Even though grief has been with me on and off for twenty-one months, I still don’t understand where it comes from or where it gets its power.
Like most people, I used to assume that grief was merely the deep sadness we feel after the death of someone we loved, and that any feelings beyond that came from an innate weakness, an inability to cope, self-pity, or a desire to create drama and importance in one’s life. When my brother died, and then a year later when my mother died, I felt what I expected to — deep sadness but nothing more, which enforced my idea of what grief is.
But all deaths do not affect us the same. During my life mate/soul mate’s long illness, I thought I’d become inured to the idea of his death. I’d even looked forward to the end of his suffering. I knew I’d feel sad and lonely, but I had no concerns about being able to continue my life. I’m strong and independent, and have never minded being alone.
And then he died.
At first, I was glad his suffering was over. I just sat there numb, waiting for the funeral director to come and collect his body. But then, like an ever-growing tsunami, grief washed over me — grief such as I never knew existed. The continuous onslaught of intense emotions, physical reactions, and psychological torments, along with the inability to understand how totally gone he was made it impossible to sort out any one feeling from the global trauma.
I started blogging about grief when I realized most novelists got it wrong. (I can’t tell you how many times writers have dismissed the grief of their characters with a simple: He went through the five stages of grief. Sheesh. For most of us, the Kübler-Ross grief model doesn’t even begin to explain what we are going through.) I continued blogging about grief when I realized how important it was for me and my fellow bereft to try to understand what we are experiencing and why.
None of us are weak. None of us lack the ability to cope. None of us are self-pitying. None of us are self-indulgent, wallowing in grief for the sake of making ourselves feel important. None of us are drama queens, wanting to draw attention to ourselves or make people feel sorry for us. (We don’t feel sorry for ourselves, at least not often, so why should anyone feel sorry for us?) Nor have any of us chosen our grief. It was thrust on us with such power that we still reel from it months and perhaps even years later. We aren’t dwelling on our grief. It’s dwelling on us. Or in us.
Although everyone’s grief is different, grief does follow patterns of ebb and flow. For many of us in our second year, the eighteen month mark came with a huge upsurge in grief. And now the end of this year — the end of the first full year without our loved ones — is causing another upsurge. I do not know why this is so, I just know that it’s the latest manifestation of the process.
I’ve passed many (maybe most) of grief’s milestones, though I’m sure future milestones will surprise me as I continue this journey through grief. I can deal with these milestones. They come. They go. But no matter how I feel — sad or unsad — he is still and will always be dead. I can understand that he is out of my life, but I cannot understand his total goneness from this earth. Perhaps that unknowableness is where grief comes from. Perhaps that unknowableness is where grief gets its power.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.
December 30, 2011 at 2:20 pm
Well said. I understand every word. Sometimes grief leaves me with no words to describe the depth.
December 30, 2011 at 4:14 pm
Grief is hard, and even harder because there are no words. Sometimes it’s all you can do to breathe, and sometimes even that is hard.
December 30, 2011 at 2:24 pm
First of all, Kubler Ross’s stages were never intended for those grieving. They were intended for those who are dying. They are not relevant to we who grieve. We go through many emotions and they can switch in a heart beat. It is unique to everyone…the journey changes quickly. I do not know where grief gets it power except that our spouses /soul mates become a part of our very identity….we let some things about us or who we are go and take on other things when we are with a partner…who we are is deeply influenced by who our partner is and vice versa. That is one powerful connection and to lose that connection is a powerful event. The difference between being hit by a nerf ball and a boulder rolling down a mountain….the power of grief…overwhelming. I am just rattling on today as I also try to comprehend all that has happened. We grieve the loss of the person, the life we had, the identity we are, the things we shared including dreams and hopes….the stability and consistency…that is powerful also.
December 30, 2011 at 4:13 pm
I used to go to a grief group sponsored by hospice, but I got kicked out for disagreeing with the moderator. He kept talking about the five stages of grief (though KR mentioned 7) and when I explained that they were the stages people went through when dying, he refused to listen. So, every time one of the new people in the group tried to figure out what was happening to them, I’d explain what I went through, and since nothing I went through resembled the KR model, he decided I wasn’t grieving enough and hence I didn’t need the group, so he told me I should look for another group more suited to me. Hmmm. Strange goings on. The guy hadn’t a clue what it felt like to lose a spouse.
There simply are no stages to check off. It’s a constantly varying onslaught that leaves you lost and bewildered.
Rattle on all you want. That’s what I do — it’s in the flow of words that I find the truth.
December 30, 2011 at 4:28 pm
What you needed was a new leader!! 🙂 He was so wrong in so many ways….insensitive being the first. Hard to believe folks like that lead groups. Amazing. I will rattle on now and then. 🙂
December 30, 2011 at 2:33 pm
I lost my wife 08/17/11, I still see her in my life, but you are so right about the process of grieving. I cry for no reason, laugh when I’m alone, at some of the craziness we shared. Now my mom is ill and not sure she will make it. After the death of my wife, not really sure if it hardened my heart or what. but i’m like you, dont have the same sadness with my mom as i did with my wife.
December 30, 2011 at 4:19 pm
I am so sorry, Rick. Four months makes it all so new. And no, you haven’t hardened your heart. Losing a spouse, one who shared your heart, leaves you feeling amputated. As sad as it it to lose a mother, it’s a different kind of sadness.
December 30, 2011 at 3:04 pm
thank you for sharing this at a time when i really need to hear what u said. thank you
December 30, 2011 at 4:19 pm
Wishing you peace, Melissa.
December 30, 2011 at 3:15 pm
I could not have said this any better, I grieve for my brother every day. I cry so much i don’t know where the tears come from any more! I can’t comprehend the fact he left me behind.That he had that deadly cancer that took him from me. I want so very badly to tell him one more time i love him and i am so proud of him. What a gentle person he was. I will always have in him my heart, i never let a day go by with out him in my thoughts.He has inspired me in many ways he will never know how much.
December 30, 2011 at 4:21 pm
I am so sorry about your brother, Maria. I don’t think our minds are wired to understand what death is, and so all we can do is cry. Your brother was lucky to have someone who loved him so very much.
December 30, 2011 at 4:21 pm
Grief sucks, plain and simple. It will never be over. It overtakes us when we least expect it. It is always with us. This New Year’s Eve/Day/weekend is worse than last year. I have been crying all day.
December 30, 2011 at 8:32 pm
That’s the truth of it, Joy. Plain and simple.
December 30, 2011 at 5:10 pm
Wow, I have finally read something on grief that I can relate to, in every word. When I lost the father of my children a little over a year ago, I too was grateful his suffering was over. But, this god awful pain, this grief that was so deep in my soul was almost unbearable. And it was the end of your article that was the reason. He is gone from this earth. I will never get a phone call from him, get him to dialysis, cook him a meal, go out to dinner, talk about our children with him. He would not get to share in our childrens achievements, see more grandchildren, nothing. I would never be able to do anything with him again. Not ever. 37 years of my life he was there for me. I am left with 37 years of memories to sift through but I cant say, Hey Larry, remember when…Every six months for two and a half years we lost people in our family. But Larrys death, it went to the core of me. I dont see myself ever making peace with it. I am sorry for everyones pain on this page. Just know you will have good days but I believe that the soul is the part of us that never forgets. Sometimes we will be able to control our grief, and sometimes we wont. And its okay. It validates the life of the one lost. They were loved deeply and are entitled to be remembered. And that is as much of it as I understand at this point.
December 30, 2011 at 8:18 pm
Kim, you are so right — our grief validates the life of the one lost. I’ve struggled with this for twenty-one months. I know I’m not weak, so how can I have been so affected by his death? Other people seem to move on as if nothing happened. But I can’t. He is dead. No matter what I do, that will never change. He was a good man. He deserves to have someone (me) grieve his death. The world is a much poorer place without him. And I will never make peace with that!
December 31, 2011 at 6:57 am
How true, However much we think we are prepared, when our loved one actually passes away, grief hits you like a storm, and it is totally unpredictable. I lost my beloved spouse to cancer Feb 2011, so this is my fist New Year without him. I feel torn apart. I know I am not weak, yet the grief i experience can break me. Sad sad sad, knowing you will never have them by your side, in this lifetime.
December 31, 2011 at 7:20 am
Pat, Larry was a good man too, one of the best, many referred to him as “larry the legend” 😉 A great hunter and fisherman, and especially a devoted father. I had known him since i was 16 years old. With a life mate our lives become so intertwined that when one leaves, it feels like an arm or something is cut off. Like we are just not whole anymore. You spent your life with an amazing man and it is you that will feel the most pain. You shared a deep part of yourself with him that others didnt. I have heard many times that it takes the turn of the calendar to come to terms with it. Thats only a year and I can say that its not true. There is no time line for grief. I can honestly say I know how you are feeling. I know people find it troubling that over a year has passed and the thought of him being gone still brings me to my knees. Just know you did the best for him when he was here Pat. You will eventually move in a direction but not totally away from him. He will always be in your thoughts, there will be many things that remind you of him, that wont change. And it shouldnt. He shouldnt be forgotten and neither should Larry. Try to think about what made you laugh with him. What were the funny quirky things about him. The stories…..laughter lessens the pain but I have no idea what stops the grieving. I cant say that it does stop. And I can also say there is nothing wrong with letting these people live on, in our hearts…they should never be forgotten. Bless you!
December 31, 2011 at 12:16 pm
The hardest part is how little understood the process is, so people get irritated if you don’t move on when they have decided it’s time for you to move one. They don’t understand that this is how we move on. You can’t just walk away from 20 or 30 or 40 years of shared life as if it didn’t mean anything. It is an amputation. You can live with an amputation, you might even be able to find happiness despite it, but for the rest of your life, that part of you is missing.
Thank you for coming to talk to me, Kim. It’s always good to meet others who know the truth.
December 31, 2011 at 7:29 am
ps. This Christmas is the second year my granddaughter put a gift under the tree for her grandfather, hoping someone will take it to heaven for him. She is six years old, was extremely close to him, I can only imagine what she must feel. She is the one that out of the blue would just bring up his name. It amazes me because I see how he impacted her life and even at the age of 6, she will always remember her grandfather.
December 31, 2011 at 12:18 pm
So wonderful that she remembers! It’s good that she brings up his name — so often when someone dies, their name dies too, as if people are afraid to mention them.
February 2, 2012 at 11:52 am
February 2, 2012
One of the women in my grief support group brought The Power of Grief to our last session. Just reading it made me cry, but finding this blog helps me see there are people beyond this group who have lost a spouse and or soul mate and are hurting like I am. I’m nearing a year’s anniversary of his death and finding each day is a struggle. He’s on my mind from morning to night and I can’t seem to get thru it yet. I know I’ll never get over it, but I’m starting to wonder if I’ll even get thru it. I’ve lost my parents recently and that was painful, but expected at their age. My husband’s death was not supposed to come so soon. We had so much to live for and were just really getting really started to enjoy our retirement and making plans for the future. Now, I don’t care about anything. I’m trying hard to get out and about, but even when the pain subsides for a short time, it returns with a vengance before a full day is over. I’ve read several books on grief, but the statements here are so true. I’m grateful to have found this site. Thanks for the postings.
February 2, 2012 at 3:15 pm
I’m so sorry you lost your husband, Bonnie. This is just about the worst thing that can happen to a person, because not only is he gone, but so are all your hopes and dreams. I know you’ll get through the worst of the pain — by having the courage to go to a support group, you are taking the first step. It just takes a very long time — three to five years, or so I am told. One of the worst times for me besides the first few months were the two months leading up to the one year anniversary. It was as if I was reliving his last days all over again, and it about broke my heart.
If you need someone to talk to, feel free to stop by. This is a terrible journey we are on, and it’s good to know there are others who understand.
February 11, 2012 at 7:05 pm
Thanks for understanding. Three to five years is a long time.
February 11, 2012 at 7:25 pm
Bonnie, Yes, it is a long time. And this is one period in life where time goes very slowly. But we all get to where we need to be. At least, I hold to that thought.
March 25, 2012 at 12:33 pm
Pat, I’ve just happened on this site but it must be heaven sent. I lost my beloved husband Feb, 2011, and while I was pretty good getting through the first year, I thought, it was also a very busy year of selling a house, moving to another city to be closer to me daughters etc. Having turned the corner of the anniversary has raised grief like a terrible curse. I cry uncontrollably, I can’t believe I’ll never see my husband again, I trying not to withdraw from people but they really can’t understand why I’m not moving on. There’s no blueprint for grief I know that but I also don’t understand why I’m finding it even harder now.
Thank you for expressing exactly what I feel.
March 25, 2012 at 6:27 pm
Brenda, people don’t like to talk about the second year of grief, because they assume that a year is long enough, though statistics show that it takes three to five years to move away from one’s grief. The second year is especially hard, and there are times when it is even harder than the first year. As difficult as the first year is, we are protected by the emotional shock and the necessary chores of clearing up the remnants of the shared life. But then comes the second year. Whatever protective devices we’d erected to get through the first year are gone. We even feel relieved that we managed to get through the first year. But our loved ones are still gone, and the truth . . . that we will never see them again in this life . . . settles deeper into our souls, and it’s almost more than we can bear. For this reason, parts of the second year are worse than the first.
March 26, 2012 at 6:02 am
Thank you so much for your understanding. It makes me feel less like I’m going crazy, and realizing that what i’m feeling others feel as well.
April 25, 2012 at 1:59 pm
Twenty-two year ago I lost my wonderful older brother Etienne when he was 36 year old. To those of you now feeling overcome by grief, I want you to know– most importantly -you will ride it out. It will likely be the most difficult-to-deal-with experience in your life but you will – finally, finally – get though the worst of the storm.
From someone who is looking back on a loss, I can also give you my perspective on what to expect of the future. Although I gradually moved away from the powerful and unpredictable waves of grief that engulfed me and my family in the years following my brother’s death, I’ve found that the old adage the “time heals” is not exactly true. Rather, my grief at losing my brother – greatly diminished, thank God – is embedded in me, has become a permanent presence in both my life and my understanding of it. That presence is normally below the threshold of my day-to-day perception, but after the passing of two decades it still returns freshly to the forefront of my emotions: after the recollection of a memory; happening upon an old belonging; or the occasional thought about what a given occasion might have been like if my brother had been there to share it.
But my life has gone on, and has been filled with joys, loves, challenges, disappointments, friendships and fulfillment. I understand now that grief will always be a companion, but I’ve managed – with some help from the passage of time – to give it a seat in the back row of my emotional life.
April 25, 2012 at 2:40 pm
That’s a beautiful tribute to your brother, Mark. Thank you very much for taking the time to tell your story. It’s good to know we will ride it out, that eventually it will take a back seat. You’ve also illuminated what I’ve been suspecting, that in some way, that grief for him will always be part of my life. That’s as it should be. Their lives shouldn’t have passed without effect, but we also need to be able to embrace new joys.
November 26, 2013 at 11:58 am
My 18 month mark hits at the end of December. I lost my soul mate almost a year and a half ago, and then a few days after that, it will be New Year’s Eve, marking the last day I can say, “He died last year”. I’m starting to get that sick feeling in my stomach again. I find it kind of sad that I can look at the calendar now and essentially know when I’m due for another meltdown. I also know that with Thanksgiving in a couple of days, I’ll have to pull out extra reserves at my family’s celebration not to start to cry. They really have been patient with me, but I know they are fed up with the tears, even though I’ve managed to control them for the most part in the past 8 months or so. I told my family that I had another party to go to and couldn’t stay late to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. I’m feeling a little guilty because I was lying. I have no other plans after dinner than to go and sit at a neighborhood bar alone and stare at the TV until the clock strikes midnight. I recall last year, I told the same lie and went to the same place. For some reason, it beat being at my Mother’s house with my siblings and their children running around and all of the commotion. Even moreso, it beat going home to an empty house and staring longingly at his picture. It has also occurred to me that I have no motivation to put up a Christmas tree this year. Last year I opened the ornament box and found his stocking from the year before. That one about killed me. I’ve been toying with the idea of calling friends to come over and help me, but I guess I don’t see the point if my spirit just isn’t in it. One less thing to put away in January I guess. Anyway, wish me luck. This month is going to be a doozy for a lot of people that are on their grief journeys, and I am no exception.
November 26, 2013 at 1:41 pm
Those double whammy’s are really terrible — not just Christmas, the festivities and the end of the year, which are hard enough to deal with, but that 18-month mark too. As you say, a real doozy. I do wish you luck, along with whatever peace you might be able to find. Friends and families get tired of our tears long before the tears get tired of us. Do whatever makes you comfortable. The best thing is to create a new tradition for yourself, even if it is going to the same neighborhood bar and staring at the TV. Take care of yourself. I’ll be thinking of you and sending you good thoughts. Stop by again if you need to talk. I’m almost always here.