Challenges of the Fourth Year of Grief

The challenges we face during the first year after the death of a life mate/soul mate (or any other significant person in our lives who connects us to the world), are too great to enumerate. It’s all we can do to cope with the seemingly endless chores of laying our beloved to rest while dealing with the emotional shock, the physical pain, the psychological affront that are our constant companions. Sometimes the first anniversary of his death is one of peace when we realize that we managed to survive the worst year of our life, but then we wake up to the second year and find a whole other set of challenges to meet.

The five main challenges we face during the second year after the death of a life mate/soul mate are:

1. Trying to understand where he went.
2. Living without him
3. Dealing with continued grief bursts.
4. Finding something to look forward to rather than simply existing.
5. Handling the yearning.

There are other challenges, of course, some unique to each individual, but all the challenges are dealt with the same way: by continuing to feel the pain when it erupts rather than turning away from it to satisfy the concerns of those who don’t understand; by taking care of ourselves even when we don’t see the point; by trying new things.

In other words, we meet the challenges of the second year by living. It sounds simple, but nothing about grief for a life mate/soul mate is simple. By living, we begin to move away from our pain, but we also move away from the person we loved more than any other. For some bereft, this feels like a betrayal of their love — how can you continue to live when life on this earth is denied him? For others, it seems like a betrayal of themselves — how can you become the person you need to be without betraying the person you once were?

The third year of grief seems to be a year of transition with only one new challenge — beginning to rebuild our lives. (We still have upsurges of sadness, still miss our loved one, still yearn for him, but these feelings are not as prominent as they once were.) Most of us no longer feel that continued life is a betrayal of our love because we understand that we had no choice in the matter, either in his death or in our continued life. Nor do we feel we are betraying the person we once were — we are no longer that person, though we have not yet developed into the person we are to become. Most of us are still trying to figure out who that person is and what that person wants and needs.

You’d think by the fourth year there would be no challenges of grief left, but for most of us, this is the year where we make the necessary disconnect from our loved ones, and that is big though necessary step. No matter how close we were to our mates, no matter how much we felt as if we were two parts to a whole, we realize that in terms of life on this earth, we were two separate beings on two separate journeys. The questions that haunted us, such as the big question of who got the worst end of the deal, seem muted. Our mates had to deal with death and dying, and we had to deal with grief and living. It all seems the same now — life and death — though perhaps it’s more that we’re used to them being gone than that we made any great leap of understanding. We also don’t feel their absence the way we once did. The clawing yearning to see our mates once more has by now muted to a gentler feeling of intermittent melancholy.

Although my fifth year of grief doesn’t start for another two weeks, I am getting an inkling that this is going to be the main challenge of the coming year — dealing with grief’s absence. Grief was a part of my life for a very long time and the immensity of the loss and the enormity of the pain gave my life a feeling of epic importance, as if I were standing on the very edge of eternity. Well, eternity has retreated, and I am left with the ordinariness of life, and that ordinariness seems . . . well, it seems ordinary. Still, the lessons of grief taught me well, and so I will continue to take each day as it comes. Continue to find something to look forward to rather than simply existing. Continue to look for something to be passionate about, even if it’s just life itself.


(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.

15 Responses to “Challenges of the Fourth Year of Grief”

  1. Sue Says:

    Thank you for laying out this road map. My partner did not die. Rather, he passed through some life-changing events that left him entirely different from the man I knew, the man I promised to love always. It is now 3-1/2 years, and I can see my own path in the stages you have described here. I, too, am finding myself looking toward shaping a life other than what I once dreamed. Though he remains with me physically; though we continue to share a living space; though some sort of muted version of our love for one another keeps us bound to one another, I have grieved and raged and hoped for the impossible. Now, I am in the beginning stages of learning how to shape a life in which he plays only a minor role. I am no longer crushed by the realities. I’ve stopped wishing it could all be like it was. Reality has laid a hand on me and turned me to other pursuits.

    My loss is not at all the same as yours, and I do not mean to imply that. I only want to thank you for being strong enough to lay out a path that I may be able to follow.

    All the best,

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I’m so sorry for your loss, Sue. Of course it’s not the same, no one’s loss is ever the same. Yours seems so much worse in many respects. At least, in my case, his death set me free from his changed personality. (I had to deal with some of what you are having to deal with. Life does terrible things to people.) It was really hard for me when I had to start living my own life while he was still alive. I still remember the real wrench the first time I went out on my own, as if I were doing something wrong. And yet, you have to take care of yourself. You have to live. Wishing you all the best. If you need to talk, I am always here.

  2. Patterns of Grief | Bertram's Blog Says:

    […] Challenges of the Fourth Year of Grief […]

  3. Virginia Brahmer Says:

    Dear Pat,
    I am writing again because I just need to talk. It will soon be the third anniversary of my husband’s death. He passed away on 26 Jan., 2016. I am still fight depression and wake up every morning with a deep abiding sorrow. My son, with whom I live, gets upset with me because he says that I need to get out of the house. I go grocery shopping and I take myself to church, and several times a day I walk around the block to walk my dog, but most of my time is spent in my room reading or doing puzzles or watching tv. Neither of my two sons really understand the depth of my loss. They have grieved for their dad but each has moved away from home and has a life of their own with their jobs, wives and one with a 2.5 yo baby daughter. They have moved on as well they should, but they fail to see that I have lost not only my husband but my life. I have no job as I am retired, and the one who I would depend on to get me through this is the one who is dead. On top of this, we were planning a move. I live in North Carolina and have lived here for 30 years. We moved here after he retired from the USMC because his father lived here and he wanted to be near family. I agreed because I wanted to make him happy but I have hated this location for 30 years and he knew it. The average annual rainfall is 66 inches of rain and I hate the dampness. The year before he died, he finally agreed to live where I wanted to live for once, especially since the kids were gone and his father and step mom had passed. There was no family left for whom to stay. Now I find myself stuck here in a place I hate, left emotionally alone. I know I am free to move anywhere I want now, but if I move to Colorado, I will be alone. My sons will be so far away- not like I could just get in the car and drive. One son lives in Washington state, his last duty station in the Navy, and he bought a house and is engaged to be married in August, 2019. Ron would have been so proud. The other son lives in Raleigh, NC, where I am staying now, 350 miles east of our house in western NC. He has the grandbaby who was born after Ron died. Ron would have loved her. So here I am, not really knowing where I belong, where I should live, but knowing that I hate the state that I live in and having to give up my dream of living in Colorado where I really wanted to live. Being away from the kids would have been OK while Ron was alive because we have a travel trailer and we could have traveled to visit and had a great time. We had such fun together, traveling, riding his motorcycle which he had made into a trike, going out to lunch. Now that life is gone and I feel so cheated…and angry…and bewildered and I don’t know what to do with my life. I hate my life!!! It just feels so meaningless and I have nothing to look forward to…just more of the same monotony, meaninglessness and sorrow. My one son says that I need counseling but I’ve already tried that. What does that do? Sitting and crying my eyes out to a stranger once a week to the tune of $120 per hour? I can do that in my room for free, especially since I have to watch my budget since I do not rate getting his pension since he never signed up for Survivors Benefits. I know I am getting better even though I sound so pitiful, because I don’t cry all the time. I sometimes can even laugh at my dog or my granddaughter. I am just in a long, unending, painful funk and don’t know what to do but exist. Am I crazy? Is this normal?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      You’re not crazy. Of course you feel angry and cheated and bewildered, especially at this time of year when it’s all about couples and love and togetherness. I do know that it takes three to five years to reach a sense of renewed interest in life. You will never get over missing Ron. You will never get over a bone-deep grief, but your times of no tears will increase. I really feel for you being stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. I know you don’t want to go somewhere so far from your family, but it seems to me they are moving away from you. You didn’t ask for advice, but I do have some for you. Start planning a trip to Colorado. Just plan. Don’t do anything else. Figure out how to get the money, how to get there, where you would like to visit. Then prepare for a time when you might feel up to the trip. Although you are entering a time of lessening grief, you might still have to jump start the process. I am not dismissing your pain. In fact, I am still living somewhere I had never planned to live — after Jeff died, I left Colorado to go take care of my father, and I stayed in the area because I have no where else go, no reason to go anywhere, and somewhere along the way, I made a couple of friends. But now I need to find a place to settle down, and I don’t want to grow old in this state, so I’m looking for a place to move to. It’s hard because there is still no reason to be one place rather than another, no one waiting for me wherever I would go. The way it seems to me as an outsider who doesn’t know all the complications of your life, it’s sad to condemn yourself to living somewhere you hate. If you still have the travel trailer, start exploring. There are places online where you can find lists of places to camp for free (and if nothing else, there are always Walmart parking lots). The one thing it is hard for anyone who has not lost their spouse to understand is the feeling of meaninglessness. When you are part of a couple, everything you do has meaning because you are together, but when you are alone, your wonder what’s the point. And yet, there is a point. Why should we care less for ourselves alone than we did for ourselves as part of a couple? It seems to me that one of the tasks of grief is to create meaning, or at least to create a new life. If you really can’t move, then do something where you are to change things around. Take a walk every day. Try new foods. Go see something you’ve never seen before. Small changes ripple into larger ones. Small bits of courage manifest as larger ones. I try to stay away from platitudes when I talk about grief, but one thing I am thinking about for myself and to balance out my own feelings of meaninglessness is to realize that there is only one of me, and since we are made of stardust, and are as much a work of art as any star, we have a responsibility to shine. We each have to go through this horror show called grief as best as we can. No matter what we do, the sorrow will always be there at least in a small way, so there comes a time we can no longer let our lives revolve around grief. For the first time in your life, it seems, you have no one else’s desires to take into consideration. If you really want to move to Colorado, start planning. If you are a church-going person, when you get to Colorado, join a church and you will meet people. Or you can meet people at a senior citizen’s group. Or volunteer. You won’t necessarily have to be alone if you move.

      Just out of curiosity, where in Colorado do you want to live?

      • Virginia E Brahmer Says:

        Dear Pat,
        Thank you so much for responding to my message. I appreciate your advice. Your message gave me some peace of mind. I know that I have to start developing a life of my own. I had one before I was married, having had an apartment and a job away from home. I just have to step outside of all of this and put myself back there some how. The only thing is, I’m not the same person I was back then. Then I was independent and strong. I even joined the Marine Corps back then. Somehow I allowed myself to become dependent upon my husband. I know that I have to recreate the new me in the image of the old me so many years ago. I have land outside of Canon City, CO. It is there that Ron and I were planning on living. I have been dreaming of going back there. I can’t afford to build a new house now because my income doesn’t qualify for a mortgage but if I can get my house sold in western NC maybe I’ll have enough to buy a small house. I was pleasantly surprised to read that you lived in Colorado. Where did you live?

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          Canon City is a nice area. I’ve lived all over Colorado. Grew up in Denver, then eventually moved to the western slope — Grand Junction, Montrose, Hotchkiss.

          When you’ve been left to live alone as we have, it’s hard to find the energy to do things because entropy sets in. When we’re with someone, we don’t have to make all the decisions, don’t have to find reasons to do things. Their energy helps move us along, even if it’s only a “hey, let’s go here.” Finding the energy (both mental and physical) to do things by our self is hard. It’s just easier to let the days pass. But then, where are we? Where we don’t want to be. Wishing you all the best no matter what you end up doing.

    • Lo Ferguson Says:

      Virginia…someone else who feels like I do. My sweet husband is gone 4 yrs on Feb 19th. We lived and raised our 2 sons in Calgary and I came to love this city. When Dano passed my younger son took me to New Brunswick where he, his wife and my grand daughter live on Air Force base. I hated it! Too cold and definitely not a big city like I was used to. After 8 months I came back to Calgary to start over. My older son is still here but he did not want me here. It was not easy. My grief was neverq ending and I did not get to see my older son and his family all that much. Last Oct I had a Heart attack and it was my younger son who flew for 9 hrs to come to be by my side. My older son, who lived a mile away, did not want the bother. My decision now has become do I remain in a city I have loved with my darling Dano or do I now move to NB to live near my younger son and his family – because I do know that they love me. Do I even have the emotional strength to start a new life there? To be honest – I don’t know! I have no one to talk to but my dog – but she has no advice as to what I should do. (lol!). Some people have told me to get a grip and just get past Dano’s death. Problem is I just can’t. I too paid 3x to go to grief counsellors for them to tell me “Don’t worry. U will come thru this and u will make right decision.” I know I sound pitiful and crazy. Maybe I am! So now I am packing to move to NB, to be near my younger son, hoping I learn to love cows and country living. When Dano left, my zest and passion for life just evaporated. I don’t feel depressed – but like u said- in a long, unending funk that seems impossible to climb out of. Forgive me if this sounds pitiful and selfish but My Heart Still Hurts. In all honesty, when I read your post, I cried. Someone one else who feels like I do. I no longer felt so alone. Thank u.
      Virginia, u will be in my prayers. Lo

      • Virginia E Brahmer Says:

        Dear Lo,
        Oh, I so know how you feel! I just recently (this past week) left my older son’s home to come back to my house to start the packing/getting rid of unwanted stuff process. Sometimes I think that I need to sell this house and go somewhere else. The problem is where to go. I know that I need to make a new life for myself. I really can’t live in this house any longer. I have become a hermit. My older son and daughter-in-law really don’t want me in their home. They told me that I was too negative and selfish. Well, I guess I am selfish in the way that I have not finished grieving as they have. They have each other, I have no one. I feel so unloved by everyone but my dog! I feel like I am all alone in this world and nobody cares. I know, poor pitiful me! Anyone who ever had a good marriage has a 50% chance of experiencing the death of a beloved spouse, so get a life, Virginia. I knew this- I just didn’t think it would happen this soon. I was only 63 when my Ron died. My son tells me how much I have changed, he doesn’t recognize me anymore. He has no concept of what grief can do to a person. I’m supposed to “get a life” so I won’t be a burden on them, so I won’t be selfish and needy. The younger of my two sons lives outside of Seattle, WA., thousands of miles away. He has his job and his new house and his fiance. They are getting married in August of this year. I am so happy for him. He was very close to his father and took Ron’s death hard, but he has overcome his grief and has a new life. Life goes on. I guess that I just have to pretend that I have no family. I have to find a way to go on and not depend on my oldest son because he doesn’t want the burden. Maybe I should find a roommate so I am not alone.
        Thank you, Lo, for listening to my tale of woe. We are not all that different. I will keep you in my prayers as well.

  4. Kaye Pevehouse Says:

    I swore I’d never date or definitely never marry but then some days I feel so lonely without the love of my life. I’m only 66 years old so it just hits me ever now and then I’ll be alone til I die! Yes I’ve got friends and family and my dogs but to not have someone to love like you do your husband just makes it harder.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      It’s hard not having someone to love. I doubt I’ll ever be with anyone again, so I’ll be alone now until the end, too, and sometimes it’s too much to handle. Friends and family and dogs don’t take the place of that one special person.

  5. Heather Says:

    I’m coming near the end of my second year of grief after the death of my husband. I now experience times of enjoyment which I couldn’t envisage I would ever be able to do to start with. I have times of grieving every day and still am not sure how I will build a new life on my own, the one I don’t really want. I returned to and found new volunteering roles and see friendsand family, as well as joining some groups but although these keep me busy some are just distractions. I so miss the closeness we had. I have people to do things with but not the one person I loved to just BE with, not necessarily doing anything in particular. While searching for how the 3rd and 4th years might look I came across you blog which I found very helpful. You have put so many of the things I feel I needed to internalise as to moving beyond just existing. I do look forward to more things now and you give me hope that in time I will find a passion for life, so thank you

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I’m glad you stopped by. So often, we lose patience with ourselves after the loss of that one person, but it takes great patience to wait out the grief and the years until we find a new life that goes beyond mere existing. Wishing you peace as you continue moving toward that time.

  6. Heather Says:

    I have just read your blog on the 2nd year and it’s challenges also some of the links. They describe so well how I feel. I am so sorry that you had to go through this pain and for everyone else who has or is doing so. However, I hope writing was part of your healing and for me, I am grateful that I have been able to read this. My husband also died from kidney cancer in April 2021the diagnosis only a month earlier. At first I felt every day was an anniversary then it became the date of diagnosis and the date he died but I found the anticipation was worse than the actual dates themselves, so I am reminding myself of this now. Although he died on a Wednesday my saddest day is Saturday. All our married life it was a day I looked forward to but now it is a day I see other couples together and I miss him so much. Christmas was OK I was busy with my family but I have found January and February very hard. His birthday was the end of February but I decided to celebrate it. I plan to keep reading your notes on the third year when I am struggling as they are so insightful and supportive.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Yes, please do follow along my notes for the third year. One of the many hardships of such profound grief is feeling that you’re alone, that no one has ever felt what you’re feeling, and it does help to know that others have gone through a similar pain and have survived. You will always miss him, and there will always be a hole in your heart and soul, but the pain does eventually get plastered over with new experiences, memories, and even new things to love. (For me, it was first dancing, then traveling, and now my house.)

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