Dealing with the Ashes

Yesterday I talked about the many tasks of grief, and mentioned that although I got rid of most of my life mate/soul mate’s “effects,” there are many things I cannot get rid of. It’s still unthinkable for me to throw away his wallet, eyeglasses, car keys. And I can’t bring myself to get rid of his baseball bat and glove or the games we used to play.

Most of all, I can’t get rid of him. Well, not him. His ashes. His “cremains” as the funeral industry so cutely calls them.

Although I was never sure what I’d do with his ashes, I’d never planned on keeping them until a minister friend suggested that I save some. He said that people who get rid of all of the ashes tend to regret it. Since I couldn’t bear to think of separating “him,” keeping some of his ashes and throwing the rest to the winds, I’ve kept them all.

I have an “urn,” which is not an urn but a square brass box with a permanent closure. I didn’t want to do anything “permanent,” so I kept his ashes in the temporary box, and since that plastic box seemed unfeeling and . . . well, dead . . . I wrapped the box in his robe when I brought the ashes home, and it’s still wrapped in his robe.

If I ever take a trip, I might leave a few bits of him wherever I stop. Or not. I’m not sure I can ever throw him away, and it wasn’t until this very moment that I understand why.

He was an historian, and he told me that the Inuit and other nomadic people would “throw themselves away” when they got too sick or too old and weak to continue traveling with the tribes. They would just stay behind when the tribe moved on.

When he got sick, he often told me that if he went into a coma or got too ill to take care of himself, I was to throw him away, forget about him, and get on with my life. “Throw him away,” was a euphemism for leaving him in some sort of nursing home.

And there did come such a time.

Five days before he died, the hospice nurse suggested that he go to the hospice care center for a few days to give me a chance to sleep. (His terminal restlessness kept us both up all night, and neither of us was getting any sleep. Although it was supposed to be a five-day respite, we knew he was never coming back.) He was sitting on the couch, so small, momentarily comfortable, momentarily alert. He gave me a pitiful smile and said, with a crack in his voice, “I don’t want to go. We have a good life here. We’re doing okay, aren’t we? I’m not ready for you to throw me away.” About broke my heart.

I didn’t want to throw him away, of course, but I couldn’t keep him at home. He hated the nasal cannula, and that last morning, I found him frantically rummaging in a kitchen drawer for a knife to cut it off. What if . . . ? No, I’m not even going to think about that.

And so his ashes are still with me, still wrapped in his robe because I simply cannot bear to throw him away again.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

When Grief Has You

People tell me I shouldn’t dwell on grief, on death, on life without my life mate/soul mate, but I don’t dwell on any of those subjects — they dwell in me. His death broke something inside me, so now there is a crack where the abyss seeps in. Unlike other people who have lost a mate, I never get signs that I might perceive as coming from him, no signs of any kind, just this abyssmal feeling.

A friend who lost her husband a year ago kept a journal all through his dying, and during the past year, she has used her journal to remind her of the various anniversaries of his dying and death, but I don’t need such reminders. My reminders dwell in me, in my body. I’ve been very sad the past couple of days, and I couldn’t figure out why the upsurge in grief, and then it came to me. Yesterday was the anniversary of the day I got the call that he’d been cremated, and today is the anniversary of the day I picked up his ashes. What a terrible, terrible day that was and so fresh in memory, it feels as if it were two weeks ago instead of two years.

I’d stopped by hospice to get a pillowcase of ours they had misplaced (I’d brought a bunch of pillows for him since he liked being propped up). I was frantic to get that pillowcase back, not that it had any sentimental value, but I felt so shattered and scattered, I needed to bring everything together as much as I could. From hospice, I went to pick up his ashes. I had to wait for the funeral director. She’d been attending a children’s party, and was late for our meeting. The urn I’d ordered had been discontinued, which she neglected to tell me, so she handed me his ashes in an ugly brown plastic box (she called it a temporary urn, but it was just a box). It was much heavier than I expected. People talk about ashes (except in the funeral business where they are too cutely called “cremains”), so I expected them to weigh almost nothing, but the “ashes” are actually bits of bone and other inorganic matter, the part of the body that was never alive. And they are heavy.

I drove the sixty-five miles home with tears streaming down my face. I brought him inside, set him on the bed, but I couldn’t bear to see the naked box or to be reminded it contained all that was left of him. I finally wrapped his robe around the box. And I haven’t unwrapped it since.

Time does not heal all wounds, but time does pass, and I’m letting it. I don’t hold tightly to my memories, don’t hold tightly to my grief in an effort to feel close to him, but still, grief does surface, often when I don’t expect it. Like yesterday. Like today.

Some people have expressed admiration for the way I analyze grief, but mostly I’ve just tried to put into words what we are all feeling. When grief has you, you can only go along for the ride. There is no analysis, no thought, just feelings. For months after he died, I kept dropping things. I could not get a grip on anything. Couldn’t get a grip on my thoughts, either. Just had to let grief flow.

One of my blog readers is worried about how she will deal with her grief after her husband dies, but the truth is, you don’t deal with grief. It deals with you.