Today is the sixth anniversary of the death of a dear friend’s life mate/soul mate, and I keep thinking of her and the sorrow this day is bringing her. Not that keeping her in my thoughts will help her get through the day — or maybe it will. Sometimes it’s enough to know that another person understands the significance of the day, shares the tears, feels the jolt of realization at how long the loved one has been gone.
Because of this virtual vigil, I am abnormally attuned to literary death references.
In one novel I read in the last couple of days, the widow of less than a year admitted she still sometimes cried in the night, and her clueless friend said, “that’s okay. It won’t be okay a year from now, but for now, it’s still okay.” That sure gave me pause. Why wouldn’t it be okay? Crying in the night isn’t the same thing as hiding oneself away in the dark, refusing to face life. And it isn’t the same thing as having a screaming fit in the middle of a grocery store. It’s a realistic response to the death of a great love two or three or six years later.
Then today, I read a book where the man was still devastated by the loss of his wife after eight years. And it struck me how very odd it is that grief diminishes with time, rather than grows. Every year of that fellow’s bereft life stretched out like the desert he lived in, every year taking him further away from her, every year an eternity of aloneness. As the years slog on, one after the other, shouldn’t the pain of the loss grow, like layers of water color washed one on top the other until the shape of the missing part of one’s life is darkly hued?
And yet, the opposite is true. The shock, the PTSD, the hormonal and chemical changes that grief induces, the inability to breathe easily, the need to scream, the sheer immensity of the goneness all do recede. We find new ways of living, new ways of filling the emptiness (or trying to fill it), and we get on with our lives. And yet, the dead are still dead. And every year of our life is one more year they are dead.
Whether the dead are gone forever, gone back to the seed of energy from which they emerged, or still live in some otherworldly form, they are still gone from this life. Gone from our lives.
Eventually, we will be gone too, but meantime, that loss is always there.
Some people who remarry have to squelch any remaining feeling of loss because their new spouses don’t understand the shadow place the dead still hold in our lives. Others are lucky enough to marry those who understand. But whether or not there is a new love, it does not diminish the old one.
And yet, through some miracle of grief, our pain does not increase through the years, but instead, the water colors lay softly on our lives, reminding us of what we had, reminding us of the love we still feel.
(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.”)