Envied

A friend whose life was recently disrupted told me she almost envied me. The “almost” was because of how I got to this place in my life. The death of my life mate/soul mate and other family members, the years of not knowing where to go or what to do, and the need to start over are all the unenviable things that pushed me in this direction.

Her comment made me realize that if I weren’t me, I’d almost envy me too. I seem to have reached a balance in my life. No great emotional swings, just a quiet contentment punctuated by a brief sad spell now and again. I still tend to occasionally get caught in a mind trap (you know — when a disgruntlement gets stuck in your head, and it keeps going around and around and around, and doesn’t seem to be able to find its way out). And I do have small infirmities that slow me down (such as knees that don’t work as well as they once did). And sometimes I get restless from being so settled down.

But balancing all of that is . . . a place for me. Not just a room of my own, but a whole house of my own. A place to be me. A place where I get to set the rules (or to set no rules). A place I can count on being for years to come.

And not just a house, but a community.

I don’t count the cost of how I got here since it wasn’t a choice, trading a life mate for a house. It was simply that he died, and years later, I unexpectedly ended up with a house. (Oddly, the other day, I found myself wandering through the house wondering where we’d put his office and all his things, as if his living here were a possibility. But it was just an idle sort of “what if.” Not a grief thing.)

I never expected to love a house. It makes me feel good, owning this house, like wrapping a great warm blanket around my life.

So far, I feel safe inside the house, though certain neighbors make me leery, which is why I fenced the property. There is still a part of the back fence that isn’t finished since it will pass close to the as yet unremodeled garage (though the contractor is here at the moment working, and he plans to be here all next week. Yay!). I used a large board to block off the space between the fence and garage to keep people and dogs away, and someone stole the big board and left a smaller board in its place. Huh? Still mystifies me. But it does show me I was correct to have a fence installed, and once it’s completed, and the gates locked at night, I’m sure I’ll feel even safer.

So yes, though I never considered myself someone to be envied, I am envied, if only by me.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

Grief: Not One and Done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

You Know You’re Not in California Anymore . . .

Jeff and I always brought our own bags to the grocery store even though it wasn’t mandated or even strongly recommended. We just did it because we didn’t need all those bags and didn’t want to have to worry about recycling unnecessary bags. After I went to take care of my dad in California, and the state outlawed single use plastic bags, there was no problem. I continued bringing my own bags. Once or twice I made an unexpected stop, and so went ahead and bought the multi-use bags that were available under the new law. These bags were said to be so much better because they were supposed to be able to be used 300 times. Um, no. I think I got about three uses out of them before they were rendered unusable.

Even worse, people on food stamps and other programs did not have to pay for those bags, so they used those heavy multi-use bags with the same disregard they did the old cheap ones, which helped the environment not at all since the new bags have a much heavier environmental impact than the original thin bags. Also people who used to use the single-use grocery bags for trash liners and such, now have to buy them, which does little to reduce plastic bag waste. (Studies also shown that since the ban, people buy more and thicker trash bags than they did before the ban.) Moreover, the cotton or polyester bags that people use instead need to be used 131 times before they break even in an environmental sense, and those bags — especially the polyester ones — don’t last that long. And you still need plastic for things like meat, because meat often leaks, and soiled bags can cause illness. Most confusing to me is that paper bags are given free if people want them, but the idea of cutting down trees just so people have things to carry their groceries in seems absurd (and wasteful) to me.

But that’s not really the point of this discourse. I was just reminded of the plastic-bag controversy when I went to a local store the other day, plopped the bags I was reusing on the counter, and told the cashier, “I brought my own bags.” He looked at me blankly, then threw them away. “I brought those bags to reuse,” I told him. “That’s what ‘I brought my own bags’ meant.” The kid still didn’t get it. He put a couple of my items in a new bag, and when I told him I didn’t want a bag, he started to throw away that unused bag, too. I said, “If you’re going to just throw it away, it defeats the purpose of not using a bag, so I’ll take it.” Another blank stare.

Yep. Not in California anymore. As ill-conceived as the California ruling is, it’s still a good idea for people to be more cognizant of excess plastic bag use. Some people are aware of the necessity of reusing bags or bringing their own, they just don’t do it. One older woman told me her grown daughter always brought her own bags to stores, but her daughter only had to shop for one person, and she had to shop for a family. I told her it was just as easy to bring ten bags as one, and she nodded, but the look she gave me was as blank as the one the kid had given me.

Colorado still allows single-use bags, which is nice for me — if I need wastepaper basket liners, I let the grocery stores put my groceries in their bags. That way I don’t have to buy any. Still, if it ever got to that point, I’d find a way since many stores are exempt from the ban, but I hope I don’t have to worry about it.

Legislation is never an answer. Being aware of the impact of one’s actions is. Not that I’m preaching. I just found these examples of not being in California anymore rather illuminating. Actually, I’m not really even in Colorado anymore, at least not when it comes to bag use. Stores on the front range (Denver, Colorado Springs, etc) and stores on the western slope (Grand Junction, Montrose, etc) credit people for using their own bags (it used to be five cents a bag), so that cashiers were at least cognizant of the idea of reuse.

Eventually, I’ll get people around here used to the idea that I don’t waste plastic bags. Already one or two cashiers automatically hand me my items. But I have yet to see anyone else bring their own bags.

***

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.

Librarier

There is an anecdote going around the internet where a mother asks her little girl what she wants to be when she grows up.

The girl responds, “A librarier.”

“Don’t you mean a librarian?” the mother asks.

“No,” the girl says. “A librarier. Someone who goes to the library and reads.”

This could be a true story because kids can be that precocious, but even if someone besides a little girl made up the word, it’s a good one. And since I identify with the term, I would modify it to simply mean “someone who goes to the library.” I don’t do well reading in public — I need the mental space and freedom to relax into the book, and I can’t do that — don’t want to do that — when people are around. I feel too vulnerable.

Since I’m such a good and reliable librarier, I get to check out more than the maximum. (Being a “good girl” sometimes has its privileges!) But I still go quite frequently.

I have a friend who also reads a lot, but she does read at the library. She once said to me, “People always tell me that life’s too short to spend it reading. I say life’s too short not to spend it reading.”

That’s basically my philosophy. In my younger years, that’s what I did — read. It’s all I ever wanted to do. It’s not a good career choice since there’s no money in it (I could have been a librarian, I suppose, but then I’d have to watch everyone else read while I worked, and that’s not the same thing.) Still, I managed to mostly read my life away.

After Jeff died, everything changed, even reading. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t stand to read fiction. Too many books involved death, and I couldn’t face that faceless beast. Other books involved couples getting together, which was excruciatingly painful since I no longer had anyone. Still other books involved couples not getting together, which was just as bad, because it reminded me of my situation. And I was too unfocused to read non-fiction.

I did struggle with books for a while, but when the library closed for asbestos cleanup, I didn’t miss reading. I did buy an occasional book, but my finances don’t really lend themselves to such an indulgence.

Now, though my finances are even in greater disrepair than ever before, I have a library a few blocks away, a decade’s worth of reading to catch up on, and even better, death’s sting has receded.

So once again, I am a librarier.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

 

UNFINISHED

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

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

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

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

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

***

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.

Being Centered

After Jeff died, I feared I would stagnate, so I tried to get into the habit of saying “yes” to invitations and to following people’s suggestions about things to do. This led me to many interesting activities, including a short road trip along Route 66, learning to shoot various guns, and many meals with friends. (Going against people’s suggestions also netted me interesting activities, such as my cross-country road trip. Many people warned me of the dangers and said I couldn’t go alone, but I could and I did.)

More recently, ever since I heeded the suggestion to buy a house in southeastern Colorado, I’ve again been saying a lot of yesses. These yesses, too, have let me to interesting activities, including a train ride through the Royal Gorge, artistic endeavors such as painting gourds and making wreaths, and many, many meals with friends.

During the ten days after Christmas, there were no activities, so I spent the time by myself. It felt good. Centered. As if I were pulling my life back into my life.

It felt especially good to be able to structure my days. A bit of writing in the morning, walking around noon when the sun had taken the chill off the winter air, making raw vegetable salads and other healthy things in the afternoon. And reading in the evening.

I am so often torn — being disciplined or treating myself; being alone or visiting with friends; being structured or acting spontaneously. Being centered helps to mend the tear, to find a balance between what I want to do and . . . well, what I want to do. I want to do all of it, because obviously, if I didn’t want to be disciplined, I wouldn’t even try. If I didn’t want to treat myself, I wouldn’t give in. If I didn’t want to be alone, I would add to my activities, if I didn’t want to be with people, I’d say “no” more often.

Daily blogging began the process of centering me. It’s both a discipline and a treat, a way of being alone and visiting, a way of being structured and spontaneous. Writing has always been important to me, and it’s good to have an excuse to indulge myself (though truly, one needs no excuse to write).

A center needs to be held loosely — if you hold on too tightly, the pressure can blow it apart. If you hold on too loosely, it turns in “a widening gyre” and the center cannot hold. Still, without doing any harm, I can certainly be more careful what I say yes to. I’ve backed away from one of the clubs I joined, will back away from some shared meals, and am backing into a healthier regime.

Oddly, I no longer fear I will stagnate. Perhaps what I called stagnation was simply being centered.

***

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.

Think

Whenever someone in offline life tells me they read my blog, I find myself scrabbling around in my mind frantically trying to remember if I’d said something that could hurt them. If I think I might have, I review the blog and sigh in relief if whatever I’d said that seemed so vile turned out in retrospect to be rather mild. Only once did I hurriedly edit the piece to tone down a comment, though whatever I’d said had been the truth, just not necessarily kind.

I suppose I should think about such things before I write, or at least before I hit “publish,” and I generally do, but my posts reflect whatever happened to me or whatever I’d been thinking, and I get caught up in telling my story. Often my posts are emotionally driven. Even more often, the posts are moral-driven — not moral as in virtuous, but moral as in finding lessons in the little things, such as removing a potential hazard when I notice it rather than after it does its damage as I wrote in The Trip of a Lifetime.

An acronym for “think” is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, Kind. Supposedly, before we say something, we need to T.H.I.N.K. To ask: is it true, is it helpful, is it inspiring, is it necessary, is it kind? If we stopped to remember all that, we probably would forget what we were saying in the first place, and for sure it would add an uncomfortable lull to the conversation (assuming that people would wait patiently for us to speak).

And the same goes for blogging. If I paused to reflect on every sentence I write, I would forget the next thing I planned to say since for me, blogging is strictly stream of consciousness: what I think ends up in the article. If I dam the stream, obviously nothing would come out.

But that whole THINK thing is only part of the issue of being connected online to people I know offline. Since most people who read my blog are people I don’t know, people I have never met in real life, or people I seldom see, I feel comfortable (or at least more comfortable) turning myself inside out than I do for people I see almost every day. No one wants to wear their heart on their sleeve (I had to stop here and look up that saying. It’s from Shakespeare. Othello.)

No one wants to feel exposed.

And yet . . .

Why not?

Those who would be most likely to peck at my poor exposed heart are those who wouldn’t be reading what I wrote anyway. Besides, if everyone wrote a blog from the heart every day, life would be so much easier since we would know what the people around us are really thinking.

The great benefit of my writing without always second guessing myself or doing too much thinking is that every once in a great while I end up writing something inspiring. And being able to inspire someone is worth any discomfort that might come from being so exposed.

I hope it’s also worth any hurt feelings I might inadvertently engender.

***

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.

Powdered Coffee Creamer? Eek!

I always thought the danger in powdered coffee creamer was in the ingredients, such as partially hydrogenated oil, cottonseed oil, high fructose corn syrup solids, sodium caseinate, dipotassium phosphate, and other unpronounceables, but in a novel I am reading, the cop asked the character if she was armed, and she said “I have coffee creamer.” The cop just stared at her, and the character said, “Look it up.”

I don’t know if the cop Googled “powdered non-dairy coffee creamer self-defense,” but I sure did. And guess what? This kind of creamer can be used as a weapon. In fact, it’s banned in many prisons for that very reason. If someone doesn’t have the supplies to make a flame thrower to direct the flaming coffee creamer, such as PVC pipe, end caps, pressure gauges, air hoses, couplers and a whole bunch of other things cheaply and readily available at the hardware store, all you have to do is throw a handful of the powder in the air and light it. Oh, my!

Powdered non-dairy coffee creamer is used by hikers and campers to start a fire. They use less than a teaspoon, let one spark hit it, and it will stay lit longer than a match. Of course, you have to be careful. If you accidentally lit the whole container, you’d end up with a fireball. (Here’s a video from mythbusters showing the firepower of a whole lot of creamer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRw4ZRqmxOc&feature=related.

I doubt such a weapon would be much of a deterrent since not that many people would know to be afraid of coffee creamers (though now I am!). “Stop or I’ll creamer you,” doesn’t have the same impact as “Stop or I’ll shoot.” Besides, by the time you threw the coffee creamer at the assailant and thumbed a lighter, you could be dead, either from a bullet or from an ill-fated wind sending the creamer bomb back to you. Still, it’s an interesting idea to store away for some future book.

***

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.

Surprising Myself

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.” — Neil Gaiman

I friend sent me this quote last year, and asked me to pinky promise that I would fulfill these hopes.

Did I surprise myself? Oh, yes! I don’t particularly like owning things — they weigh heavy on my soul — and I especially never wanted to own a house (so many possible problems and such a responsibility), but after the death of my homeless brother a couple of summers ago, the idea got planted in my head, and I let it blossom. In a way, the dream of owning a house and the good madness of buying it unseen was his final gift to me.

The whole experience has been magic — meeting new people, finding myself at home, not just in my own house, but in a community.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit how many books I read last year (more than 300), and I’m sure at least some of those were fine books. I enjoyed most of them, anyway, but even more than that, I’ve loved having a library within walking distance.

Last year, I met people who think I am wonderful, and I also wrote (blogs and murder mystery games) and I for sure lived as only I can live.

I can honestly say, I lived up to my promise.

Again this year, she sent the quote and asked me to pinky promise, and I did. It’s an easy enough promise since I always live as only I can live, though magic and dreams and good madness seem to be things that can’t be forced, but come only when one is open to possibilities. And I am open.

Now let’s see if I can surprise myself once more and indulge in a bit of good madness.

Please feel free to join me in this quest!

***

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 the Newness

I’ve never really celebrated the New Year because it doesn’t mean much to me. It’s a relatively arbitrary date. The calendar numbers change, but that’s all. It’s not a universal new beginning. The Chinese New Year this year is on January 25, the Jewish New Year is on September 18, the Persian New Year is March 19, the Korean New Year is January 25, the  Tibetan New Year begins on February 24, and various communities in the Hindu religion have different dates for their celebration.

January 1 is not even the beginning of a new season or of a solar cycle such as a solstice or an equinox. Nor is there any personal demarcation — no black line separates the old from the new. The world is no different today from yesterday, nor are we. We carry the old year with us because you have the same problems, sadnesses, hopes, fears.

There is a newness to January 1, though, and that is the newness of a new calendar.

Like school kids with stiff new clothes and a satchel full of crayons, unread books, and blank paper, we are ready to set out on an adventure, trembling with both trepidation and excitement. Our new calendars have 365 blank squares. How will we use those squares? With notations of appointments and special days, of course. Perhaps with reminders of bills to pay and chores to do. But many of those days will be blank. What we will do with those blank days? Will we search for happiness or a new love? Will we recommit to an old love? Will we strive to attain a better level of health? Will we experience new things, meet new people, visit new places, sample new foods?

I do feel that particular newness today, that hope.  I’ve had marvelous adventures the past past year — buying a house, settling into a new home and community, making new friends. And now I have 365 blank days on my new calendar. I plan on getting out my box of crayons and coloring those days brightly with the glow of a smile, laughter shared, and moments of appreciation for the world around me.

I hope your days will be filled with color, new adventures, and much joy.

Happy New Year.

***

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.