Letter From a Griever

I received this email yesterday from a blog reader:

Dear Pat. Would you allow me a guest slot on your blog to talk about the book, and your grief writing in general?  I quite understand if you’d rather not needless to say, but I’d quite like to enthuse about your work if I may. — Treve

Of course, I said yes, not just because I was flattered but because what Treve has to say about me, my grief writing, and Grief: The Inside Story — A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One is important to both grievers and those who know grievers.

I first came across Pat’s blog in about 2015, about eighteen months after my wife died of cancer.  During that first year and a half, like most grievers I had experienced extraordinary emotional turbulence, the like of which I have never had before nor since.  It seemed to me that nobody ever tells you about what grief is really like, you just guess that it’s not nice and assume that it probably gets better after a while.  If only it were so simple!  I would occasionally browse the internet to see if there was some help or advice that would make sense to me, but it usually seemed to be written as if it were generic lifestyle advice, rather than designed for people experiencing profound turmoil. 

Be kind to yourself.  Everyone grieves differently.  Go out with friends and try to enjoy yourself.  Try to move on.  

It seemed to me that whoever wrote these sort of things had never actually experienced the kind of grief I was going through.  Perhaps it was just me, maybe this sort of advice would make sense to most people?

After 18 months, I chanced across Pat’s blog.  I can’t remember with absolute certainty, but I think the first of her posts I read was “The Five Major Challenges We Face During the Second Year of Grief” —  [https://bertramsblog.com/2012/01/08/the-five-major-challenges-we-face-during-the-second-year-of-grief].  I think I spent a whole evening reading through Pat’s writings about grief, and I was amazed.  For the very first time I was reading something that actually reflected what I was going through.  And the really weird thing was that Pat was an American lady some years older than myself (a British man in his early forties at the time), and yet she was the first – and only person – who was writing about grief in a way that made sense to me.  And I began to realise that a lot of the received ‘wisdom’ about grieving seemed to be based on various absurd notions, such as the so-called ‘five stages of grief’, that had no real basis in reality.  I was captivated, because for the first time it seemed to me that there might be some common pattern to grief, despite the profoundly different backgrounds of the grievers.  Seven years on I still occasionally read material about grief, often written by highly-trained ‘experts’, that bears no relation to what I went through (and I suspect what most grievers go through).

I was delighted when Pat published her book Grief: The Inside Story — A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One.  It was fascinating to be able to read her considered reflections about grief, not least because she had obviously had years of contact with fellow grievers who had shared their feelings with her.  Two chapters in particular are of great importance to me.  ‘Why Can’t Other People Understand My Grief?’, which discusses why so many folks seem to be embarrassed or uneasy when they around those who express their grief.  Likewise the chapter entitled ‘Metamorphosis’, on how grief changes us irrevocably.  This has shaped my thinking about grief, and continues to help me even today in trying to make sense of all that has happened to me in the last seven years.

I would sincerely urge any grievers reading this blog to buy Pat’s book, and keep it close to hand.  It covers the first few years of grief, and how its nature and impact change over time, written with great clarity by someone who has experienced it all first hand.   Nobody can take away the intense sting experienced at losing a loved one, but having a wise guide who can point out the emotional and practical road ahead (and also hazards along the way) is a huge help in dealing with grief.  I will always be grateful for the help Pat has given me through her writing.

Validating Grief

I’ve been corresponding with a fan of my book Grief: The Great Yearning who is dealing with the loss of a life mate/soul mate.

In my last response to an email from this griever I wrote:

I understand. I really do. I remember thinking I’d never make it through . . . well, any of it. His death. Clearing out our home. Going to stay with my father. Jeff’s birthday, then all the holidays. (I was lucky, if there is such a thing when it comes to grief, but I didn’t have to deal with the holidays for several months. You’re getting everything all at once.) The couplehoodness (for lack of a better word) of our society about did me in. Everywhere I went were couples. Couples walking. Couples eating. Couples doing things together. And there I was. Alone. It seemed such an affront. As if grief itself wasn’t enough to bear.

It truly is hard, especially since for every step towards some sort of light (or lightness of being) you fall back two, three, ten steps. There is no other thing you can do when faced with the Sisyphean task of grief but to pause to cry or scream, and then to take a deep breath and keep on going. It takes years longer than you can ever imagine, but eventually, I promise, it does get better. You just have to keep going one minute at a time. There is no way to handle more than that.

After I sent the email, I felt a bit guilty because there was no real comfort, nothing to hang on to, just the bitter truth that grief is hard and lasts a long time. To my surprise, the response I got in return for this harsh email was a warm message telling me how much my words help.

On reflection, it makes sense that those stark words describing the bleak reality of grief would be a help. I think what grievers most want from others is acknowledgement of their pain, maybe even validation of their grief. Oddly, even though everyone dies, not everyone goes through profound grief. (The math explains it — when one of a couple dies, only one is left to experience the grief.) And when you lose a partner at a relatively young age, there aren’t many people around who understand.

At the beginning of my grief, I was offered plenty of platitudes, a lot of blank stares, even some wary looks, as if a mournful woman was a bizarrely alien creature. The most helpful comments were from people who had gone through the same thing, people who told me that even ten years later, they still missed their partner. The least helpful comment came from people who said that grief took as long as it took, which contains an underlying feeling of exaggerated patience or that something is wrong with you if you don’t “get over” grief as quickly as others. (Sort of like telling the unathletic kid to take as long as she needs in order to run around the track even though all the athletic kids finished ages ago.) The most bewildering and least welcome comments were from people who told me they wished they could take away my pain. I didn’t want my pain taken away. It was the only thing connecting me to him, and besides, the pain wasn’t the problem. The problem was that he was dead, and no one could fix that.

If you’re one of the bereft, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve never experienced the death of a life mate/soul mate, a child, or any other profound loss, I hope you will listen when people tell you of their grief, even if you don’t understand. Don’t try to mitigate their pain with words that make you feel better but don’t address their reality at all.

But then, what do I know. The world has managed to struggle along without advice from me for billions of years. Just know that if you are experiencing any sort of grief, profound or not, I understand.

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See also: What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas? And if by chance you know someone who is grieving, either of my books about grief — Grief: The Great Yearning or the novel Unfinished would make a nice gift.

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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.