This is the beginning of Chapter of GRIEF: THE GREAT YEARNING, available from Indigo Sea Press. Click here buy from Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Grief-Great-Yearning-Pat-Bertram/dp/1630663697
Death came in the spring.
At the beginning of March, the doctors said that Jeff, my life mate—my soul mate—had inoperable kidney cancer and that he had six months to live. He had only three weeks. We’d spent thirty-four years together, and suddenly I was alone, unprepared, and totally devastated. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the wreckage of my life. It wasn’t just he who died but “we.” There was no more “us,” no more shared plans and dreams and private jokes. There was only me.
Other losses compounded the misery. I had to sort through the accumulation of decades, dismantle what was left of our life, move from our home. We bereft are counseled not to make major changes during the first year after a significant loss—one’s thinking processes become muddled, leaving one prey to faulty logic and rash decisions—but I needed to go stay with my father for a while. Although he was doing well by himself, he was 93 years old, and it wasn’t wise for him to continue living alone.
I relocated from cool mountain climes to the heat of a southwestern community. Lost, heartbroken, awash in tears, I walked for hours every day beneath the cloudless sky, finding what comfort I could in the simple activity. During one such walk, I turned down an unfamiliar city street, and followed it . . . into the desert.
I was stunned to find myself in a vast wilderness of rocky knolls, creosote bushes, cacti, rabbits, lizards, and snakes. I’d been to the area several times during my mother’s last few months, but I’d spent little time outside. I hated the heat, the constant glare of the sun, the harsh winds. After Jeff died, however, that bleak weather, that bleak terrain seemed to mirror my inner landscape. Wandering in the desert, crying in the wilderness, I tried to find meaning in all that had happened. I didn’t find it, of course. How can there be meaning in the painful, horrific death of a 63-year-old man? I didn’t find myself, either. It was too soon for me to move on, to abandon my grief. I felt as if I’d be negating him and the life we led.
What I did find was the peace of the moment.
Children, most of whom know little of death and the horrors of life, live in the moment because they can—it’s all they have. The bereft, who know too much about death and the horrors of life, live in the moment because they must—it’s the only way they can survive.
During the first year after Jeff’s death, I lived as a child—moment to moment, embracing my grief, trying not to think about the future because such thoughts brought panic about growing old alone, trying not to think about the past because such thoughts reminded me of all I had lost.
And so went the seasons of my soul. The spring of death gave way to the summer of grief, and grief flowed into the fall and winter of renewal.
This book is not a how-to but a how-done, a compilation of letters, blog posts, and journal entries I wrote while struggling to survive my first year of grief. As you journey through grief, I hope you will find comfort in knowing you are not alone. Whatever you feel, others have felt. Whatever seemingly crazy thing you do to bring yourself comfort, others have done. And, as impossible as it is to imagine now, you will survive.
Day 1, Grief Journal,
At 1:40 this morning, Jeff died as courageously as he lived.
Seven weeks ago, he was overcome with debilitating pain. We’d been through such crises so many times before, I thought he’d plummeted to another low plateau where he would remain for months if not years. Not that I wanted him to be in agony—perhaps I thought the pain would go away? But he knew it was the end, knew what he’d have to face. To gather his courage, he told me stories of his bravery—how as a young runner he could not give up even when injured. He told me about all the times he hurt his ankles, his knees, and still he never gave up.
We were so close that day. During the last year of his long illness, I’d forgotten why I loved him. We’d driven each other nuts—he trying to prepare me for the end, me gritting my teeth and clenching my fists in irritation because I did not want to hear of his dying. (Through it all, though, we always gravitated toward each other, always cared for each other.). But that day I remembered why I loved him. And I fell in love all over again.
He never did give up. Despite pain, drugs, and massive tumors in his body and brain, he tried to live and to accomplish something. It was heartbreaking to watch. In the end, his body gave out—there was nothing left but bones and skin. And the tumors that ate him alive.
I feel doubly cheated—not just out of sharing the coming years with him, but of not even being able to share a few months of renewed closeness.
And now I have to be brave.
I do not know how I am going to survive. I don’t know why I was so naïve, but I truly didn’t think his death would devastate me. I’ve lived with his dying for so long, I thought I’d gone through all the stages of grief. Turns out, I went through all the stages except grief itself. The immensity of the pain is way too much for me to handle. I told him—and it’s the truth (I think)—that I’ll be okay in the long run. It’s the short run that will kill me if I don’t find a way to get a grip on myself. I miss him more than I ever imagined. My chest hurts and I feel sick to my stomach. I am in too much agony to cry when I am by myself, though I cannot talk to anyone without tears streaming down my face.
I’m honored that he shared his life with me. I’m glad I got to be there at the end, though I wish, with all my being, he didn’t have to go.
Day 2, Dear Jeff,
I was out walking today, trying to figure out how to get through the rest of my life without you, when it dawned on me—I can write you. I can still tell you everything I’m doing and thinking, still ask your advice, still use you as a sound-ing board to think things through. It might help me feel close to you, feel as if you’re still part of my life.
I never thought I’d watch television and your video tapes again—it was something I did only with you. I didn’t feel comfortable watching on my own, probably because I grew up without television. But tonight I rewound the last Boston Legal tape you made and watched for a couple of hours. It felt sad but good. I imagined you sitting next to me, and I relaxed enough to fall asleep through a show or two. Sleeping sort of defeats the point of watching, but mostly I liked to watch tapes with you so we could be together. In that regard, the tape served its purpose.
Afterward, I gathered your drugs and medical parapher-nalia and set them on the kitchen counter. The hospice people are supposed to come and dispose of them tomorrow. I’m going to work backwards—get everything back the way it was before you signed up for hospice, then start going through your things. Should I keep all your tapes, even the ones I will never watch? Right now, I am incapable of making decisions of any kind. It’s only been forty-four hours since you died, but it feels as though I’ve been crying for years. And screaming. I was wandering around the living room, clutching my middle, holding back the howls of distress, when I realized no one would hear if I screamed, and so I did.
I miss you, and I suspect that I always will. I love you.
Day 3, Grief Journal
This was a hard day, though I don’t suppose any of them will be easy for a while. It’s amazing how little energy I have. I can’t do much at all. Today I rewound some of Jeff’s video tapes, the ones we watched toward the end. Perhaps tomorrow I will find the strength to put them away.
The hospice nurse came and got rid of the drugs. (Dumped them in a plastic bag of kitty litter, which turned them into a solidified mess, and took them with her.) The medical supply people are supposed to come tomorrow to pick up the oxygen tank. It’s like I’m rewinding his life. I wish I could rewind it back to the good times. We did have good times. I know we did. But everything got so muddled at the end. All we were doing was struggling to survive.
I can’t believe there was ever a time I wished the struggle were over so I could start my new life. How could I not have known I’d feel such pain? I heard today that losing a long-time mate was like an amputation, and that’s exactly what this feels like.
Good, bad, indifferent—it was all the same. We were together. We took care of each other. And now he’s been amputated from me and my life.
I got furious on his account today. It’s so unfair that he had such ill health, that his life ended too soon and too terribly. It seems unreal, now, that we took for granted he would die young. Shouldn’t we have railed against it more? But he was so disciplined, focusing his energies on trying to prolong his life and be productive.
I don’t know which is worse, the times I miss him dreadfully or the times I concentrate on doing something and he drifts from my thoughts. It seems such a betrayal. If he only exists in my memory and I don’t think about him, it’s as if he’s dying again. And once was hard enough. It takes my breath away when I realize I will never talk to him again. Well, I will talk to him, and I do, but we will never converse. I will never hear his voice.
I thought I was through telling people our sad little tale, but I’ve remembered a few others I have to notify about his being dead. I hope I don’t start crying when I talk to them. I’m tired of crying, tired of feeling sick to my stomach, tired of the hole in my chest. How do people endure such grief for months on end? I truly hate that he’s gone. Hate it!!
Day 4, Dear Jeff,
Another rough day. They came and picked up the oxygen tank. I am glad to see it leave. I chopped up the tubing from your nasal cannula. How you hated that thing and wanted to cut it off! So I cut it up for you. You’ll never have to use it again.
I opened a new bank account though I’m going to keep our joint account. I know you won’t need money, but I’ll keep some in the account in case you do. I talked to the woman at the bank for a long time. She’s going through a divorce after being married for twenty-five years. There are many similarities in our grief, but there is one huge difference—you are gone from this world, and her husband is not. I could deal with your absence a lot easier if I knew you were well and happy.
I’m trying to think of something new to tell you, but it’s all the same. Just missing you, feeling sick to my stomach, having trouble eating and breathing because of the pain of amputation, spending way too much time crying. The hole you left in my life will always be there. I love you.
Day 5, Dear Jeff,
I cried at odd moments today. Well, I cried after I got angry with you for being gone. Textbook. Strange, isn’t it, to be following those typical patterns? I cleared out a lot of food and took it to the senior center. I don’t know if you would have liked that, but I kept thinking that if you didn’t want me to donate your food, you shouldn’t have died. Silly, huh?
I’ve been reflecting on the past year when you became someone I didn’t know. I bet it was the metastases in your brain (and the pain) that turned you into a stranger. I don’t know what would have been harder—to reconnect the way we did and lose you twice or not reconnect and have to live with extra regrets.
Regrets—boy, do I have them. I regret I didn’t have one more day with you, that I let the nurse talk me into taking you to the hospice care center to live out your last few days. I regret I took your dying for granted. I regret I didn’t spend more time with you that last year. I know you coped better on your own, and you wanted to be left alone, but I feel as if I let you down. I continued my own life while you were dying—in fact, you encouraged me to do new things—but the end came so quickly. I feel as if your whole life—our life together, anyway—flashed before my eyes and winked out. I cannot comprehend the meaning of your life, though perhaps it’s not my place to make sense of it.
I love you. I wish I had told you that more often.
Day 5, Blog Post, A Tribute to a Fallen Mate
Once upon a time I wrote snippets of poetry. That time coincided to when I met the man who would share my life, and some of the snippets I wrote are poignant to me now because they chronicle my first feelings for him. A private man, he would be appalled that I am writing about him, but I didn’t want his life to pass unnoticed by all but me. Though written long ago, this bit still fits him:
the figments of this world
and your radiance
Day 6, Dear Jeff,
I started crying today and couldn’t stop. I had to go to town to break up the crying jag, otherwise I might have cried all day. I’m glad you’ll never have to go through this. I cling to that thought—that your death spared you ever having to grieve for me. We did so much together, and now our paths have divided. I can’t yet follow you. Are you gone? Snuffed out forever? Or does something of you remain somewhere? Are you warm? Fed? Have plenty of cold liquids to drink? Thinking about what happened to you makes me sick to my stomach still. The days after your diagnosis went by too fast. I still can’t comprehend your suffering or your dying.
I sometimes hear noises out in the living room when I am in the bedroom, and my first thought is that it’s you. It comes as a shock when I realize . . . again . . . that you’re dead. I truly don’t know how to get along without you. Or, more accurately, I don’t want to get along without you. You were my life for so many years. I wonder what my future holds. Love? Success? Failure? Loneliness?
I still can’t decide if I want to get rid of almost everything we own or put it in storage. I know I’ll hate having re-minders of everything I’ve lost, but perhaps there will come a time when our things bring me comfort?
I don’t know what to do about your car. Keep it? Sell it? Donate it?
I don’t suppose you want to hear about these indecisions, but they do loom in my thoughts. I talk to you all day, but when it comes time to write you, I can only think of such trivialities. Yet that’s what our life together ended up being. I wanted only the cosmically important things to be part of our shared life, yet it devolved into basic survival, errands, household chores. I’m keeping up with the chores. Sort of.
When I was at the grocery store, the clerk asked where you were, so I told her. She hugged me and cried with me. Not enough tears have been shed for you—no amount of tears will ever be enough—so those tears gave me comfort. Your life—and death—shouldn’t pass lightly.