I am a Ten-Year Grief Survivor

Today is the tenth anniversary of the day Jeff, my life mate/soul mate, died and to be honest, I don’t really know what to think of it. It seems such a very long time and yet no time at all. Has it really been ten years? It must be. I no longer feel that if I could just reach far enough I could touch him. I no longer expect him to call and tell me I can come home. I am home. For so long, my home was wherever he was, and now my home is where I am.

My life is so different now from what it was with him that it seems as if the loss happened to someone else. I miss him, of course, think about him almost every day, still feel a hole in my heart/life/soul where he once was, but there has been no real upsurge of grief this year. It could be that too many years have passed, but I think it has more to do with my current situation.

Physical pain somehow has a way of overriding any emotional pain, which is why so often, when new grievers get sick or injured, they get a respite from the effects of grief. I know I did. I’ve always hated being sick, hated colds especially since they linger so long in my system, and yet, those first few years after Jeff died, I welcomed those illnesses because it gave me a break from the worst of my grief.

When I was doing the research for my book, Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One, I discovered that the answer to this anomaly has to do with brain fog and the role the brain plays in grief.

Those of us who have lost our mates know that grief is not merely emotional, but also spiritual, physical, and especially mental. The whole brain is involved in the grief process, but the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that seems to contribute the most to brain fog, the grief-induced amnesia, dazedness, and fogginess that shroud us after the death of a life mate — the prefrontal cortex is considered the executive branch of the brain and is associated with rational thinking and making sense of emotions, developing and pursuing goals as well as coordinating the brain’s activities. Because we grievers are on total emotional overload, our prefrontal cortex is unable to process all the information it is being fed from all parts of the brain. The more we try to suppress our emotions and try to think our way out of grief, the more overloaded the brain becomes.

When one is assaulted with some sort of physical trauma, such as an illness, the brain seems to heave a huge sigh of relief, as if to say, “This I understand!” No more scurrying around in the far recesses of our minds, looking for the truth of death . . . and life. No more lizard brain screaming for the loss of its survival unit. (We humans are essentially pack animals, and our very survival depends on the strength of this unit, one of the many reasons we are so deeply connected to our life mates.) No more conflicts between fight or flight hormones.

All the brain does is hunker down and send all its resources to getting the body well. And once that’s finished, grief again takes hold.

So what is my situation? A couple of weeks ago, I must have tweaked my knee while asleep because I woke up with a pain that wasn’t too severe, but kept me from doing things I normally would. I could still walk, and so I did. But the knee never got better. And yesterday, when I took a wrong step, my poor knee gave a loud crack (the kind of crack like knuckles cracking not like a bone cracking) and I felt a horrible pain. So not fun! (I now know that trekking poles make good canes.)

So today most of my energy is going toward taking care of my knee. And no, I’m not going to urgent care. (The last I heard, the closest urgent care was closed because of a case of The Bob.) And no, I’m not going to the emergency room. Considering I am in the high-risk group, I’d have to have a bone poking out of my skin before I’d take a chance on being around sick folks. And no, I don’t have a doctor. Even though I’ve been here a year, there was no reason to find one.

So here I am, taking care of my knee, doing the best I can to take care of myself even though I can barely walk. And the tenth anniversary is passing.

I miss not feeling the connection with Jeff — even though it’s only a connection of sorrow and loss — that I generally feel on the anniversaries. It’s the one time I can still feel him in my life, and I miss that. I miss him. I miss us. I miss who I was when I was with him.

The person I am today is a direct result of both my life with him and my grief after him. Is this a good thing? Am I a better person? I don’t know. I do know that, despite the constant barrage of news, all that’s going on in the world seems like . . . life as usual. When you’ve experienced one of the worst things a person can experience, all else seems rather tame.

Despite this almost blasé attitude, you can see that I still do not put myself in harm’s way if at all possible. I owe it to Jeff to live the best life I can, to savor the freedom his death gave to me. It was an inadvertent gift — his dying — but it has given me ten years of learning and experiencing and new beginnings rather than ten years of being worn down taking care of him.

Would I wish it were otherwise? I don’t know because I don’t know that woman any more. All I know is today.

And today, I am forcibly alone, missing Jeff, wondering about that road we could not take together. Would he be proud of the roads I did take? Would he be proud of me? Silly questions, I suppose. Considering the itinerary life handed me, I can’t be other than who I am today.

And today, I am a ten-year grief survivor.

And today, like every day, I miss him.

***

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.

 

Six Months

Six months ago I embarked on a challenge to blog every day for 100 days, and I am still going, but the world sure is different today than it was back then. The weather, of course, is not the same; then it was winter, now it is spring. Back then, people seemed almost innocent in their ability to block out anything that did not touch them personally, and now everyone is hunkered down over something that may or may not have a devastating effect on the total population.

But it doesn’t feel as if anything is different. With a few small exceptions, the local grocery store is fully stocked.

The library is still lending books, though patrons have to call or email their selections ahead of time, and a librarian will meet them at the locked door to hand over the books. (I can’t help it, but this is such a clandestine, spy-ish sort of thing, that it tickles me. And oh — what a dream job! A library full of books and no annoying customers.)

And people are still struggling with devastating diseases.

I spent the morning with a dear friend who is suffering through chemo. I’m sure she’s only one of many people coping with serious illnesses while the whole world is focused on something about which there is no clear consensus and the draconian measures that may or may not be needed.

I don’t know the truth of the matter. I only know my small corner of the world (though I did face time with a woman in Bangkok today who told me about the steps Thailand is taking to keep people inside, such as closing the malls and dine-in restaurants.) And in my corner of the world, my friend is battling cancer.

It’s amazing to me how many people develop or die of various illnesses every year, including hundreds of thousand dying of the seasonal flu, and yet no one cares. But now, with this particular virus, suddenly the whole world cares.

Except me. I’m more concerned about my friend than those I only know through the various media.

During the next six months, things will change again. The virus will have passed on, will have killed us all, or will become just another disease no one cares about it until it hits home.

And, in six months, my friend will be through with her chemo, and will finding her way back to health.

And I will still be blogging, maybe not every day, but one way or another, I’ll still keep plugging away.

***

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 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.

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

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.

***

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.

Dreaming of Our Dead

A friend told me the other day that she reads my blog, and she agrees with all I say about grief, but that I never mention one thing: dreaming of our dead.

The truth is, I hate dreaming. I don’t like the feeling of weird and inexplicable things happening, I don’t like the feeling of being out of control, and mostly I don’t like being controlled by any nightmarishness. Researchers say that to aid in dream recall, one should take Vitamin B6 before bed. When I read that, I immediately stopped taking any B vitamins before bed, and that certainly aided in my ability not to recall dreams.

That being said, I have the impression I do dream of Jeff, though mostly as a reflection of my everyday thoughts. He is seldom far out of mind, so it makes sense that he would appear in my dreams as a nebulous character.

There were times, though, that I had specific dreams about him, and those were terribly upsetting. One dream, for example, seemed to be about the end of his life when he was so often disoriented. He was trying to cook something, and he continued pouring whatever it was into the pan after the pan was filled, getting the food all over the stove, him, the floor, even me. I tried to catch his attention so he’d stop, and when I couldn’t, I slapped him to bring him back to reality.

I woke feeling ashamed. I’d never raised a hand to him, never even raised my voice, and yet, in the dream, I did both, and I couldn’t bear it.

Dreams about the dead seem inordinately real. Sometimes they feel like a visitation. Once I dreamt that he came into my room, stood at the foot of the bed and touched my blanket-covered feet, then climbed onto the bed, on top of the covers, and cuddled up to me. He was in his underwear, and in the dream, I knew he’d come from where he’d been sleeping, though I had the impression he’d been with someone, as if he had another life. He said, “I miss you.”

When I woke, I felt as if he’d come to see me one last time, though I have no idea what is true when it comes to life, death, and especially dreams.

Even when we know it’s a dream, what happens in the dream affects our waking life. Once I dreamt we were going somewhere on foot, and I realized that it would be cold before we got back, so I went inside to get a coat. In my closet were two of his coats — a jacket and a trench coat, which I have in fact kept. As I was pulling the jacket off the hangar, I remembered that I had gotten rid of most of his things after he died, and I panicked, wondering how to tell him that his stuff was gone. I left the room, and met one of the moderators of the grief group I had attended. He asked how I was, so I explained the situation, then I added, “It’s a good thing this is a dream, otherwise he would be really angry.”

When I woke, I was still glad I didn’t have to tell him his things were gone even though I had done what he wanted me to do with his stuff. The reason I still have his coats is that he wanted me to keep them since coats are always a good thing to have.

The most powerful dream came at about six months. After a restless night, I finally fell asleep in the early morning hours, and I dreamt.

I dreamed that Jeff was dead, but I woke to find him alive and getting well. It was wonderful seeing him doing so much better. I could feel the tension of grief seep from my body, and a quiet joy seeped over me.

I started to wake. In the seconds before full consciousness hit, I continued to feel the joy of knowing he still lived. And then . . .

Wham!

The truth hit me. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. Then, like an aftershock, came the raw pain, the heartbreak of losing him . . . again.

I’d been feeling a bit smug that I was getting a grip on my grief so early in the process, and the dream caught me unaware. In the depths of my being, I believed that he hadn’t died.

It took me weeks to regain the equilibrium that the dream cost me.

When it comes to grief, it seems as the dreams are a facet of our reality. What we feel in the dream continues into our waking state. There is no separation. Even if in a dream we act a way we would never act, we still have to deal with the effects of those acts once we wake. If the deceased in the dream acts in a way they would never act, we are left to deal with that, too.

Although I would love to visit with Jeff once more, if only in a dream, I’m just as glad it never happens. Except for an occasional brief episode of grief, I am in an okay place, both physically and mentally, and any sort of visitation would upset that equilibrium.

Maybe that’s why he never visits me in my dreams. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s why I never dream of him.

***

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.

A Toast to Mother

Today is the twelfth anniversary of my mother’s death. I have thought about her more since I moved here to my new home than in all the years I lived at her house.

Admittedly, by the time I got to her house to take care of my father, it wasn’t really her house any more. During the last nine months of her life, she’d cleared out all of her things, and returned all the presents we’d given her over the years. (As one sister said, “If I had known we’d get this stuff back, I’d have given her better gifts.”)

There were a few things left that reminded me of her, like the cupboard full of unmatched stemware. I kept those goblets, and so now I too, have a cupboard of unmatched stemware. I also kept a few interesting utensils, ones that I didn’t already have, and a tiny cutting board, just perfect for cutting an apple. Also a few bits of furniture.

Ah ha! Now I know why I think of her so much. After my father died, I’d packed away the gifts she’d returned to me along with the few pieces I kept when I closed out their house. Now those things are part of my daily life, and every one of them reminds me of her.

When I got my first apartment, I asked her for the recipes that I especially liked — things like pierogis, tuna roll with cheese sauce, and hamburger rolls (known to others as Runzas or bierocks). I found it interesting that I was the only one of my siblings who had those recipes, so several years ago, I made each of my siblings a “Taste of Childhood” recipe book, which included those recipes as well as a Friday staple of our youth: creamed tuna and peas on toast. (Sounds disgusting but was actually quite tasty.)

I didn’t copy all of her cookie recipes. Neither cherry winks nor date nut pinwheels were favorites of mine when I was young, but luckily, my sister kept them, thinking that mother’s treat recipes shouldn’t be thrown away so now I am collecting some of the recipes I didn’t back then. Also, I imagine that at the time I got that first bunch of recipes, I wasn’t considering the distant future when she’d be gone.

Well now, she is.

She wasn’t much of a drinker, though she did love Bailey’s Irish Cream, so in honor of her this day, I offer a toast — in a Bailey’s glass that once belonged to her!

Here’s to you, Mom. I hope your new life is what you’ve prayed for.

***

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

It’s amazing to me that after seventy-six straight days of blogging, I can forget to blog. I didn’t actually forget because here I am, and it’s not quite the end of the day. The truth is, I am here only because I happened to catch a glimpse of my note reminding me to blog. I’ll probably have to start leaving myself a note reminding me to remember to look at the note reminding me to blog.

Not that it’s important — I’m sure you wouldn’t mind a day off from my mental meanderings — it’s just that I challenged myself to write a blog every day for one hundred days, and it’s the one challenge I’ve ever managed to complete. (This is the second time I’ve done this — the last time, once the hundred days were finished, I kept going for four years!) It seemed like a good idea back then, but right now? Not so much. I’m too tired to make sense of this day.

I spent most of the morning and afternoon baking, and now my freezer is filled with cookies, not just those I made today, but those I made a couple of weeks ago.

It’s strange to be doing all this baking. I don’t usually keep things like flour and sugar on hand because I try (not very successfully) to stay away from both wheat and sugar, and if I have treats on hand, I eat them. I don’t know where this urge to bake has come from. Maybe it has to do with having my own grown-up Suzy Homemaker kitchen. Maybe it’s because I’m remembering my mother, which I have often done ever since I got this house. I’ve been especially interested in making the cookies she used to make at this time of year, like Cherry winks and date nut pinwheels.

I’ve been remembering my father, too. Some friends invited me to a VFW Auxiliary dinner this evening, with the hopes that I would join the organization. My father’s Navy service in World War II would make me eligible . . . maybe. He didn’t serve in a foreign country, unless the Bermuda triangle can be considered such — he was one of those tasked with trying to track down the planes that disappeared in that area. More than that, he was a great one for making notes to help him remember, so every time I make a note, I remember him.

Now that I think about it, I’ve been remembering all my dead — not just Jeff and my mother and my father, but also two of my brothers. The memories seem strong here where I now live, though this is neither a house nor an area where any of them have ever even visited. But I am here. And the memories came with me.

I might need notes to remind me of certain things, such as writing a blog, but I do not need a note to remind me of all those who are gone.

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.

All I Have Lost

Grief seldom visits me anymore, but last night, I couldn’t keep the tears from falling. I thought I’d gone through all the firsts — first Christmas after Jeff died, first birthday, first everything. But there was one first I hadn’t expected.

I’d gone to a women’s club Christmas dinner, and it turns out that husbands were invited. In all the years since Jeff died, although I’ve often been in the company of married women, this was the first time I’ve been in a group with mostly couples. I had no idea that such a first would be a problem. But it was. Since the couples wanted to sit together, I got shunted toward the end of the table, between two husbands, both of whom were faced away from me.

I didn’t know any of the men at the dinner, barely knew the women, didn’t know any of the people they talked about, didn’t understand any of the local issues they discussed, so there I sat . . . alone. Toward the end of the evening, a couple of women made the effort to talk to me, so I was able to keep my tears in check, but as soon as I got home, I started crying.

I thought I was over this part, this feeling out of place in a coupled world. I’ve been spoiled in that most of my new friends are widows (or once were widows). There is no feeling of being a third wheel or fifth wheel or any sort of wheel when I’m with them, so the feeling of being superfluous hit me hard. I’m still feeling sad and unsettled. In a little over three months, it will be ten years that Jeff has been gone. It doesn’t seem possible that I’ve lasted this long. It doesn’t seem possible that I can still feel so bad and for such a silly reason.

I’ve been doing a good job of looking forward instead of back, of not lamenting all I’ve lost, but last night, it was simply too much. I wanted go out into the dark and scream about the unfairness of it all, wanted to wail, “But I didn’t do anything wrong.”

But death doesn’t care about fairness. Death doesn’t care about rightness or wrongness. Death came ten years ago, and sometimes, like last night, I can still feel the cold winds of grief it left behind.

Part of me feels as if I’ve been playing a game, playing house, playing at being sociable, and I was suddenly brought back to the reality of my aloneness. Luckily, there’s nothing I have to do today, so I can find my center again before I once more put on my smile and act as if this life is what I wanted all along.

Don’t get me wrong — it is a good life. But sometimes, oh sometimes, I can’t help but think of all I have lost.

***

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.

My Life as Told by a Set of Dishes

My Christmas presents the year I was in sixth grade were a used Featherlight sewing machine that my father bought from someone he’d recently met, a set of Melmac dishes that had been a giveaway at Safeway (one piece each week with a purchase), and a new school uniform.

I was pleased with these gifts, even the uniform. My uniforms were the only clothing that was ever bought specifically for me; generally, I wore hand-me-downs from a tiny cousin. (And boy, did having the seams let out to the maximum give me a bad body image at an age when most girls were barely aware of their bodies!)

Back at school, when kids asked me what I got for Christmas, I told them. All day, I could see kids huddled together, glancing at me, and I could hear their tittering. As often happened during those years, I had no idea what I did to make myself a figure of fun. One day, though, a friend came to the house, and with a snicker, she asked to see my gifts.

The snickering stopped when she saw the real sewing machine and the grown-up set of dishes. Apparently, she along with all my classmates thought I got a toy sewing machine and a child’s set of dishes, and they’d been making fun of my childishness.

After that, they still gave me the cold shoulder, which taught me that people blame the victim when they have erred. Apparently, too, being given toys at the advanced age of eleven was infantile, but being given grown-up stuff was plain weird.

I kept the sewing machine until after Jeff died, but I couldn’t keep all three of my sewing machines — my Featherweight, an additional Featherweight that had been handed down to me, and the Pfaff that I had bought in my early twenties when I managed a fabric store. Selling those two Featherweights cheap was a mistake — it turns out they were worth 50 times what I sold them for, and even worse, the Pfaff is so heavy, now that I am getting older, I can barely lift it. (It is solid metal, and I mean SOLID.)

As for the set of dishes, I still have them. They were a source of contention that last year of Jeff’s life. As he pulled away from me, I pulled away from the hurt of his pulling away, and I did not want him to use my plates. The Melmac plates are a nice size, so we used them even more than the Corelle dishes we purchased together since the Corelle plates were too big. But that year, I got concerned about knife gouges and food stains, so I asked him not to use them. But he still did. He liked using things in rotation, so I put Melmac plates at the bottom of the stack. He still used them.

It seems silly now all the emotion I invested in protecting those silly plates. I felt guilty, too, at my selfishness. It took me years to realize the symbolism. I couldn’t protect him, couldn’t protect myself from the pain I was going through at the time, couldn’t protect myself from the grief I would feel after he was gone, but I could protect those plates! But I couldn’t even do that. He simply did not understand what I’d asked of him, and if he did understand, he didn’t remember. Now I know that the cancer that had spread to his brain caused the problem, but at the time, I thought he was being . . . I don’t know . . . inconsiderate, maybe. I don’t use the dishes much any more. Perhaps I’m still protecting them. Or me.

I vaguely remember also having a problem with his using my silverware. (Stainless steel flatware, actually, that had been a giveaway at the bank when I was in my late teens and early twenties — one piece for each deposit). Jeff and I had always intermingled the household things we each brought to the relationship, but for some reason that last year, he began exclusively using my spoons. I preferred those spoons to his because they were a bit narrower and thinner, and seemed to fit me better. Maybe as he got sicker, they seemed more comfortable to him, too, but it left me having to use his thicker spoons, and I resented it. The irony is that after he died, I started using his flatware, and that’s what I mostly use now.

Do you see a pattern here? A set of dishes that’s lasted this long with only one cup missing and a couple of chips on the edge of one small plate. Flatware I’ve used practically my whole life and still use. A sewing machine I bought decades ago and still have. A car I bought new forty-odd years ago and still drive. Could be those kids back in grade school were right — maybe I am a bit weird.

It does seem odd though, that these things are still here, while both my parents, two brothers, and Jeff are gone.

***

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.