Doing the Best We Can

Yesterday was the third anniversary of my older brother’s death. He’d been homeless, possibly bipolar, and driven by rage. As another sibling said, “I will probably always be tormented by thoughts of the torture his demons inflicted upon him.”

We are a myth-making species, and the myth another sibling has adopted is that our homeless brother took upon himself the demons that haunted our family so the rest of us could be free. It’s a pretty myth that allows her to make sense of his life, and for all I know, it could be true, but I can’t shrug off his problems that easily.

My brother hated Jeff, partly, I think, because my brother felt abandoned when he discovered he and I weren’t in the same boat — loners with never a chance at a real relationship. He also felt he should be the one to look after me, though he couldn’t even look after himself.

Back when his problems started showing up, no one even considered the possibility of mental illness; they just thought he was a troublemaker. He and my father were so much alike. They both thought they knew the right of things, and they often fought. For most of my life, they used me as the rope in their game of tug-of-war, and I wasn’t smart enough or hard enough to discover a way out. I remember as a young woman thinking I’d never have any peace until they were both dead, and that the depressed me to no end, not only that I would think such a thought, but that it might be true.

For many years with Jeff, I did managed to evade much of their conflicts and the despair those conflicts (and my divided loyalties) engendered in me. After Jeff, died I went to look after my then ninety-three-year-old father, and when my brother showed up shortly afterward, the fighting escalated. And again, I was caught between the two of them. This lasted until my father’s death.

Oddly, although I often think of my brother, I don’t usually think of the horror those demons put us through. I think of the irony that because of his homelessness and his demons, I have a home. It was his death that started a whole cascade of events that led me here, to this house. In a way, I benefitted from his demons, though I don’t feel guilty. It’s just something I ponder.

We can never know the truth of someone else’s life. I learned this after Jeff died. I was wailing to a hospice social worker that he hadn’t had much of a life since he was so often sick, and she told me that he did have a life. It might not have been a happy life, but it was his life. It took years for that particular lesson to soak in because our lives had been so entwined and we thought so much alike that it was often hard to tell who had what thought first, but the truth is, it was his life. I might have been a part of his life, but I wasn’t the whole of it.

It’s the same with my brother. Whatever I think of his life, the choices he made and those that were thrust on him, I try to allow him the dignity of owning his own life.

One other thing I’ve learned from all of this — the conflicts, the deaths, and especially my grief — is that we all do the best we can with what we are given. It’s hard sometimes to separate out the unfairness of life, since some people are given so much — good physical health, good mental health, wealth, joy, companionship — while others get by on a paucity of such gifts.

And even when we, in hindsight, think that others could have, should have done better with their meager gifts, if we’d been inside their heads, with their demons poking at us, we might realize that yes, they did the best they could.

If there is anything I do feel guilty about, or at least unsettled by, it’s that I was right all those decades ago. It’s only now that both my father and my brother are gone that I’ve truly found peace. It’s a horrible thought, made even worse by the truth of it. The one mitigating factor is that if my belief is true — that we all do the best we can — then not only did they do the best they could, but so did I. It’s not as if I wished them dead. I didn’t. I simply wished for peace, not just for me, but for them, too.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Sociological Aspects of Grief

Ours is not a culture that values emotions except for those we label positive, such as love and joy and happiness. We are taught that being emotionally stable means to show a determinedly happy face, to hide our sorrows, to show public anger only in matters of what we deem to be injustices. Because of this cultural conditioning — and the lack of any enlightenment on the subjects of death and grief — the wild grief at the loss of a life mate shocks us, terrifies us, and angers us. It also tears the fabric of society, leaving us isolated, living a lie, and being manipulated by other people’s feeling about our grief.

Although we all pride ourselves on being independent individuals, we are, at bottom, herd animals. Society functions to keep each of us in our place. If we need space to be our own person, to feel what we feel or to think our own thoughts, we either have to fight for the right (hence all the vituperative political discussions we are subjected to during an election year) or we have to keep our thoughts and feelings to ourselves. Big brother and sister are watching us, but it’s not the “authorities” who are doing the watching; it’s our friends and neighbors and family. For example, I know several women who did not want to get the “Bob” vaccine for various reasons, but their families more or less blackmailed them into getting it. (“We won’t come to visit you unless you’re vaccinated.”)

If we are grieving, those same sociological effects are at work. People try to chivvy us out of our grief with blatant platitudes. They try to cheer us up because society needs us to be happy and productive, not morose and sad and grieving. They urge us to move on because they need us to move on, not because we need to.

The more they try to bring us back to the fold (yes, the sheep metaphor was chosen on purpose), the more it isolates us, and so the more we withdraw. We stop talking about our grief. We try to act “normal” around others so they don’t know how we are still suffering. For the most part, the only way to deal with our pain is to keep it to ourselves.

Oddly, while they are trying to pull us in, they themselves are pushing us away. Our grief triggers the survival mechanisms of those around us. To avoid facing the unfaceable (death), people close to us will indulge in self-protective behaviors that shut us out.

Sometimes old friends, especially couples, draw away from us. The death of our spouse and the demise of our couplehood change the dynamics of our friendships. People fear we will now be uncomfortable in the company of couples. At the same time, they are uncomfortable with us because all unwittingly, we are a reminder of how fragile life — and couplehood — really is.

A strange aspect of all this is that when we do start to “move on,” whatever that means, it’s also the wrong thing to do. Society, in the guise of friends and family, acts as if it has the right to say when it’s time. If we move on too soon (meaning finding someone else to keep company with or even marry) that’s every bit as bad as holding on to our grief too long.

I dislike the cliché that everyone’s grief is different because during the past eleven years of writing about grief and talking to people in person, in emails, or in the comment section of my blog, I have discovered that there are more similarities than differences in grief when it comes to the loss of a spouse. A new connection or even remarriage, however, is an area where the cliché is true: everyone is different. We will each of us find our way to a new relationship when (if) we feel the need, when the time is right, or when we meet the right person.

It’s no one’s business but our own if we struggle on alone or if we find comfort in the presence of another person, though often family and friends disagree.

I know someone who basically lost his children after he remarried. The teenagers would have nothing to do with him or his new wife, and chose to live with their mother’s sister. The preteen remained at home, but she made their life hell until he finally agreed to let her go, too. It’s only now that the children are on their own that a couple of them realize they made a mistake and are finally talking to him. (One still refuses to speak with him.)

Ironically, one woman’s daughter urged her into another marriage, then hated her mother for following through, perhaps because the daughter thought the new groom would not just be a replacement for her father but would be her father, and it came as a shock when the fantasy did not hold true.

As a blog reader pointed out, it’s possible his grown children’s lashing out over his new relationship might be their way of avoiding the painful process of coming to terms with the fact their mother is gone. I wonder if part of the lashing out is also resentment because of what they assume is his too easy acceptance of their mother’s death. And, of course, it’s that sheep herding thing in action: they need their remaining parent to be what they need him to be, not what he needs to be.

No matter what societal pressures are put on a bereaved person, the person’s grief is theirs alone. And how they deal with it going forward is also up to them.

When we are new to grief, so often we are told to look for support from our family and friends, and in an ideal world, this would be a good idea. But we don’t live in an ideal world — we live in a herd. It’s just another one of the ironies of grief that sometimes the very people who should be offering emotional support are the very people are adding to the whole quagmire of painful emotions we call grief.

***

This post was written at the request of a fellow griever. If anyone wants me to write about a certain aspect of grief, feel free to leave a suggestion. Since little of grief is truly unique to any one of us, chances are I went through whatever you’re concerned about.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Letting Go

Jeff and I had such a deep almost cosmic connection that for many years, I thought I’d be pulled into death when he died. It didn’t really bother me; it just seemed as if that’s the way it would be. Later though, as he neared death, it began to seem unfair. Because he was five years older than I was, I felt that if I died when he did, I’d be cheated out of five years of my life.

About a year before he died, I hugged him and accidentally touched his left ear. I know now cancer had metastasized all the way up his left side and into his brain, but at the time, all I knew was that he pushed me away, wincing in agony. Some part of me closed down at that moment, and a voice deep inside me said, “He might be dying, but I have to live.” During that year, we went our separate ways, he to dying, me to living. Then, six weeks before he died, he made the connection with me again. He needed to talk about what was happening to him so he could gather courage to face what was coming, and during that daylong conversation, I remembered why I’d fallen in love with him all those years ago.

Because of the disconnect during our final year, a year where I felt dissociated from him and our life, I didn’t expect to grieve, so the depth of my pain stunned me. I struggled for many years to deal with the wreckage of our shared life. Although he did not pull all of me into death with him, apparently, he did pull part of me into the abyss, and that hole — that amputation — will always be a part of me.

Well, I’ve had those five years I was afraid I wouldn’t get, and six more besides, but mixed in with all the other chaotic feelings of grief were feelings of shame and guilt and betrayal that in the end, my love wasn’t strong enough to keep him here. And it wasn’t strong enough to take me where he had to go. I know he wouldn’t have wanted me to be dragged into death with him, which could be one of the reasons he dissociated from me during that last year. He wanted me to have a happy life after he was gone. In fact, almost the last thing he ever said was to assure me that things would work out for me.

This guilt wasn’t strictly survivor’s guilt because I realized neither of us had a choice. That voice inside me didn’t say “I want to live.” It said, “I have to live.”

And he had to die. With all that was wrong with him, he couldn’t have survived.

Still, whether this is a case of survivor’s guilt or not isn’t the issue. The issue is that many people have similar feelings of shame and guilt when they lose a mate. As if we somehow failed them. As if we failed the test of love. As if we don’t deserve to continue to live. As if our “letting” them die was a shameful act. (In fact, someone said that to me, “How could you have let him die?”)

We feel ashamed too of our feeling that all of this is unfair, but we have that sense of terrible unfairness for a good reason. It is unfair that they died. It is unfair that we have to live this half-life without our mates while others continue their shared lives.

And then, as our shared life begins to fade into the shadows of yesterday, we feel as if we’re doing something shameful when we forget them for a minute or two.

At some point, though, we learn to just let these feelings go. They are truly not important and perhaps don’t even reflect the truth. During their last days and even months, we didn’t always act in the saintliest manner. Even if we knew they were dying, we didn’t KNOW it. We thought it would always be the way it was — our struggling to live despite the death sentence hanging over us. I do know the truth, though. No matter how we now view our behavior both before and after they died, we did the best we could. If we could have done better, we would have, but it’s almost impossible to be our best, most loving selves when dealing with the chaos of end times.

And we’re still doing the best we can despite our mates not being here. Although we often think we have a choice, we don’t always. People don’t choose to have fatal accidents or die from terrible diseases. Those of us left behind didn’t choose our fate, either. It wasn’t a case where we had to decide which of us died and which lived. The choice was out of our control.

I can’t tell you not to feel guilt or shame that you are still living and your beloved is not because everything to do with death, dying, and grief defies logic. We feel what we feel. Still, if you sense that these feeling are getting the best of you, try to let them go. You don’t need to feel guilt or shame. There are enough torments with all the things that life throws at us during the long years of grief that we don’t need to torment ourselves.

***

This post was written at the request of a fellow griever. If anyone wants me to write about a certain aspect of grief, feel free to leave a suggestion. Since little of grief is truly unique to any one of us, chances are I went through whatever you’re concerned about.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Grief and Gardening

When I was out weeding earlier, it dawned on me that grief and gardening have something in common. With gardening, you have to concentrate solely on what is within arm’s reach. If you think of the whole yard as a single entity, you’d never get anything done because the totality of the work involved is immense, more than one mind can hold. So the only way to get a yard or garden the way you want is to do what you can when you can and hope that someday the whole will be worth it.

That’s pretty much the same as grief, though with grief, you also have to deal with a whole lot of pain and trauma and sorrow. The totality of the loss and the pain is beyond the comprehension of most of us, so all we can do is concentrate on each day, each hour, sometimes even each minute. As with a garden, you can only hope that there is something at the end of all the grief work you’re doing that will be worth it.

Nothing, of course, will ever be commensurate with the death of that one person who was intrinsic to your life, but there needs to be the hope that someday, somehow, you will find a new way of being — of being you alone, not you as half of a couple.

It’s a long time coming, that hope. For years, most of us can’t even imagine having any sort of hope, and yet we get up each day, survive each minute the best we can, deal with all the tasks that can’t be put off. That all of this is accompanied by tears or anger or screaming or any of the other ways we have of dealing with the pain and stress of grief doesn’t mitigate the hope that getting up each day signifies. Even if we don’t feel hopeful, the mere act of living shows hope. A rather despairing sort of hope, to be sure, but hope nonetheless.

It’s only in retrospect that I can see the bigger picture of grief. For a very long time, all I had were the small increments, though over the years, the increments did expand from seconds and minutes to hours and days, and finally to years. And now I am in a place where I have a house and yard and garden and thoughts of bigger pictures.

I can’t say that that all the grief work was worth it to get me here because while the work of a garden might be worth it, “worth it” is meaningless when it comes to grief. Once I lived a shared life and now I don’t. In the end, after years of pain and sorrow and grief, that might be all it comes down to.

But I am here. And I am surviving on my own. That has to mean something.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Fearfulness and Grief

There are many changes that come with the death of a spouse or life mate. The abrupt change in circumstances, of course. The emotional and physical changes that grief and stress bring. A change in identity, both in how we see ourselves and how others see us. And a change in how we interact with the world.

After such a death, many of us left behind find ourselves unable to do the things we did with our mates. One woman I know had to change grocery stores and the brands she used because it was too painful going to “their” store. Some people change their eating habits because they can’t bear to eat the same foods or drink the same beverages. It took me years before I was able to make some of our favorite dishes, and even then, I mostly did it to prove to myself how far I’ve come because none of those foods are currently part of my diet.

Something else I’d forgotten about until an email discussion today with a person who’s dealing with the changes that death and grief bring to us, was how truly hard some things were, such as getting new glasses.

For decades, Jeff had gone to the eye doctor with me and helped me pick out new frames. After he died, even though I could tell my eyesight was changing, I didn’t go until I was forced to get new glasses so I could renew my driver’s license. The mere thought of going through the experience alone was simply too intimidating.

Now that I think about it, it’s such an odd thing — grown-up, independent people being intimidated by such simple chores. Admittedly, Jeff and I had done almost everything together for many years, and it did take a bit of adjustment to do those things on my own, sort of like the first time you step onto an escalator. But to be so intimidated by doing things like getting new glasses? Yes, definitely odd, at least in a non-griever’s world.

But grief changes things around you. And grief changes you. There is so much thrown at you all at once, from the horrendous pain as well as the hormone and brain chemistry changes to the way we do . . . everything. Much of life is habit. When we do the same things with the same person all the time, and suddenly that person is gone, we are suddenly thrust into a world where nothing is solid.

And in the fluid world of grief, we are easily overwhelmed and intimidated and fearful. I remember trying to find “rock bottom,” a place where I could stand to get my bearings, and there never was such a place. Well, not never. As much as anyone can find a footing, I have found mine now, though because of my years of grief, I am aware of how uncertain such a footing actually is. There is no certainty in this world, but there is definitely more certainty now in my life than there was after Jeff died.

All of that contributes to the feelings of being so intimidated by the new world we have to deal with that even something relatively common as a trip to the grocery store or an appointment to get new glasses becomes all but undoable.

The only other time as an adult that I felt so intimidated by life was when I destroyed my arm. My balance was off, my thinking was off, I couldn’t do anything the way I once had, and so I was easily intimidated. And fearful of people who came too close. (And angry at those who didn’t respect my new boundaries even when I asked them to.)

I sense this same feeling of fearfulness and being intimidated in old-elderly people for the same reasons — so much of what they knew — or thought they knew — is gone. Their sense of self and their physical abilities have changed. Their interaction with the world is different from what it once was.

I understand that if I wait long enough the same thing will happen to me when I get older, but it won’t be an unfamiliar sensation. (Unless, of course, I’d forgotten what grief felt like.)

I don’t know if this feeling of being intimidated as part of grief is something I ever wrote about before. Because I don’t like thinking of myself as a fearful person, it’s possible only the distance of all these years enables me to accept how intimidated I felt back then by something as simple as getting new glasses, though I do remember forcing myself to do new things so that I wouldn’t become paralyzed by the fear.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Sweating the Small Stuff

I try to live by the saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff,” but sometimes it is impossible to do especially since some of the really small stuff seems to be the biggest stuff.

Some of the small things I am currently sweating are mosquitoes, gnats, and other insects. They wouldn’t be a problem if they left me alone, but already, so early in the season, I am dealing with mosquito bites, gnats up my nose, grasshoppers eating my petunias. (Luckily, so far the petunias are all the hoppers seem to like, though they have nibbled on other plants to see if that foliage were to their liking.) There’s not much I can do about the gnats or the grasshoppers, but I have sprayed permethrin on my gardening clothes (khaki pants rather than my usual black because mosquitoes love black) and I use eucalyptus lemon oil on my face and hands, but they still manage to get me despite those precautions. It’s possible they get into the house at night and feast on me then, but I’ve only seen one mosquito in the house so far. (Although I would never hurt a fly, I have no compunction about offing critters that drink my blood.)

Another small thing that I sweated was an eyelash that got caught in my eye. I couldn’t get it out last night, though after a while I couldn’t find it anymore, so I thought perhaps I’d removed it without knowing I’d done so. Today, however, I woke up with a sore eye. I finally found the lash masquerading as an inflamed blood vessel. I eventually managed to work it over to the corner of my eye where I was able to scrape it off. That is one “small stuff” I had to sweat because it’s not good to have something foreign in one’s eyes.

And yet another small thing that looms large is that each of the past few evenings, I’ve had tearful moments of missing Jeff. After eleven years, most people would think that missing him should no longer be an issue, especially since I’m doing okay, but occasionally it is. I’ve been trying to be upbeat, to see the good in my present life, to not look back but not look forward, either. Neither looking back nor forward does me any good. There is nothing I can do about the past because it’s done and there’s nothing I can do about the future because that is out of my control. Besides, aging is a factor in my future, though people often disagree and tell me that it isn’t. The truth is, looking to the future, I can see myself getting older and feebler and trying to do the best for myself with diminishing strength and energy, and that’s not something I want to dwell on now.

So I look to today, but sometimes, as it has the past few evenings, that concentration on today seems . . . phony. As if I’m trying to be someone I’m not.

Still, there’s nothing I can do about Jeff being gone, and all I can do about missing him is let myself feel bad for a few minutes then dissipate the sadness with some sort of activity. Last night I dissipated those sad energies with dusting the furniture and dry mopping the floors.

Nor can I do anything about the other small stuff I’m sweating, including literally sweating — it was already eighty degrees when I went out to water the garden this morning. (It’s now 95 degrees Faranheit, 35 Celcius.)

Although a more positive or upbeat attitude seems phony to me, as if I’m not being true to myself, I tend to think it’s not really phony but simply another way of dealing with whatever comes my way. And what’s coming my way, for the most part, are a few flowers here and there.

I am glad to have the flowers, and glad that the hoppers around here aren’t as voracious as they were where Jeff and I lived. I blamed myself for my inability to grow a garden back then, thinking it was due to a brown thumb, but it was actually due to the large, brown grasshoppers that ate everything down to the ground, even the three-foot trees we planted. (The only things they left alone were lilacs and Siberian elms.) So I am grateful that I’ve managed to grow anything!

See? Even in a post about my various “small stuff” troubles, I end up with a glad and grateful attitude, though that wasn’t my intention.

Phony or not, that seems to be the way I am now.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Remembering

During the past couple of years, I have tried to concentrate more on what I have gained rather than all that I have lost. The tally is still vastly weighted on the loss side, but good things have happened, such as finding a house and creating a home for myself.

The past few days, however, melancholy has gotten hold of me, and I remember the losses. I don’t know whether the plethora of dark clouds and rainy days are responsible or if it’s merely one of “those” times. That this is Memorial Day is entirely coincidental. In fact, I didn’t even remember it was Memorial Day until I went to the library and found it closed. Besides, although Memorial Day has become a day to remember all our dead, its original intent was a day for remembering those who died for their country in any of its various wars.

It’s true that most of my “losses” are loved ones who have died in the past decade or so — my parents, my brothers closest to me in age, and Jeff, of course — but there are other profound losses during those same years that still shape my life, such as the destruction of my arm (though I have become used to the deformity and the remnants of pain), the lack of dance classes, the inability to hike long distances, and losing my home not once but twice (once when Jeff died and once when my dad died). The home loss is especially poignant in an area where families have remained for generations. They might not have lived their whole lives in this very town; they might have come from a nearby town, but to someone who is new to the area, this seems inconsequential. It’s not as if they moved hundreds of miles. They are still within reach of where they grew up, within reach of family and memories.

But this isn’t about them. It’s about me feeling the losses and me feeling lost. Although I didn’t list it with my losses above, I think one of the greatest losses is of myself. Grief changes a person. Being semi-nomadic changes a person. Being isolated changes a person. Owning a home changes a person. I am getting used to who I have become and am still becoming, but it’s not the me I remember being all those years with Jeff. Somehow, our being together allowed me to be a truer version of me than I’d ever been before. I tend to think I am again living a true version of myself, but it’s a different version, one that sometimes strikes me as being . . . not me.

It might be that I spend too much time alone. Although I am comfortable living alone, I must admit I still miss having someone to do nothing with. Sometimes I have someone to something with, but those days of doing nothing in particular with someone are long gone. There are so many little nothings in a day — miniscule victories or insignificant happenings that aren’t worth talking about, but that we want to mention anyway. And there are times when we’re sad or lonely or restless, and just want a moment’s connection — perhaps nothing more than a shared look — before continuing our daily tasks. I can call people or text them, but it’s not the same thing. By the time I make the connection, the moment of nothing has become something.

I don’t mean to sound as if I feel sorry for myself. I don’t really, at least, not much. I just think it’s important to occasionally stop and remember what once was and is no longer.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Let Grief Be

Sometimes people ask me questions on a Q&A internet site about grief that I cannot answer because the question makes no sense. For example, one person asked if interrupting the grieving process makes it harder to complete the process. Someone else asked how people could start the grief process for the loss of a loved one when they still haven’t even been able to process that the loved one was gone. And of course, there is the ever-popular question about how to help a griever move on.

To me, questions like this are like asking “How do you peel an orange if you only have an apple?” Totally nonsensical. I suppose it’s a good sign that people are asking questions about grief since it’s a subject few people understand, and I suppose it’s good that they know grief is a process even though they haven’t a clue what that process is.

Processing the loss of a loved one, processing that they are gone, is the grief process. It is how we move on.

From what I understand about grief, there is no real volition to the matter. You don’t start the grief process and you can’t interrupt it. Grief is in control. Some people can bury their grief; others can simply decide not to grieve, others don’t feel grief at all. Generally, though, if the person who died was an intrinsic part of the survivor’s life, such as a spouse or a child, grief is not a process you can direct or an emotion you can redirect, but is a thing of the body, mind, soul. Such a profound death leaves behind a void that the survivor can never fill. It creates enormous stress (and is in fact the most stressful life event a person can experience, causing a 25% increase in the chance of the survivor dying, too). The death of a person deeply connected to you changes your brain chemistry, makes hormones (especially adrenaline) go out of whack, kills your sense of self, and plunges your life into chaos because what once was — the pair bonding, for lack of a better word — is no longer.

Oddly, the more you try to process your grief, the more chaotic it all becomes. So much of life is habit, and when one’s habits are obliterated, as so often happens after the death of a spouse, then the brain goes into overdrive because not only is it trying to process the meaning of the person’s absence and trying to understand death, which is something it cannot understand, the brain has to think about how to do things that you once did out of habit. And some of those habits die hard — for example, if you’re used to making coffee for two people in the morning, sometimes you forget that there is only you, and you inadvertently make a whole pot instead of half.

I’m not sure what it would even mean to “complete the process.” To a certain extent, we who have lost our mates are always somewhere in the process because the death affects us for the rest of our lives. We might not always be actively mourning, might even find happiness again, might find new habits and new loves, but still, the loved one is always gone so the void they left behind will always be there.

When it comes to grief, all you can really do is let grief take you where you need to go. You don’t try to start it, don’t try to stop it, don’t try to interrupt it. For some people, especially those with young children or aged parents to take care of, or if the survivor has a serious illness, grief bides its time. When they no longer have to focus on other needs, then grief comes and helps them move toward the next phase of their life. (I met several of these people at my grief support group; even though the death they mourned happened years previously, the grief was new.)

There are, of course, people who have the ability to bury their grief, but it still makes itself known in various ways — in illness, in mental issues, in emotional traumas — so my theory is always to let grief be; to let it do what it wants to do. As so often happens, if you do this, there is a good chance that years later you will end up in a completely different place — mentally, emotionally, or geographically — a place you could not even imagine but that brings you comfort and perhaps even joy.

I make grief sound like a good thing, don’t I? Perhaps it is. Although it is painful, grief is not the problem. The problem is that a person we loved more than life itself is dead. Grief is how we move from a shared life with that person to a new life that is ours alone.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Grief

According to the US Census Bureau, there are now more than 52 million people in the USA who are over the age of 65, and that number will increase to over 70 million by 2030. Many of the Baby Boomer generation (usually defined as those born between 1946 and 1964) are now in their late 60s and early 70s, and the unhappy experience of losing a spouse or partner is going to be a reality for increasing numbers of Americans. The need for clear and practical information about grief has never been more urgent.

Grief is often shoved out of sight, but grief, no matter how painful, is important.

1) Grief is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. It’s how the body and mind deals with the death of a loved one. It helps the bereaved cope with the profound changes and trauma of the loss.

2) All losses aren’t equal for the simple reason that not all relationships are equal. Studies have shown that the most stressful event in a person’s life by far is the death of a life mate or a child. The closer the relationship, the more the survivor will grieve.

3) Grief does not come in neatly packaged stages. Grief for a life mate or child is more complicated and agonizing than any grief model can describe. Grief is not just emotional. It is also physical, spiritual, psychological, and affects all parts of the bereaved person’s life.

4) Tears are not a sign of weakness, but a way of relieving the stress of grief. Some scientists think that crying caused by grief is actually good for you. Biochemist Dr. William Frey says that people “may be removing, in their tears, chemicals that build up during emotional stress.”

5) Grief can manifest as illness, especially in those who cannot cry. If bereaved people find themselves frequently going to the doctor, they should mention their loss.

6) TV shows and movies often depict grieving as a process that lasts just a few weeks, but in reality fully adjusting to the loss of a partner or close family member often takes from three to five years.

7) Many bereaved people find that it is difficult to explain the emotions they feel and for their friends and family to understand. Being a good friend to someone who is bereaved involves showing patience, listening to them, and allowing them to grieve at their own pace without urging them to move on.

8) Upsurges of grief are common on anniversaries, such as the anniversary of the death. The body remembers even if the bereaved doesn’t, and this body memory accentuates the strong emotional impact of anniversaries. Understanding the process can help grievers and their loved get through these upsurges of sorrow.

9) Short-term memory problems, and a general inability to concentrate, are common effects of grief.  Making important decisions, such as whether to move to a new home, are often best delayed because of this.

10) Those who lost someone intrinsic to their lives, such as a life mate or child, can never go back to the way they were, but as grief wanes, they can go forward into a new life and eventual happiness.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Dealing With Death

Death is such a strange thing. A person lives and then something happens, and they are gone. The survivors have to deal with all the terrible death tasks — arranging a funeral, taking care of finances, getting rid of the person’s effects. And then life closes around where the person used to be, and to the world at large, it’s as if the deceased has never been.

It’s only the loved ones left behind who feel the absence, who have to deal with the grief, the angst, the loss, the missing, the yearning. When grief is new, all of those chaotic feelings fill the void where the loved one used to be, and then years later, many years later, even those feelings dissipate, and what’s left behind is a photo that begins to seem like that of a stranger. Even the void left behind loses its name — it becomes just a feeling of something that should be there but isn’t.

Even with all my experience with grief, I’m just as tongue-tied as anyone when it comes to offering words of condolence. In my case, it’s not ignorance of what the person is feeling, but a recognition of the terrible angst they are going through and will continue to go through for a very long time.

Some people never get a chance to work through all those feelings. If an elderly woman loses a son, as did my mother, chances are she will die with those feelings. In my mother’s case, the death of her fifty-four-year-old son killed her. Oh, not immediately, but she never got over the shock of his death or the horror of seeing him in a casket. She got sick within a couple of months, and she died right before the one-year anniversary of his death.

A friend has recently lost her son, and I can’t help thinking of my mother and what the death of my brother did to her. In light of that, it’s almost impossible to find consoling words for something I know cannot be consoled. As I’ve often told people — it’s not what you say that matters, it’s what you do. It’s being there. It’s letting the bereaved find what comfort they can in your presence.

For a while, people do rally around the bereaved, and then gradually, they move on, getting back into the swing of their own lives, leaving the bereaved alone to deal with their grief the best way they can.

It’s not the best system, perhaps, but it is what it is. After all, as people often have said, life is for the living, and it’s the living who gradually fill in the void where the deceased used to be — someone will take over their job, someone will wear their clothes and use their things, someone will move into their house. Gradually, the remnants of the deceased’s presence will disappear and life will continue largely unchanged for most people. But for the people who lost their loved one? The void remains, and their life will never be the same.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator