Advice to the Newly Bereft

A couple of newly bereft joined the grief group I go to, and seeing how lost and bewildered they are showed me how far I have come these past months. I’ve reached a modicum of peace (though I still have moments of intense grief) and I don’t feel quite so lost and bewildered.

The Kubler-Ross formula for grief is so ingrained in all of us that we think those are the only stages of grief, but I have discovered dozens of phases more universal and potent than denial, guilt, anger, depression. Loss and bewilderment are two such phases. They are major components of grief, though I haven’t found them listed anywhere as a stage the bereft have to deal with.

The worst problem of grief, of course, is that someone who was a vital part of our life is dead. The second worst problem is that we are flooded with so many emotions, topped off with excruciating pain, that it is almost impossible to sort everything out. All these emotions gridlock the brain’s synapses, and we are left feeling lost and alone and totally bewildered. Where did our loved one go? How can he no longer be here? How can the world continue without his presence? How can I continue without his support and love? How can he be so very gone?

That “loss” everyone tells us they are sorry for is not our loved ones. Our loved ones are not lost, not misplaced; they are dead. We bereft are the ones who are lost. Whatever place we thought we had in the world is gone, perhaps forever. The world is different without our loved ones, and this is especially so if the dead we loved was a life partner, a soul mate. They’d become such a part of the fabric of our lives, of our very being, that when death rips them from us, we no longer recognize ourselves. We wander lost, bewildered, in this alien world. Some people manage to find themselves again, others become so changed they never find their way back.

I’d gone through the typical stages of grief before my life mate — my soul mate — died. I’d denied, raged, bargained, accepted, so that I thought I was “over” him, that after his death, my life would continue, sadder, but not much different. The depth of my grief, my loss, my pain, my bewilderment stunned me. I’d gone through all the stages of grief, so I should be okay, right? Wrong. Real grief begins where those so-called stages of grief leave off. Those stages of grief were first noted as the way people learned to accept their coming death, and they bear only a shadow of a resemblance to what those left behind experience.

My life mate and I used to talk about who had it worse — I thought he had it worse because he was the one suffering. He thought I had it worse. It turns out he was right. His suffering is over, but mine will last the rest of my life. My grief will continue to change, to go through additional changes, will abate, might even be forgotten at times, but it is now a part of my life.

And he is not.

That is the crux of the issue, the cause of all that bewilderment, pain, and loss. How do you live with someone who is no longer there? How do you live without them? Here’s how: you find comfort wherever you can, however you can. (Besides drink and recreational drugs, that is.) No matter what you do to get through the worst of your pain, no matter how crazy it is, be assured that others have done it, too. Hug the urn with his ashes, carry his identification, smell or cuddle or wear his clothes, talk to him, scream for him, cover the wall with his photos, write to him, write blogs about your grief. Do whatever it takes to get you through, because, as hard as it is to accept, you are still alive.

Owing His Memory?

I found this paragraph in a book I read recently, and it’s a graphic example of why I want to write a novel about a grieving woman — so few understand the nature of grief:

Jean-Pierre was gone; nothing could bring him back, and her feelings for him, feelings that had risen suddenly, had been ebbing just as quickly as evidence of his involvement with illegal drugs had surfaced. If Jean really had been running drugs, she owed his memory nothing.

Owed his memory? What does that mean? This example seems to have been written by a person who knows little of grief. In all these months of steeping in the world of grief, I have not heard a single person mention owing the dead person’s memory anything.  Memories are all we have left and we treasure them, but we also know that memory is not a living creature to whom we must pay homage. We might feel obligations to those who are gone, obligations such as honoring their wishes as to funerals and disbursement of treasured possessions, but we fulfill those obligations out of love and because we find comfort and continuity in still being able to do things for our loved ones. But owing the memory we have of the person? Doesn’t even make sense.

We bereft are all struggling to find a way to live with the hole in our lives, with the ongoing sadness, with the reality that grief is an unending (though perhaps diminishing) journey. No griever I have met has said, “Wait! I can’t be happy. I owe too much to his memory.” Grieving is a process, something we do, something that happens to us, but it is seldom the choice that is hinted at in the above example. Quite frankly, we are all sick of grieving, of being sad, but the only way not to be sad is to have our loved ones back with us, and since that is impossible in this world, we continue on as best as we can with our shattered lives. But we owe that to ourselves, not to his memory.