I Thought I Was Through With Grief, But Grief Wasn’t Through With Me

I’d planned to stop writing about grief. Someone I respect said, “There comes a time when it’s healthy for one to move on and drop the grief banner. It comes at different times for different people and it is an important part of the healing process.” I thought I was at that point. I’ve been getting on with my life, living each day as it comes, dealing with the loneliness, seeing the whole of our shared life rather than the terrible end.

For the most part, we had a good relationship. We were friends, life mates, and business partners. We helped each other grow. We never expected the other to fix our individual problems, though we often took each other’s advice. We didn’t cling, demand, or base our relationship on unrealistic expectations. Together we provided a safe environment where each of us could be ourselves. We supported each other in any way we could. And we enjoyed being together.

Long-term illness, however, skews a relationship. Over the years, our world kept getting smaller and smaller, trapping us in a life where neither his needs nor mine were being met. In that constricted world, small betrayals loomed large. Small disagreements seemed insurmountable. And there was guilt galore. After he died, I worked through all of those leftover problems, came to a greater understanding of our relationship and what his ill health had done to us, and finally realized we both acted the only way we could in such an untenable situation. I also dealt with the soul searing pain of loss, with the confusing physical symptoms. (Like falling in love, falling in grief causes changes in hormones and brain chemistry, and creates incredible stress, but unlike love, you can’t regulate those changes with sex. Unless you’re into necrophilia.)

I thought I was through with grief, but grief wasn’t through with me. There was no great realization, no lightning bolt of discovery, just the truth settling into my soul: I’ll never see him again in this lifetime.

Seems an obvious conclusion, doesn’t it? I’ve been saying for fifteen months that he’s gone, though I always accompanied the statement with a bewildered remark about not being able to fathom the sheer goneness of him. And yet somehow, someway, in the dark recesses of my mind, I felt as if we were on a break, as if I’d come to take care of my father for a while, just as I did for my mother, and soon I’d be going back to our life. It didn’t help that, when I drove away from our home for the last time, his car was sitting out in front as it always did when I left. (I’d donated it to hospice, and they hadn’t yet come to pick it up.) Nor did it help that I’d made this same trip, stayed in this same room several times before.

I’ve often listened for the phone, hoping he’d call to ask me to come home as he’d once done, but now I know the truth, I feel it.

Eleven months ago I wrote: I dread the time it hits me deep down in my soul that he is dead, that I will never be going home to him, that I will never see him again. Well, this is that time. There are no more issues to work through, guilt to suffer, or blame to lay. No more feelings of being rejected or abandoned (as if it were his choice to leave me). There is no more stress or gut-wrenching pain. Just pure and simple heartbreak. And silent tears.

28 Responses to “I Thought I Was Through With Grief, But Grief Wasn’t Through With Me”

  1. Joy Collins Says:

    Oh, Pat, my heart aches for both of us. I know where you are. For I am there, too. On some level, the realization that our loves are gone is almost worse than the actual parting. The finality is almost too much to bear.
    How does one come to terms with that? I don’t know. I am still trying to find my way as well.
    I too felt that on some level this was a temporary thing – that I would go through the motions of whatever it was I was supposed to go through and then miraculously John would come home, walk through the door as he always did with that wonderful smile I love and all would go back to being as it should be.
    But that’s not going to happen and the thought of that sends me to my knees.
    And for the record, that was an incredibly cruel and cold thing for your “friend” [she deserves no respect, by the way] to say. “Drop the grief banner”? How dare she! Is your grief too inconvenient for her? She has obviously never lost someone dear to her. Or maybe she is incapable of even feeling those kinds of feelings. People like her make me very angry.
    You and I are where we need to be right now. There is no right or wrong. Grief just is. Who is anyone to say what is the correct time frame. If it takes us the rest of our lives to carry the grief banner, so be it.
    You know what? This has touched me so much, it’s going on my grief blog, too.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Joy, the friend had lost his wife, and his comment was meant in the most respectful way. Maybe at some point we do have to stop talking about our grief? Just silently miss our mates? I do know I’d like to stop grieving, but the only way to do that is for him to come back, and that is not going to happen.

      It’s such a terribly sad journey we are both on. This stage where we’ve dropped all subconsious protective devices is probably the hardest part of grief. The first year was about dealing with the grief and pain. This is about the finality of it. It’s interesting that we both feel as if we’d been tested somehow, met the challenge, and yet were deprived of the prize. Life is so very cruel. And yet here we are.

      • Joy Collins Says:

        Sorry, for someone to assume he knows how another is feeling and to impose his standards on that person is not respectful, in my opinion. Maybe it was time for him. It does not mean it is time for you or for me.
        Yes, we can grieve silently but then we are deprived of the support of others. On the one hand, we are told to reach out and not isolate, but if we are going to be scolded for our feelings, who would want to reach out under those circumstances? It’s a Catch-22. But I have met people like your so-called friend, too.
        I do not like this journey at all but I am trying to learn from it. One of the lessons I am learning is who my real friends are.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          You’re right, Joy — grief is exceedingly isolating. I do hesitate to talk about it lest people think I’m pathetic, but it is silence about grief (especially about the length of grief) that creates such misunderstandings. I wish with all my heart we did not have to deal with such a topic, wish we did not have to deal with our losses, but I appreciate more than you know that you shared your story and your grief with me.

  2. Kathy Holmes Says:

    My heart breaks for you – you’re a brave lady for sharing your grief with the rest of us – acknowledging that you will never see him again in this life. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve had a string of different kinds of losses – not knowing my father, having to leave my friends behind due to a big move and even a divorce that I wanted but still had to grieve – and life can trigger a revisit to the 2 that matter to me now (the father and the move) – especially since we may be moving again and I may have to say good-bye again to my childhood home. But I’ve been watching “Searching for Sarah” on OWN and it’s just fascinating and it is a good refresher for me on how to use the tools I acquired earlier. I blogged about my childhood loss and a FB friend mentioned that she’d had a similar loss and it felt good to connect with somebody who’d had a similar experience, reassuring me that I am not alone.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Kathy, I never thought I was particularly brave in sharing my grief, until now. As the months tick by, people who have not had a huge loss become less understanding, more impatient. And yet, my crusade has always been to tell the truth about grief. The silence can kill. Literally. People who have had a major loss have a 27% higher death rate, and I’d be willing to bet the disease rate is muc higher. (I know three women who developed breast cancer the year after they lost their husbands.)

      It is important to connect, and it’s impossible to connect if a person doesn’t talk about their grief. Thank you for connecting with me, for telling me about your grief.

  3. LV Gaudet Says:

    Perhaps letting go of the grief isn’t so much a hit deep in the soul with the realization he is gone, but more of a calmer letting go of the need to grieve.

    It took me much longer to let go of the grief over only almost losing my little girl than you have been grieving. In fact, the grief has never really gone away, not completely. But maybe that’s in part because I spent the worste of that time in silence, bottling it all up with no one to talk to about it. Mostly it’s been a letting go of the need to grieve. That little piece of me that died when I found her will never come back, but every experience in our lives leaves some kind of mark on us, changing us forever.

    Some people just don’t want the uncomfortableness of dealing with someone else’s grief. And those that are more understanding of your grief worry when you don’t stop talking about it and start grieving in private. It seems life grief is supposed to be private. It’s expected.

    Who ever said grieving in private was healthy?

    I think your friend is just worrying that you aren’t moving beyond the grief to letting go. Maybe he worries that you won’t be able to.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      L.V., supposedly, a person never lets go of grief (or perhaps it’s that grief doesn’t let us go). You just learn how to handle it. I do know that silence about grief is a terrible thing. Grief itself isolates, and if you isolate yourself by not talking about it (or others isolate you by not letting you talk about it) there can be problems that last for decades. I’d rather talk about it now, for as long as I need, than to let it fester.

      At one of the first meetings with my original bereavement group, the counselor told me not to be silent about grief. I’d asked the group if they continued to talk about their grief, and they all said they stopped talking about their loss except to the group. To everyone else they’d use phrases such as “I’m coping,” or “I’m doing okay all things considered.” When I asked if I should hide my grief, the counselor said no—too many people hide their grief, and it’s important to let others know what grief is, how it affects a person and her life. I’ve sort of made that my crusade. (Though I am a bit embarrassed to admit how much I’m still crying.)

      • Joy Collins Says:

        Don’t ever be embarrassed about crying. My therapist told me the depth of our sadness is a testament to the depth of our love. What’s wrong with crying and being sad for a person and a love who was so wonderful and is now no longer here?
        And I think we are on this crusade together. It bothers me that people are so uncomfortable with grief that they want those who are grieving to just shut up about it already. They won’t feel that way when it’s their turn.
        But I do screen who I tell my feelings to. Not because I’m ashamed – I just don’t want their lectures. But my dear cousin told me that she is glad I share with her because she is learning from me. That made me feel better.

      • LV Gaudet Says:

        I wonder if grief over the living is different from grief over loss of the living.

        When I found my baby girl not breathing, she was dead. Every bit of me screamed with it. My world crashed with an explosive finality, the world dropped from beneath me, and I felt like I died in that brief moment. The seconds after that were worse, and every one of them felt like an eternity. When she started to breath it scared the hell out of me. Is she really breathing? Is she alive? Will she keep breathing? Her weak cry brough the most painful glimmer of hope I’ve ever experienced. The many hours spent at the hospital, first one then another, were an eternity of numbness mixed with fear, dread, guilt, and relief. And when it was clear she would be okay, that overwhelming relief and joy was tainted by the emptiness of that part of me that died the moment I found her unbreathing – a part of me that I don’t think will ever grow back.

        While there was some understanding expressed by others of how this would have damaged you, you also feel like you aren’t supposed to grieve. After all, she did live and recover fully. You don’t talk about your grief because you aren’t supposed to grieve the living. It took a 1 1/2 years before I could look at that spot again without seeing her lifeless body and reliving that first moment of pain. It still happens occassionally. Letting her go to preschool a few hours twice a week when she turned 3 was pure torture with the fear that grips you that something might happen. School leaves me wanting to sit out side the school with a view into her classroom to make sure she’s safe. She’s six and a half and every day I live with the irrational fear of something happening to her, of losing her again.

        But you’re not supposed to talk about it, or to mourn, because she is living and healthy. It should be in the past and forgotten but something like that never can be. For me she died, and took a huge piece of me with her and that will never change. They don’t have groups for grieving the living.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          Lori, Most people would think you had nothing to grieve for, but the truth is you lost something very precious, not your daughter, but your . . . innocence, maybe. The same sort of thing happened to me. About 18 years before I lost my mate, he almost died. Lost so much blood and had so much internal bleeding they had to give him 4 or 5 quarts. It took me three years to get over the horror of almost losing him, which is one reason I didn’t think I’d grieve. All those years were a bonus. But the end still came as a shock. I’ll probably never stop grieving, though it’s already dissipating a bit.

          They might not have groups for grieving the living, but here, on my blog, you can talk about it all you need to.

  4. Kathy Holmes Says:

    Pat, I just had to add that I’m so happy to read your words about how you need to be open about your grief. I grew up a family that didn’t express feelings at all. I kept so many things bottled up – like admitting I wanted to know my father. So when I set out on that journey, I really lost so many people – another loss I didn’t mention. So, instead of supporting me, they grew distant and still are. They just couldn’t handle the truth of who I am. But I wouldn’t trade knowing who I am for the world – of course that’s true. But there was such pressure to deny my real self.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Kathy, during dire times, so many people lose those who should have been supportive. I’m sorry it happened to you. I have a hunch my crusade to be open about grief helps only me and those who already know the truth. Until it happens to a person, it’s almost impossible for them to fathom the vast changes major losses bring. Truth seems to be the hardest thing for anyone to face. It was so courageous of you to search it out.

  5. knightofswords Says:

    Perhaps you said this already, but as I read the heart-felt eloquence of your words here as you deal with grief, I wonder if you have thought of making a book of it–to help others who might–as I suspect you’ve discovered here already–feel the support of your words in their own lives.


    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Funny you should mention that, Malcolm. I’m working on the book now — combining the blog posts, excerpts from my grief journal, and letters into a chronicle of my first year of grief. I worry that it’s too self-indulgent, too personal, so it’s nice to know that others think it might be worthwhile.

      • knightofswords Says:

        Pat, I think the fact that it is personal is what will make the book real to readers who are experiencing their own grief. I’m glad you’re working on this as a way to reach out to others.

  6. Bob Meeker Says:

    It sounds like you may have reached a plateau Pat and I hope you have if it eases your pain. Maybe there’s some hope for all of us to look forward to. At only 7 months, I’m still in the gut-wrenching pain stage you refer to. My wife and I did everything together and it hurts so much to go solo now! I had to run an errand this morning and it apparently was a bad day to do this. Every road I drive on we have traveled together. Every store I now patronize alone we have shopped in together. I had to pull off the road about half way there because I couldn’t see through the tears. How’s that for pathetic? Men aren’t supposed to react like that but I sure found out in a hurry that this one does. Grief sure changes everything about the way we used to be. May God help us all in this never-ending uphill struggle.


    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Bob, men do cry after losing a mate, and they should. Grieving is very stresstul, and tears are a way of relieving that stress. Dr. William Frey, a biochemist and director of the Dry Eye and Tear Research Center in Minneapolis, says that people “may be removing, in their tears, chemicals that build up during emotional stress.” So crying is not a sign of weakness. Abstaining from crying is not a sign of bravery.

      I had to leave the house where we lived, so I no longer have to travel those same roads or go to those same stores, but I have had similar situtions. It took me an entire year before I could eat any of the meals we ate together. I still can’t write fiction. I used to write at night and read it to him in the morning. Most of our stuff is in storage, and I dread the day I begin using it again, but perhaps using our things will bring me comfort.

      You are not pathetic — though I know you feel that way. I use that very same word to describe the way I so often feel. It doesn’t seem as if this should be so difficult, does it? But the truth is, losing a life long mate is an amputation. You are dealing with the bloody stump, complete with phantom pains. In addition, losing a mate causes changes in brain chemistry, in hormones, in equilibrium. Injuries and illnesses heal much more slowly than normal. Higher levels of adrenaline keep you from sleeping. Stress depletes what little reserves you have. You have trouble concentrating, trouble gripping (you drop things more frequently). You experience dizziness and nausea. Your skin thirsts for his/her touch. And you have a higher death rate from all causes than non-grievers.

      It’s amazing any of us survive this trauma, but we do. Sort of.

  7. Carol J. Garvin Says:

    Grief is such a journey! The dips and hollows, the endless days seemingly going nowhere. When the news came of our daughter’s death I was already emotionally balancing the shock of my husband’s sudden open heart surgery so I could hardly take it in. The reality didn’t hit until much later when my husband had recovered and I knew he was out of danger. I think the simple truth is that grief doesn’t follow any rules. Its journey is as unique as the people it affects, and no one should feel guilty about how they navigate the distance. You’ve come a long way, Pat. I don’t know what your destination will look like, but you’re working your way toward it. You’ll get there in your own good time.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Carol, It’s stunning (literally) the way life throws such terrible jolts at us, not one at a time, but several. I’ve heard such heartbreaking stories since I’ve embarked on this journey. I’m glad your husband recovered, but I’m so sorry about your daughter. Thank you for all your comments during this past year. You’ve given me much to think about.

  8. susan Says:

    I haven’t posted on your blog for months. It has been over 12 years since my first husband died.

    Grief still comes and goes. The “firsts” still happen, which bring it all back. My children, who were all relatively small, are all now adults. The “baby” leaves for college in less than two months. I have created a new life with a new man who I love very much. He also was a widow. There will always be moments when grief returns, but it is just different. I am happy and content with my new life. Yet every now and then I think that their daddy would be so proud and the unfairness of it all comes rushing back.

    You have a gift for putting feelings into words. Thank you for doing so.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Susan, it’s good to know that there is life after the death of a life mate, even happiness and contentment. It’s such a terrible journey, it’s hard to believe at times that anyone ever survives. It truly is unfair that our mate’s lives were cut short.

  9. leesis Says:

    Pat I have to comment on this idea of a time limit on grieving. Bluntly it is ludicrous and denies the enormity of what the griever has to face. It is not a banner to put down but a process to be journeyed and endured with the kind of courage you have shown. And I know that people overwhelmed by the conflict between how they really feel and how others are telling them to feel will be helped should they stumble upon your writings.

    If people are made to feel they should be ‘better’ now, to stop going ‘on about it now’ that it’s time to ‘move on’ from their support group, often the natural reaction is suppression of their emotional pain and this suppression is the number one cause of people not healing from grief. If pain is suppressed it must find an avenue of expression hence the many maladjusted reactions in body/mind and behaviour. And this suppression is actively encouraged by those around us be it friends or apparent professionals.

    The grief journey is one of unbelievable pain to the psyche. I use the term psyche for it truly causes pain to every part of our being. On top of that it’s a journey of missing the individual, spewing at the injustice of death, our powerlessness over death, our absolute lack of knowing what exists beyond death (despite claims to the contrary), running over and over our relationship with the deceased. All the while trying desperately to function in a world forever changed. We are not biochemical computers in a body we are human beings and this is gi-normous (I’m ignoring the red squiggly line).

    The fact that the health system lacks the money or time to provide the care required or that our fellow man is impatient and uncomfortable with expressions of pain only adds to the weight of the journey.

    Despite all this though, if allowed, healing will occur. If we lay off artificial stimulants/relaxants, commit each day to putting one step in front of the other, and not suppress but allow the sobbing, the tears and finally seek human connection we do heal. It may take a few years. No, life will never be the same. It will be different…but it will be much better than the time of grief.

    I’m sorry this was such a long response but I feel rather strongly about the fact that there is absolutely NOTHING ‘pathetic’ about grieving!!!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Leesa, long responses are good, especially yours. You always give me so much to think about, particularly when I do begin to feel pathetic for grieving for so long. I mean, death is such a natural and common occurrence, and I am by nature a stoic, that it shouldn’t still be so hard. But it is.

      You don’t think there comes a time when a person stops portraying themselves as a griever? A widower? A widow? Most people do seem to get to that point, though, except in the privacy of their bedroom.

      You are so very right about the enormity of the tasks facing the bereft. That’s why I undertook to write about my grief in the first place — Until he died, I had no concept whatsoever of what grief meant. Had no concept how the death of a lifemate changed you and the world forever. I still feel broken, still feel as if the world is skewed now that he’s gone.

      I’ve noticed that people who do not give themselves time to cry end up with post traumatic stress syndrome, or even worse. I’d like to know what the incidence of breast cancer is after a woman loses her husband. Grief truly is an enormous strain on all parts of the body, mind, soul.

      I’ve come to realize, that among other things, it’s a way of processing information — trying to make sense of the senseless, trying to rearrange the furniture of your mind to make way for the person’s absence, of processing the concept of death. I’m not sure our finite minds can comprehend such an infinite concept as that — a person who was once here is here no longer.

      Thank you for all your insights over the past year.

      • leesis Says:

        Yes Pat I think a time absolutely comes whereby we are no longer dominated by the process of grief and as a result we will no longer portray ourselves as such. However this is a natural outcome of the journey and not something that can be forced by us or by others.

        Given the enormity of the task that must be processed to expect we’ll have it all wrapped up and sorted within a couple of years is nonsensical. Death maybe natural and common but it is also the antipathy of all we hold precious and beyond our comprehension until we personally face it (and then really beyond our comprehension!). A look at the mythology that surrounds death clearly shows our struggles to come to some sort of terms with it. Accepting the ‘gone-ness’ of the loved one is horrendous enough let alone seeking some understanding of what it all means that works for us. Healing will occur but we simply can’t look to the clock on this one.

        Oh and regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder…PTSD… I have personally renamed it NTTH…No Time To Heal.
        With love

        • Joy Collins Says:

          The new philosophy regarding grief therapy [according to a book I am currently reading] is that it takes up to two years to process grief – longer if it is a child lost or a spouse of many years or if the loss was complicated by trauma or PTSD. And processing doesn’t mean letting go. It is actually forming a new reconnection. The goal is not to sever bonds with the deceased and “move on” but the authors claim people are better adjusted if they maintain a continuing bond with the person who has passed. Examples they gave were dreaming about the person who has passed, talking to him/her, believing that the deceased is watching over the survivor, keeping items of the loved one [contrary to those who say we should be giving their things away], and frequently thinking about the person. Some even report after death communication and this is not discouraged. I find this comforting and it reinforces my belief that I am going to continue to do this my way and do whatever feels right to me.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          Joy, it’s good that such philosophies are being proposed. We know these things instinctively, just as we know that there are infinitely more stages of grief than the five that people usually talk about. That reconnection seems to be a stage. First, you need to process what happened, process the absence, then create a new bond. Most people scatter their loved one’s ashes, but a minister friend suggested I keep some of them, and since I don’t want to separate them, I’m keeping them all. Brings me comfort. I use his urn as a back rest. As my sister says, he still has my back. There are also several items he asked me to keep, and I will. Someone said he’d never know if I throw them away, but the truth is, I will know. I like having those things in sight.

          I’ve come to believe grief is how we process something that is too deep for thought. Such a loss is one thing you can’t think your way out of. You have to feel it. And tears and all the other outward signs of mourning are a way of both feeling it and relieving the stress of that hard psychical work.

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