you have lost. Each time you open up and share, you're letting go of a little more hurt and allowing a little more healing to take place. That's the way grief goes-a little at a time, day by day, for as long as it takes. So give yourself permission to grieve." - Kenneth C. Haugk, Journeying through Grief

When C.S. Lewis lost his wife, he wrote that losing a loved one is like having your leg amputated. At first, this idea sounded a bit extreme. I was more hopeful back then, thinking I'd be okay. But now, in some ways, I feel like this comparison doesn't quite capture how hard things have been. It's definitely not fun, especially when you love planning life way out in advance (and also get paid to do that at work) and had plans to do things like compete in triathlons as you grow older. My lost leg won't magically grow back, so I have to figure out new ways to get through each day. Life goes on, but it's never going to be the same.


In many ways I feel like I am starting life all over again. When I see people, I sometimes feel like I am from another planet but somehow people recognize me as one of them. Using the amputated leg analogy, I categorize my interactions with people as follows (please don't feel judged):

  • Business-as-usual: I feel like some people don't want to acknowledge that my leg is gone. Conversations usually divert to "safe" topics like the weather, work, or other people. Or we just go find something to do. They appear uncertain about what to say. Not their fault, since sometimes I also don't want to talk about my leg.

  • When is this grieving project over? I feel like there are those who seem to be patiently waiting for my leg to miraculously grow back so we can return to our previous active routines. They miss the "old Erwin" dearly, and whenever I'm with them, they covertly check under the table, as if expecting my leg to be magically restored. They have a mental timeline for how long this process should take and desperately desire things to revert to normal. Not their fault either, I want this project to be over as well. This is probably how I interacted with people in the past who have experienced significant loss.

  • People I don't deserve (My new BFFs): Lastly, there are those who genuinely embrace the "new Erwin" with just one leg and look forward to new active routines not involving running. They grasp that this situation unfolded for a reason, one we may never fully understand in this lifetime. Like Teri, they are so curious and seem to be always available to talk. They read this blog, despite their busy schedules. Some have shown tremendous grace because I wasn't even around when they experienced significant loss. In their presence, I feel unconditional love, much like how Jesus loves us all.

No matter where you may fall in these categories (or perhaps none of the above), I believe there isn't a right or wrong way to interact with someone like me. I genuinely appreciate my time with all three types of people, understanding that individuals change over time, much like I am changing. Initially, I felt like I had some new BFFs but as time passed, people became busy or developed new interests. This sometimes caused disappointment because I tend to have expectations. However, I remind myself that everyone's intentions are good, and I'm grateful that people are reaching out to me in the first place. It's also important to acknowledge that I've made mistakes by saying the wrong things to my friends who've experienced significant loss.

Reflecting on these new interactions actually reminds me of being married to Teri and Tim Keller's words of wisdom on Marriage:

"Within this Christian vision of marriage, here's what it means to fall in love. It is to look at another person and get a glimpse of what God is creating, and to say, "I see who God is making you, and it excites me! I want to be part of that. I want to partner with you and God in the journey you are taking to his throne. And when we get there, I will look at your magnificence and say, 'I always knew you could be like this. I got glimpses of it on earth, but now look at you!” Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage

I must have read and shared this quote with Teri and others dozens of times. Reading it since Teri passed away makes me sad and teary eyed since I wish I could read it to her right now. I felt like I did get glimpses of this love from Teri up until she passed away. I can't wait to see her in heaven.

While my leg is missing, Teri will always be in my heart

"Character building" messages for Erwin

Since there are many books and articles on the internet on what to say and not say, I'll just share some real life examples and comment briefly on them. I am still thankful for ALL the messages below. I hope you find this helpful for your future interactions and maybe even get a laugh out of it.

Let me start with some more general messages I heard from at least more than one person:

"Please don't work too much. You should travel. Have fun. Perhaps Do ______." (Person assumes I am not doing these things)
"How long were you married again? (~2.5 years) They say you should wait half the time before you start dating again. Perhaps you should wait at least a year."
"You really shouldn't date. Just focus on grieving. What would other people, especially family, think if they found out you were dating again?"
"My one piece of advice is, don't make big decisions" (friend was not happy that I wrapped my car)

There's nothing inherently wrong with these pieces of advice. In fact, I find myself agreeing with most of them, which is why I previously discussed my decision to step away from dating apps. These examples of good advice make sense, especially when the person going through a loss actively seeks guidance. However, unsolicited advice can be challenging to digest, particularly when it comes from someone who hasn't been in touch for a while and may not fully grasp the broader context of your situation.


Speaking of making significant decisions, my therapist shared that there are indeed moments when it's crucial to make important choices promptly. For instance, if you've started a new job that feels overwhelmingly stressful, but you have the chance to return to a previous position or switch to a less demanding role within the same company, it's wise to act decisively. Similarly, downsizing to alleviate financial burdens can also be a necessary step. Regardless of the situation, don't hesitate to seek assistance and support.


Let me share more specific messages, slightly rephrased for clarity and with added emphasis:

"I've been thinking of you in your difficult time with what you and Teri are going through. We just got back from being out of town in March, visiting family but unfortunately after two weeks we faced a challenging time losing our [sibling] from cancer. It was fast and aggressive type, God made us go home to escape from winter and to spend time with my family. He had some tests and revealed the diagnosis before he got sick. This is life he did not suffer and with the Lord now." - Erwin's relative, March 31, 2023

I read this, in the hospital, next to Teri. I first thought, "Are you serious!? This is the LAST thing I want to read. What in the world. Maybe I should block them for now" Then I took a deep breath, smiled and sent some screenshots to some people to make me feel better. I waited a few hours and then responded, "I am so sorry for your loss of your _____. I am thankful he is with the Lord now."


What made this message most difficult is the timing of the message. This was two days before Teri passed away. At that time, there was still hope from her doctor that she would make it to her second chemotherapy treatment and beyond. This message reminded me that "fast and aggressive" cancers can take people's lives in a very short amount of time. Yes that's the truth, but not really what I needed to hear in the hospital.

Erwin, my family felt the same heartbreak that you are feeling right now, after the sudden passing of your beloved wife Teri. [X] years ago, [my sibling ] (shortly after her very rare but aggressive uterine cancer was diagnosed) suddenly & tragically went home to be with The Lord in just 7 short weeks. My [ parent ] also passed away due to this dreadful disease. My prayers & condolences go out to you & your family, during this most difficult time of grief & loss. - Erwin's friend, Apr 2023

Its true that my friend went through something pretty similar regarding the type of cancer and timeline. What's definitely not the same is the heartbreak. I think any time people have shared and compared their grief with me, I usually felt even more misunderstood.


I am actually at a loss on how to respond to these messages. My fear is that our conversation will turn into a lot of "I totally understand because ______ happened to me and let me tell you what worked for me." Sometimes I do have capacity to listen and empathize, and look forward to doing so with the people above in the near future. Okay there's more but perhaps another time. I told a friend earlier this week that I should work on my positivity. Hopefully you get the message, be mindful of what you say and when you say it.


Posted this before, worth sharing again

What Has been Helpful

My favorite part to write about. Feel free to copy and paste or modify with your own words. I'll share the quotes I wrote in my Early May Update plus a few more:

"Erwin, can you bring a hard copy of Teri's childhood book so I can read it?"
"Hi Erwin, I just wanted to check in and see how you are doing? I've been thinking about Teri a lot."
"If ever you want to share a story about your wife just so someone else knows her, I would be happy to help you keep her memory alive by listening.
"I read [the last post] twice over. There were so many little tidbits in the post that helped me get to know your inner world better"
"Good morning! Happy 4th! I am running the Woodbridge 5K in honor of Teri this morning at 715. Because she was so brave to do the triathlon I wanted to sign up for the 5K - my 2nd race ever!"

It takes a genuine interest to give quality time to read, think and listen about someone's former spouse. Especially if she passed away almost five months ago. The theme with all the messages is intentionality and Quality time, Teri's love language. Looking back on my marriage, a lot of what I felt I gave her was Quantity time with some quality time when I was on top of things (or after we finished an argument). While I spent most of my free time with her, I had a lot of other stuff on my mind.


Slightly off-topic, but it ties into the theme of quality time: We often discussed technology and phone usage when we were at home. Many of you are aware of Teri's tendency to respond slowly to messages; she wasn't a heavy phone user, especially when she was in the company of others. Recently, I came across a video on my feed that resonated with me. It highlighted the rarity of people who are willing to meet up without constantly checking their phones:

Quality time is hard to come by these days because everyone (including me) seems to be so busy. Just to clarify (as it appears even my close friends might not be aware), my primary way of expressing love through "acts of service." However, when it comes to Teri, close friends, and family, my preferred love language is physical touch, which includes giving hugs. I believe this inclination towards physical affection stems from growing up in a loving and affectionate household. So, yes, you're welcome to come over and share a hug with Mayo as well. I'll delve deeper into the topic of love languages in a future post.


I am back on eHarmony/Hinge

Just kidding. A few people did message me after my last post, recommending I don't post a picture of me and Teri if I decide in the future to use online dating. Totally get it, I'll just post pictures of Teri here and a link to the blog. In case you're curious, I used this photo:

Dec 2017 - Daddy Eddie’s 96th Birthday

I brought this up because I wrote on my Hinge profile regarding one thing I learned recently is that "grieving has no timeline." Thankfully something good came out of it, a nice response:


While I did not respond (I did not want to officially match) it's nice to know that there are strangers out there read profiles and can be encouraged by my recent loss. This also reminded me of my message to Teri on eHarmony about my dog Ollie being attacked by a coyote. She felt she had to respond and the rest is history. So I guess the moral of the story is that online dating is way too much work since you have to write good messages to everyone.


In response to my blog post on July 7:

Oh Erwin. Sending you a really big hug. Still loving the authenticity of what you share and have no judgment on your actions. I think we all grieve differently and there is no set time. Before [spouse's name], I was engaged and when we broke things off, it was only a few months before I started dating again. I didn’t rush into any significant relationships but I knew holding on to the past wasn’t going to do anything for me. Your situation is quite different with a minor parallel and ultimately I think grieving with have ups and downs. Whatever your choices, you’ve got our support. ― Erwin's relative, Jul 2023

This heartwarming message hit a lot of key areas at once:

  • Read the blog (thank you for reading)

  • Virtual hug (better than no hug)

  • Shared a relatable experience regarding grief

  • Acknowledged it's still different

  • Understands that grief has no timeline

  • Will support me regardless

This was really well worded and I felt deeply understood and supported. I'll read messages like these again when I'm feeling down. If this person now tells me some advice, I would be very receptive to it.

That's all for now. I've really covered more verbal/written communication on this post, there's a lot more to say on actions, gifts, free food (which is still encouraged), etc. Hopefully this post isn't too all over the place. Remember I'm not a writer, I studied engineering in college and like to work on spreadsheets. I also feel like I am catching up from not blogging much in August. Reading this a few times over has humbled me because I have made most of these mistakes and have unintentionally hurt people. Let's talk if you are one of them, hopefully in person. Feedback and quotes people have shared with you is welcomed in the comments. Have a great rest of the week!


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Must admit that I had to laugh a little at all the unsolicited advice. It's wild how people think it's appropriate to tell you how to grieve—sometimes, before they've even seen how you're handling it 😅😅😅

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I actually read this minutes after you posted. I happened to be up late. Your amputated leg analogy is quite something. And I have to re-read this before replying. As always, I’m in awe of the thoughtful words you use to share. I think what you’ve described is really what happens. There‘s discomfort in asking someone about their loss but we all need to show grace - to others and ourselves - because even with all of God’s words and teachings, we fail at perfection. We sometimes convey the wrong message even though we have good intention. We perhaps engage in what might be a passive/dismissive way in hopes it will be quality time to garner heartfelt conversation. The words…

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Sucheta Pai
Sucheta Pai
Sep 01, 2023

Virtual hug! One for Mayo too.

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Tiffany Wong
Tiffany Wong
Sep 01, 2023

Once again, thank you for sharing your heart, Erwin. I remember also being frustrated with the things people would say to me and being offended quite often. I learned over time that everyone cares in their own way and to try to see their hearts more than their actions. Even though Job's friends weren't quite helpful, they did sit with him for a long time in his season of suffering. It does take effort to stop and try and connect and it is really difficult to say the right thing. I was listening to the radio yesterday and the speaker was talking about National Grief Awareness Day and I thought of you. Your posts are really helping others be…

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