Continuing My Lonely March Into the Future

An older article Resuming My Lonely March Into the Future was inexplicably posted to Facebook yesterday as a new blog post. People have been responding with care and support, and at first I felt guilty that I was gathering sympathy for something that was long past, but when I re-read that five-year-old post, I realized that most of it reflected current feelings. I was particularly sad this Christmas season, more than I have been for a long time. I did shed a few tears, though to be honest they came more from self-pity than raw grief. I simply could not bear another minute of trying to move on with my life. The void of his absence is still there, though of course nowhere near as strong as it was five years ago, and I am tired of his being dead. It remains true that sometimes the hardest thing we have to do is keep marching into the future, especially when the person who connected us to the world lives in our past

More than that, though, the past year was a hard one. I often felt unwell (nothing serious, colds and allergies and the lethargy that results from them). I stopped going to dance class for a while because it was no longer a haven. I delved back into the depths of my sorrow so I could write an honest book about grief. (Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One) Despite all my efforts to fulfill my dreams, this year I finally had to let go of my two-decade-old dream of finding a major publisher, my three-decade-old dream of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, my forever dream of getting youthfully fit, and oh, so many things. I also had to deal with my older brother’s recent death, which has shaken up my life and made me realize I need to start finding ways to prepare for taking care of myself when I get old. (Like finding a place to settle down, perhaps.)

But, as I did five years ago, I let myself wallow in sadness and indolence, and now I’m steadfastly (and optimistically) resuming my solitary march into the future.

Wishing us all a year filled with wonderful new dreams and good surprises.

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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.

Preparing for a Life Mate’s Death

People often ask me how they can prepare themselves to cope with the eventual death of their spouse, but there is no way to ever prepare yourself for such an eventuality. You cannot imagine how you will feel when they die — it truly is unimaginable — so the best thing you can do is spend time with them now, enjoy what you have together, and let the end take care of itself. If you prepare now for what you imagine you will feel then, you will miss the very things that will get you through the pain and loneliness — creating memories, knowing you did the best for your loved one that you could, having no regrets as to your actions.

The truth is, grief at the loss of a spouse is so great and so all-consuming, that it changes you into the person who will be able to live without your mate. Not at first, of course. There is no way to prepare for the pain you will feel. But as time goes on, you will become the person you need to be and you will learn to embrace life again. Even the loneliness will become bearable.

It is not our choice who lives and who dies, but we can choose to live despite their death. I have met many widows and widowers since I lost my life mate, and every one of them eventually found a way not only to survive, but to thrive.

While dealing with the horrendous loss of their mates, while still grieving well into their second and third year, women have traveled the world alone to honor their husband’s dream. By themselves, they have closed up the house they lived in for twenty years and moved halfway across the country. They have put in irrigation systems, have finished building a house, have written books, have taken up painting, have gone back to school, have started businesses, have blogged about their grief. They have made new friends. They have worked to support themselves and their families, and to pay the medical bills their husbands left behind. They have welcomed grown children back into their homes, helped take care of newborns and elderly parents. All while dealing with active grief.

Just as you cannot imagine how you will feel, you cannot imagine who you will become. So, try not to imagine the unimaginable. Celebrate what you still have, and if the day comes when you are left alone, you will be able to do whatever you need to do.

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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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 9

I recently read that Nietzsche said people tended to exaggerate their traumas. I don’t know whether Nietzsche actually said it since I couldn’t find such a quote from him, but I do think the sentiment is true, at least to a certain extent.

It’s this tendency to exaggerate our traumas that leads others to downplay the role that grief plays in our lives. If we tell the truth, they assume exaggeration, and so they shrug off as hyperbole what is very real to us. Since most people have experienced some sort of grief in their lives, they assume they know what grief is. If we try to explain what we are feeling when we lose someone intrinsic to our lives, someone to whom we are profoundly connected, it doesn’t match with what they feel, so they think we are over dramatizing ourselves.

It’s not surprising people can’t imagine what we feel. Most of us who lost our mates couldn’t believe what was happening to us — couldn’t even imagine it though we were living it. Because of this all-consuming feeling, there is no way we could ever have imagined grief exaggerated beyond what we experienced.

The truth is, there is no way to exaggerate profound grief. Profound grief is exaggeration — an immense magnification of emotion. An amplification of loss. An excess of pain. A trauma that affects every part of us and our lives. A process that changes us and our relation to ourselves and all that surrounds us.

This blog post itself seems an exaggeration, especially in the bright sun of this day so many years after Jeff died, and yet, I know the truth.

My message is as it always is — if you are experiencing what seems to be an insane level of grief, it is normal. Horrendously painful, but normal. Know that one day, you will find peace.

If you haven’t experienced such grief, be kind to those who are dealing with a profound loss. If you think someone is exaggerating grief years after the death of a child or soul mate, give them the benefit of their own truth. Don’t dismiss their feelings or downplay their grief as self-dramatization. I’m sure they wish that’s all it was — a bit of melodrama — but be assured they still feel the loss in every cell of their being.

Wishing you all a peaceful — and kinder — day.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 8

Marrying again after the loss of a life mate can be a tricky business because a new love does not negate previous loves. Nor does a new love negate grief.

I’ve met people who started dating quickly after the death of their spouse because they couldn’t stand the pain and loneliness of their grief any longer. To their shock, and to the shock of their new mate, grief did not abate. In at least one case, the new spouse felt betrayed by his wife’s continued grief, thinking his love should have made a difference to her grief, and she felt isolated — and unloved — because he didn’t have compassion for her bouts of sorrow.

Whether we remarry, embark on a long-term relationship without remarrying, or never find anyone else to love, the emotional attachment for the first partner remains a part of us. Despite continued grief for one partner, both men and women are able to form new attachments that can be just as strong as the previous one. The key is to understand the nature of grief and love and to let grief continue to happen, which is why the strongest remarriages are often between widows and widowers.

This concept — that remarrying does not negate grief — is important for both grievers and their friends and family to understand. Sometimes friends and family us urge us to “move on” (meaning to find someone else), and as well-meaning as this might be, it ignores the intrinsic nature of grief — that grief is how we move on after the death of our beloved mate. A new love will not change that. Occasionally, friends or family will feel conned if a widow or widower “moves on” too quickly, thinking that perhaps the grief was a sham or that the griever hadn’t really loved their first partner.

Many of us never find anyone else to love. This doesn’t mean we are holding on to our grief, are not “moving on,” or are refusing to accept a new love. We can’t control what happens to us, and love doesn’t always happen again. We do the best we can with what life (and death) deals us and all we can do is hope that our loved ones will support us even if they can’t understand what we are feeling.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.