Following Grief Wherever It Leads

A couple of weeks ago at my grief group, I mentioned that the day I cleaned out my life mate’s effects — his clothes, personal items, and mementoes — was the worst day of my life. I then said the only good thing about it was that since it was the worst day of my life, by definition, every day afterward would be better. The moderator of the group gave me a surprised look and said, “That’s a very positive thing coming from you.” Huh? I didn’t know we were supposed to be positive. I thought the whole purpose of dealing with grief, of talking about it, of learning from it was to feel it, process it, and let it go so that we’d eventually be able to rebuild our shattered lives. Being foolishly positive seems to be a rather negative way to deal with a soul-shattering loss.

After the first painful weeks, most bereft are outwardly optimistic when it comes to sharing their grief because they’ve been taught that dwelling on anything unpleasant is unhealthy. They talk about looking forward to new opportunities, new goals, new hopes, but inwardly they are still reeling from their horrendous loss. (And if they aren’t, chances are they are denying what their loss means to them.) I chose instead to feel my grief, to dissect it, to put it into words for the bereft who couldn’t express what they were feeling. I also wanted to illuminate the experience for those who haven’t a clue what grief really feels like (especially novelists, who so often get it wrong), and to challenge the current myths about grief. If I wanted to, I could have been as optimistic as everyone else, but that was not my self-imposed mission. I don’t need to shore myself up with positive thinking — I’m strong enough to take grief straight. This does not mean I am closing myself off to new possibilities. Eventually I will have to rebuild my life, but I am in a position right now where I can follow grief wherever it leads.

And where it is leading is into the second year of living without my mate.

The first year of grief is all about dealing with the emotional, physical, mental, spiritual shock of the soul quake you experience when a long-time mate dies. That shock protects most of us from feeling the full effect of the truth — that we’ll never see our mates on earth again. After the first year, when we begin to rebuild our lives, to feel that the worst is over, we are hit with the aftershocks, and it’s as if we are experiencing the loss all over again, but this time without the protective effects of the original shock. If we’ve worked through our particular issues — our shoulda, woulda, coulda’s — we are left with pure heartbreak.

Our family and friends (the few who stuck with us) have moved past the loss and they expect us to move on, too. One of my blog readers, a professional consultant in emotional-mental health who has been supportive of my efforts to demystify grief, wrote, “At this time of the journey, (the second year) people are at such risk of going into severe depression, of jumping into relationships they usually wouldn’t enter etc because everyone expects they’ll be ‘moving on,’ ‘creating a new life,’ when in fact the shock is only now subsiding (the emotional shock of losing the loved one is so under appreciated and I believe lasts for at least twelve months).” She hopes I will continue to share my journey, because “the next eight to twelve months will be just as important for folks to read. It seems to me the second year is about another level of acceptance . . .about the recreation of life whilst initially hating that it has to be recreated at all . . . about choosing life and the potential for happiness when death has taken our loved one . . . about choosing to find different lights to shed meaning on our existence.”

She makes good points, and I wouldn’t mind continuing to chronicle my journey into grief (despite the fact that I’ve alienated most of my blog readers). The problem is, I have nothing to say. Or at least, not much. For the most part, my situation isn’t changing. I’m caring for my 94-year-old father (or, to be more accurate, I’m staying with him so that he can keep his independence as long as possible), so I’m not doing much except taking a few isolated trips in an effort to fill the hole my mate left behind. It won’t be until after my father goes (and I could be 94 myself by that time!) that I will be able to start the rebuilding process, try to find a new life, a new place, a new reason for living. I’m still in a holding pattern. Obviously, I’m not totally stagnating, but I’m not moving on in any significant way, and I can’t because of my living situation. I’m not even having any revelations as I walk in the desert. (Of course, the heat could be baking my brain, burning off any thoughts before they form.)

I have no hopes at the moment, but I am not despairing, not weighted with hopelessness. I’m merely waiting for what life throws at me next. Perhaps this waiting is another stage of grief, a hiatus before the real healing begins, and if so, I’ll be ready. Dealing with grief as it comes, without the frill of foolish optimism, has taught me that I can handle anything. (Well, anything but torture, but I have no interest in being a martyr for any cause, so I should be okay.)

6 Responses to “Following Grief Wherever It Leads”

  1. Holly Bonville Says:

    You may have alienated some readers, but you also gained some. I’m right there with you, and I’m waiting too. Still trying to figure things out, still struggling.

  2. Catherine Adelmund Fraser Says:

    I’m another reader you gained and I appreciate all you have to write about grief. From the first time I read your blog, I knew you were someone who gets it and who is not afraid to put it out there. Thank you. I also took care of my father after the death of my husband (sadly, he died in May) and yes, I do think there is a waiting stage in grief, esp. when you are taking care of someone else and you know there is going to be more change ahead. I’m just now getting to the point where I can consider what I want my own future to look like.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Catherine, there seem to be a lot of us on this journey, first the deaths of our mates, then taking care of our aged parents. Best of luck in shaping your future. I hope you end up where you’d like to be, both geographically and emotionally.

  3. Kathy Holmes Says:

    Sometimes time makes the loss worse – not better. Because you have this moment where you realize it’s been so long since you’ve seen this person and that makes the loss feel worse – it feels more final. So I think it’s important to acknowledge that the loss will always be there and there is no fixing it. And that realization alone can do wonders. Being truthful with yourself is the best thing you can do – it’s empowering.

  4. Elva Anson Says:

    An important and thoughtful blog on the difficulty of losing your soulmate. The risk of loving is knowing that at some point one of you will have to deal with the loss of that loved one. To know it has been worth it is different than getting used to life without it. I feel sure you are helping others who are going through this difficult time in their lives, too. My blog is directed toward those who are learning how to become soul mates. I have been a Marriage Family Therapist for 31 years and have been with my soul mate for 56 years. I appreciate your willingness to share about a deep personal loss and grief.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Elva, You’re lucky to have had him for so many years. It’s one thing knowing one of you will have to deal with the death of the other, and something completely different when that life is cut short. All losses are hard to bear, but an untimely one is even worse.


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