Preparing for the Death of a Spouse

When people ask me how they can prepare for the death of their sick spouse, I can only shrug helplessly because there is no way to prepare emotionally for all the painful and chaotic feelings that grief will throw at you.

I thought I was prepared for Jeff’s death, so after he died, I truly was stunned by the depth and breadth of my feelings. During the last year of his life, and especially the last six months, he’d begun withdrawing from the world and from me. This withdrawal, this lessening of a need to be with others is a natural part of dying, and my response to his withdrawal was just as natural — an increased determination to live. He might have been dying but I wasn’t, and I had to untangle our lives, find a way to survive his dying and his death. I thought I had successfully completed this task, but his death rocked me to the core of my being.

As I discovered, there is a world of difference between presence and absence, and an eternity of difference between dying and dead. Because of this difference, you simply cannot know, cannot prepare for how you will feel.

There is one thing, though, that you can do to prepare, and that is to make sure you are familiar with all the little chores that come with modern-day living.

Even if we don’t have a traditional split in chores, such as the woman doing the cooking and cleaning, the man doing the outside chores, we do tend to gravitate to certain chores and over the years, they become habit. So still, in a time of — perhaps — more equality around the house, the person left behind is also left learning how to do things that are generally simple to learn. When you are grieving, however, when you are caught in the never-ending spiral of pain and stress, helplessness and hopelessness, befuddlement and utter bewilderment, learning such tasks becomes almost impossible.

One woman I know was frantic when it came time to take her car in for an emissions test. Because it was something her husband had always done, she had no idea what to do. Another woman had no idea how to balance her checkbook, had never even been to their bank. One man didn’t know how to make coffee or even how to cook simple meals. In another case, it was the woman who had done minor chores around the house, and the poor husband was ashamed to admit he didn’t even know how to change a lightbulb or tighten a doorknob.

Those of us who knew how to do these things found it almost impossible to garner the energy to do them, so I can only imagine how these people were nearly done-in when confronted with such tasks.

Preparing ahead of time is not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes it is the dying person who wants to teach the person being left behind how to do all these small things, and the soon-to-be survivor resents not just the lessons, but the very idea that their mate is leaving them.

Sometimes, the one dying is resentful. They already feel helpless and the survivor, by taking an interest in “their” chores, seems to be pushing them further into helplessness.

None of this is easy. We humans are odd creatures — so very fragile, and yet at the same time, so very tenacious. It’s hard to die. It’s hard to survive. And yet each of us manages to do what we need to do, prepared or not.

***

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

Grocery Stores and Grief

Grocery stores seem such prosaic places, with isles full of treats and temptations, and music that is supposed to put shoppers in the glad mood of buying.

And yet, for those grieving the loss of a life mate, grocery stores can be a source of incredible pain. It took one woman from my grief group more than a year before she could return to the store where she and her husband always shopped. For another woman, the grocery store was a reminder of how carefully she had to shop for her diabetic husband, and it took her months before she could shop without weeping.

Whatever our situation, grocery stores are a part of our lives. When there is an upcoming celebration, even if only movie night at home or a game day on television, we go to the grocery store for treats. When we have company coming, we go to the grocery store to stock up on special ingredients. When holidays come around, we go to the grocery store for all the family favorites. When it’s hot, we go to the grocery store for meals that are simple to fix. When it’s cold, we go to the grocery store for hot chocolate and soup and other warming foods.

When it isn’t a special occasion? We still frequently go to the grocery store to stock up on food and other necessities. Often a couple shops together. Even if a person goes alone, their mate is there too, if only in spirit, as the shopper choose foods their mate likes or might like.

Although they seem an almost constant presence in our lives, grocery store shopping trips are so common and matter-of-fact that we never of think of them in any context but what to eat.

But when your mate dies, suddenly a grocery store becomes a minefield. You automatically start putting his or her favorite foods in the basket, only to dissolve into tears when you see what you have done and realize . . . again . . . that he or she is gone.

I’d become used to going to the grocery store by myself during Jeff’s final weeks, and I’d become used to fighting off tears. We’d always shopped together, so during those weeks, the clerks, of course, inquired about him, and all I could do was shake my head and try not to cry as I said he wasn’t doing well. And when he was gone, the tears were my only response. It took me many months before I could actually say, “Jeff died”. Or “Jeff is dead.” The words simply would not form.

After a couple of months, I went to a different state to take care of my father. The grocery stores there were different enough that they had no emotional connotations for me. Then the grocery store I most shopped at for my dad went out of business, and I had to go to stores further away for the products he liked. I ended up in a store that strongly reminded me the one where Jeff and I shopped, so I left in tears.

I had to go the that store occasionally, so I got used to it and didn’t think much of it until about three years after Jeff died when I decided to buy a particular salad dressing I used to like that was only sold at that store. After I picked up the salad dressing bottle, I looked for some other flavors in that same store brand, wondering if I should try something new, and I saw a dressing Jeff liked. I automatically reached to get it for him, and when I realized what I was doing, suddenly, right there, in the salad dressing aisle, I started to weep.

Grocery store melt-downs are common among the bereaved, and yet very little is said about it. But then, very little is said about any of the everyday horrors that beset those who’ve suffered a loss.

Which, of course, is why I write about such prosaic things as shopping at a grocery store.

***

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.

Shame

In response to a blog I wrote the other day, Validating Grief, a reader left the following comment:

Last night at my grief group, three people apologized for being tearful or crying as they spoke! They seemed ashamed…actually saying “I should be composed”! How can we expect society to validate our grief, our shadow world, when we don’t! I think that is the reason your voice has been so important to me…you validate yourself which gives permission and example for others in the same to position to do so. Then and maybe only then will the “others” come along.

This comment really made me think. Although I have talked around the issue during the past ten years, I have never actually used the word “ashamed,” and yet it’s true. Our current society, which so shamelessly promotes mores that many people find appalling, still manages to find one group to shame: those who are mourning.

I was never ashamed of my grief, though I did at times feel as if I weren’t handling it well because of all the tears. I cried around others at the beginning because I could not talk about Jeff’s death without sobbing; my grief came from somewhere so deep inside that I had no conscious control over my tears. Later I did my grieving in private. Only I (and my blog readers) knew what I was going through. And even then, as I continued writing about grief, I sometimes felt apologetic as if I were trying to garner sympathy rather than simply telling my truth.

In our present culture, tears are a sign of weakness. Through thousands of movies and books, we are taught to be stoic, to hold back our tears, to be cool. Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven was the epitome of western cool, gliding across the film’s landscape without a single show of emotion. Think how different our experience of grief would be if men such as these had wept.

Even more than that, 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. Fictional folks shed a fictional tear or two, perhaps go on a fictional spree of vengeance, then continue with their fictional lives unchanged.

In real life, this doesn’t happen, and so we are ashamed of our weakness.

For men, this is an especially fraught situation. Where women’s outward shows of grief are often greeted with sympathy, men’s grief is treated with disdain. From a young age, boys are taught that only girls cry, that to be a man, you must be stoic. And so, for men, an additional layer of complication is unnecessarily added to an already complicated situation.

Another reader commented on that same blog post about validating grief:

Agreed that the embarrassment and shame about expressions of grief is important and significant enough for its own essay. I’d add that for us guys, it’s got a different dimension or layer to work through.

Anger is just about the only acceptable form of male grief, and so all those chaotic feelings that so many of us, male and female, feel after the loss of a mate — anxiety, frustration, loneliness, confusion, despair, helplessness, panic, resentment, bitterness, isolation, numbness, emptiness, futility, yearning, envy of those who are still coupled — have no place to go in a man except to be buried in anger and embarrassment and shame.

Current theories about grief that are supposed to replace the outdated five stages of grief model, are just as damaging to the griever, because proponents of these theories say that getting past the loss and returning to our normal selves is a matter of resiliency. Normal selves? There is no more normal! Resiliency? People who are grieving are utterly resilient; how else would we survive?

Because of all this conditioning, if our grief doesn’t fit into any of the established ideas about dealing with loss, we are ashamed. If everyone else can get by without tears, why can’t we? If everyone else can get over their loss, why are we still in such pain?

Despite what people might believe, weeping and wailing are appropriate ways of relieving the incredible stress, pain, and angst of losing a longtime mate for both men and women. Such releases are necessary because otherwise the pain stays inside to cause emotional and physical damage, gets relieved by pharmaceuticals, or leads to inappropriate behavior such as illicit drugs or dangerous anger.

Grief is not just a matter of emotions. It is, in many cases, a physiological response to stress, and especially to the loss of our survival unit. Humans are pack animals, and our very survival depends on our pack, and when we lose the other half of our survival unit, it sets off a cacophony of alarms in our bodies that create havoc with our systems. And yet, somehow, instead of being taught to accept physical changes as a normal part of grief, we are taught to be ashamed of these body processes, as if we were defecating in public. (But oh, wait, I just remembered — in many cities, relieving oneself in public is now accepted without shame and is no longer a punishable offense, but cry in public? Oh, no! That is shameful.)

As time goes on, we are supposed to “get over” our grief, and miraculously, the pain does diminish, but there is no way to get over the loss — every single day, we wake up to a world without our loved one. One year, five years, ten years — what are years to a broken heart? For people who are still married, every day of those ten years, they woke up to their spouses. They take comfort in being married, and yet we are supposed to . . . what? Take comfort in our lonely beds? One year, five years, ten years — doesn’t matter. They are still gone.

We did nothing wrong but try to do the best we could in an untenable situation. So why are we supposed to be ashamed?

The truth is, there is nothing to be ashamed of while grieving. It takes courage and strength to grieve and aren’t those traits the epitome of manliness (and womanliness)?

It’s those “others,” the people who urge us to “get back to normal,” who should be ashamed — of their ignorance, if nothing else.

***

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.

Validating Grief

People often ask me what they can say to comfort someone who is grieving the loss of a spouse, and I have to admit that there is nothing they can say to bring comfort. There are no words, no reminder that the deceased is no longer suffering, no platitudes or original thoughts that can make one whit of difference when a person’s world has just imploded.

Even worse than trying to find the right words is to ask questions. Brain fog — the grief-induced amnesia, dazedness, and inability to think that shroud us after the death of a life mate — seems unreal, but it is a very real condition. This fogginess is common when a person is undergoing severe trauma, and make no mistake, such a profound loss, such an abrupt change in one’s circumstances is traumatic. So questions simply do not compute. “How are you today?” “Is there anything I can help you with?” “What are you going to do?”

Anything, anything at all that demands a response causes the brain to shut down. It is already overloaded with trying to deal with the loss, the unfathomableness of death, the disappearance of habits one shared with the deceased. It’s like having to learn to walk and talk and breathe all over again. What once came naturally, no longer does. Even a question as simple as “how are you” is a problem for the bereaved. And anyway, why are you asking that question? You already know how the person is. They are in pain, feeling lost and bewildered, and have no words to describe what they are feeling.

This leaves the person who wants to do something to show they care at loss, because you do have to say something. Just staring at the bereaved person (as so many do) makes them feel as if they are an exhibit in a freak show.

So, keep your words simple. Say “I’m sorry.” Although most people think “I’m sorry” connotes an apology, the first definition of “sorry” is: “feeling distress, especially through sympathy with someone else’s misfortune.” Which is exactly what we want to say to someone who is hurting.

If you are close, a hug is a good. If you knew the deceased, speak of them, relate a special memory. If you want to do something for the griever, don’t ask, tell. Offer to get groceries. Heed what they say, and if they mention something that overwhelms them (in my case it was cleaning the house) then say you will do it.

Mostly, listen. Listen to what they say and what they refrain from saying. Be there. Validate their pain.

In the end, what most people who have suffered a traumatic loss want from other people is validation. Respect for their grief. An acknowledgement that what they are going through is extraordinarily traumatic and painful.

Too often onlookers try to minimize the pain of grievers, which allows the onlooker to deny the validity not just of the loss but of death itself. “You weren’t married, so you can’t possibly feel bad over the loss of your mate.” “You divorced your first husband in order to remarry, so you got what you deserve.” “She was drinking and driving, so she doesn’t deserve to be mourned.” Or, as one particularly obtuse acquaintance said to me, “How did Jeff allow himself to get so sick?” As if it was his fault that he died, and so was not worthy of being mourned.

Even less boorish people inadvertently try to minimize the pain of grievers. “At least he’s in a better place.” “At least you still have your children.” “At least you have your health.” Of all the minimizing, non-validating phrases you can say, “at least” is the absolute worst, so please, never, ever say “at least” in any reference to their loss. They are living the absolute worst that can happen. There is no more “at least.”

Sometimes people compare their loss to the griever’s. As someone said to me, “I know how you are feeling. My dog just died.” I am not going to get into a discussion here about how some people think grief is grief no matter the loss. Just believe me when I say that by comparing the loss of your pet to the loss of a spouse and all the collateral losses that come with such a death, like the loss of income, the loss of a best friend, the loss of a home, the loss of one’s very identity, will not endear you to the griever.

The only time mentioning your own loss is if it is in the same magnitude. After Jeff died, I found comfort in people telling me that they still have grief upsurges even years after the death of their husband. And though I could not understand their pain, I was grateful for the people who told me about the loss of a child. These stories helped me realize that some people did understand, and that I would survive.

The upshot here is, don’t worry so much about what you can say to comfort your grieving relative or friend. Be aware of what they are feeling, not what you are feeling. Let them know that you know what a catastrophe the loss is for them. Respect their pain and sorrow. As difficult as facing their pain might be for you, realize that it is a thousand times worse for them. You go home to your own life, to your spouse (perhaps). And they go home only to more pain.

***

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.

Shadow World

There is a shadow world that most people don’t know about. It’s a world of pain and confusion, of courage and change.

It’s the world of widow and widowers.

Jeff’s death, of course, thrust me into that world, but more than that, it’s been my writing about grief and loss and hope that have made me a citizen. From the beginning of this “journey,” as people so quaintly call the horror of loss and the resulting grief, I’ve written about my experiences, and others have responded.

I remember them all.

The woman halfway around the world who encouraged me in my grief even as those closer to me urged me to move on.

The woman who told me that even though her first husband died ten years ago and she’s happily remarried, she still has upsurges of grief, such as when their daughter graduated from high school and he wasn’t there to see it. I couldn’t fathom ten years down the road, and yet here I am, a mere seven weeks from my own tenth anniversary.

The woman who asked her widowed mum about grief and what I might be feeling, and passed on her words of wisdom, “Their absence comes to mean the same thing their presence once did.”

The woman whose husband died on the same day Jeff did. The woman whose husband died exactly one month before. The women whose husbands died one month, two months, three months later.

The women who have lost their husbands more recently.

The men who were (are) every bit as heartbroken and confused as the women, though seemed more reticent to tell their stories.

The men who have to hide their grief because society still does not always accept that their way of life could be a way of love.

The man who was instrumental in getting me to write a book from the perspective of years after the loss — Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved Onehoping we could make the world (and the so-called experts who had never experienced such a profound loss) more accepting and understanding of grief, and only managed to make ourselves more accepting and understanding of our own grief.

Everyone has a story, and I remember them all because they are my story. I used to remember the dates, too, but hundreds of death dates are too much to carry. But I remember the grievers. I remember their stories.

People all over the world have read my grief posts or one of my grief books. No matter our language, no matter our heritage, we all shared the same pain. We all are all part of that shadow world of widows and widowers.

To us, of course, it isn’t a shadow world. It is our world. But the world at large doesn’t know it exists. Doesn’t know we exist as other than the pleasant person who stands in front of them in a grocery store line, the kind person who volunteers their time at church, the gracious person who listens without comment while they talk about their problems with their still-living husband.

The shadow world exists. We all have a story, of course, whether we suffered a heinous loss or not, but the statistics show the truth: the absolutely most stressful life event one can experience (the most stressful by a huge margin) is the loss of a child or a spouse. Divorce comes a distant second. What makes these losses so stressful is that we don’t survive them. Not only have we lost the one person who makes our life worth living, but we lose ourselves. Often, we lose our homes — sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily — and we end up miles from where we once lived our own version of the fairy tale that turned out to be not so happily ever after.

We become the person who can survive such a loss. We create new ways of living. We survive. Most of us even —eventually — thrive. But through it all echoes the pain, the loss, the death that brought us to this new place.

And no one but us knows this. Most people who haven’t glimpsed this shadow world don’t want to know it exists. They want to believe we are exactly as we seem — happy and kind, peaceful and hopeful — without the undercurrents of grief that sometimes rise up and overwhelm us. They want to believe — need to believe — it can’t happen to them, and if it does, it won’t be that terrible after all. And so the most important part of us becomes a shadow, hidden sometimes even from ourselves.

But I see your shadow, all of you I have connected with this past decade. I hear your pain. I remember your story. I remember you.

I remember.

***

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

Our bodies remember trauma even if we don’t consciously remember, and for those of us grieving the loss of an intrinsic person in our lives, body memory accentuates the strong emotional impact of anniversaries.

Body memory is often associated with extreme stress. 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.

People often tell us to try to put our deceased loved ones out of our minds. They have the erroneous idea that if we don’t think of our mates, then we won’t grieve.

At first, it’s impossible not to think of our loved ones all the time. Perhaps we feel as if by holding them in our minds, we can stave off their death, even though it’s already happened. Or maybe we want to continue to feel connected. Or it could be that the enormity of death is so overwhelming, we can’t think of anything else.

But eventually, we do learn not to hold as tightly to these thoughts, and sometimes we even forget to think of our loved ones. But our bodies still keep the faith.

I’ve been feeling downhearted lately, more than simply the dreary skies would account for. There is an echo of tears to the melancholy, which made me stop and wonder why now. The tenth anniversary of Jeff’s death isn’t for another few weeks. But ah, I remembered — this is the month where the end started. He bent down to pick something up, felt a terrible pain, and never had a pain-free moment again.

He resisted going to the doctor for as long as he could because he knew it would be the end of him as he knew himself to be. But finally, in the last week of February when he simply could not stand the excruciating pain any longer, he went to the doctor.

And he was right. He never was the same after that. Luckily, we only had six weeks to deal with the horror. (Even though the doctor had said he had six months.) I say “we” because those weeks were hell for both of us, but for different reasons.

Except for this melancholy (and my missing him, of course), there is no real angst, at least not today. He has, after all, been gone long enough for me to get used to the void he left behind. Instead, it seems as if I am keeping vigil as I did that February so many years ago.

The truth is, though, I wouldn’t mind an upsurge of grief. It’s good at times to feel the loss, to know in my bones we had shared our lives, to know that I once loved and once was loved. To remember that I was so connected to another human being, that when he died, it felt as if part of me was amputated.

I’ve been sitting here for the past few minutes trying to find an end to this article, but there is no end. He might be gone from this earth, but he will always be a part of me, a part of my life, if only in memory.

***

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.

Every Moment is a Once in a Lifetime Event

When I was at the library a little while ago, stocking up on my reading for the next couple of days, the librarian asked me how I was doing. I told her I was doing great, and it was the truth.

At that moment, I did feel great. And why not? I was at a library, warm and comfortable, rosy from my walk, talking to a very nice woman, filling my carryall with books I want to read. Nothing else existed. Not any pain bleeding over from the past, no thinking or worrying about the future (except for thoughts of cozying up to read later in the day).

I had that same feeling last evening. I was reading a book about a sixty-something cop who was in his final year of work, and no matter what happened, he felt that each moment was golden knowing that the work he loved was coming to an end. I stopped to think about the golden moment I was living through and realized again, as I have done so many times before, that no matter what, each moment of our lives are golden.

Some of those moments are breathtaking, such as watching the setting sun paint the skies gold with a never-again to be seen piece of art.

Some of those moments seem dimmed by the pain of loss or the ache of age, but still, they are special in their own way — once in a lifetime events that will never be repeated in exactly the same way.

Admittedly, when things are difficult or we are in the middle of the seemingly unending angst of grief, it’s almost impossible to see the gold in the moment, but those traumas teach us to live in the moment and not look too far ahead. No matter how agonizing, you can live through the moment.

So later, much later, when joy or peace or wonder unexpected steals over you, you can take the discipline you learned from grief and live in the moment. Experience it as if it were a once in a lifetime event.

Because it is.

Wishing you the joy of your moments.

***

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: Not One and Done

When I was writing my second grief book, Terry, a blog reader who’d lost her husband (her best friend) and who helped proof the book, did not like my working title and suggested “Not One and Done.” At the time, I had never heard of the saying “one and done” (never even knew where it came from until just now when I Googled it), so I thanked her for the suggestion and acknowledged that she was correct about my original title not being good enough. I eventually decided on Grief: The Inside Story — A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One since it was self-explanatory.

Now, however, I do understand what she meant by her title suggestion. Too often, people have the idea that we go through stages of grief — a simple, straightforward slog toward the first anniversary, and then it’s done, the slate washed clean, and we are ready to start to live as if we’d never been married, never had a soul mate, never had a child, never loved someone who was more important to us than ourselves.

The truth is much murkier than one and done. There are no stages of grief, just a chaotic mess of emotions, physical reactions, and spiritual torments that visit us over and over again in a seemingly unending spiral. The spiral eventually widens enough so that we can see the end to the pain, and sometimes widens so much that we are barely aware of our loss, but the spiral is always there, ready to snap back into place. Even years after we reached the point where we feel we have a handle on our grief, it can come back at us as if our loss had just occurred.

Someone recently asked me if there was something wrong with him. His wife had died years ago, and he was happily remarried, but he went through a bad time at what would have been the twenty-fifth anniversary of his first marriage.

Someone else asked me what was wrong with her because she still couldn’t deal with the loss of her best friend, even though the friend had died in May.

It saddens me that people need to ask such questions. It saddens me that our present grief culture is so out of sync with reality it makes grievers think their feelings aren’t valid.

Grief is normal. Life-long grief is normal. Grief upsurges decades after the death are normal. Still dealing with grief a mere eight months after a significant loss is not only normal but to be expected. Oftentimes the second year after the loss of a spouse or a child is worse than the first because both the shock and the widow/widower’s fog have dissipated, and the truth — that you have to live without them for the rest of your life — slams home with a vengeance. This is normal. It’s all normal.

What isn’t normal is that the experts categorize our grief as to what is normal and is abnormal. Sometimes I just want to tell the experts they should hang their collective heads in shame for filling the heads of bereaved people with their ludicrous nonsense.

Even better, I wish my book Grief: The Inside Story — A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One was required reading for anyone, especially professionals and so-called experts, who deal with people who are grieving. Grievers have enough angst without having to worry about whether or not they are normal.

Admittedly, we who have lost significant people in our lives do learn to deal with their absence. Most of us eventually find a way to live that accommodates our loss. Many of us thrive. Many of us find happiness. Many of us find new loves. But always, somewhere deep in the recesses of our souls, we are aware of our loss.

Grief is not one and done. Grief is forever undone.

***

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.

UNFINISHED

Amanda Ray thought she’d grow old with her pastor husband David, but death had other plans. During David’s long illness and his withdrawal from her, Amanda found solace in the virtual arms of Sam Priestly, a college professor she met at an online support group for cancer patient caregivers. Amanda thought that when their spouses were gone, she and Sam would find comfort in each other’s arms for real, but though David succumbed to the cancer that riddled his body, Sam’s wife, Vivian, survives. Vivian had been in the process of divorcing Sam when she fell ill, and after the diagnosis, Sam agreed to stay with her until the end. Since Sam plans to continue honoring his vow, Amanda feels doubly bereft, as if she is mourning two men.

Rocked by grief she could never have imagined, confused by her love for Sam and his desire for her to move near him, at odds with her only daughter, Amanda struggles to find a new focus for her suddenly unfinished life. As if that weren’t enough to contend with, while clearing out the parsonage for the next residents, Amanda discovers a gun among her devout husband’s belongings. Later, while following his wishes to burn his effects, she finds a photo of an unknown girl that resembles their daughter.

Having dedicated her life to David and his vocation, this evidence that her husband kept secrets from her devastates Amanda. If she doesn’t know who he was, how can she know who she is? Accompanied by grief and endless tears, Amanda sets out to discover answers to the many mysteries of her life: the truth of her husband, the enigmatic powers of love and loss, and the necessity of living in the face of death.

Although the feelings of grief Amanda experiences are based on my emotional journey during my first two months of profound grief, the story itself is fiction. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to deal with not only the loss of one’s mate, but the loss of the idea one had of one’s mate. Well . . . yes, I guess I can imagine how it would feel, because I wrote the novel! I hope you will read UNFINISHED. It’s an important book because too few fiction writers portray the truth of new grief, and that lack leaves the newly bereft feeling isolated and as if they are the only ones dealing with grief’s craziness.

You can you can purchase both a print version and Kindle version of UNFINISHED (published by Stairway Press) on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/1941071651/

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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.

Facing the Unfaceable

We who have lost our spouses, life mates, soul mates often have to show empathy and understanding to others rather than receiving it from them. We are the ones hurting, so why do we need to be understanding of their feelings? Because it is far easier for us to remember what it felt like to be in their situation, than it is for them to imagine what it must be like in ours.

Shortly after Jeff died, I had to let a man know of the death, though I don’t remember how I conveyed the information. It took months before I could actually say the words, “Jeff is dead.” But I do remember his response. “I know what you’re going through,” he said. “My dog just passed away.”

I stared at him, unable to process those words. To this day, his remark appalls me, though I have come to understand he was reaching out the only way he knew how.

Death is shrouded with an element of blank. It is the great unknown and unknowable, and our brains are not equipped to handle the immensity. While we are in the grip of our grief, the survival mechanisms of those around us are triggered. To avoid facing the unfaceable, people close to us will indulge in self-protective behaviors that shut us out.

Sometimes long-time 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 really is.

This drawing away is often an unconscious reflex — they know we are hurting, know they feel helpless in the presence of our pain, but they don’t really know they are acting any different and certainly they don’t know why.

The jargon of grief is that of illness, of negativity, of . . . fault, as if somehow we who are grieving chose our state and now we have to overcome, heal, recover, move on, get over, return to normal. By blaming us for grieving too long, by refusing to admit that our grief is normal, onlookers to our grief can more comfortably return to their job of surviving, and leave us alone with our sorrow.

Even those who are kind to us bereft, even those who continue to be supportive, lose the urgency they had at the beginning. They cannot sustain that same level of support because grief takes way too long, and they need to focus on their own lives.

Despite these protective behaviors and the almost bumbling way people treat the bereaved, and despite my occasional acrid comment about the insensitive things people say to grievers, people do care, and they do want to say the right thing. In the last couple of days, more than 3,300 people landed on my blog post What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas? after Googling such things as “how to say Merry Christmas to someone who is grieving.” “how to wish someone a Merry Christmas after a loss,” “Christmas greeting for grieving person,” “how to wish Merry Christmas to someone who is grieving.” In fact, since I posted that particular blog in 2011, more than 80,000 people have viewed the article.

Many thousands more have viewed What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving.

The true villain here is death. While the very idea of death drives non-grievers away, it draws us grievers in, forces us to face the unfaceable, makes us an accomplice. And yes, even allows us to show empathy to those who don’t understand but who try to show sympathy the only way they can.

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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.