Letting Go

My first out-of-town adventure in this new rootless life of mine was going to be a pilgrimage to dispose of Jeff’s ashes. (For those of you who are new to this blog, Jeff was my life mate/soul mate who died five years ago, catapulting me out of our shared life and into a life of accepting whatever comes my way.) I’d been taking care of my nonagenarian father, but now that he’s gone, too, my stuff is in storage. And, I am appalled to admit, so are Jeff’s ashes.

It’s past time for me to dispose of those cremains (as the funeral industry do quaintly calls them), but I don’t know quite where to release the ashes. Disposing of them is more a matter of myth and ritual than reality. I know he is gone and that they have nothing to do with him or his life, but they are his last earthly remains, the inorganic part of his body that was left behind when he was cremated.

I’d planned to take the ashes to northern California when I went to visit a friend, to scatter them in the ocean near the Redwood Forest because he loved both water and trees, but since neither of us had ever been there, it seems wrong, somehow. Disposing of this last vestige of his life should feel right to me —- I am the one left to deal with his goneness. But I don’t feel right about any of it. I don’t feel right about his being gone, though when I subtract him out of the equation of my life, I’m fine. Happy even. I certainly don’t feel right about keeping his remains in a rented storage unit, but they’ve been there five weeks already, so I don’t suppose it matters if they are there a while longer.

People tell me I will know when the time is right, and this time does feel right. It’s the place that confuses me. Do I take him out to the desert on a windy day and let him go where he wishes? Do I take him back to Colorado, back to the creek where we talked about our future, or maybe back to where we lived? Do I take him to Minocqua where he’d dreamed of opening a mom-and-pop store on the lake? But oh! He’d feel so far away. As if he isn’t already so far from me.

In the days after Jeff’s death, a minister friend advised me to save some of the cremains, which was good advice. I’d never planned to keep them but having them with me brought me comfort. But I don’t feel right about keeping some and getting rid of the rest. It would feel so . . . scattered.

Though I have his ashes with me, it feels as if I left him in Colorado. I left his car there. (I donated it to hospice.) I think I would feel better if his ashes were there, too, for no other reason than that is where I picture him. We never talked about what to do with his ashes, but once when I mentioned I was considering taking them to the North Fork a mile or two from where we lived, his eyes lit up.

It will be a while before I get back to Colorado — I have a dance performance coming up, housesitting jobs, and a New Years resolution to keep. (I promised an online friend — my first and staunchest fan! — that we would meet this year for sure, so with or without Jeff’s ashes, I’ll be heading for northern California first chance I get.)

I never thought it would be hard to scatter his ashes — after all, they are doing no earthly good sitting in a storage unit — and now I realize it’s going to be immensely difficult, that final letting go.

But it has to be done. Doesn’t it?


(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.”)


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.

Death For Dummies

I’ve learned a lot about death recently. Well, not death exactly – only those who have died can know what death is – but I have learned way more than I want to know about the practicalities and obligations of those who are left behind. I considered writing a manual, sort of a Death for Dummies, then I realized when a person is caught in that horror, the last thing one wants to do is read a how-to-guide. Besides, one learns soon enough what needs to be done.

My life mate/soul mate of thirty-fours years died at the end of March, and in between unbelievable bouts of pain and agony, I have been dealing with the practical issues. One thing that came as a surprise to me, though it shouldn’t have, is how heavy a person’s ashes are. They are not ashes, actually, which I already knew. (And so would you if you had read Daughter Am I.) What remains are the inorganic compounds – the minerals, the part that was never alive in the first place – and most minerals are heavy. Those in the funeral business don’t call them ashes. They call them cremains. Sheesh. I could do without the cute name. “Ashes,” at least, connote an offering, or perhaps a resurrection of sorts.

A friend – a minister who has had extensive experience with the dying and the bereaved – suggested I keep the ashes, or some of them, anyway. I had never considered it, but since I couldn’t figure out where to scatter them, and didn’t want to go through the trouble of finding out the local laws on the matter, I followed the minister’s advice. And having the urn with me brings a bit of comfort. (Urn is a misnomer, as is so much in the funeral business. The urn is simply a sealed plastic or brass box.)

Another friend sent me this poem:

Support From Others
Author Unknown

Don’t tell me that you understand.
Don’t tell me that you know.
Don’t tell me that I will survive,
How I will surely grow.
Don’t come at me with answers
That can only come from me.
Don’t tell me how my grief will pass,
That I will soon be free.
Accept me in my ups and downs.
I need someone to share.
Just hold my hand and let me cry
And say, “My friend, I care.”

I’d like to make an addition to the poem:

Don’t tell me to “hang in there.”
Makes me wonder: Hang from what? And where?

What meant the most were those who cried with me. Not enough tears had been shed for him – no amount of tears will ever be enough – so those tears gave me comfort. I don’t mean to be maudlin, but this is a trauma – an amputation of sorts – and it shouldn’t pass lightly.


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.