Dealing With Death

Death is such a strange thing. A person lives and then something happens, and they are gone. The survivors have to deal with all the terrible death tasks — arranging a funeral, taking care of finances, getting rid of the person’s effects. And then life closes around where the person used to be, and to the world at large, it’s as if the deceased has never been.

It’s only the loved ones left behind who feel the absence, who have to deal with the grief, the angst, the loss, the missing, the yearning. When grief is new, all of those chaotic feelings fill the void where the loved one used to be, and then years later, many years later, even those feelings dissipate, and what’s left behind is a photo that begins to seem like that of a stranger. Even the void left behind loses its name — it becomes just a feeling of something that should be there but isn’t.

Even with all my experience with grief, I’m just as tongue-tied as anyone when it comes to offering words of condolence. In my case, it’s not ignorance of what the person is feeling, but a recognition of the terrible angst they are going through and will continue to go through for a very long time.

Some people never get a chance to work through all those feelings. If an elderly woman loses a son, as did my mother, chances are she will die with those feelings. In my mother’s case, the death of her fifty-four-year-old son killed her. Oh, not immediately, but she never got over the shock of his death or the horror of seeing him in a casket. She got sick within a couple of months, and she died right before the one-year anniversary of his death.

A friend has recently lost her son, and I can’t help thinking of my mother and what the death of my brother did to her. In light of that, it’s almost impossible to find consoling words for something I know cannot be consoled. As I’ve often told people — it’s not what you say that matters, it’s what you do. It’s being there. It’s letting the bereaved find what comfort they can in your presence.

For a while, people do rally around the bereaved, and then gradually, they move on, getting back into the swing of their own lives, leaving the bereaved alone to deal with their grief the best way they can.

It’s not the best system, perhaps, but it is what it is. After all, as people often have said, life is for the living, and it’s the living who gradually fill in the void where the deceased used to be — someone will take over their job, someone will wear their clothes and use their things, someone will move into their house. Gradually, the remnants of the deceased’s presence will disappear and life will continue largely unchanged for most people. But for the people who lost their loved one? The void remains, and their life will never be the same.

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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

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

Preparing for Grief

An online friend who will soon be experiencing grief due the death of a loved one, asked me which of my books I would suggest she read to help her prepare.

To be honest, there is no way to prepare for such a physical, emotional, and spiritual upheaval. No matter how much we are prepared, the actuality of the experience is more than we could ever imagine because there is nothing that compare. Even people who have suffered comparable losses, such as an undesired divorce, are shocked when they have to contend with death as well as all the painful changes they were expecting.

We simply do not have the capacity for understanding death, what it means to the person dying, what their death means to us. When it happens, all we can do is stand at the abyss, and wonder if our grief will carry us over the edge.

The best way to prepare is to try to keep from falling into the pitfalls of regret and guilt, to try to act in a manner that won’t carry an additional burden into grief. I say “try” because there is no way to prevent such pitfalls. Even though a person might be dying, they are still alive, and life carries with it emotions and actions that that seem reasonable at the time and only in memory prove to be problematic. When one of a couple is struggling to live while the other is preparing to die, emotions run strong. The only time Jeff and I ever got into a verbal altercation was three weeks before he died. The problem is, although we know they are dying, we don’t know it. It seems as if forever after, they will be dying, and so we don’t truly fathom that one day they will be gone from our lives.

All we can do is love the person, do the best we can for them and for ourselves, and try to keep up our strength. A dying vigil is exhausting. Death tasks are exhausting. Grief is exhausting.

All that being said, both my books can help a person get through the lonely years that follow.

Grief: The Great Yearning is a compilation of letters, blog posts, and journal entries I wrote while struggling to survive my first year of grief. As one reviewer said, “This is an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Many people use this book as well as my blog posts as a checkpoint to see if what they are feeling is normal, because the truth is, such grief feels anything but normal. They need to read my story partly as a validation of their own experience and to see that they are not alone in what they feel. Grief is horrendously isolating. Few of us know anyone who has experienced grief. Few of us know anyone who is willing to let us talk about how we feel without trying to “fix” us. Death is simply not fixable. It’s something that must be assimilated. And grief is how we assimilate such a profound loss.

Although the official consensus is that everyone’s grief is different, I have found the opposite to be true. We may actually grieve differently in that some people cry, some scream, some become ill, some refuse to acknowledge their feelings, but the pattern of grief after the loss of a spouse, life mate, soul mate is more or less the same for most of us. So this is not just my story, but the story of many grievers I have encountered during the years after the death of my life mate/soul mate.

Grief: The Great Yearning is a personal look at grief from the inside out. Grief: The Inside Story is look at grief from the outside in, written eight years after the onset of my grief. It’s more of a guide, an explanation of the various permutations of grief and how it changes us than simply one woman’s story. Although the book is obviously personal since my grief is the grief I am most familiar with, other people have allowed me to use their thoughts and experiences to create this guide, this explanation of grief and what the experience entails.

Coping with the death of a loved one can be the most traumatic and stressful situation most people ever deal with — and the practical and emotional help available to the bereaved is often very poor. As the bereaved struggle to make sense of their new situation they often find that the advice they receive is produced by medical professionals who have never personally experienced grief; and filled with platitudes and clichés, with very little practical help. How long does grief last? What can I do to help myself? Are there really five stages of grief? Why can’t other people understand how I feel? Will I ever be happy again? Grief: The Inside Story debunks many established beliefs about what grief is, how it affects those left behind, and how to adjust to a world that no longer contains your loved one.

Although I don’t often include it with my grief books because it is fiction, Unfinished is also an important about grief. It shows the emotional instability and practical concerns the woman character experiences while her husband is dying and shows the surreal thinking that she experienced after he was died. One reviewer found it unbelievable that a woman who so loved her husband that she experienced so much mental and physical devastation after he died, would act the way she did, carrying on with another man during that last year. But all that shows me is that she was never there. You truly do not know the skewed way one can think when forced into such an untenable situation.

Would anyone believe, considering all my talk of grief, considering our almost cosmic connection, considering all he had meant to me over the decades we were together, that there were times during that last year of our shared life when I hated him, when I just wished he’d die and get it over with? Many of us have been there, and it is a secret we hold close, seldom admitting it even to ourselves. (Thinking back, I’m sure he knew, and I’m sure he never held it against me, though I did.)

I guess, then, after reviewing all my books, a person who wants to prepare themselves for what is coming, should read Unfinished first, then Grief: The Great Yearning, and finally, Grief: The Inside Story.

It’s All Small Stuff

Yesterday’s post, “It All Matters” was not supposed to be so much an explanation of why I blog about the things I do but rather an explanation of why small things are important (and important enough to blog about).

There is a saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff.” Believe me, it’s not all small stuff. Dying. Death. Grief. Loss. Love. Birth. These are all huge. You can’t choose not to “sweat” them, because they sweat you. So much of the accompanying emotional, mental, chemical and hormonal changes occur without your volition. They all work to propel you into a new way of being so that you can eventually handle those immense and intense life events.

When you are dealing with changes, especially traumatic changes, it’s the small things that keep you going. A cup of tea. A flower blooming in the desert. A smile from a stranger. A shadow. (After Jeff died, I so often walked with my head down to keep people from seeing the bleakness in my eyes, that I was very aware of shadow play.)

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, there was something I once did that helped train me for grief. Jeff and I lived on a lane that was less than a third of a mile long. At one end was private property. At the other end a busy highway. To take a walk of any length, I had to walk up and down, up and down that lane. It was like a treadmill in that the scene never changed. It could have been horrendously boring, but I learned to look for the small things: a flower growing in the gravel, a reflection in the irrigation ditch water, a pretty weed. I also learned to look through the eye of a camera. Focusing on one of those small things (or even a big thing like the mountains in the distance) helped make that walk as interesting as a hike in the forest. (Well, maybe not that interesting, but it did keep me going.)

After Jeff died, what kept me going were the small things. What brought the world into focus was the eye of the camera. (I was too raw at the time to be able to see life as a whole. I had to break everything up into small, lens-size pieces.)

Conversely, it was also the small things that brought me low. One of the first upsurges of grief came when I broke a mug. The mug was unimportant but it was something gone from our shared life. One of the worst upsurges of grief came when I was blindsided by lilacs. Jeff had loved lilacs, and we had planted them all around the property where we lived. I’d never seen any lilacs in the desert I’d moved to after he died, but one day, shortly after the first anniversary of his death, the scent of a stray lilac bush in a vacant lot called to me, and I was once again awash in grief.

Mostly, though, focusing on the small things helped. I could not deal with the enormity of death, but I could focus on a dying leaf. I could not deal with the immenseness of learning to live without the one person who had made it all worthwhile, but I could focus on a budding flower. I could not embrace life quite yet, but I could focus on a hug or a smile; I could focus on a single bite of food or drink.

Grief is such a hard thing to deal with, but it does come with its lessons, and one such lesson is that in comparison to the immensity of loss, it’s all small stuff. And the small stuff really is important.

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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.

Handling Someone Else’s Grief

In the book I am currently reading, a thirty-year-old woman lost her 5-month old baby to crib death, and now, nine months later, she is still grieving, still depressed. Because of a divorce, she and the baby had been living with her parents, and since they can no longer handle her grief — they feel as if they’d lost her as well as their grandchild — they ship her off to her godmother. The godmother is freaking out because she doesn’t know how to help the bereft woman, doesn’t know how to bring her out of her depression, and the godmother is emoting through many pages about her inability to cope.

This sort of story — this attitude — makes me so very frustrated!! It’s not enough that we (they) lost someone intrinsic to our lives, we have to deal with people’s need to help.

Here’s a clue, folks. For all of you who have asked me over the years how to help someone who is grieving: don’t help.

Let them grieve. So what if you can’t handle their pain. It is their pain. Sometimes love means letting your loved one hurt, letting them nurse their pain. Grief is how a person becomes someone who can handle the loss. You do not go from being an ecstatic mother to being a happy non-mother in a few months. It is not possible. Grief takes you where you need to go, takes you to a happy-but-sad (sad-but-happy?) place, though it takes way more — years more — than a mere nine months.

Nine months is nothing when it comes to the loss of a life. Sure, the baby had only lived a few months, but what the mother grieves along with the loss of those few months, are the young girl, the young woman, the happy wife, the radiant mother, the grateful grandmother the baby would have been. That is a whole lot of grief to deal with.

If you can’t handle a griever’s pain, realize that what they are feeling is a thousand times worse than what you are feeling. Have empathy. Swallow your pain and let them talk about their loss and sorrow. Prepare food for them if you must, but don’t guilt them into eating it.

Grief is in control. Not the griever. Not you.

It is their grief. Whether it takes nine months or nine years, it is none of your business. Sorry to sound harsh, but it isn’t. Grievers go through more than you can ever imagine, more than can ever be expressed in one silly story about helping someone overcoming the loss of their baby. So let them get on with their grieving.

You can and should be there (and still love them) when the grievers become someone you don’t know. Because they will become such a person. It is the nature of grief. And you cannot hurry grief.

It is this sort of simplistic view of grief that made me write about grief from the very beginning. It’s important for people to know the truth. It’s not the griever who has to change their attitude toward grief. It is the friends and families of grievers who must accommodate their loved one as grief takes the bereft where they need to go.

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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: The Inside Story

One common challenge facing all of us — grievers, friends of grievers, and health care professionals — is how to help those who are experiencing grief after bereavement.

Coping with the death of a loved one can be the most traumatic and stressful situation most people ever deal with — and the practical and emotional help available to the bereaved is often very poor. I found this to be true as I recovered from the loss of my life partner.

How long does grief last? What can I do to help myself? Are there really five stages of grief? Why can’t other people understand how I feel? Will I ever be happy again? Questions like these aren’t easily dealt with, and much of the literature aimed at the bereaved can read either like a medical textbook.

My new book Grief – The Inside Story: A Guide to Surviving the loss of a Loved One aims to answer these big questions in a straightforward way, and it may be of help to you or someone you know.  If you would like to know more a free easily-downloadable sample of the book, and a complete and detailed listing of its contents, is available here: https://www.docdroid.net/klBIjLB/grief-by-pat-bertram.pdf

The book trailer is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtLwOpGpm_w

Grief – The Inside Story is now available from Amazon (www.amazon.com/dp/0368039668), and all good bookstores. If you have any questions I’d love to hear from you.

Preparing for a Life Mate’s Death

People often ask me how they can prepare themselves to cope with the eventual death of their spouse, but there is no way to ever prepare yourself for such an eventuality. You cannot imagine how you will feel when they die — it truly is unimaginable — so the best thing you can do is spend time with them now, enjoy what you have together, and let the end take care of itself. If you prepare now for what you imagine you will feel then, you will miss the very things that will get you through the pain and loneliness — creating memories, knowing you did the best for your loved one that you could, having no regrets as to your actions.

The truth is, grief at the loss of a spouse is so great and so all-consuming, that it changes you into the person who will be able to live without your mate. Not at first, of course. There is no way to prepare for the pain you will feel. But as time goes on, you will become the person you need to be and you will learn to embrace life again. Even the loneliness will become bearable.

It is not our choice who lives and who dies, but we can choose to live despite their death. I have met many widows and widowers since I lost my life mate, and every one of them eventually found a way not only to survive, but to thrive.

While dealing with the horrendous loss of their mates, while still grieving well into their second and third year, women have traveled the world alone to honor their husband’s dream. By themselves, they have closed up the house they lived in for twenty years and moved halfway across the country. They have put in irrigation systems, have finished building a house, have written books, have taken up painting, have gone back to school, have started businesses, have blogged about their grief. They have made new friends. They have worked to support themselves and their families, and to pay the medical bills their husbands left behind. They have welcomed grown children back into their homes, helped take care of newborns and elderly parents. All while dealing with active grief.

Just as you cannot imagine how you will feel, you cannot imagine who you will become. So, try not to imagine the unimaginable. Celebrate what you still have, and if the day comes when you are left alone, you will be able to do whatever you need to do.

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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.

Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home

When I was young, my favorite song was Joe South’s “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home.” Back then, the lyrics spoke to me of poignancy, change, and the way growth was destroying the special places in the world.

Now, I couldn’t bear to listen to the song. It would speak to me of grief, of loss, of my inability to ever go home again. And oh, I do so want to go home!

This is an especially hard time for me because I am nearing the eighth anniversary of Jeff’s death. I’ve been holding on to myself, not giving in to sadness, (or rather, not welcoming it), just trying to take life as it comes.

Well, today at dance class, life came hard. After we’d practiced the dance we’re learning for a performance, the others were standing around talking about the dance and how to do things or change things or something unimportant like that.  So I took the opportunity to step outside and scratch myself discreetly. As I left, one woman called after me as if I were doing something wrong, “Pat, don’t be like that.”

Well, I scratched, took a few deep cleansing breaths, and went back inside to where a couple of the women were talking about me. Then the teacher lectured us on how there is no animosity in dance class.

Huh? Animosity? The only animosity I felt today was against this itch that won’t go away. Through ballet class and then belly dance class, I’d barely said anything to anyone, just minded my own business, and for what?

I don’t know.

I don’t know what I’m doing here anymore, but I still don’t know where to go, still don’t know how to create a new life. Still don’t know how to earn a living. (I’ve always hoped I’d be able to make a living with my books, but I can’t even give them away.)

I just know I want to go home and there is no home to go home to. Jeff was my home. He’s gone, and I am just so damn tired of it. I’ve done very well with my meager resources all these years, finding renewal, finding a dream, even finding joy at times, but still, he’s dead.

I spend a lot of time counseling grief-stricken folks — sometimes just through this blog, sometimes through email or phone conversations, and I always tell people the truth. That it is almost impossibly hard. That they will always miss him/her. That they will find renewal, though it might take many years.

What I’ve never said is that the one thing you never get over is being tired of their being dead. How can you? Although your efforts through time do make things better, it’s the passing of time that continues to make things hard, because every year that goes by is another year they’ve been gone, another year you’ve had to live without them.

Luckily, this month is more than half over, and every day that brings me closer to the anniversary also brings me closer to my May trip. I can’t make changes until after the trip since I won’t know until then if any sort of epic hike is possible, so I’m sort of just hanging in there by the tips of my fingers. Holding myself together the best as I can.

But oh, I’m so tired of having to do any of this.

If I could just go home for a little while . . .

But I can’t.

Dammit.

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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.

Fabulous Review of UNFINISHED

Getting a good review is always heartening for an author, but even more gratifying is when the reader/reviewer “gets” the story.

Unfinished was a hard book for me to write because it called up the horrific and inexplicable emotions I experienced during the first few months after the death of my life mate/soul mate, but knowing that others appreciate Unfinished makes the dredging of my grief worthwhile.

I hope this review by Sheila Deeth, author in her own right, will intrigue you enough that you’ll check out Unfinished.

Sheila Deeth‘s review of Unfinished:

Beautifully balanced blend of grief, romance and mystery

Many things are left unfinished when a life is cut short, even if the ending is long and slow, well-predicted, and sensibly prepared-for. Words are left unsaid, secrets left untold. And relationships tremble in the wind of passage. Platitudes offer neither comfort nor wisdom, and grief is a full-time job.

Pat Bertram’s Unfinished invites readers into that grief, while adding layers of mysteries, hints of betrayals, and conversations beautifully recorded of honest recognition. “One of the ironies of grief is that… when people should be looking out for you, you have to… make allowances for their discomfort,” says one character, while others tell Amanda she should pick herself up.

Unfinished is a beautiful combination of intriguing fiction and informative wisdom, leading readers along the path of grief, through byways of longing and guilt. Faith is respectfully recognized and recorded, but never a call for commitment—it’s what others believe, including Amanda’s husband David, but it’s not part of her life.

The story tells of David’s illness, the temptations of drugs to kill physical pain and the internet for mental and emotional hurts, and the aching need for human interaction. It’s a story of betrayals past and future, secret and open, and of a woman slowly coming to terms with life on her own. Mystery perfectly balances grief, the plot moves forward decisively even while Amanda digs into the past, and the dialog is convincing and wisely thought-provoking.

Good fiction with wise lessons, pleasing humor and wounded depths, Unfinished is a book you’ll keep to reread when it’s unfinished.

Click here to buy Unfinished by Pat Bertram: https://www.amazon.com/Unfinished-Pat-Bertram/dp/1941071651/ 

Glad about Grief

Almost five years ago, my life mate/soul mate died, leaving me in a world of pain.

I hesitated about using such a cliché, but the truth is, the world for me was pain. My heart hurt, my lungs hurt, my mind hurt, my soul hurt. I was surrounded by hurt. Everything I saw, smelled, touched brought pain. I couldn’t make sense of what had happened. How could he be dead? How could I not be?

Ferris wheelMost of the pain has been now absorbed, amoeba-like, by the days of my life. During the past five years, I have traveled, taken dance classes, learned new things, made new friends, lost friends, had new experiences, attended festivals and fairs, ridden Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds, suffered various ailments, written more than a thousand blogs, walked thousands miles, dreamed impossible dreams as well as merely improbable ones, been hurt, inadvertently hurt others, made plans and abandoned plans, panicked, found peace at times, even found pieces of time.

All of that living has bounded the pain, creating a buffer between me and the rawness of the universe, making it easier to embrace the future, wherever it might take me. (Easier, not easy. There is a contract on my father’s house, which, if accepted, will mean the beginning of the next phase of my life. And since I have no clue where I will go, I have moments of panic because I just am not ready. And yet . . . I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.)

Despite the buffer, the pain does seep into my consciousness at times, stealing my breath, and filling me with sorrow. The difference between now and the beginning (odd that I always call his death “the beginning”) is that where once I railed against the pain, now I welcome it because I am reminded of him, of his life, of our shared life, and that is good. He is no longer the focus of my life, and that also is good since such a one-sided relationship can bring no joy or growth, but he is and will always be a part of my life. He is and always will be a person unto himself, and it’s that person I celebrate with my brief and occasional bouts of tears.

The world is poorer for his absence. And someone, if only me, should acknowledge that. I used to wish grief weren’t so hard. Now I’m glad that it is.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels 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.