Uncoupled In a Coupled World

Valentine’s Day is such a couple’s day that it is a particularly hard day for those were uncoupled by death. Too many people have been left with a broken heart that seems even more broken on February fourteenth.

All holidays are hard, of course, but this is an especially difficult one because romance, with its emphasis on love and couplehood, is the theme. Clichés about love abound: You’re nobody unless somebody loves you. Love fulfills you. Love makes the world go round. All you need is love. Love is all that matters. Two hearts beating as one. Soul mates. Everlasting love.

Wherever we go, whatever we do, we see images of happy couples. It seems as if the day is taunting us with our loss, reminding us that once we were part of a couple, and now we are not. Hence, today, more than any other holiday, we have to guard against bitterness.

I say “we,” but I truly don’t include myself. Well, the part about the songs and love clichés is a problem all year round, or at least, it was. I’m mostly okay with being uncoupled in a coupled world because the truth is, you are someone even if you are now alone, even if yours is the only heart that is still beating. But Valentine’s Day itself was never a special day for me and Jeff because we didn’t really celebrate holidays; neither of us saw the point of buying candy or a present just because someone designated a certain day for that purpose.

Still, I am aware that it is an especially difficult time for many who had to deal with the death of a life mate, soul mate, spouse, and my heart goes out to them. Mostly, though, I wanted to present a different side of the heart and flower theme, to let people know that Valentine’s Day is not a good day for everyone.

Today could have been a hard day for me for an entirely different reason: the high right now is zero, and it’s going to go down to minus fifteen tonight, with a wind chill of minus thirty-five. Yikes. That’s cold! I’ve dealt with such temperatures before, but not when I’ve been living alone, and not when I am nearing “elderly.” But so far, I’ve been fine. I even managed to go out a couple of times to clear a path on the sidewalk. I couldn’t do the whole width — as someone kindly reminded me, it’s dangerous doing physical labor in such frigid conditions.

I hope you’re doing okay, too, whatever adverse situation is you might be dealing with today. Some things change if we wait long enough, such as the weather. Even though it seems as if it’s been winter forever, chances are the days will get warmer. Other situations, such as the death of loved one, there’s nothing to do but get up each day and deal with it the best we can. Even then, sometimes things change if we wait long enough. At the very least, we get used to being uncoupled in a coupled world.

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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

Grieving at Christmas

The misconceptions people have about grief are appalling. Someone asked me today what grievers hope to accomplish by being depressed at Christmas (and not doing anything about it) when the grievers know being depressed won’t bring back their loved one.

As if we a choice about grieving. As if we want to be sad. As if drugging oneself into happiness is a viable choice.

Depression and grief are not choices. They happen whether we want them to or not.

Besides, grief over the loss of a loved one, at Christmas or the rest of the year, is not depression. Clinical depression is being sad for no reason. Grief is its own reason.

Holidays are painful. The first wedding anniversary, the first birthdays, the first major holidays. Each of these days brings a greater sense of grief because we are intensely aware that our life mate is not here to experience these once-happy holidays with us. Whatever traditions we developed together become obsolete when only one of us remains to carry on. The pain and the yearning to be together once more during these times can be devastating.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Years are the big holidays with the biggest challenges. These special days are family celebrations, and often we are left alone with our memories and our feelings, even if we are surrounded by family.

The holidays during the second and third and fourth and even beyond can be just as difficult. Not only are our traditions gone along with our loved one, every commercial, every song, almost every movie tells us we should be happy, but all we know is that the person we most want to be with, the person who helped bring us happiness or helped magnify our happiness is gone. Even worse, we often need to pretend to be happy about our situation to keep from ruining the festivities of others.

The grief we feel at this time of year is not a conscious choice and comes even if we aren’t reminded of the holidays.

Our bodies remember the special occasions. Our bodies as well as our minds and spirits grieve, so even if we are able to put our deceased loved ones out of our minds, our bodies grieve for us with an upsurge of adrenaline and a change in brain chemistry.

It takes a lot of energy to try not to remember, not to grieve, which overwhelms the brain and exacerbates the very stresses we are attempting to overcome.

This is all in addition to normal seasonal effects, such as depression from the shorter days and longer nights. It’s also in addition to the normal stresses of the holidays.

No one wants any of this. No one ever thinks grief will bring the loved one back. We wish . . . oh, how we wish for one more smile or one more word, but it’s not going to happen, and we know that. But still, watching others have what we don’t is very painful, even if we are happy for them and their love.

Supposing we could do something about our sadness at Christmas, what do you expect us to do? Drug ourselves into oblivion? That’s a heck of a lot worse than feeling sad. Grief connects us in a tenuous way to our lost love; it’s a way of honoring them, and feeling the pain is the best way to learn to live without our love.

Jeff has been gone long enough that I no longer feel much of an upsurge in grief at this time of year, but I am very aware of what it used to be like for me and what it remains like for many grievers.

So, if you, too, have archaic ideas about grief, like the person who asked the question, please try not to foist your ideas on grievers. After all, one day you might be grieving at Christmas, too.

See also: What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas? and Dealing With Grief During the Holidays.

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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 Doesn’t Take a Holiday

I wasn’t going to write about grief this Thanksgiving (except for yesterday’s brief mention of the guests who won’t be coming to dinner) because I didn’t want to break anyone’s holiday mood. Then I realized this is exactly the attitude I’ve been fighting. We shouldn’t ignore grief just because it is inconvenient for others or because it might make them pause to reflect on the ephemeral nature of life. Grief is part of life, and for some of us, it is our life.

The truth is, a huge number of people in the United States will be crying themselves to sleep tonight. For some of those people, this is the first Thanksgiving since the death of a significant person in their lives — a spouse, perhaps, or a child. For others it is the second Thanksgiving or even the tenth. But the number of years that the person has been gone doesn’t matter when it comes to holidays. What matters is that our loved ones are dead. A happy occasion with family, friends, food, turns out not to be so much fun when an absence (or a remembered presence) looms darkly over our hearts. Or if the occasion is fun, and the bereft forgets the truth for a moment, the grief rebound can be painful.

I had a lovely time today. Three of my brothers and their mates came to have dinner with my father and me. They brought everything except the table decorations and the turkey. Those I did. (I didn’t actually cook a turkey. I cooked turkey tenderloins several days ago and froze them, then today I steamed the pieces and arranged them on a platter. I didn’t feel up to cooking a turkey, and anyway, the oven is on the blink.)

The talk was congenial, the company delightful, the meal delicious, the toasts divinely inspired (I toasted my mother, who would have been proud of her men. During her final weeks, she worried that the family would drift apart.)

Afterward, two by two, the guests headed home. My father lay down for his nap. And there I was, alone, with no way to go home. My dead mate was my home, and even after nineteen months, I haven’t been able to find “home” within myself or anywhere else for that matter. I stood for a moment feeling adrift and sorry for myself, then set my father’s house to rights — taking the extra leaf out of the table, putting away the dishes that had been washed, doing all the other after tasks.

And then . . . in the quiet moment before I focused my mind on another activity, grief — that great yearning — burst over me. (For those of you who worry about me, there is no need. I am okay. Truly. These grief bursts, which relieve the stress of my sorrow, are how I keep on being okay.)

He is gone, and there is nothing I can do about it. I keep re-realizing those two simple facts. I do not think our brains are wired to understand the sheer goneness of death. Someone emailed me not long ago, expressing her admiration that I can talk about grief without feeling sorry for myself, but honestly, except for isolated moments, which I refuse to feed, I don’t feel sorry for myself. A lot of grief has to do with the mind disconnect that happens when you realize your loved one is no longer here on earth. It’s as if for a second you open up to a cosmic reality or an eternal truth. The façade of life shatters, and through the cracks you can almost see, almost sense, almost know . . .

Then you are back to yourself, and you don’t see, you don’t sense, you don’t know anything but that — holiday or not — you are alone.

To all of my bereft friends, who are struggling with the challenges of this holiday, I wish for you a peaceful night.