Twelve Years. Unbelievable.

Today is the twelfth anniversary of Jeff’s death. If I hadn’t made a note of the anniversary on my calendar, I might have forgotten to commemorate the day. I remember the date he died, of course, but I lost track of time and didn’t realize today was the 27th. It used to be I couldn’t forget even if I wanted to because the day was written in my bones, in my soul, and I could feel it with every breath I took. But now, not so much. I still miss him, still feel the void, still have the date emblazoned in my mind, but my body has forgotten.

It’s an odd — and confusing — experience, this thing called grief. I am long past the mourning stage. When rare tears do come, they barely spill over, not like the early days when tears were so copious, they chapped my cheeks. In fact, the emotion of it all is so distant, my life with Jeff and my grief after his death seem almost mythic, a half-remembered dream that dissipates in the bright light of daily activity. (Come to think of it, when I speak to him — or rather, to his photo — it’s generally at night, just a few words mentioning my day, words that really mean “I am here, I am alive, I matter.”)

It’s hard now, in my settled, peaceful, and generally pleasant life to believe I was that shattered woman who screamed her pain to the uncaring winds. That sort of wild grief seems so out of character for me. Until then I believed I was a rather placid, stoic, and resilient person, and I believe that of myself again today, but during those first years of grief? I was anything but placid and stoic. And no wonder — the very foundation of my life, my identity, my hopes for the future, everything that anchored me to the earth had disappeared in an instant leaving me teetering at the edge of the abyss.

I’m surprised I survived that feral time. Apparently, though, at rock bottom, I really am mostly placid, stoic, and resilient. It just took a while for those characteristics to rise to the surface after I was hit with the tsunami of grief, but I learned to go with the flow, to take whatever came, to feel whatever I felt, to deal with the pain however I could, and to wait for a more peaceful time. I also learned that such all-encompassing and savage grief has a strong physical component that supersedes any character trait or emotional response. Hormones go nuts, our brain chemistry changes, and often we suffer from stress-related issues. Losing a life mate ranks at the very top of stressful situations, and that stress itself causes physiological changes.

But I came through all that. And now it is twelve years later. I am different. My life is different. My expectations are different. It’s confusing when I remember what my life once was — my years with Jeff and my years of grief — and compare it to what my life is now. It simply doesn’t compute. (Which is where that mythic feeling comes in. I know it happened, I know I was that person who lived that life, but it doesn’t seem real.) I cope with the confusion over this dichotomy the same way I coped with my years of numbness during Jeff’s illnessness and my years of grief after his death — try not to think of the past, try not to think too far ahead, try to accept that each day is sufficient in itself.

Still . . . twelve years. Unbelievable.

***

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.

Body Memory

Occasionally during the past few days, I’ve been overcome by a momentary sense of panic and dread, as if I’d forgotten something I was supposed to or as if something terrible was about to happen. It’s not a big deal, more of a frisson than true panic, but I can’t think of anything that is currently happening (or not happening) that would prompt such a feeling.

Although I would have thought I was long past the time of grief-related body memory, this feeling seems like something being resurrected from the past. Twelve years past, to be exact.

At this time twelve years ago, I was dealing with Jeff’s various end of life issues, such as terminal restlessness and confusion. Some people, toward the end, can’t sit still, and so it was for Jeff. Because of the cancer that had spread to his brain as well as the potent pain killers he needed, he was unsteady on his feet, and he tended to fall. So, sleep-deprived me stayed with him all night, pacing with him, getting him to back bed in the hopes he could fall asleep, and then pacing again.

I didn’t talk about any of this back then, at least not here on my blog, because it seemed such a betrayal of him, but after he died, which seemed to me to be the ultimate betrayal, all bets were off, so I wrote about what I felt. Until then, I had hospice to talk to.

Many people are leery of hospice, perhaps confusing them with the Hemlock Society, but I only have good things to say about the hospice in western Colorado. Although they were scheduled to come once a week (we were settling in for the three to six months the doctors said he had left to live), he deteriorated so fast that I called the hospice nurse every day with some issue I had not previously encountered, and she always responded, first by phone, and then with a visit.

During the past twelve years, I hadn’t thought about that time very often — his death and my grief were such traumatic experiences that they overshadowed everything else — but if it hadn’t been for hospice, I have no idea how I would ever have known what to do for him. Would never have known what was happening.

Next week, it will be twelve years since we admitted him to a hospice care facility. Although hospice is mostly an at-home program where they help the family and give them the tools to take care of their loved one, this particular hospice also had a nursing facility to take care of the patient for short stays to give the caregiver a rest. Oddly, although his admittance was for my benefit because it had been many days since I slept more than an hour or two — I’d been staying up all night with him and was totally exhausted — I didn’t sleep any better when he was away, knowing he was with strangers, and he was dying alone. (He didn’t die alone, though. I was with him when he took his last breath.)

There are a lot of things I can barely remember from five and ten years ago, but that whole month from twelve years ago is seared on my brain and in my body, apparently for all time.

Instead of exacerbating my grief (and despite the momentary pangs of panic), these memories today are accompanied by gratitude for the nurse and social worker who helped me through the worst time in my life.

[Hospice helped with my father, too, but by then I knew a lot about dying (from an outsider’s point of view; obviously, I know nothing about dying from the point of view of one who is dying), so although I was grateful for their help, they weren’t quite the angels of mercy that the first hospice people were.]

I wasn’t so far gone in grief after Jeff died that I neglected to thank the women who helped me with Jeff — I did, sincerely — but over the years, I haven’t often thought of that time.

And now, twelve years later, I am remembering with love and gratitude, and also, apparently, with panic and dread, though it seems silly since there is absolutely nothing I can do to change even a moment 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.

Grief Eve

Today is the eve of the eleventh anniversary of Jeff’s death. For several years after the first year, the day before the anniversary was painful, but the anniversary itself was not as much of a problem. I don’t know why that was except that perhaps I’d been focused on the anniversary itself and so was prepared for that, but I wasn’t prepared for what I felt in the days leading up to the anniversary.

So far, today isn’t any different from any other day, which kind of surprises me. The calendar this year is exactly the same as the year he died, so I expected to feel something . . . extra. Apparently, he’s been gone so long that I no longer feel the “calendar” of his absence. During the first years, even when I didn’t actually check to see what day it was, I could feel the various anniversaries (his diagnosis, signing up for hospice, his dying) in the marrow of bones, in the depths of my soul.

Body memory such as I experienced is often associated with extreme stress, and the death of a spouse/life mate/soul mate is about as stressful as everyday life gets. Body memory is not a flashback, where you are actually experiencing the trauma again, though that re-experience did happen often during the early years. Nor is it simply a vivid memory. In fact, the body memory comes first, and only afterward do we remember why we felt such an upsurge of emotional and physical grief reactions.

I’ve always felt that my internal clock was reset on the day he died, so that ever after I talk about that day as “the beginning.” Back then, I meant it as the beginning of my grief, but learned to see it as the beginning of a new stage in my life, one that was dictated by his absence, my grief, my struggles to find a new way of living. Now that clock, or at least the internal memory of him and his dying days, has wound down. As you can see, I still count my years from that day, but it is a conscious count, not a body memory.

Many memories of my life before that delineation, that beginning, have faded with the years. It annoys my sister when she asks me about things that happened in our childhood and I don’t remember. (And it annoys me that she still asks, knowing that I don’t remember.) It’s as if those years belonged to someone else’s life in the same way the characters I have read or written weren’t actually my life. Truthfully, I don’t want to remember my younger years. Nor do I have any particular desire to try to remember my years with Jeff — I feel those memories in the void of his absence even if I don’t recall a specific incident.

For many years, every Saturday, the day of the week he died, was a sadder day for me. I could always tell when it was Saturday even when I didn’t know. (I’m one of those people who, if they were in an accident and a medical professional would test my cognizance by asking me the date or the day of the week, I’d fail.) But back then, I did know Saturdays. It’s been a long time since I “felt” a Saturday. All my days, at least as they pertain to Jeff and his absence and my grief, are pretty much the same now. There is a deep running current of sadness that will never leave me, but it doesn’t affect me the way it once did. I can still be happy, can still find joy in the little things of my life, such as the flowers poking their pretty little heads above ground.

But this is how I feel today. Tomorrow is the first time since he died that the anniversary falls on Saturday, so who knows what I will feel, what my body will feel, what I will 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

Remembering

Our bodies remember trauma even if we don’t consciously remember, and for those of us grieving the loss of an intrinsic person in our lives, body memory accentuates the strong emotional impact of anniversaries.

Body memory is often associated with extreme stress. Body memory is not a flashback, where you are actually experiencing the trauma again. Nor is it simply a vivid memory. In fact, the body memory comes first, and only afterward do we remember why we felt such an upsurge of emotional and physical grief reactions.

People often tell us to try to put our deceased loved ones out of our minds. They have the erroneous idea that if we don’t think of our mates, then we won’t grieve.

At first, it’s impossible not to think of our loved ones all the time. Perhaps we feel as if by holding them in our minds, we can stave off their death, even though it’s already happened. Or maybe we want to continue to feel connected. Or it could be that the enormity of death is so overwhelming, we can’t think of anything else.

But eventually, we do learn not to hold as tightly to these thoughts, and sometimes we even forget to think of our loved ones. But our bodies still keep the faith.

I’ve been feeling downhearted lately, more than simply the dreary skies would account for. There is an echo of tears to the melancholy, which made me stop and wonder why now. The tenth anniversary of Jeff’s death isn’t for another few weeks. But ah, I remembered — this is the month where the end started. He bent down to pick something up, felt a terrible pain, and never had a pain-free moment again.

He resisted going to the doctor for as long as he could because he knew it would be the end of him as he knew himself to be. But finally, in the last week of February when he simply could not stand the excruciating pain any longer, he went to the doctor.

And he was right. He never was the same after that. Luckily, we only had six weeks to deal with the horror. (Even though the doctor had said he had six months.) I say “we” because those weeks were hell for both of us, but for different reasons.

Except for this melancholy (and my missing him, of course), there is no real angst, at least not today. He has, after all, been gone long enough for me to get used to the void he left behind. Instead, it seems as if I am keeping vigil as I did that February so many years ago.

The truth is, though, I wouldn’t mind an upsurge of grief. It’s good at times to feel the loss, to know in my bones we had shared our lives, to know that I once loved and once was loved. To remember that I was so connected to another human being, that when he died, it felt as if part of me was amputated.

I’ve been sitting here for the past few minutes trying to find an end to this article, but there is no end. He might be gone from this earth, but he will always be a part of me, a part of my life, if only in memory.

***

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.

Anniversary Reactions

Anniversary reactions are the strong physical and emotional effects experienced on or around the anniversary of a particular trauma. Our bodies remember even if we don’t, and for those of us grieving the loss of an intrinsic person in our lives, body memory accentuates the strong emotional impact of anniversaries.

Body memory is often associated with extreme stress. Body memory is not a flashback, where you are actually experiencing the trauma again. Nor is it simply a vivid memory. In fact, the body memory comes first, and only afterward do we remember why we felt such an upsurge of emotional and physical grief reactions.

People often tell us to try to put our deceased loved ones out of our minds. They have the erroneous idea that if we don’t think of our mates, then we won’t grieve.

At first, it’s impossible not to think of our loved ones all the time. Perhaps we feel as if by holding them in our minds, we can stave off their death, even though it’s already happened. Or maybe we want to continue to feel connected. Or it could be that the enormity of death is so overwhelming, we can’t think of anything else.

But eventually, we do learn not to hold as tightly to these thoughts, and sometimes we even forget to think of our loved ones. But our bodies still keep the faith.

When the brain is overwhelmed with stress and trauma, such as when we are dealing with the death of a life mate, the brain imprints the memory on its fear circuits. Later, when a date or a scent or a sound or the weather triggers that memory, we feel the undiluted power of the trauma.

Now that I no longer have these body memories, I purposely try to remember Jeff’s death anniversary. It’s a way of honoring him, of being grateful he was in my life, of celebrating what we once had.

***

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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 6

People who haven’t experienced the profound grief for a life mate or a child presume grief is simply an emotional and psychological response to the death, so they tell us not to think about our loss, as if that will make the pain go away. (And yet, oddly, at the same time, they try to make us feel as if it’s okay the person died by saying the deceased will always live in memory.)

For some losses, such as an aged relative who lived a long and happy life, pushing aside grief might work. But when it comes to a child or life mate, not thinking about the loss in no way mitigates the grief because the grief is also in our bodies, not just our minds and hearts.

When we are profoundly connected to another person, when their well-being is as important to us as our own. when the two of us share the air we breathe, the electrical emanations from our hearts and brains, the atoms in the atmosphere, the cell information that gets passed back and forth via viruses, we grow so entwined that we become a unit—a survival unit. We humans are essentially pack animals, and our very survival depends on the strength of this pack unit.

After our beloved life mate dies and the unit is dissolved, our lizard brain goes into a panic. Danger! Danger! Something is wrong. Where is the rest of you? What happened? What do I do? Do I freeze you? Make you run? Make you fight? It sends so many chemical and electrical signals throughout our bodies, setting off a cascading series of hormonal reactions, that it leaves us feeling bewildered and traumatized. This is all in addition to our emotional grief.

To make things worse, our half of the survival bond remains strong, a constant reminder of our grief.

Yet people tell us just to forget our loss. To think of something else.

Even if it were that simple, even if we could put the deceased out of our minds, we’d still grieve because our bodies remember. Body memory is not a flashback, where you are actually experiencing the trauma again. Nor is it simply a vivid memory. In fact, the body memory comes first, and only afterward do we remember why we felt such an upsurge of emotional and physical grief reactions.

Jeff died early on a Saturday morning, and for a long time, I would hit emotional lows on Saturdays, even if I didn’t recall what day of the week it was. The effects of body memory were most potent as I neared the first anniversary of his death. For example, after a hiatus of a couple of weeks during the eleventh month where I was mostly at peace, I was so overcome with grief that I wanted to scream out in anguish. I couldn’t figure out what hit me or why, but when I tracked down the source of the pain, I realized it was the first anniversary of the last time we kissed. Apparently, my body thought it was an anniversary worth remembering.

For those witnessing our grief, our plight seems simple, but for us living the horror, as you can see, things are not simple at all.

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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.

Dancing My Way Out of Grief

Today was a particularly intense day for me at the dance studio. I took three classes. Ballet, which wants to twist my body in ways it wasn’t meant to go. Advanced tap, where I am totally out of my depth. And advanced jazz, which wasn’t hard, just exhausting.

The difficulty of the day, particularly tap, which is hard enough for me at a beginner’s level but confusingly difficult in a more advanced class, reminded me of my first days at the studio. I started out with jazz, not knowing what to expect, not knowing I would fall in love with dance and end up taking all possible classes. Since I had no background in dance, and since the group had been together for quite a while before I joined, I was more or less just dumped in the middle of a dance and told to follow along as best as I could until the teacher could find time to work with me. I tried to emulate the others, but even the simplest steps were beyond me. But I practiced. And I learned. Even more importanjazz shoest, I learned how to learn to dance, which is vastly different from learning how to learn academic subjects. (Knowing how to learn is the key to learning, as I’m sure you know.) With more cerebral pursuits, you only have to put your mind in gear. With physical lessons, you have to put your body, mind, and soul into the experience, and once I’d learned to walk, I never had to put that much effort into learning physical things for the simple reason that I had no interest in such matters.

Last summer, before I started taking dance classes, I’d gone on excursions, traveled, visited museums, and did whatever I could to get myself to look more to the present and future rather than back at the past, but I was still subject to upsurges in grief. I was happy enough while doing such things, but as soon as they were over, the sadness descended once again. Dance was the first thing I did that rippled into subsequent days, probably because it was so difficult, all-consuming, and exciting, and it brought me to life.

Learning is my talent, my joy, the thing that makes life worth living, and dance plays into that aptitude for learning since as soon as I learn one step or one dance, there is another one to learn. Even more than that, dance helped push aside the physical memories of my shared life with my soul mate.

When someone close to you dies, especially someone whose life is connected to yours on a profound level, you remember him not just with your mind but with your body. So often, when anniversaries came around, such as the anniversary of his cancer diagnosis or the anniversary of our last kiss, I didn’t remember the day, but my body did. Visiting art museums, reading, writing, walking, helped push the mental memories of him into the far reaches of my mind, but until I began to learn how to dance, there was nothing to distance the body memories.

To a great extent, dance is about body memory. If you have to pay attention to every move you’ve learned instead of letting your body remember, you lose the rhythm of the dance as well as any nuance, and chances are, you’d lose the sense of the movement itself. (For example, in ballet class a couple of days ago, we were trying to figure out why my body wouldn’t do what the steps required it to do, and at one point, the teacher stood behind me, put her hands on my shoulders to feel my movements, and told me to walk. I couldn’t move — for that moment, I forgot how to walk. I was trying to remember in my mind how to walk rather than remembering with my body.)

It’s no surprise that some of my classmates have also suffered a severe loss, whether the death of a husband or a horrendous divorce. For us, dance is not just something fun to do, but a pilgrimage to the far reaches of our new lives.

I’ve come a long way in the year since I showed up for my first dance class. I know more than a dozen dances, know all sorts of different steps and combinations, know that no matter how hard a dance is, I will learn it.

And most of all, I know I am alive.

***

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.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Grieving the End of This Year

I’ve been doing well, continuing on with my life after the death of my life mate/soul mate, and then suddenly, here I am, awash in tears again. I had no idea why this would be so, until I found out that so many others in my grief age group — those whose mates died in 2010 — are also going through an upsurge of grief. And now I know what triggered the tears, though I don’t know why.

The body/mind/soul remembers dates, anniversaries, emotional occasions long after the conscious mind has forgotten, which is why I know when Saturday (the day of his death) is coming around again — I can feel the sadness creeping up on me the day before. He died late Friday night or early Saturday morning depending on how you look at it, and my body seems to look at it both ways. But this upsurge in sadness has nothing to do with Friday or Saturday, or even with Christmas.

For those in my grief age group, this was our second Christmas without our loved ones. It was harder this year for some of us than our first Christmas without, perhaps because the truth is settling into our souls, and we know there will never be another Christmas with them no matter how much we yearn for it. (For this very reason, the second year of grief is sometimes harder than the first. The physical and psychical pain isn’t as great, but the emotional shock that protected us has worn off and the truth that they are never coming back has taken root along with a great clawing yearning to see them one more time.)

We’ve survived most of our firsts — the first birthday without, the first summer, the first Halloween, the first Thanksgiving, the first anniversary of their death — and now one more first is almost upon us. We are coming to the end of the first full calendar year without them.

Why would this ending be an occasion for an upsurge of grief? I don’t know. It’s particularly strange for me since I don’t see anything special about a new year — it’s such an arbitrary date — but apparently my internal datekeeper has made a note of it. And now I am grieving the end of this year, this first full calendar year without him.