Adventurous Spirit

A legacy of my grief for my life mate/soul mate is a sense of adventure. During the worst of my grief, this adventuresomeness was more of a need than a sense. I don’t know if the extra effort adventure took helped balance the pain, if doing something epic helped make me feel alive, or if I simply wanted to keep from drowning in loneliness, but for whatever reason, I sought adventure.

Now, after more than eight years, I don’t crave adventure in the same way but a sense of adventure has become part of me.

I’m on a road trip, and because of an unexpected snowstorm road trip, I had to stay an extra night at a motel rather than heading on down the road, which tickled me. And when the motel lost power for a few hours, I couldn’t help smiling. It all just seemed so . . . adventurous.

I can live with that.

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(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.”)

On the Road

Is there anything lonelier than watching Hallmark Christmas movies by yourself, in a motel room miles from anywhere, when you are alone? Probably, but at the moment, it doesn’t feel as if there is.

Of course, I could a) not travel, b) not watch television, or c) hmm. Can’t think of a c. A and b should be enough.

I won’t stop traveling, and the only time I watch television is when I stay with friends, but after a long though easy day of driving, I didn’t feel like listening to silence. (Odd, since silence is my favorite music.) Hence, the movies.

I am lost. Sort of. I took a wrong turning and don’t exactly know where I am since it was dark when I happened on this motel, but I don’t think I am so lost as know it is still months until Christmas.

But still . . . here I am.

The first movie I watched last night was simply trite, but the second was as irritating as a walk through a briar patch. One woman is marrying a friend’s fiance, and she can’t understand why the friend can’t forgive her because “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just fell in love.”

It has never made sense to me if love is so compelling that any horrific betrayal in its name is forgivable, when death steals your loved one from you, you are (after a very short time of bereavement) supposed to simply shrug it off as if it didn’t change you and your life forever.

This dichotomy makes an already difficult situation even worse. Which is why I prefer silence to love songs, thrillers to romantic novels, being by myself than with couples.

I sound melancholic don’t I? But I’m not. Not really. Maybe I should get an early start today so I can stop before dark so I don’t get lost so I don’t need sound so I don’t watch idiot movies. It won’t solve the main problem of Jeff being gone, but it won’t make me feel bad.

Because after all — I am on the road! That is certainly something to celebrate.

Even if it isn’t Christmas.

***

(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.”)

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 6

People who haven’t experienced the profound grief for a life mate or a child presume grief is simply an emotional and psychological response to the death, so they tell us not to think about our loss, as if that will make the pain go away. (And yet, oddly, at the same time, they try to make us feel as if it’s okay the person died by saying the deceased will always live in memory.)

For some losses, such as an aged relative who lived a long and happy life, pushing aside grief might work. But when it comes to a child or life mate, not thinking about the loss in no way mitigates the grief because the grief is also in our bodies, not just our minds and hearts.

When we are profoundly connected to another person, when their well-being is as important to us as our own. when the two of us share the air we breathe, the electrical emanations from our hearts and brains, the atoms in the atmosphere, the cell information that gets passed back and forth via viruses, we grow so entwined that we become a unit—a survival unit. We humans are essentially pack animals, and our very survival depends on the strength of this pack unit.

After our beloved life mate dies and the unit is dissolved, our lizard brain goes into a panic. Danger! Danger! Something is wrong. Where is the rest of you? What happened? What do I do? Do I freeze you? Make you run? Make you fight? It sends so many chemical and electrical signals throughout our bodies, setting off a cascading series of hormonal reactions, that it leaves us feeling bewildered and traumatized. This is all in addition to our emotional grief.

To make things worse, our half of the survival bond remains strong, a constant reminder of our grief.

Yet people tell us just to forget our loss. To think of something else.

Even if it were that simple, even if we could put the deceased out of our minds, we’d still grieve because our bodies remember. Body memory is not a flashback, where you are actually experiencing the trauma again. Nor is it simply a vivid memory. In fact, the body memory comes first, and only afterward do we remember why we felt such an upsurge of emotional and physical grief reactions.

Jeff died early on a Saturday morning, and for a long time, I would hit emotional lows on Saturdays, even if I didn’t recall what day of the week it was. The effects of body memory were most potent as I neared the first anniversary of his death. For example, after a hiatus of a couple of weeks during the eleventh month where I was mostly at peace, I was so overcome with grief that I wanted to scream out in anguish. I couldn’t figure out what hit me or why, but when I tracked down the source of the pain, I realized it was the first anniversary of the last time we kissed. Apparently, my body thought it was an anniversary worth remembering.

For those witnessing our grief, our plight seems simple, but for us living the horror, as you can see, things are not simple at all.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 5

Not long ago a woman wrote to Dear Abby expressing concern about her new friends, a couple who had lost their grown son six months previously. This so-called friend thought it creepy that the couple displayed photos of their son throughout the house.

Attitudes like this make me glad of my efforts to explain grief because the neighbor is so very wrong on so many levels. First, as we discussed in Part 1 of this series, the couple’s grief is not the neighbor’s responsibility. Grief belongs to the griever. Second, as we discussed in Part 3, grief for a life mate takes a long time, and from I have come to understand from fellow grievers, the only thing worse than losing a life mate is losing a child. Six months is barely a blip on the grief spectrum after such a devastating loss. At six months, that couple is still so new to grief that it’s amazing they managed to socialize at all, let alone make new friends.

And third, the subject of this discussion, is that whatever a person does to help get through the shock and horror of losing a life mate or a child is normal. Some behaviors aren’t as healthy as plastering your house with photos, but basically anything one does to get by is normal. When you are standing on the edge of the abyss with the tsunami of grief washing over you, anything you can do to keep from being blown into the abyss is normal.

Many people who have to deal with the onslaught of emotions and the whole chaotic mess of new grief feel as if they’ve gone crazy. They cannot imagine that such sheer breath-stealing agony is normal. And yet, it is.

What isn’t normal is for experts, friends, family, to categorize another’s grief as abnormal. What isn’t normal is for people to make someone else’s grief about them. If the friend thought all those photos depressing, imagine how depressing it must be for the couple who have only photos instead of a living son. Even if the couple removed the photos to satisfy the friend’s sensibilities, it would not change anything. The son would still be gone. And the couple would still be grieving.

So, if you are a griever, know that whatever you feel, others have felt. Whatever you have done to get through the days, others have done.

If you’re a witness to someone’s grief, be compassionate. Don’t judge. Know that your friends are doing the best they can. Whatever they are doing is not creepy. It’s normal.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 4

Although I have experienced many losses in my life, the one I talk about is the death of my life mate because that is the big one. The one that devastated me. The one that catapulted me into pain beyond imagining. The one that destroyed life as I knew it as well as all our hopes, our plans, our shared dreams of a golden old age.

It’s also the grief that’s most incomprehensible to outsiders. (For that matter, it’s often incomprehensible to those who are living it, which is why I’ve spent so many words over the past nine years trying to explain how grief for a life mate feels.) Such grief is frequently minimized by witnesses. Partly, the uninitiated can’t believe it’s that bad — after all, they too have experienced grief and their life went on, so the griever’s life should too. And partly, they cannot face the idea that they might also be hit by such devastation, so they have to minimize other people’s grief to minimize their own fears.

All this adds pain upon pain. Not only are the grievers faced with the destruction of their shared life, they have to face other people brushing off their grief as if it isn’t important. Which leaves the grievers, living alone in a home created for two, even more isolated.

One person’s grief can’t be compared to another’s grief because no one knows what anyone else is feeling. But you can compare realities.

And the reality is, the most stressful event in a person’s life by far is the death of a life mate or a child. The reality is, such a death is so devastating that the survivor’s death rate increases by a minimum of 25% percent. The reality is that such grief brings about brain chemistry changes and lowers the capacity to function. Three finance professors from major business schools investigated Danish CEOs who lost someone significant in their lives, and they found that family deaths were strongly correlated with declines in firm operating profitability. The loss of a child or a spouse brought about the largest declines. (The death of a mother-in-law correlated to a small but definite increase in profitability.)

I don’t write this to minimize anyone’s grief — all losses are traumatic. I just want people to understand the incredibly complex experience of grief for a spouse and to stop minimizing such a loss. If nothing else, it will help them when/if their time comes.

A woman I know lost her husband, and one of her friends was rather dismissive of her grief. Then her friend’s husband died. Grief stricken, the friend called the woman and apologized. She truly hadn’t known what our mutual friend was going through.

You don’t know. You can’t know. And I truly hope you will never learn the truth first hand.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 3

Grief for a life mate takes much longer than everyone assumes that it does. Long after our family and friends have grown weary of our sadness, long after the grief experts say we should have returned to our normal life, we still grieve. Even we grievers underestimate the time it takes — most newly bereft think that the one-year anniversary is some sort of magic goal, and it is a goal, though not the end of grief. When we wake on day 366 to continued sorrow, it hits us that this not some sort of test. It’s real. They are gone for the rest of our lives.

The complex and painful experience of grief for a spouse, life mate, soul mate is not something we see on television shows, in movies, or read about in novels, so we get no sense of how long grief takes. Fictional folks shed a fictional tear or two, perhaps go on a fictional spree of vengeance, then continue with their fictional lives unchanged.

Of course, there is always that one old woman in Mafia movies who, draped in black from head to toe, throws herself on the casket, screaming for her Joey. Or the even older woman, also draped in black, who moans for her long-deceased Vinnie. These characters are so overdone, we cannot believe their grief is normal, but in many ways, this portrayal of grief is more realistic than the character whose life isn’t affected at all by the death of a life mate.

Despite the experts’ belief that our lives should return to normal after six weeks or even six months, our lives never return to normal. Usually, by the fourth anniversary (though sometimes not until the fifth or even longer), we’ve created a different normal for ourselves that makes room for the absence of our life mate as well as the possibility of future happiness.

Even then, grief isn’t completely gone. Many people feel a strong resurgence of grief during any life passage, such as the wedding of a child or the birth of a grandchild. Any subsequent loss brings back grief for that special someone. Any trauma brings with it a yearning for support from the one who is gone.

Still, the pain and the sorrow do pass. It just takes so much longer than anyone ever assumes that it does. So if you are grieving, be patient with yourself. If you know someone who is grieving for longer than you think is healthy, think again. They are doing the best they can, finding new ways of living, filling the emptiness (or trying to fill it). And yet, through it all, the dead are still dead. You might not remember that fact, but believe me, your grieving friend will always remember.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 2

A big myth perpetrated on those who are grieving a profound loss, and what leads experts to postulate that some people’s prolonged grief isn’t normal, is the prevalent belief that all losses are equal. But all losses aren’t equal for the simple reason that all relationships aren’t equal.

Sure, we grieve the loss of the person, but we grieve the loss of the relationship and the many roles the person played in our lives.

The son of a friend who’d lost her spouse was contemptuous of his mother’s grief, thinking she was overdramatizing herself. He’d gotten over his grief quickly and thought she should have, too, but what he didn’t realize — what most people don’t realize — is that although they lost the same person, they didn’t suffer the same loss. He’d lost a father he hadn’t been particularly close to, and his life didn’t change at all. Her life changed drastically — not only had she lost the one person who had always been there for her, the person she needed to help her get through her devastating loss, she lost her constant companion, her lover, their shared friends, their shared dreams,, her sense of her own identity, a big chunk of her income, and a whole slew of other losses compounding that one big loss. (Including the son since he refused to have anything to do with her.)

And each of those losses needed to be mourned, which makes mourning the loss of a life mate/soul mate a horrendous and horrendously long task.

Most of us who have lost our live mates have had the experience of someone comparing the loss of their pet to our loss, which leaves us speechless. Even if we could think of a suitable comeback, most of us are sensitive enough to understand the other person’s pain, so we don’t say anything, but the truth is, as traumatic as the loss of pet can be, the relationship of a person with their pet is far from the multi-faceted relationship of a person with their life mate/soul mate.

Although most people have experienced grief, all grief isn’t the same. All losses aren’t the same. All relationships aren’t the same. If you know someone who is grieving the loss of their life mate, please be patient with them even if you think they are being melodramatic. Especially if you think they are being melodramatic. They’ve probably lost more than you can ever imagine.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 1

Grief belongs to the griever. No one should tell a griever how to grieve, when to grieve, or how long to grieve. No one can bind grief or limit it, usually not even the griever. It’s not so much that we go through grief, but that grief goes through us, and eventually, when grief has done what it’s supposed to do (take us from a relatively safe shared life to a relatively safe new life that can accommodate the unthinkable idea of death), it will leave us in peace.

Sociological forces try to bind our grief. Society as a whole needs people who fit in, and in today’s culture, unhappiness and pain have no importance. Even though they don’t know it, people who are close to us are often the agents of these societal forces. They urge us to move on, to stop thinking about our deceased loved one, to find someone else. Sometimes they simply wish us to be happy. Sometimes they don’t want to be confronted with the issue of death, and if they confront the reality of our loss, then they — like us — would have to confront that terrible reality of death. And sometimes, they are simply responding to societal pressures to herd us back into place.

Grief theorists try to bind our grief with their “stages” of grief, their platitudes, their easy solutions for a difficult situation. So often, the message is mixed. They try to guide us back to normalcy while telling us that everyone’s grief is different, which actually isolates us even more than we already are. No one likes to feel as if they are the same as everyone else, but being too different, feeling too different, makes us wonder if we’re crazy, which exacerbates grief. Everyone’s grief is different to the extent that we are all different, but there are similarities in the progression of grief for many who have lost their life mates, and this similarity is comforting to those who already feel out of place and outside of time.

What few people seem to realize is that there is no place for us anymore. No normalcy. When we have lost our life mate, the one person who connected us to the world and even ourselves, there is no going back. Everything has changed. And everything continues to change.

Eight years and eight months after Jeff’s death, I can still feel ripples of change. We grievers count the days, the weeks, the months, and eventually only the years from the day our loved one died. It’s as if subconsciously we know that on that day of death, we were reborn into a new life. In fact, for many of us, that particular date has more resonance than our actual birthday.

So, if someone you care about has lost a person intrinsic to their lives, please resist the urge to chivvy the griever along. Their grief does not belong to you. Grief belongs to the griever.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.

A Manual for the Loved Ones of a Person Who Has Lost a Loved One

A friend who’s been helping proof my new grief book has suggested my next project: a book geared to the family and friends of someone who has lost a life mate. She said as she read the book, she related it to me, and she seemed surprised by all that I’d gone through. We’d talked about Jeff, his dying, and my grief, but even though I’d tried to explain the immensity and horror of the loss and the rippling effects of grief, a casual conversation doesn’t come close to seeing the truth laid out as I did in the book.

She and I met a year ago, long after the pain of loss had dissipated, so it made sense she knew little of what I’d gone through. If we’d met shortly after Jeff died, though, she probably wouldn’t have known much more because I, like most people who have lost their mates, quickly went underground with my grief. The divide between being coupled and being widowed is too great for most of us to handle, no matter if we’re the one who experienced the loss or the one who has to see us suffering.

And yet, my friend is right — people who love us do need to know what we’re going through. Too often they tell us to move on without understanding that grief is how we’re moving on. They urge us to find someone new without realizing that a new love does not negate the old, and in fact, if the new love doesn’t understand about the long term effects and changes brought about by profound grief, the new relationship can’t hold up. They see what they think is us enshrining our lost mates without understanding that we need something to hold on to. The half of the bond held by the deceased is gone, but our half is still there, like a live wire trying to find a place to ground itself.

Although my new grief book is geared for those who have lost their life mate, it can (and should!) be read by anyone who is struggling to understand what their newly widowed family and friends are feeling. Still, I understand why she suggested a separate manual for the loved ones of a person who has lost a loved one. While the starkness of this current book is comforting to those who are undergoing the angst of loss, it could be a bit too strong and detailed for the as yet uninitiated.

Imagine, though, how comforting it would be for newly bereaved to be around those who try to understand. For example, in my new grief book I explain how the body remembers even when the mind doesn’t, and so when a particular time comes around, we re-experience the loss as if it were new. Ever since my brother died, I’ve been feeling out of sync with life and even myself. His death hit me much harder than I expected, and it reminded me (as if I needed a reminder) that Jeff too was gone. When I told my friend about this odd feeling, she asked me if it was my time. (Meaning one of the times of body memory.)

Although I don’t think this feeling of not quite connecting is part of my grief for Jeff, it made me feel good that she understood. And what a perfect thing for her to have said!

Ever since Jeff died, I’ve made it my mission to take grief out of the closet, to show there is no shame in profound grief, so a manual such as my friend suggested might be a good project for me. First, I need to get this current book published and in the hands of the people who need it, and then . . . who knows.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.

Too Many Deaths

It seems as if I’ve accidentally taken a vacation from the internet. I haven’t posted a blog in over a month (I even forgot to celebrate the eleventh anniversary of this blog), and I’ve made only an occasional visit to Facebook. It wasn’t planned, this vacation. It’s just that life — and death — got in the way of my usual e-activities.

My older brother’s death affected me — and continues to affect me — so much more than I thought it would. (For someone who thinks she is as self aware as I think I am, my own reactions to death always manage to surprise me.) I thought I’d grieved the loss of my brother when I left him on the street in Colorado, but death is different. Irrevocable. And I am very conscious of his being gone.

My brother had given me the stuff in his storage unit a few years ago with the caveat I wouldn’t do anything with it until he was gone. (Did he know how close to death he was? I don’t know. I thought this disposition of his possessions was just his usual doom saying.) So, in addition to dealing with his death, I had to deal with his possessions. Well, my possessions. It was incredibly sad to see his preparations for a life as a musician he never got to live. It was incredibly sad having to dispose of the provisions for that unlived life. (There is no way I could have kept his things. I have enough of my own — and Jeff’s — stuff in storage without having to add my brother’s, too.)

Jeff’s death brought to the fore questions about death and the meaning of my life as well as fears of my growing old alone. My brother’s death didn’t leave me with the mystical quest Jeff’s death did; instead, it made me question the practicalities of my life. Made me realize I need to prepare for my old age. Considering the longevity of my parents, I thought that old age would be a long time coming, but both brothers closest to me in age, one a year younger, one a year older, are now gone. My younger brother didn’t come within thirty years of my mother’s final age. My older brother didn’t come within thirty years of my father’s age.

Although I have reconnected with other siblings, I still have to deal with life on my own. They all have someone significant in their lives, and I have . . . me. I see friends sporadically, but mostly, I spend my time alone. It’s odd that I am now where I feared to be during those first years of grief after Jeff died. I used to be terrified of stagnating, of becoming the crazy cat lady sans cats, so I kept myself busy with forward-looking activities. After the seventh anniversary, that need for busyness evaporated. Luckily, as it turned out. Most of my grief group friends are now paired up, my walking friends have gone on to other activities, and my dance classes have diminished. (I stopped going to a couple of the classes because they had become a performance group rather than actual classes and caused me more frustration than joy. Most of my other classes, classes that I loved, were either cancelled or are hit and miss.) And my dream of an epic hike evaporated when I discovered the reality of my physical abilities. Or lack of abilities.

So here I am. Alone. But not stagnating. (At least, I don’t think I’m stagnating. But if I am, would I know?) I’ve been spending time with my new grief book, preparing for its send off into the world of agents. I’ve been trying to get back into walking shape — my frequent colds this year and the trips I’ve gone on (to Seattle and to my brother’s memorial) have taken their toll on me. And I’ve been trying to figure out where to go from here, not in a mystical way, but a practical way, trying to figure out where I want to be living when death begins swiping at me with its scythe.

Death. So not a friend of mine! (Though I might feel differently when I near my own end.) I don’t mean to sound morbid. There’s just been too many deaths in too short a time.

Although I should return from my accidental vacation and get back into the discipline of keeping up the blog, I truly don’t want to foist my sadness on others. I did enough of that when I was dealing with Jeff’s death, and there’s nothing new to say.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.