Grief and Finding “Home”

Because of my writings on grief, I have met people from all over the world. One woman who contacted me after reading Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One, was from Holland. We became pen pals for a while, and in fact, she was the first to send me a card wishing me happiness in my new home.

Now she’s the one in a new home.

Like many who have lost their mates, she needed a new life, and to that end, she felt she needed to find a new place to live. Apparently, Holland is too crowded and too expensive for her now that she’s living on a single income, so the last I heard, she was looking for a place in the south of France. Today I got a postcard from her, from Aveyron in France.

It’s good to know she’s finally realized her dream — that new dream born from grief and loss.

I’d never heard of Aveyron in southwestern France, but that “department” looks fabulous! (From what I can tell, a department is a division of a region.) According to a guidebook, it is home to ten of the most beautiful villages in France, as well as gorges, castles, and gastronomic delights. Sounds like a wonderful place to live. I hope she’ll find herself at home in her new home.

That’s one of the hardest things to find for us who are left behind after our mates die — a feeling of home. For many of us, our “homes” resided not in a place but in a being with that special person. And when they are gone, every place seems alien for way too many years. The lucky ones — relatively speaking — are those of us who finally find a place to call home. In my case, the area I settled on isn’t especially spectacular, certainly nothing like Ayeyron, though it does have its moments. Nor is the town picaresque, though that too has its moments. (It’s this lack of monumental scenery and mountain views that has prompted me to try to turn my yard into a vista worth looking at.) But it has given me a sense, first of coming home, and now of being home.

Back in my first days of grief, I felt as if I were totally unanchored, as if I were being blown willy-nilly by the winds of fate. It’s not until we find home in ourselves that we can find home in a place (or perhaps it’s the other way around), but it does seem as if we can’t stop feeling unreal and untethered until there is once again a sense of home, a sense of belonging somewhere. (For a long time, I took comfort from the idea that I belonged to and on the earth, but it helps even more to have anchored myself to a specific place on that earth.)

I wish my Holland friend — and all who have been left adrift by the death of the person intrinsic to their life — peace in her new home.

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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.

The Long and Short of Grief

A therapist friend wanted to know the difference in grieving between someone who lost their life mate/soul mate at the beginning of their relationship and someone who had many years with their mate.

I hesitate to compare grief because we all grieve in many ways for many things, but after a grievous loss, such as that of a spouse, there is a general pattern to grief that one’s mind and body seem to follow. If there weren’t similarities, then no one’s story would have any relevance to any one else, and I do know that what I have written about my experiences with grief resonates with many people. So my answer doesn’t have to do with the depth of grief. There is no way to measure that. I’m mostly discussing the two cases on the base of the patterns of grief.

A long life with a loved one and a short life that was cut off before the relationship could deepen aren’t the same — can’t be the same — and yet, in some respects they are similar. We grieve the loss of an entire lifespan of a person and a relationship. I grieved for both the time I had with Jeff and the time I didn’t have. The fiancé of an acquaintance died right before their wedding. She didn’t have the same amount of time with her fiancé that I did with Jeff, but she will still grieve for the time she had and the time she didn’t have. I had more loss looking back, perhaps, but she has more loss looking forward. For both of us, too many plans and hopes didn’t come to fruition, but especially in the case of the woman who went to a funeral instead of to her wedding.

Losing a loved one to death is always hard. It’s possible in the long run, the fiancé will have it a bit easier in that she won’t have as many habits that are abruptly cut off. When you spend a lifetime with someone, you develop habits to enable to you to cohabit, and then when the habits come to an end because of the loss, your brain goes into overdrive. We do so much by habit, and then suddenly, after the death of a spouse, you have to think how to do everything. (It’s like trying to remember how to walk instead of simply walking.)

Also, when you spend a lifetime with someone, you have the whole problem of your lizard brain going haywire because the other half of your survival unit is gone and when it doesn’t return, your lizard brain suddenly realizes that it too will someday die, and what a horror show of chemical and hormonal imbalances that part of your brain can foment! She won’t have that, but she might have other issues I don’t know about, such as a feeling of unfairness. We all feel the unfairness, of course. My parents had 60 years together. Jeff and I had half that. And oh, did that seem so unfair to me! I imagine the sense of unfairness the fiancé felt was off the charts, because it was incredibly unfair. She didn’t have even one year with her mate, and I got 34. For those of us who have spent many years with our loved one, eventually we are left with a feeling of gratitude for the years we did have to balance the unfairness, and I’m not sure there is much to balance the unfairness of what the fiancé experienced. She’s happy now, married to a widower, and has children, but still, there is always that grief for a love cut short, regret for a life that might been.

There is the terrible shock of death we all feel. There is also a sense of waiting. In my case, I kept waiting for Jeff to call and tell me I could come home, and the fiancé had that, too. Waiting. Always waiting to hear from someone who is so utterly gone from this earth.

And confusion, of course. As confused as I was after Jeff died over where he was and how he was doing, it must have been even greater for the fiancé. Even thinking about it, I feel confused. How is it possible that such things happen? So unfair.

A major factor in the loss of a mate, long-standing or not, is the nearness of death. When you are deeply connected to someone who has died, you feel as if you are standing on the edge of the abyss, as if any loss of balance will pull you into eternity.

That feeling of being able to reach out and touch the love one depends on your level of connection. Some people who have been together many years never had (or have lost) such a deep connection, while some new couples feel it immediately. Still, the presence of death is never easy to handle.

I’m not sure I helped my therapist friend with this analysis, but it was the best I could come up with. All I know for sure is that the death of a person intrinsic to our live dims the light of the world and it takes many years before we adapt to that dimming.

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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.

Gardening Is the Answer

I finished digging the grass out of a soon-to-be wildflower meadow. For a few minutes this morning, I thought I’d get rained out and would have to save the last six-foot square until tomorrow, but the clouds spat a few drops at me, got bored, and moved one.

After I finished digging and shaking the dirt out of the clumps of grass roots, I raked the area flat, which oddly was the hardest part of the whole task. But I got that job done, too.

An experienced gardener left a comment on my blog yesterday that a wildflower field doesn’t have to be tilled, and I wondered if I had done all that work for nothing. And yet, that Bermuda grass is so strong and overpowering, I was afraid my poor wildflower seeds wouldn’t stand a chance if I didn’t do something about the grass. In fact, that grass is so strong it’s starting to go through the weed-barrier fabric on the north side of the garage. Supposedly, the contractor got the strongest fabric available, but as I said, that grass is strong. It looks like they are going to have to add another strip of the fabric, as well as finish putting up the gutters on the garage, but that is not something I can to do, so I won’t worry about it.

I’m glad to know about not having to till the soil for a wildflower meadow, so in some other spots where I want wildflowers, I can just toss the seeds and stamp them into the ground. Well, after I dig up the weeds, that is. And the grass.

A friend sent me a quote: “The answer is gardening. It doesn’t matter what the question is.”

I thought that was lovely. And it does sort of reinforce a surmise I made. A fellow griever once told me about an old woman she knew who had lost everyone she had ever loved and yet was the happiest person the griever knew. We both marveled at the possibility of finding joy despite all the sorrow, but now I know the woman’s secret. The woman was a gardener, so as I surmised, that’s the answer to the conundrum.

I wonder if I will be that person? More likely, unless gardening keeps me mellow and allows me a life of sorts without having to deal with too many irritations, I will become a curmudgeon.

Either way, gardening does seem to be the answer.

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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.

Happy Fourteenth Bloggiversary to Me!

I created this blog fourteen years ago today, back when I hadn’t yet become a published author, back when I had just acquired my first computer and didn’t even know what a blog was. I had read how important blogging was for authors, both as a way of getting known and as a way of connecting with readers, so I decided to “act as if” I were going to be published in the hopes of making it happen. I had nothing to say, no one to say it to, no reason to say anything, but I didn’t let that stop me. I started blogging on September 24, 2007, and haven’t stopped since.

Did acting as if I were going to get published work? Perhaps, though there is no direct connection that I know of. Still, one and a half years after starting this blog, my first two books were published. I now have nine books available: four suspense novels, one mystery, three books about grief (one fiction and two non-fiction), and my most recent book, Bob: The Right Hand of God. (My publisher said, “Bob: The Right Hand of God is playful, fun and well-written. It spans genres, so I’m not sure if there is an exploitable target audience. I don’t care. I like it.”

Two-and-half years after I started this blog, my life mate/soul mate died, and his death catapulted me into a world of such pain that it bled over into my posts. This blog became a place where I could try to make sense of what I was going through, to offer comfort and be comforted, to find my way to renewed life. And I struck a chord with people who were also dealing with grief. It’s no wonder my top posts are grief related: What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas? with 91,801 views and The Five Major Challenges We Face During the Second Year of Grief with 40,705 views.

This blog sustained me during the years I cared for my father after Jeff’s death, and it gave me a place to rest when my father died four years later, and I was thrown out into the world, alone and orphaned.

This blog offered me a place to call home when I set out alone on a five-month, 12,000 mile cross-country road trip, gave me a place where I could talk about all the wonders I was seeing. Often on that trip, when I was between visits with online friends, I thought of William Cowper’s words: How sweet, how passing sweet, is solitude! But grant me still a friend in my retreat, whom I may whisper, solitude is sweet. And this blog became a place where I could whisper, “Solitude is sweet.”

And when I settled into a house of my own, this blog gave me a place of familiarity in an otherwise unfamiliar life.

Currently, as I am dealing with the infirmities of the encroaching years as well as the many facets of first-time homeownership, it’s nice to know that whatever life throws at me, whatever problems I encounter, whatever challenges and adventures — and joys — come my way, this blog will be here for me.

During the past fourteen years, I have written 3,207 blogs, received 21,115 comments, and garnered 960,164 views. It amazes me that anyone wants to read anything that I write here. This is so much a place for just letting my thoughts roam, for thinking through problems, and (I admit it) for pontificating a bit. It’s been a kick, writing this blog, and I want to thank all of you for indulging my whims and whimsies.

Thank you for reading. Thank you all for your comments, your likes, your support. They have meant more to me (especially this past eleven and a half years) than you can ever imagine.

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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 Peace

Studies have indicated that happiness is found mainly in retrospect. For example, happy children don’t know they are happy. They simply are happy. It’s only later, when they look back, perhaps after a terrible time in their adult lives, that they realize they had been happy in their early years. For another example, when someone is involved in a challenging situation that takes all their time and energy, they don’t realize until later they were happy. In fact, often while going through this “happy” situation, people think they are decidedly unhappy.

It happens with grief, too. Sometimes a couple isn’t particularly happy, but after one of the partners is deceased, the remaining person looks back and realizes that, despite the disagreements and difficulties, they really had been happy. Or after caring for a loved one during a long illness, the void they leave behind makes those painful days of being with the loved one seem akin to happiness.

Happiness might also be found in anticipation, in hopes for a time when joy might come again. Oftentimes, when someone has gone through a difficult time, they find it easy to look ahead to future happiness, but not when that difficult time is grief for a loved one, and especially not when the loved one is a spouse or soul mate.

The chaos of grief is so great, the blackness so opaque, the pain so all-consuming, that we cannot look to the future as a rosier time. How could there be happiness again when the person we loved more than anything, when the person whose very presence brought us happiness is dead? Chances are there will be happiness again. We change, our perspective changes, our focus changes, so the pain and yearning that once filled our being gradually shrinks into the essence of our souls. We still feel the loss, but like with bark that has broken to allow a tree to grow beyond its confines, our hearts and souls break and then expand to allow other feelings to exist alongside the pain.

Although I often offer a promise of future peace to grievers who show me their pain, I never promise happiness. In fact, I seldom mention the possibility because it’s no consolation. For a long time, the very idea of finding happiness without our deceased mate seems too much of a betrayal of our shared life.

But peace is attainable. Even in the days when the yearning for one more smile or one more word feels as if it will explode out of us, we can find brief moments of peace when the chaos is temporarily stilled, when the roar of pain and loss is temporarily silenced. As time goes on, these moments happen more frequently, and as even more time goes on, the duration of these moments is extended, until one day the peace begins to linger longer than the chaos.

When grievers call out to me in their pain, I want what any caring person wants — to ease their pain. But I, more than most, know that their grief belongs to them. It’s not up to me to take it away from them or even to add to the pain by “bleeding” for them, as people used to tell me they did. (Did they really think it eased my pain to have them bleed for me? That I bared my pain as plea for someone to take the burden of loss from me? If so, they were wrong. Baring my pain was a gift, to show other grievers that they are not the only ones who feel the pain and chaos of grief, that no matter how insane those feeling seemed, they were a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.)

All I can do is offer grievers a place to voice their pain and to send them a wish for (and a belief in) the possibility of peace.

So today, whether you are struggling with grief or trauma, or feelings of unworthiness and guilt for whatever happiness has come your way, I wish you peace.

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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

An Emotionally Neutral Day

I’m sitting here with a blank “page” in front of me, doing my daily mental scrounge for a blog topic. A reader wants me to write about Grief and Peace, and I will because it’s a great topic, but I need to put it off for a while. Although I’ve been fine during the day, I felt a bit sad the past couple of nights. I’m feeling emotionally neutral at the moment, and I want to keep it that way, so I’m staying away from blogs and books that might turn what was a tiny dent of sadness into a sinkhole of despondency.

For most of my life, I read a book a day. The only vacation from reading I ever took were six or seven years after Jeff died. I started out reading as always, but every book I read set me off on a crying jag. Either a couple got together, which made me sad because Jeff and I were no longer together. Or the couple didn’t get together, which made me sad since Jeff and I were no longer together. Or people died. Whatever happened in a novel — be it gruesome or horrifying, mysterious or charming — set me off, so I stopped reading fiction and didn’t start again until I was housebound after I destroyed my wrist, arm, and elbow. (Which, incidentally, are doing well. Although there is some pain that could be the beginning of the post traumatic arthritis the surgeon promised me, I have full mobility of the wrist though he said I never would. But that was before he understood I would do the exercises he gave me. It shocked him, I think, because he told me almost no one ever did what he asked them to do.)

I am back to reading a book a day, but occasionally one of those endings — togetherness, apartness, or death — get to me. This time it was the togetherness, and I felt sorry for myself at being alone. Not that I mind. I generally prefer being by myself, but sometimes . . . sometimes it does get to me.

It’s not that I want a relationship. I don’t. And I certainly wouldn’t know what to do with a relationship if one came my way. It’s more that the relationship I did have has become nothing more than me talking to photograph.

I’m over that sad spell, probably because I talked it out. (Jeff was always a good listener, but he seems to be even more so now.) To be on the safe side, I made sure all the books I got from the library yesterday were emotionally neutral mysteries or thrillers. (Emotionally neutral because none of those authors ever make me care about their characters.) I’m also writing an emotionally neutral blog today and will save the Grief and Peace piece for another day.

Speaking of going to the library: a couple of times I left without getting a slip that tells me the due date, and both of those times, something happened so that I had to contact the library to make sure everything was okay. The librarian and I joked about that yesterday, and guess what? I left without getting a due date receipt. I sure hope that doesn’t mean there will be a problem because that would sure put a dent in my emotionally neutral day.

One thing did happen that tipped the neutrality a bit — I harvested a few cherry tomatoes! Delicious.

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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

The Quiet After the Questioning

As I talked to Jeff when I was getting ready for bed the other night, it suddenly dawned on me that I no longer asked myself — or him — the hard questions, or any questions at all, for that matter. It could be a good thing, perhaps a sign that I have reached an accommodation with life and death. It might be a not-so-good thing, possibly resignation or stagnation or exhaustion from trying to make sense of it all. Or it could be something else, neither good nor bad, maybe just letting my mind filter out the unanswerable questions. Most probably, it’s simply an acceptance that so much of what we want to know is unknowable.

But oh, at the beginning of my grief, there were way too many questions. Those questions kept my brain so busy trying to come up with solutions, that I often felt muddled and unreal.

Even years after his death, I was haunted by the hard questions. You know the ones: Who are we? Why are here? Is this all there is? Where did our loved ones go? Will we see them again? What is the meaning of life? And probably the most haunting of all, what is the meaning of death?

It wasn’t only grief that brought out these questions. When I was young, I’d often pondered such questions during my quest for truth and a greater reality, and I’d come to believe that God is the spirit of creativity that fuels the universe, and we are each a part of that creativity. For most of my adult life, I was content believing that our spirit/energy returned to the whole . . . until Jeff died. Then all of a sudden, I didn’t want that to be the truth. I wanted him to continue existing as him, as the man he was, not as part of an amorphous energy source.

And so the questions pounded at me. Not just the hard questions I mentioned, but others, too, such as: was it fate that we met, fate that he died? If he’s in a better place, why aren’t I there? If life is a gift, why was it taken from him? Is he proud of the woman I’ve become? Would he still like me if we were to meet?

It seems as if all I had were questions, but now? The questions, although they remain unanswered, don’t haunt me, at least not at the moment. The main effect of this silence is . . . well, silence. And the main effect of that mental silence is a struggle for blog topics.

For a while, I was invested in trying to come up with answers as to what this “Bob” situation is all about, but eventually I realized that with most of the questions I’ve asked over the years, there is no real answer, just a lot of speculation, and eventually, speculation loses its luster.

I must admit, I do enjoy not having my brain roiling with unanswerable questions.

Luckily, I still manage to find something to blog about. Luckily for me, that is, though perhaps not for you.

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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

Nothing is Something

In a book I just finished reading, a kid insisted that nothing was something. The comment was irrelevant to the story; it was just one of those things authors throw in there because they can. My mind did not skim over the idea as it normally would have, nor did it start philosophizing about somethings and nothings. Instead, my mind immediately shifted to thoughts of the “nothing” that is left behind after someone intrinsic to our life dies. That void inside us — that nothing — is definitely a something. We feel it in the very depths of our being long after the loved one leaves us.

The definition of “nothing” is “the absence of a something or particular thing that one might expect or desire to be present.” And boy, do we desire the presence of our loved one. We also expect them to be present. For years, every time I answered the phone, I expected it to be him telling me I could come home. I knew it was impossible, and of course, that expectation came to naught.

That expectation as well as the great yearning that so consumed me during the first years of grief are finally gone, replaced by . . . I’m not sure what, exactly. It’s not really nostalgia, more like a restructuring of his absence. Instead of yearning for him, I talk casually to him. Or rather, I talk to his picture. The photo — the same one I could not look at for years after he died because it brought me great pain — sits on the bedside table on the opposite side of where I sleep. I’ve gotten into the habit recently of telling him I miss him, talking about my day, and asking him about what’s going on with him. This is a very short conversation, mostly just a few sentences on my part as I get ready for bed, and none on his part. Though to be honest, if that photo ever answered me, I’d be scared out of whatever wits I have.

Despite this new, rather pleasant permutation of my grief, I can still feel the void he left behind as a physical thing. I shouldn’t be able to feel that — right? — because after all, a void by definition is an empty space. And yet, there it is, an emptiness, a nothingness that seems to color my life, just as his somethingness once colored it.

And, after more than eleven years of his being gone, it’s beginning to look as if that nothing/something inside me will be a permanent fixture for the rest of my life.

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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

Widow’s Brain

A friend whose husband recently died mentioned, quite frantically, that she isn’t able to think or keep any thoughts in her head anymore. Although she worried that such a state was abnormal, which it normally would be, it is perfectly normal for a new widow or widower. During that first year of grief and sometimes beyond, almost all of us have to deal with some sort of mental fogginess. This state is more commonly known as “widow’s brain,” and though I used the term in the title of this blog, I generally refrain from the term because men also suffer from this condition.

As bad as the shock and pain and fogginess are that first year, they do seem to offer some sort of protection. Although we know the deceased loved one is gone, we don’t KNOW it, don’t really want to know it. We feel their goneness, of course, in the very depths of our being, but one part of us holds out hope that, as impossible as it may be, the whole thing is a test. When we get through that first year, all will be well. Then, of course, dawns the 366thday, and we are faced with the unpalatable and undeniable truth that their being dead is no test, no mirage created out of a foggy brain, but the reality of our situation. Because of this raw realization, sometimes the second year is worse than the first. It was for me, and it was for many widows and widowers I know.

Although the friend didn’t ask for my advice, I still suggested that she be patient with herself and not make any important decisions without thinking and thinking again. Very few people understand the reality of this brain fog —the grief-induced amnesia, dazedness, and fogginess that shroud us after the death of a life mate — but it is a real condition. And we need to protect ourselves from ourselves as best as we can.

As I wrote in Grief: The Inside Story — A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One:

The whole brain is involved in the grief process, but the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that seems to contribute the most to brain fog. The prefrontal cortex is considered the executive branch of the brain and is associated with rational thinking and making sense of emotions, developing and pursuing goals as well as coordinating the brain’s activities. Because we grievers are on total emotional overload, our prefrontal cortex is unable to process all the information it is being fed from all parts of the brain. The more we try to suppress our emotions and try to think our way out of grief, the more overloaded the brain becomes.

Although short-term memory loss, inability to concentrate, missing memories and memory gaps are common, they all add to the general chaos and stress of grief, and make us feel as if we are crazy. Or worse. Denise, a Facebook friend, said she felt like she had a traumatic brain injury after the sudden death of her husband. But we are not crazy. We did suffer a traumatic brain injury of sorts when we lost the person fundamental to our lives, and now we are overwhelmed by the shock and horror and stress of that loss.

Although this fog numbs us to protect our hearts and bodies from the worst effects of losing our life mates, it can be a financially damaging condition.

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.

So yes, the newly bereaved need to be cognizant of brain fog, widow’s brain, whatever one calls the state, be patient with themselves, and be aware of the possibility of making disastrous decisions.

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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 Medication

I generally stay away from talking about medication when it comes to grief because it is a sensitive — and personal — topic. I have a firm belief that grief is not a medical condition that needs to or can be treated by drugs, and though this belief extends only to myself and not to others, I worry that my talking about the subject will make people think I am being judgmental of those who need medical help, and I am not. We all deal with grief the best we can, however we can.

Still, medication is a topic that needs to be addressed because many people don’t realize there is an alternative. Not an alternative to the pain, of course, because that comes with the territory of grief, but an alternative to drugs.

Learning the truth about grief — that we are not crazy; that no matter what we are feeling, it’s natural; that others have felt what we have felt; that grief, no matter how painful, is a process that will help us become a person who can survive the loss — goes a long way to weaning ourselves from a dependency on drugs.

Alice, an older woman I met in an online grief forum, took anti-depressants after the death of her husband because she thought her emotions, the physical reactions, the endless tears were abnormal, and no one told her otherwise. What she really wanted and needed was the reassurance that her grief was a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. We expect to be able to slide comfortably into old age with that one person we love more than anything, and when that person dies, excruciating pain and angst are normal reactions.

There’s no way we can learn about the normality of such grief except from people like me who are willing to talk about their experiences because the medical establishment has decided that anything but a mild grief is an abnormal condition, and the things we see in movies (and don’t see) seem to agree with that opinion. How many movies have you seen where a woman (always a woman!) is told about the death of her husband, and when she starts crying and screaming, a doctor is there to jam a hypodermic into her arm? A lot. On the other hand, the complex and painful experience of grief for a spouse is not something we see on television shows, in movies, or read about in novels. Fictional folks (when they are not being drugged into oblivion) shed a fictional tear or two, perhaps go on a fictional spree of vengeance, then continue with their fictional lives unchanged.

It seems as if this current reliance on drugs to “treat” grief is more about hiding than helping. In today’s world, grief needs to be hidden almost from the beginning so that it doesn’t offend other people’s sensibilities, so that it doesn’t bring the specter of negativity into other people’s lives. Drugs also hide your grief from yourself so you don’t have to face the raw reality of death. Drugs are good for that. They can hide your grief to a certain extent, but that’s all they can do. They cannot bring the deceased loved one back.

Some people do need medical help, of course, and they should get it. As Leesa Healy (RN, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator) wrote: “There are absolutely times when a therapist is required to nudge a person from being stuck, but the fact of the matter is that psychiatry since 2000 has become completely dependent upon what I call the drug/work model . . . i.e. create a diagnosis . . . create a drug . . . back to work for you. At least this is true in Australia and yes I’m qualified to say so (in case anyone wonders). Western psychiatry is leading us down a road of becoming the living dead and the risk is many folk are walking this journey willingly, unaware of the consequences so focused are they on the short-term fix. And who can blame them. It is not only our habit to avoid pain, but also, the very structure of any capitalist society is allowing us less and less time to be ‘truly human’.”

There were times I wanted the pain of being “truly human” gone since my grief was almost more than I could handle, but I wanted even more to feel sorrow that Jeff was dead. Well, actually what I wanted was him here, alive and healthy, but since I couldn’t have what I really wanted, I owed him my sorrow. I owed “us” my sorrow. He deserved to have someone grieve for him, to have someone feel the imbalance of the world without him in it. For me to have gone seamlessly from a shared life to a solitary life without a backward glance or a tinge of pain would have dishonored him. To not feel at all would have been way more of a medical problem than feeling too much.

Although medicine and psychology are the branches of science that have taken charge of grief and how it is described and understood, an anthropological approach — listening and observing — better captures the truth of the situation. Anthropology is the science that deals with the origins, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind, all of which pertain to grief. Few people listen to us bereaved; instead, they try to tell us how we feel. That is why support groups work. If the medical and scientific establishment won’t listen to us, we need to listen to each other, to observe how others are dealing with their grief, to talk about our own situation.

That’s the approach I took — listening, talking, writing, explaining what I learned about grief. I also walked. I was too restless to do much else (except cry) and as it turns out, walking is a good way to deal with grief, not just because of the sedative nature of walking but because it quiets the brain and lets the brain do the work of grief. When we’ve lost a person intrinsic to our lives, our brain goes into overdrive. So much of daily life is habit, and when that habit is suddenly disrupted, the brain tries desperately to identify new patterns and to find alternatives. Adding to the overdrive (and to the brain fog that is normal the first year of grief) is our need, however futile, to try to think our way out of grief. Walking helps put the brain back in its default mode — stream of consciousness. By simply feeling and not trying to make sense of grief, by letting thoughts drift through without trying to catch hold of any one of them, we can rest our brain and perhaps even open ourselves to new insights.

Not everyone is able to deal with grief in its raw state; in fact, many people are so traumatized they need extra help. As always, my mission, to the extent I have a mission, is to help people understand the nature of grief so they can deal with that cold, lonely road as best as they can — with or without medication.

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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