The Pat

I spent yesterday with a friend who was recovering from an operation. Her husband had to work and didn’t want to leave her alone, and since they’re like me, with no extended family in the area, we’ve adopted each other. So of course, because I’m family, he was able to go against his usual independent nature and ask me to stay with her. (Not a hardship, believe me. She is truly a delightful woman.)

While I was there, a friend of theirs stopped by to check on her. As our mutual friend slept, the woman and I got to talking. She mentioned that she’d lost her husband a year ago, and I commiserated with her. She seemed surprised that I understood, so I told her Jeff had died ten years ago.

Her eyes got big, and she exclaimed, “You’re the Pat! I have your book! As soon as you mentioned Jeff, I knew who you were.”

As astonishing as that encounter seemed (and yes, despite this being a small town, and despite the simple explanation that follows, it was astonishing), we quickly sorted out the coincidence.

Soon after I moved here, a new acquaintance mentioned that a friend of hers had recently lost her husband and was feeling bereft and alone. I gave the acquaintance my book Grief: The Great Yearning to give to the new widow. The widow called to thank me, and we talked for a while, but then I never heard from her again. I suppose I should have called her, but since I didn’t know her, I didn’t want to come across as a crazy stalker author, and eventually, her number disappeared from my phone.

Yesterday, we met again as old friends.

Life is truly a marvel at times. There we were, three women, now three friends, from three different countries. The United States. Thailand. Malaysia. (Before I knew where she was from, I’d asked the widow if she was from Singapore. It surprised her that I came so close geographically, but her accent was the same as a woman from Singapore I once knew. The widow acknowledged that the accents were very similar.)

Just think of all the living, all the stories, all the convoluted paths and journeys, all the intertwining fates and destinies, it took to get the three of us together in the same room.

Once, I craved adventure, but now, it seems, being “The Pat,” is itself a great adventure.

***

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.

Closure and Acceptance

In a book I read the other day, the character mentioned that he found closure after the death of his wife, which led me to believe that the writer had not himself experienced such a loss because, when it comes to death, especially the death of a spouse or child, there is no closure. There can’t be. The circle of grief never closes because the loved one is always dead. They are always missing from our earthly life, and the void they leave behind is never filled. There is no time when we can say, “Okay, that’s done. Let’s move along.”

At some point we begin to find the road to life again, but we will always miss our loved one and will never forget. As time goes by it gets easier and we learn to cope with the necessary changes, but there will not be closure.

Another word that is often bandied about when it comes to grief is “acceptance.” Finding closure implies an acceptance of what happened, and yet, there is not way to ever “accept” the death of a loved one. It’s not our death to accept but theirs.

Acceptance is supposed to be one of the stages of grief, but I’ve never actually gone through that stage (nor did I experience most of the supposed stages of grief for the simple reason that they do not adequately reflect the reality of grief for a life mate, soul mate, spouse or child). I cannot accept that he is dead for the simple reason that it’s not my place to accept it. Acceptance to me suggests that it is okay, and I will never believe that it is okay for him to be dead (even though I do understand the necessity of it).

If “acceptance” means accepting the reality of our loss and understanding that they are gone, then there can be no acceptance “stage.” The truth is that we “accept” the reality from the beginning, and therein lies the problem. If we didn’t understand that they were gone, we wouldn’t feel so bad. But we do understand they are gone. We feel the loss in our bones, our souls, our very beings. We feel it with every breath we take. We feel it in the emptiness of our hearts and our homes. We have no choice but to face the reality.

The only way “acceptance” works in the grief equation is to accept that we have no control over the situation. Accept that we will always miss them. Accept that we will always grieve to some extent. Accept that we’ll never be the same as we were. Accept, too, that grief is not a negative. Grief is an important adjunct to a profound loss, a way to process the unacceptable and unfathomable, a means of moving from being part of a couple to being alone.

As a friend wrote me, ‘Acceptance needs to be viewed as a continuum. Acceptance does not mean “one and done”.’

Many people who have undergone such a loss have a need for adventure, as I did. I never understood this need, but seen in the light of “acceptance” or “non-acceptance,” it begins to make sense. We feel the changes, know we need to go along with the flow of our new life, but we don’t want to accept the new status quo. We didn’t want this new life, didn’t choose it. Even more, it seems such a betrayal of what we once were, what we once had. And so we are unsettled.

To a great extent I have let Jeff go. Somewhere during the past years, I realized that no matter how connected we were when he was alive, we are two distinct people, each on a special journey. For a while, our paths entwined, but now our roads have swung into two different directions. No matter how much I miss him, miss the me I was when I was with him, miss our shared dreams and goals, there is no turning back. The future beckons, and I must go where it leads me.

Perhaps that’s acceptance of a sort. It might even be considered closure of a sort. All I know is that, like the so-called stages of grief, any jargon that is associated with grief falls short of the reality.

***

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.

Celebrating

Continuing my celebration! Today is the first anniversary of when I met my house; the first anniversary of moving to my new town.

All of a sudden yesterday, it struck me odd that I have turned into someone who celebrates such events, or even one who marks them. I never used to do things like that. Never kept track. I did know when my birthday was and how old I am, of course, but any other anniversaries just passed me by. To be honest, my birthday did too. Jeff and I didn’t make a big deal about birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays except by default. Since stores were closed and nothing much was happening on Christmas or Thanksgiving, for example, we’d hunker down and watch movies with plates of snacks, but other than that, one day was just like any other.

Until he died.

When we lose a significant person in our life, one whose death rocks us to the very depths of our being and changes us forever, it’s as if we are born into a world of grief, and our internal clocks reset themselves to that moment of birth.

At first, we count the minutes and hours we’ve lived, then, after we’ve survived twenty-four or forty-eight interminable and interminably painful hours, we being counting the days. Eventually we move on to counting weeks, months, years, and even decades. To the uninitiated, this counting seems as if we’re dwelling on the past, constantly reminding ourselves of our sorrow, but the truth is, counting is a way of helping us survive this new, alien world.

Grief distorts time. Sometimes it feels as if time stops, but simultaneously it feels as if it speeds up. Seconds seem like hours. Hours can feel like days or can pass by in seconds. We lose track of what the date is. The past and future becomes so entwined that we can’t always be sure if we’re going forward or backward. A particularly strong flashback to the days before our loved one died can make it seem as they are still alive, in another room perhaps. An especially serene moment between grief upsurges can catapult us to a future world of possibility, a world without pain. Counting the days helps put time back into perspective.

Now, I am in the habit of counting, of keeping track, of living. Every anniversary is another year lived. Every year — every day — lived is another day that counts.

Although Jeff’s death devastated me, I was simultaneously aware that it set me free from a lifetime of taking care of someone who could no longer take care of himself. Although it was unwanted and unintended, this gift of freedom, I could not, cannot bring myself to waste it.

So I count the years and celebrate my life’s milestones.

And today I am celebrating friendship and neighbors and new beginnings.

***

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 Winds of Eternity

In one month, it will be the tenth anniversary of Jeff’s death. I can’t even begin to comprehend what that means — is it a lot of time? A little time? It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been so many years since I last saw him, though looking back over the decade since he died, it’s obvious that a lot of time has passed. I’ve felt much, lived much, changed much.

My grief has changed over the years, too, from unimaginable pain to nostalgia, from angst to acceptance (not acceptance of his death — never that! — but acceptance of the reality of my situation). Grief now is the scaffolding of my life, forming the framework of who I am rather than being all that I am. (In the beginning, grief took hold, and it felt as if there was nothing else, would never be anything else. Grief is still there, deep inside, but is now only a piece of who I am, not all of it.)

The biggest change I notice is that the screech of death and the winds of eternity have receded once more into the background, and my life seems much quieter. When Jeff died, it felt as if part of me had died with him. A whole chunk had been amputated and I have never gained it back. For years, I felt as if I were standing at the edge of eternity the abyss yawning at my feet, the storms of time raging around me, one hand held out to try to grasp something, anything, to balance me and keep me from being pulled into the void where that amputated part had gone. I could feel the breath of the eternal, the awesomeness of life and death. I could feel—or almost feel—the driving force of the universe.

That seems fanciful, and I suppose it is, but it’s also how I felt. Looking back, grief seems so . . . noisy. Sobs and gasps and even screams came from my mouth, and loud questions and clamorous confusion filled my head. Death is shrouded with an element of blank. It is the great unknown and unknowable, and our human brains are not equipped to handle the immensity. And yet, when we lose someone important to us, the very fact of death is thrust into our lives, forcing us to deal with it the best we can.

How do we bear the unbearable? How do we fathom the unfathomable? We don’t, not really. We grapple with the conundrums and wait until eternity recedes and our brains settle into new patterns of thought.

I used to miss the feeling of significance grief gave me, with its great emotion, crucial questions, and the nearness of eternity, but now I am merely grateful for the internal quiet.

***

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

Reflections of the Past

After Jeff died, I was sorry that I didn’t have a current photo of him. The one I do have had been taken ten years before, and it didn’t even look like him. Or at least not the “him” he was at the end. (It was a perfect image back when the photo was taken.) I refused to look at the photo, afraid I’d only remember him as the man in the photo, not the real person, but as the years went by, I realized that neither image — the one I had nor the one I didn’t have — told a greater truth. He was both. And neither.

Although we always feel like us, that “us” changes over the years. We adapt to how we feel, and it’s only later we get a glimpse of the changes we have gone through, whether physical or mental, spiritual or emotional. The person we are at the end isn’t more real than the person we were at the beginning. Each is a facet of the whole shimmering being we are.

Some people theorize that since time is mainly a construct of our minds, each of those people we were all exist at the same time, and it’s our brains that divide time into past and present.

Others theorize that time is a matter of distance. The earth hurtles around the sun at 67,000 mph. The sun hurtles around the galaxy at 140 miles per second. The entire universe is also moving and expanding, so today we are a very long way from where we were 9 years 11 months and 18 days ago when Jeff died.

But whatever the truth of time, for the purposes of our life on earth, the past, whether near or far, is always the same distance from us. We can no more touch yesterday than we can touch a hundred years ago or a thousand. It’s all just out of reach. Gone. Past.

So does it matter that Jeff’s been gone one year or ten? It matters to me of course, since it’s been ten years since I’ve seen him, but he was just as gone the moment he died as he is today. So any photo of him, no matter what age he was, is an adequate image.

Although he and I weren’t picture takers, never liked having pictures of us (or anyone) hanging around, I am grateful for that photo on my bedside table. He might be gone, far out of reach, but I take comfort in having this reflection of the past.

***

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

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.