Applying the Lessons of Grief

Yesterday I talked about disconnecting yourself from a defunct relationship, one where there is no hope of ever reconciling and yet you still feel a sense of connection to your loved one. I said:

To a certain extent, time disconnects us from our past relationships — the longer we are separated, unless we cling hold on to the past, the weaker the connection. Simply living helps us disconnect — the more we live, the more new, unshared memories we make, the more the connection recedes. Going back to where we were before we made the original connection also helps.

This was good advice as far as it goes. My situation was the opposite. After the death of my life mate/soul mate, I couldn’t feel any sort of connection, just a vast emptiness where he used to be, a terrible goneness. Time didn’t make any difference, at least not by itself. The truth is, if we don’t do what we can to heal those wounds ourselves, time doesn’t do much of anything except perhaps offer a different perspective. As Rose Kennedy wrote, “It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.”

In my case, the person I needed to disconnect from was . . . me. The coupled me. My shared life was defunct, so I did what I could to develop memories of my new life alone. Since I can’t physically go back to where I was, I’ve tried to go there mentally. Remembering who I was before him has helped tremendously in moving past him. I had a life before our shared life, and I have one afterward — it’s just a matter of connecting those two lives with the best of both. and to pick up the pieces of me when I was alone.

My problem now is that I need to disconnect from another person, one with whom I have an ongoing relationship, and I don’t know how to do it, don’t know if it’s possible or even if it’s even a charitable thing to do.

A have a problematic sibling who is depressed, possibly bi-polar, probably an alcoholic, verbally abusive, full of fury, manipulative, desperately needy, and relentless in pursuit those needs. (He’s also brilliant and exceedingly creative, and spent most of his life composing music and writing songs that have never been sung.) He has been nearby for several months, and therein lies the problem since his anger now seems to be focused on me. (He thinks I have it easy being here looking after my father, and doesn’t see how stressful it is being torn between the two of them, as I have been my whole life.) If I could find out what he wanted, perhaps I could help, but he ischange cagy (paranoid is more like it) and talks around his needs. (He hates being a charity case, hates when people do things for him, and hates even more when people don’t.) He won’t go for treatment, blames everyone else for his problems, and doesn’t know how to take care of himself. Mostly, it seems as if he is lost inside a whirlwind of unfocused energy.

I’m trying to disconnect mentally from him so that his words don’t wound. I’m trying to disconnect emotionally from his problems, because I can’t see the situation clearly if I am bleeding for him. I’m trying to disconnect from his anger, because if I don’t, I absorb that anger and . . . well, let’s just say I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in prison for manslaughter.

I do okay most of the time, juggling his needs and my father’s. Physical activity and outings with friends help dissipate my stress, and if those don’t work, short bursts of tears do. I can’t go back to where I was before he came into my life, because he has always been there. I used to think I’d never be free until he was dead, and maybe that’s true, but it’s not how I want to live my life — wishing someone were dead so I could live free. What I really wish, though, is that he were strong, healthy, happy, and somewhere else.

I am taking the lessons I learned from grief and applying them to this situation as well as I can. Despite our shared genetics, I tell myself he is a separate person with his own journey. (I wrote “his own demons” but replaced it with “journey” since I know nothing about demons, not even the euphemistic kind.) He is not me. His anger is not mine. Just because he says something, his words don’t make it so. His problems are not of my making, even though he likes to tell me they are. My solutions are not necessarily his solutions.

Although I’ve talked around this situation before, alluding to a family problem with roots going back to childhood, I haven’t talked specifically about it out of loyalty to him. But blogging is the best way I have of putting things into perspective, and my writing about this situation now is a way of distancing myself from him even further, since I know how irate he would be to have me mentioning him. But as Anne Lamott said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”


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.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

9 Responses to “Applying the Lessons of Grief”

  1. Sue Says:

    I live with a partner who suffers with PTSD (not related to combat), and he can be difficult in many of the same ways as you describe your brother. I have learned that my wanting something different for him, my wanting something different for us, keeps me locked into the place where he can turn his own misery around and whack me with it. I have come to believe that, while it is good to always hope for the best, hoping for another person to change is destructive. That hoping keeps me in a place of expectancy and demand that leaves me always vulnerable to disappointment and frustration. So, within the context of an intimate relationship, hoping that the other person will change, even if that change would be good and healing for them, is not healthy or appropriate. The ability to simply step out of the way of his rage and his bitterness and his fear only comes when I have no stake in his ability to deal with all of that. I wish I could help him with his pain, but I cannot. That is for him to do, or not, and the fact that I love him does not give me any power over any of that.

    I hope you continue to find the places where you can stand apart from your brother’s stuff.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Simply stepping out the way of his rage and bitterness is a good suggestion, as is having no stake in his ability to deal with it. I wish I could help him with his pain, but I cannot. I’m trying to do the things I can, but it’s hard to pin down what he wants — he’s too focused on the past and what was done to him (some of which was done with the best intentions but had terrible results). I wish I didn’t get so impatient with him and the constant reiteration of the broken promises that he thinks destroyed his life. Maybe, as it sinks in that I have no stake in his inability to deal with it, I’ll find that patience.

      Thank you for telling me your situation. It helps.

      • Mary Says:

        I am 60 years old. My 27 year old son has bipolar disorder. He used to behave like your brother. He is finally in treatment…but he nearly died first. My 31 year old son died in a car accident in May and then my 27 year old made 2 suicide attempts. After that he got the treatment he has always deserved. My ex husband finally woke up and started taking care of him. I hope your brother can get the help he needs. I feel for you.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          Thank you.

          I’m sorry about your sons. So much sorrow! I hope you are finding moments of peace.

          • Mary Says:

            You are right. It WAS a lot of grief. I had a lot of support. I went to 2 grief classes and I got into therapy. I joined Compassionate Friends. I attend AA meetings and get a lot of support there.

            I wish more could be done for the mentally ill. It took 4 hospitalizations to get my son into the right kind of help for his mental condition. At least he finally DID get some help.

            I work at recovering from my grief. My son who passed away was an alcoholic. Before the disease took over his life he was very accomplished. His motto was: Dream Big, Live Big. And he did. He had a doctorate level degree! He would never sit on the sidelines of life and so I try every day to stay involved in life and contribute something positive to the stream of life!

            I have moments of peace. I also still have moments of deep sorrow. Both are part of my new normal.


          • Pat Bertram Says:

            You sound very wise. Yes, it is important to stay involved in life and to contribute something positive to the stream of life. It’s how we learn to deal with the grief life throws at us.

            Wishing you all the best.

  2. Gen Says:

    My heart goes out to you — you describe so well the reality of dealing with a tormented person. I know well the feeling that I’d never be free until the troubled person died. A horrible place to be. Take care of yourself — disentangling from any codependency you may have with him will be a gift to him increasing the opportunity for him to face himself, hear himself, while healing and protecting you. I agree with Sue in the previous post (so eloquently said) you must detach to stay healthy, to survive intact — but it’s not easy to do.

    You sound like a nurturing person — in the way you respond to posts, care for your father, and describe the situation with your brother. Your brother needs tough love as you have already sensed. I learned about “tough love”, “detaching with love” from Al-Anon meetings, literature, and principles. It helped me navigate the volatile relationship with my tormented person, and also prayer.

    I hope you find peace in the midst of this storm.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Tormented person. An apt description.

      Thank you for your response. It helps me feel less alone to know others have navigated this same situation. People tell me to call the police, but truly, since they don’t do anything except remove him temporarily, that’s not a solution. I realize he’s not my responsibilty, but someone has to care.

      • Paula Kaye Says:

        That is exactly what I finally had to do with my drug addicted oldest son. I had to disconnect. I love him! I will always love him. But I don’t LIKE him. And tough love seems to be working for us. He does his thing and I don’t see him. Sadly, I am raising his two kids and they don’t see him either. But that might just be a good thing….Good luck to you and here’s hoping you find your peace.

        Smidgens, Snippets, & Bits

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