Going with the Flow of the Story

SWhen I write fiction, whether a short story or a novel, I always need to know who the main characters are, what they want, who is trying to keep them from getting what they want, and if they are successful in their quest. In fact, the ending is so important to me, that I often write the ending somewhere in the middle of the project. By then, the characters have been developed, most of the story has been laid out, and I can see how the pieces fit and know exactly where I am going. (I just thought of something — my unfinished novel has been paused for several years now. Only part of that is a loss of focus due to the changes in my circumstance. The rest comes from a lack of inclination to continue. It is the first novel I worked on that I did not write the ending in middle. I wonder doing so would get me back on track?)

The one project I am involved with that turns this need to know the ending on its head, is the Rubicon Ranch serial I am writing with other Second Wind authors. In the first book, we postulated a murder, then each of us created a character who might have reason to want to kill the little girl. That is all we had of the story when we began to write it. We knew, of course, that the killer would be found, but we didn’t know who did it, why it was done, or how the story would be resolved. We simply took turns writing our chapters in round robin fashion, and hoped readers would forgive us if all those different POVs made the story seem disjointed at times. (Normally, when you write a novel, you get to go back and fix any problems during rewrites, but when you write a novel online, you are stuck with what you wrote.)

My character Melanie Gray is a grieving woman. We started the project just a few months after the death of my life mate/soul mate, and I couldn’t conceive of any other sort of character — at the time, grief was all I knew. To make her a widow, I had to get rid of her husband, so I killed him in an accident before the story began. That was the sole point of the accident, yet in a later chapter, the sheriff seemed to insinuate that there could be a connection between Melanie’s husband and the little girl — perhaps they had both seen something and been killed to protect it.

Well, it turned out that the two deaths were unrelated, but later the sheriff (as written by Lazarus Barnhill) told Melanie he concluded that the accident had been deliberate.

Now, during the second book, even more information about Alexander is being revealed — he had, in fact, been murdered, and the car tampered with in such a way that it had to have been done by a skilled professional.

I find that development interesting since when I created the character of the dead husband, he had a single role — to make Melanie a widow — but because of the flow of the story, the husband is developing into a character in his own right, and a nefarious one at that.

Melanie, too, is developing in response to the needs of the story, or at least to the needs of her backstory. She and her husband were the authors of a successful series of coffee table books. They’d traveled the world, he taking photos, she writing the text, so obviously she isn’t the weakling her grief makes her seem. One of the ironies of her life is that while living in places where human rights weren’t respected, she never had a problem, yet now, in the safest place she’d lived in her adult life, she is steeped in death and in trouble with the authorities. (If you’ve read any of my books, you will know that I like ironies.)

It’s a refreshing change of pace being involved in the Rubicon Ranch project. All I need to do is write my chapter when it is my turn; make sure it is consistent with what I know of the character, her background, and what has already been written; and not worry about what is coming next — just go with the flow.

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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+

Grief: The Great Yearning

I never  set out to write a book about grief,  but I was so lost, so lonely, so sick with grief and bewildered by all I was experiencing, that the only way I could try to make sense of it was to put my feelings into words. Whether I was writing letters to my deceased life mate/soul mate or simply pouring out my feelings in a blog or a journal, writing helped me feel close to him, as if, once again, I was talking things over with him. The only problem was, I only heard my side of the story. He never told me how he felt about his dying and our separation. Did he feel as broken as I did? Did he feel amputated? Or was he simply glad to be shucked of his body, and perhaps even of me?

I wrote this letter to him exactly two years ago. It shows some of the collateral effects of grief, such as the questioning, the yearning, the struggle to come to terms with death and dying. Although I am going through a time of relative peace, what I wrote back then still holds true today.

Excerpt from Grief: The Great Yearning:

Dear J,

For the first time since you died, I almost forgot to advance your permanent calendar. I’m surprised I’ve remembered to do it all these months. I thought it would be a remembrance, but I don’t need anything to remind me of you — everything I see, say, do reminds me of you.

I’ve decided the only way to fill the hole you left in my life, to make sense of your absence, is to fill it with activities I would not have done if you were alive. There are not enough events in the whole world to fill the void, but I need to try, otherwise I’ll never manage to get through the next decades. I hope I don’t become one of those people who hold on to their pain because it’s all they have to make them feel alive, but it is all I have to connect to you. Well, I have memories and some of your things, but that’s not enough.

Would your death be easier to accept if you’d been happy? Is your unhappiness a reason for me to accept your death? What makes this so confusing is that your long dying, the accumulating weakness and pain made you unhappy, so how can I use that as a rationale for being okay with your dying?

I’m like a child, wanting to scream, “It’s unfair!” And it is, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re dead.

Did I hold your hand when you died? I think I just stood there as you took your last breath, but I don’t remember. I don’t remember much of the last couple of years. It’s like I was in suspended animation, just waiting for you to die. What a terrible thing to say, but it was a terrible time to have lived through. But you didn’t live through it, did you? Well, you did live it, you just didn’t survive it.

I wonder if subconsciously I knew all this pain was waiting for me, and that’s why I closed myself off from the reality of your dying. I don’t like this, J. I don’t like it at all

***

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.

Click here to find out more about Grief: The Great Yearning

Grief Rant

I still have some anger in me, apparently. I occasionally “flame out” as one friend said when I disagreed with an email that friend sent. I am regaining my equilibrium, though, able to get through my days mostly even tempered, but one thing continues to raise my ire: when people assume all grief is the same, and especially when they assume they understand the grief of someone who lost a soul mate because they lost a beloved pet. Such a comment set me off tonight, and when my reply ended up being longer than some of my blog posts, I decided to publish the comment here rather than get in a grief match (“my grief is worse than your grief”) because, honestly, all loss is devastating, especially when it happens to you.

And yet . . . the death of a pet, no matter how beloved, is not the same as losing a soul mate. Nor is the trauma of losing a brother or a mother the same as losing a long-time spouse. The only thing that comes close is losing a child. (My younger brother’s death hastened my mother’s death. She died a year after he did.)

I understand there are all kinds of grief, and I know they all have to be honored. Grief of any kind that is not processed can cause additional problems. (Or not. Some people seem to do quite well walling off their grief.)

My concern has always been for those who have to deal with the death of a spouse, whether a life mate or a soul mate because that sort of all-encompassing grief is more than most people can comprehend. I thought I understood grief — after all, I grieved the deaths of my brother and my mother — but until the death of my life mate/soul mate, I never even knew such profound grief existed. During the past two and a half years, I have met dozens, maybe hundreds of women who have lost their mates, and they all mentioned the same thing — they had to hide their grief because no one understood. That is unconscionable. (I didn’t have this problem. I’m a quasi hermit, so no one was around to see me mourning.)

The truth is, it’s the very prevalence of grief that makes people uncomfortable with the profound grief of someone who lost a soul mate. People figure they got over their grief, whatever or whoever it was for, so you should, too. The trouble with losing your mate is that your grief is not just emotional, but also physical. In addition to the unimaginable agony of loss, you have to deal with shock, a blizzard of hormonal reactions, changes in brain chemistry, an incredible level of stress (losing a mate is considered the most stressful thing a person ever has to deal with; many people end up being treated for PTSD). Your death rate climbs 25% for all causes.

Added to that are all the horrendous “death” chores you have to deal with such as planning a funeral and filling out all the official and financial paperwork involved in “removing” someone from the world. As your emotions begin to stabilize, you have other griefs to deal with since a soul mate is more than a spouse — he’s also a best friend, companion, sometimes even a business partner, and all those losses have to be processed. You also grieve for the loss of yourself, at least your coupled self. And then you have to deal with the restructuring of your life. Your dreams are gone as are your plans for the future so you need to find new reasons to live. Sometimes you have to leave your home. It takes years to sort out all the losses so you can process them and begin again.

I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s grief. But, as I explained in my post, Why I Write About My Grief, people who have lost a mate deserve a lot more consideration and understanding from their family and friends than the assumption that their loss is comparable to the loss of a beloved pet.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy 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+

No One to Do Nothing With

When my life mate/soul mate/best friend died two and a half years ago, people often compared my loss to the death of a pet or an aged grandparent or a sibling (all the while snug in the comfort of their own marriages). Some people compared my loss to their divorce. A couple of people even mystified me by comparing my loss to their struggles with alcoholism. Although these comparisons seemed insensitive at the time (I had previously lost both a sibling and my mother, and those losses in no way resembled what I felt after my soul mate died), I now understand people were reaching out to me, trying to comprehend my grief and to put it into a context they could understand.

The wound where his presence was ripped from my soul no longer gapes as widely; the feeling of his total goneness doesn’t haunt me quite so much; the anguish and physical distress has ebbed to an underlying sadness. This easing of grief has unmasked more subtle feelings of loss, and suddenly I can see how this itch to see him once more is comparable to the struggles of an alcoholic. We both  have to live — forever —with a deep craving that can never be satisfied, both have an empty feeling that can never be filled, and we both live in a world where others routinely enjoy what we can’t. (Like all comparisons, this one falls short since those who give up drink have to do so from sheer force of will, while my lack is simply a result of fate.)

I hadn’t realized until after he was gone how much I counted on his very presence.

The sound of his voice filled my ears and my mind. From the moment we met until the cancer metastasized into his brain, we talked and talked and talked. We talked about everything — history, books, health, truth, all the many and various things we researched over the years. Though we said everything we needed to say, I still wish for one more word from him.

During silent times, his smiles nourished my soul. Even at the end, in his moments of lucidity before either the pain or the morphine swept him away, he still managed to smile at me. And oh, how I wish for one more smile.

A couple of days ago I wrote about my growing soul hunger, an indefinable need his presence had once satisfied, and now I wonder if that need is . . . nothing. Although we worked and played and talked for more than three decades , we often did nothing together. Were just there, a presence in each other’s lives. As his dying became the focus of our lives, and we couldn’t do much of anything together, not even carry on a conversation, we could still do nothing together, and we often did.

Although I am finding others to fill some of the roles he played in my life, this last is the role no one can fill. I have people to do things with, but I have no one to do nothing with. And, like an alcoholic, the one thing I need is the one thing I can’t have. He was a presence in my life first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. He was a presence in the kitchen when we fixed meals together. He was a presence when we watched movies or ran errands or did chores. He was a presence in my thoughts — because we had spent so much time together, discussing history and current events, our ideas developed in tandem. And we didn’t have to explain ourselves or our state of affairs — we were there and saw the effects life had on the other.

I understand that this sort of companionship is rare, and I feel greedy and perhaps insensitive for even mentioning the lack of his presence in my life, but this is my truth, my experience, my sorrow. No matter how much I wish things were different, these circumstances will never change, but I will. I am becoming more accepting of my situation, more respectful of the soul hunger, more grateful for what I once had. It’s possible someday I will even get used to having no one to do nothing with.

Writing My Life

I’m writing a short story for the Second Wind Publishing holiday anthology, and it just occurred to me that the main character is the first one I have created since the death of my life mate/soul mate who isn’t a grieving widow.

I started a novel a couple of years ago, wanting to capture what it felt like to lose a spouse while my feelings were fresh, but I haven’t finished the book. The pain that seeps into the story is too raw for me to handle yet, and besides, I still don’t know what the point of the story is. Is it primarily to show what it feels like to grieve? Is it primarily the mystery of why her minister husband would get out of his deathbed to kill a neighbor? Is it primarily the mystery of who she is now that she is no longer a minister’s wife? Is it a story of renewal, love, acceptance? Unless I figure it out, that poor widow is doomed to grieve forever in the pages of that unfinished manuscript.

The next piece of fiction I attempted was in Rubicon Ranch, a collaborative mystery series I’m writing online with other Second Wind authors. My character is Melanie Gray, a writer whose husband died in a car accident, but certain inconsistencies are showing up in the investigation, pointing to something other than an accident. Melanie’s attempts to come to terms with her life and to find the truth of his death are a couple of the unifying themes in the series, though they are not the focus of the stories.

The third piece of fiction I wrote was “The Willow,” a short story I did for Change is in the Wind, a previous Second Wind anthology. My character in that story is a woman who found renewal in the spring of her second year of grief.

My fourth project is a steampunk collaboration I am doing with several authors I met online. It should come as no surprise that my character is grieving woman. The deaths of her husband and his mother are the catalyst for the story, since her father-in-law goes back in time to try to save them. This sentence hints that maybe her grief (and mine) is waning: Flo stood motionless and stared at her husband. She wanted to run to him, to embrace him, but he looked different somehow. Unapproachable. There seemed to be a bit of flabbiness around his middle, a discontented tilt to his head, a defeated slump to his shoulders. What had happened to the radiant young man she remembered? Had her vision of him changed over the past year, become idealized? Or had she stopped seeing the truth of him even before he died?

In the story I am currently writing, the character’s boyfriend doesn’t die. He leaves her. She doesn’t go into paroxysms of grief, at least not much, but she does cut her hair in an entirely unconscious symbol of mourning (so biblical!). I had her lopping off her long tresses more out rebellion than out of sorrow, since he had always demanded that she didn’t change.

It is strange to see such a pattern show up in my writing. From stark grief, to sustained grief, to a semblance of peace, to seeing the deceased as not so perfect, to easing the focus on grief. Apparently, no matter what I write, I am somehow writing my life (though oddly, the characters are getting progressively younger).

I’ll be interested to see what I write next.

There is No Journey Through Grief

People often talk of the journey through grief. (I myself have iterated this adage.) During the past few months as my grief is waning, I’ve come to see that there is no separate journey through grief. There is only the journey through life. Grief accompanies us part of the way, maybe even most of the way, though not always with the intensity of new grief. Grief, in fact, has driven me through the steep rocky path of my life during the past few years, first a numbing grief at my life mate/soul mate’s dying, and then later, a soul-shattering grief at his death.

Like many bereft, I was not always sure I want to continue living, but I wasn’t particularly ready for death, either, so I did the only thing I could do — continue my journey, taking each day as it comes, trying new things, finding comfort in knowing that nothing lasts forever.

By sheer waves of happenstance, I’ve been temporarily beached in a residential area that borders the desert. (If you have been following the Second Wind online collaboration called Rubicon Ranch, you will be familiar with this community, though so far, unlike my hapless alter ego, widow Melanie Gray, I have not yet stumbled upon body parts out in the desert.)

Someday, those waves of chance might sweep me into other climes, so I am making sure I use this opportunity to get to know my desert self. There are few frills in the desert, no vibrant colors or showy flowers (though brilliant cactus flowers do bloom in the spring). There are just stark hills, creosote bushes, hard-packed sandy soil. The bleak landscape suited me when I first came here, sodden with tears and steeped in pain, and it suits me still. There is peace in starkness — no particular sight rivets my attention, no exotic sounds or aromas tantalize my senses. There’s just me, the hills, the air I breathe.

Other waves of happenstance landed me in a yoga class. The teacher has a different approach, focusing not on the forms so much as breathing and being. That, too suits me.

I’ve added a few of those exercises to my morning perambulations. I stand out in the desert, away from the things of humankind, open my arms and breathe in the desert. In that moment, I am happy. There are no shadows of grief, no sad memories or niggling fears. There’s just me, believing I am where I am supposed to be.

Yet Another Saturday, My Sadder Day

Yesterday was Saturday, my sadder day. The love of my life died one Saturday almost two and a half years ago, and I have not yet managed to get completely over it. You don’t ever get over such a grievous loss, of course, but you can come to an accommodation with the absence, develop a new focus, perhaps even find happiness. It just takes a very long time — three to five years, or so I’ve been told. I’m doing well, all things considered, but I still struggle to find my way.

I loved him with all my being, and I continue to love him. My love for him has no outlet — I can no longer do anything for him or with him — so his share of my love fills my heart like a pool of unshed tears. I try to use that love to propel me into my future, knowing he wouldn’t want me to be sad for him, but the truth is, he has no say in the matter. (I don’t always a have a say, either — grief comes and goes as it pleases, following a timetable I seldom understand.) He’s gone, and that goneness continues to shadow my life. I feel his absence like an itch deep in my soul. I feel it in the world around me, in the very air I breathe. I’m practicing being part of the world, planting my feet on the ground, feeling connected to my self and my surroundings. Still, the world feels alien with him not in it.

I’ve come a long way from the shattered woman who screamed her pain to the uncaring winds. I’ve made new friends, seen amazing sites, tried different activities, sampled exotic foods, wrote hundreds of blogs, walked more than a thousand miles. I’ve done the best I can to life fully, but the truth is, I’m tired. I’m tired of his being dead, tired of having to put a positive slant on a situation that has no upside, tired of trying to live whole-heartedly with half a heart. Just . . . tired.

I’m not young anymore, but I’m not old, either. Sometimes the future yawns before me like a bleak and empty landscape. Most times, of course, I can look to the future with hope, though I probably will always be saddened and bewildered by his goneness, especially on Saturday, my sadder day.

Becoming Who I Need to Be

For a long time, I lamented that I hadn’t been changing, and I thought I should have been.

After the death of my life mate/soul mate, I was totally blindsided by grief. I’d lost my mother a couple of years previously, and a brother the year before that, so I thought I understood what grief was. Besides, I knew my mate was dying. We’d spent the last three years of his life disentangling our lives and severing the connection so we could go our separate ways — he to death, me to life alone. I truly thought I’d moved on, yet after he died, I experienced such agony and angst that it shattered me, my identity, my understanding of life . . . everything. An experience like that should change a person, yet month after month I remained . . . just me.

Now, two years and four months after his death, the changes are occurring on an almost daily basis. I’m still just me, but the person I am today is not the same as the one who screamed the pain of her loss to the uncaring winds. Nor am I the one so connected to another human being she still felt broken more than a year after his death. I left those women out in the desert somewhere. I’ve walked about 2,000 miles since he died, and a bit of that me evaporated with every step.

I am stronger than that person was, maybe even wiser, certainly more confident and open to whatever comes, willing to accept life on its own terms.

I no longer fear growing old alone as she did. I might not live to a great age, and if I do, I might not be alone, but even if I am, that woman will not be the me of today. She will older, used to dealing with the infirmities that come with age, perhaps even experienced in the ways of dying. She will have lived her life to the fullest of her ability, and might even be able to wake each morning feeling the joy of living one more day, no matter how painful. Or not. But the point is, I am not in that place today, and the person I am today will never be in that place. So there is no reason to be afraid.

For so long, I’ve been worried about what will happen to me now that I am alone. I worried that I’d become the crazy cat lady (sans cats) or the pathetic, lonely old woman that everyone whispers about (when they remember her at all). If I end up alone and lonely, so be it. I’ll be okay. I am quite comfortable with being alone. (I always was, to be honest. Grief skewed things, made me desperately fearful of loneliness.)

But I am not alone now. I have friends to go to lunch with, online friends to plan trips with, siblings to talk to now and again, an aged father to look after. I thought it would bother me no longer being part of a couple, but the other day at lunch when some women my age were talking about maybe meeting guys and falling in love again, I asked, “Why?” All of a sudden it seemed strange to want such a thing. Three of us had mates with compromised health, and now that they are gone, we are free to simply be. It’s not out of any loyalty to my deceased mate that I find myself unwilling to pursue a hypothetical relationship right now, but out of loyalty to me.

And that brings me to the biggest change of all. It bothered me that no matter what happened, I was always just me. Now I see that as a good thing. No matter what happens in my life, no matter what challenges I face, I will always be there, becoming who I need to be, even if it takes longer than I think it should.

Grief Update: Going on Alone

A week ago I mentioned that all of a sudden my grief seemed to have changed, and that change appears to be holding true.

After the second anniversary of the death of my life mate/soul mate I didn’t feel any different than I’d felt the previous year. I was still sad and weepy at times, and more recently I had a week-long grief upsurge starting on the fourth of July, but lately, as I’m nearing the two-and-a-third-year mark, I seem to have made some sort of accommodation with his death and my grief.

For most of the past twenty-eight months, I’ve felt bad for him, for the horror of his last years, and for all that he is missing out on, but I don’t feel bad for him any more. I’m glad he’s out of this life, glad he doesn’t have to deal with any of the political, financial, and medical changes that are coming our way, glad he no longer has to contend with growing old or to be fearful of ending up as a helpless invalid.

I’m sorry his life was cut short, but his death doesn’t shatter me any more. I take comfort in knowing that for the most part, he did it his way. He endured incredible pain, but he knew any drugs strong enough to end his suffering would also end him, and that proved to be true. When he finally had to start taking morphine, he became someone else, and I’m glad he didn’t have to endure living as that stranger for very long. I still miss him, will always miss him, but someday I will be dead, too. He just went first. It would have been nice if we’d had more good years together, but because of his illness, the good years were behind us. It would have been nice to have had more of our dreams come true and more of our hopes work out, but they no longer matter since our shared hopes and dreams died when he did.

I still have times of doubt and fears, sorrow and tears, still question the meaning of it all, but I’m getting used to the idea of going on alone, getting used to the idea of being alone.

Tomorrow, of course, I could be back in the depths of grief, feeling shattered beyond repair, but I don’t think so. The tears that come now are more nostalgic than agonizing. When I think about it, I still hate that he’s dead, but I don’t think about it much. I try to focus more on being me, on being here in this day. I still feel a disconnect, as if some of the tendons connecting me to life that ripped when he died have never healed, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The disconnect reminds me that everything comes to an end sooner or later, even me.

Getting over the worst of the pain of grief is only the first step. Next comes rebuilding. Although I don’t believe in destiny and signs and things that are meant-to-be, part of me clings to the idea that he wouldn’t have left me if he hadn’t known I’ll be okay. I hold on to that thought because otherwise the idea of growing old alone scares me, as does the idea of creating a whole new life for myself.

I won’t say reconstructing my life will be easy in comparison to the agony and angst of losing the one person who connects me to the world since I don’t know what challenges lie before me. But I will say that after surviving such devastating grief, I have become stronger than I ever thought possible, and I will be able to handle whatever comes my way.

Weeping For Those Who Are Newly Born Into The World Of Grief

Someone stopped by my blog this morning to comment that her husband passed away fourteen days ago, and I started crying. I wept for her, for me, for all of us who have had to deal with the soul-breaking and heart-shattering pain of new grief. (Sometimes the only way I had to keep from bursting with the pain was to scream. I’d never screamed before, but I often screamed during the first weeks of grief.)

I don’t know how any of us survive such agony and angst, but somehow we manage to keep taking one breath at a time. As the months pass, the pain does lessen, though according to others further along in the grief process, the sadness never completely goes away. And always, we revisit grief on the anniversary of the death.

There are so many sad anniversaries for me to remember now. May 24. July 23. July 26. March 7. March 27. October 14. All days when someone who was very loved died and left a grief-stricken soul mate behind. I’ve seen much pain these past couple of years from my fellow bereft but even more courage. It takes courage to continue to live, courage to struggle to accept the changes that death brought, courage to strive for understanding, (especially for those who wish to be done with life).

Sometimes I see only the pain of grief — eyes blank, bodies tensed, hearts bleeding — but sometimes I am privileged to see the light shining through the grief as the bereft find new hope and new meaning.

Where does grief lead us? I don’t know. People often equate grief to a journey, which makes us think we are going somewhere, but grief seems to be more of a process, turning us inside out, stretching our minds, souls, psyches so that we can learn to live with our new reality and find peace (and maybe even happiness) alongside the continued sadness.

Despite whatever dubious benefits and insights I have gained through the experience, I would not wish this process on anyone, and so I weep for those who are newly born into the world of grief.