The Half-Life of Grief

SRecently I’ve been coming across a lot of articles and books touting the idea that people don’t need to grieve — it’s detrimental to their happiness and it doesn’t really gain them anything. These writers believe that when sad thoughts enter your mind, you should simply observe them and let them go. They are only thoughts, nothing real, nothing that can hurt you. The same goes for feelings of sadness. Examine them and let them go. In themselves, the feelings have no power. The only power is what you give them.

Sounds good, right? And to a certain extent this method works. But . . .

First of all, thoughts are real. When you study particle/wave physics and even quantum physics, it’s hard not to believe that at rock bottom, we are all just thoughts. Together, we think our current world into existence. Maybe we even think ourselves into existence. Or perhaps we are thoughts of the eternal Thinker. Who knows, certainly not me. But the point is, thoughts may not be something that can be touched with your fingers, but they are still tangible.

Second of all, grief is important. It’s a way of honoring those who have died, a way of pulling our world around us to accommodate the void they left behind, a way of learning to live with their absence and without their presence, a way of developing into our own person and renewing our reasons for living. Of course, we can develop and renew without grief, but being so familiar with death brings an urgency to the process.

Third of all, not all grief is emotional and mental. Sometimes grief is visceral. Physical. If you have lost a child or a soul mate, you literally lose a part of your physical self. Your child is connected to you by shared genes, and in the case of mothers, a shared body. With soul mates, you are connected by your very being. A lifetime of living together also connects you physically by the air you breathe, the foods you eat, the cellular materials that are exchanged via viruses and microbes, the energy fields that overlap.

One of the reasons such grievous losses as that of a child or a mate are so devastating is that not only do we grieve, so does our body. There were many times I could keep from feeling the loss emotionally or mentally, but I could still feel it in the marrow of my bones, in my cells.

People tell me that it takes three to five years to get past the worst of such a loss. Most people I know woke on their fourth anniversary to find a sense of renewal, and it makes sense that four years would be the half-life of grief. Our cells are continuously dying and being renewed. If it takes seven years for all the cells in one’s body to be renewed, then at my current stage of grief — 2 and 2/3 years — most of my cells still bear his imprint. By four years, less than half my cells will bear his imprint. And so gradually, the physical grief fades.

From the beginning, I was determined to get through my grief as quickly as possible so that I wouldn’t dishonor him (and me) by mourning his death for the rest of my life. I thought I was so strong and emotionally stable that I’d whiz through the process, but that did not happen, partly because I never took physical grief into consideration. I never even knew such grief existed, and neither, apparently, do writers who say that all you have to do to be happy is to let the feelings of sadness pass without feeding them.


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+

33 Responses to “The Half-Life of Grief”

  1. smilecalm Says:

    Perhaps it’s possible for happiness, compassion and joy to accept sadness, pain and suffering as they are. Time and intention are, by nature, healing. By knowing suffering we can truly know our happiness. Be well.

  2. Anne Gorman Says:

    This is such crap! You need to feel. Period. How can I not feel with my soul mate of forty years dead?

  3. leesis Says:

    pat I find these folks who deny sadness, grief, emotion beyond ridiculous. They see the human being in a completely reductionist a robot able to hit a switch and change the response and in my opinion it is absolute denial of what it is to be human. To be human is to feel. Feel joy, feel misery, feel frustration, feel elation. If we feel overwhelming grief it means we have felt overwhelming love and how wonderful is that! It is true that we need to observe our thinking…simply because we are forever being bombarded by community opinion and we need to stay in touch with who WE are and what we individually think.

    It is very convienient to say we don’t have to grieve. Then we don’t have to think beyond. We don’t have to ask ourselves those difficult, uncomfortable questions…like why…what does it all mean? Questions that enrich our lives.

    And a final but important point…In twenty-eight years of working with folks the only people I’ve ever met who do not grieve or feel sad have had severe anti-social personality disorders (the old psychopath diagnosis) and believe me we do not want to become like them!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Maybe it’s the anti-social personalities who are peddling happiness. I do know there are some folks who absolutely have to be happy at all costs, but they narrow their lives to achieve such a state. Or they lie to themselves. Neither of which I have any interest in doing.

      The American Psychiatric Association insists that grief is a medical condition, so I suppose it makes sense that books saying it’s unnecessary to grieve would be popular. I mean, who wants to be labeled crazy just because their mate died? I knew I wasn’t crazy. And I definitely did not want drugs that would take away my grief. In a way, I earned it.

  4. Jean Rudy Says:

    As many of us have observed, even our animals grieve. It appears to be a natural process we all share.

  5. elainemansfield Says:

    Dear Pat,
    Thank you for this beautiful post. It takes a long time. I’m 4 1/2 years past my husband’s death. As my life moves forward and I find my new path, I’m still carrying along my bag of longing, still chewing the memories. I feel plenty, but it doesn’t stop me in my tracks as it once did. It seems I will always carry him along with me, as an inner helpful masculine figure and affirming inner friend. Grieving is just the last phase of our love and I wouldn’t be who I am without it.
    You write beautifully,

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Grief is one of the last phases of a loving relationship. One of the book ends of a great love. No matter what people say, you can’t just slough it off an move on. As you say, you take your love with you. I am beginning to find comfort in that.

      Wishing you a peaceful new year.

      • elainemansfield Says:

        Thanks for your response Pat. When you used the image of bookends of a great love, I immediately thought of my post “Bookends of a Marriage” and imagined you would like it.
        Wishing you well, Elaine

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          Lovely post, Elaine. We weren’t much for poetry, but we often read the same books and liked the same movies. I watch those movies now, and they don’t move me. I guess it wasn’t the movie I liked so much as watching it with him.

          The one poem that moved us is the W. H. Auden poem that was read in the funeral in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”

          Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden

          Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
          Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
          Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
          Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

          Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
          Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
          Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
          Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

          He was my North, my South, my East and West,
          My working week and my Sunday rest,
          My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
          I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

          The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
          Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
          Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
          For nothing now can ever come to any good.

  6. Crysta Icore Says:

    Reblogged this on Dancing with Fireflies and commented:
    What are your thoughts about the time it takes to feel better?

  7. dellanioakes Says:

    Beautiful, insightful article, Pat. I can’t imagine what you’re going through, what you’ve been through. I can’t even think about what your loss is like or how I’d handle it if it happened to me. I wish you well and I hope soon the pain will ease a little.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Thank you, Dellani. The pain has eased considerably. I’m still sad, and I still hate that he’s gone, but I’m doing okay. If it happened to you, you’d deal with it the way we all do — one minute at a time — but I sincerely hope you never have to find that out.

  8. Author Aileen Stewart Says:

    A person’s grief is individual just like them and some people take longer to recover from their grief then others. Also to be taken into consideration is the fact that some people focus solely on their grief while others chose to dwell on the act of daily living. Those who chose to dwell on things other then their grief, still experience grief; but it comes and goes, ebbs and flows much like the tide.

    The key to surviving loss is allowing one’s self to feel sad that a loved one is no longer physically present, but not to let that sadness overcome you and throw you into the depths of despair. Sadness, like joy, is a feeling that will enter into our mind and soul despite any intentions of ours to the contrary; but we decide how we will react to those feelings.

    When my first husband passed away I grieved deeply for three years. During those three years I made efforts to dwell on other aspects of my life like going back to college and being part of the Big Sister Program. It was a combination of my faith and these efforts at regaining normalcy that helped me through those very rough years.

    When my best friend of almost thirty years passed away the loss wasn’t quite as devastating as when I lost my spouse, but it still took about three years for me to stop being angry at her for leaving me. The fact that we had done virtually everything together from raising her children, to vacationing, to attending auctions, etc… left me with feelings of abandonment which I knew were normal even if not actually true.

    Since then I have lost both my first set of in-laws, and my father-in-law from my current marriage. I grieved at different intensities and lengths for these individuals based on my personal relationships with them. Then this last April, I lost my father with whom I was very close. I’m not sure if having experienced so much grief already has helped me learn to cope or not, but my grieving doesn’t seem to be quite so intense on a regular basis. Instead I have long stretches where life seems quite normal and then I have moments of profound sadness and feeling of loss. I never know what sight, sound, or smell will trigger these feelings of loss; but I don not spend my time fretting about it. Instead I go about my daily business of taking care of my husband, our daughter, and my obligations to family and community. And when those unexpected moments come I cry, find the tissues, and remind myself that this life is only a temporary thing. I believe that I will see my loved ones again in the next and eternal life, and for me that is the life preserver of hope that I cling to in this difficult thing called life.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      You’ve had to endure so much loss! I am so sorry. You seem to have a good attitude about life despite all the trauma that life has thrown you, and that is admirable.

  9. denise Kackley Says:

    I too lost my husband 2 1/2 yrs ago from a senseless tragic motorcycle accident. We were married almost 35 yrs. after being high-school sweethearts. I never knew about the physical manifestations of profound grief… one has to go through the stages of deagth and dying. There isn’t a shortcut to come out on the other end. I still occasionly have grief attacks. I still think of him every day. And, occasionally I feel his presence in our bedroom.. I loved this article Pat. I do believe it will take a good 4 1/2 yrs. to reach a place where I feel I can truly thing about forging a new life. I am in the process as I have taken online programs to be a Grief Counselor. I am so sorry for your loss…. I can honestly say, “I know how you feel.” I am on fb if you want to friend me. Thnx for sharing this article. Blessings, Denise Kackley

  10. Angela Taylor Hylland Says:

    This quote from Joan Didion’s book “Magical Thinking” comes to mind:

    “People in grief think a great deal about self-pity. We worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it. We fear that our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as ‘dwelling on it’ … Visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation … ‘I never saw a wild thing / sorry for itself,’ D. H. Lawrence wrote. This may be what Lawrence (or we) would prefer to believe about wild things, but consider those dolphins who refuse to eat after the death of a mate. Consider those geese who search for the lost mate until they themselves become disoriented and die … The connections that made up their life—both the deep connections and the apparently (until they are broken) insignificant connections—have all vanished. John and I were married for forty years. I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response … ‘I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense,’ C.S. Lewis wrote after the death of his wife. ‘It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit and fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember and have to lay the bow down.'”

    II wrote a full review of the book here, if any of you are interested:

  11. Linda Says:

    The only way I feel sorry for myself is that Jim isn’t here with me but I have no blame of God for what happened to him or anything else. I have tried to be careful in being angry at God because I know things happen and God didn’t point his finger and give Jim Alzheimer’s. But today I am having a lot of trouble with the loneliness feeling that I have a lot. It all boils down to me and how I handle life and it seems to get harder and harder for me. No one can make me feel better except me and that is a big responsibility. I’m the one who needs to change and accept my life where it is but sometimes, like today, I can’t get out of the tears and feeling sorry for myself because I’m alone. You can be around people and still be so alone. I put a lot of pressure on myself for being “weak” and it’s good to read what you all say about these feelings being normal even after a year.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      We all beat ourselves up over not going through grief fast enough, or grieving longer than we (or others) think we should, or having upsurges of grief when we’re doing okay. It’s part of the package. Grief is not a series of stages we go through but a dizzying spiral of feelings and reactions that return again and again and again until hopefully they begin to lose power. That takes years. You’re doing fine, truly. Tears are actually good — grief is incredibly stressful, and though it might not feel like it, tears do help relieve some of the stress. (So does screaming.)

      You’re right about having to change. We bereft all have to become a person who can continue on alone, making friends with our loneliness, and doing what we can to alleviate it. This also takes years, so I’m going to tell you what everyone told me — be patient with yourself. Grief takes as long as it takes. It’s healthier to go with the flow of grief than to dam it up. Grief will take you where you need to go. Grief itself will help you grow and make the necessary changes.

      And yes, it gets harder. For many of us, the second year was harder than the first. During the first year, we are protected to a certain extend by shock and disbelief, and by family and friends who stand by us. We cling to the idea of that first anniversary, as if it’s some magic portal where everything will be back to normal or where we will magically become someone else, but the truth is, there is no magic portal. What we find on the other side of the first anniversary is more grief and the stunning realization that they are gone forever. That friends and family have no patience for our continued sorrow. That we are living in an alien world where we don’t even speak the language. All this brings with it an upsurge of grief that becomes unbearable at times because we have no insulation.

      And no, you are not weak. Anyone who can manage to get themselves to New Zealand and Australia while fighting grief is strong. And anyone who tries to figure out where to go from here is not wallowing in grief, just dealing with it.

      But . . . grief is work. You make progress by infinitesimal steps. (At least it feels that way.) But we do change to become the person we need to be, though that loneliness is a killer.

  12. Linda Says:

    Wow Pat, you put it so perfectly. I think we need assurance that we are trying to get through it all. I’ve never had to face this kind of grief before even though there have been things to deal with through the years, nothing is like this one. I keep as busy as I can but there is, so much of the time, a sick feeling of the loneliness that is there most of the time. Today I went to our small women’s group at church and there isn’t much motivation to do things even though I put up a good front.

    While in New Zealand I met a woman(about 40) who took me to a very peaceful, serene river and we talked about me letting Jim go on. I felt really good talking with her and she had lost a baby so we bonded some. She was very spiritual which is different for me but it did feel good at that time and it made sense about Jim going one direction and now I need to follow my own path and start a different life. I know it’s all true but it was easier there than here in our house that we designed and built, which makes it more difficult. Our oldest son also is one who would hate to see me move away from his dad’s house that he worked so hard on and made it so good for me. I know it will all be a process and hopefully, when the time is right I will be more confident of making a move.
    I plan on getting your book too. All that you say helps a lot.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      People tend to think that all grief is alike, but the truth is, some losses shake us to the very foundation of our being, shattering us in the process, leaving us to rebuild our selves. I’d lost a brother and my mother, but neither of those deaths prepared me for Jeff’s death.

      The woman in New Zealand is right about our mates following one path and us another, but we need to feel the truth of it. Feeling the separation is the only way we can continue to live. I’d guess you’re still about a year or two away from that. We understand it with our intellects, but not with our hearts and souls. You get so used to taking care of someone, and even when their death is the only possible outcome, we still think of them, still feel connected, still worry about them. (Or at least I do. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to believe that if he exists somewhere, he no longer needs me.)

      As for the loneliness, I still don’t understand how to overcome that except practice. Even if you have a strong social life, there are too many hours in the day to be alone, especially late at night when the loneliness claws at us.

      • Linda Says:

        I went to Bible study at church tonight and we were discussing living a Christian life to be an example to others how we are handling a “situation” whatever that might be. I commented that it isn’t always easy and puts a burden on us to be that example when we don’t feel it. It kind of bothered me that I’m expected to look like I’m handling Jim’s death well so others will be led to see how strong of a Christian I am. I certainly don’t always feel that way these days at all.

        Yes, I know what you mean about understanding his death intellectually but the heart is still broken. Sometimes I have even wished him back in the condition he was in but I really don’t want that because he wasn’t the Jim that I knew and loved the last 2 years. I also think sometimes I have let him go on to where he needs to be, it’s just hard without him affecting all life’s decisions. I was truly blessed because of the man and father he was and I attribute handling this to him as he influenced my strength for 52 years. I also know what you mean about losing others, there is no comparison!!

        After talking with you I have invited a friend to come visit next week, also a widow, and we are going to drive to Branson, stay overnite and see a show. She was also excited to be out and having something to look forward to.

        I heard a comment from a friend who lost a spouse and he said I don’t do anything that she and I did together as that keeps him in the same mode as when she was alive. Now he is doing adventures that he is creating. I thought that sounded good too. i’m trying to do that.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          The problem with a such a simple concept as being an example, is what are you trying to be an example of? To my way of thinking, it does people more good to know the truth of grief rather than for you to hide it away. Our culture emphasizes being upbeat at all costs, and that is simply wrong. We humans have a whole range of emotions, from ecstacy to deepest grief, and it’s wrong to hide the darker side of life simply to allow others the eroneous belief in the goodness of life. Besides, as painful as it is, grief is good. It takes us to where we can deal with the new situation, and eventually to a new beginning. Pretending grief doesn’t exist is a disservice to you and to them. Despite your tears and sorrow, look what you’ve done recently. That’s all the example you need to be. There are enough people in the world being stoic for no real reason.

          As for your friend’s comment that he doesn’t do what he and his wife did together — that is the only way I’ve been able to make sense of Jeff’s death, by doing things I wouldn’t have done while he is alive.

          Have fun in Branson. Know that despite your upsurge in grief, you are doing well and you are where you are supposed to be.

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