Grief: Divorce vs. Death

A week after Jeff died, I had to go to the bank to open a new account in my name only, and the woman who helped me said she had recently undergone a devastating, unasked for divorce. She was the first person I met who understood at least part of what I was going through, and we commiserated with each other.

Up to a point, there are many similarities between the two losses. Both involve:

  • Deep emotions: shock, pain, yearning, angst, loneliness.
  • The death of hopes, dreams, the future the two of you had planned for yourselves.
  • The ripping apart of the pair bond, the survival unit, which causes a fight or flight hormonal upsurge and puts tremendous stress on the body.
  • A disruption of habits. Once a behavior becomes automatic, the prefrontal cortex no longer has to make decisions about that particular behavior, which saves the prefrontal cortex from becoming overwhelmed. Disruption of routine after the loss of a life mate, however, destroys this balance, and contributes to brain fog.
  • Being suddenly uncoupled in a coupled world. Ours is a culture of couplehood. Many songs, movies, books, holidays are about love and the importance of being with that one special person, and now you are expected to slough off the weight of this culture and go on as if nothing happened.
  • Dealing with betrayal and rejection. Divorce is a betrayal and a rejection, but so is death. The fact that someone who died of illness did not choose to leave does not mitigate the betrayal and rejection. It’s not as if a person has done these things to us, but as if life itself turned its back on us.
  • Learning a whole new way of living. What you once did together, now needs to be done by you alone.

But there is a divergent point, and that point is death. With all a person has to contend with while going through a divorce, they do not also have to deal with death as a concept or as a reality. Death is shrouded with an element of blank. It is the great unknown and unknowable, and our brains are not equipped to handle the immensity. And yet, while we bereaved are going through the most traumatic event of our lives, we also have to learn to deal with and accept this utterly unfathomable concept.

We all know, of course, we are going to die, but we don’t KNOW. And now we do. This knowledge sends so many chemical and electrical signals throughout our bodies, setting off a cascading series of hormonal reactions, that it leaves us feeling bewildered and traumatized. This is all in addition to our emotional grief. We feel the loss, feel the death, in the depths of our soul. We feel the very winds of eternity screaming through the gaping wound in our heart where our love had been amputated from us.

Divorced people know where there erstwhile mate is, and if they don’t, they can find out, but we bereaved don’t know, can’t know. We call for them, we wonder how they are doing, look for them in crowds. But they are no longer here in the flesh.

When people would tell me how much worse divorce is than death, I would fight back my tears and wish that Jeff really had divorced me. At least I would know he was happy (once I got over being furious with him, that is), at least I would know he was well.

Beyond this empirical evidence, there is an actual, factual difference between the two types of losses, and statistics bear out the truth of it. On a scale of 1 to 100, the loss of a life mate or child tops all at 100. Divorce, the second worse stressor is 73.

I’m not trying to downplay anyone’s pain. We all deal with the traumas life throws at us the best way we can, but ever since Jeff died, my goal has always been to help the bereaved understand what they are going through, and to help their friends understand the enormity of their loss.

Whatever your loss, I wish you peace.

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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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 9

I recently read that Nietzsche said people tended to exaggerate their traumas. I don’t know whether Nietzsche actually said it since I couldn’t find such a quote from him, but I do think the sentiment is true, at least to a certain extent.

It’s this tendency to exaggerate our traumas that leads others to downplay the role that grief plays in our lives. If we tell the truth, they assume exaggeration, and so they shrug off as hyperbole what is very real to us. Since most people have experienced some sort of grief in their lives, they assume they know what grief is. If we try to explain what we are feeling when we lose someone intrinsic to our lives, someone to whom we are profoundly connected, it doesn’t match with what they feel, so they think we are over dramatizing ourselves.

It’s not surprising people can’t imagine what we feel. Most of us who lost our mates couldn’t believe what was happening to us — couldn’t even imagine it though we were living it. Because of this all-consuming feeling, there is no way we could ever have imagined grief exaggerated beyond what we experienced.

The truth is, there is no way to exaggerate profound grief. Profound grief is exaggeration — an immense magnification of emotion. An amplification of loss. An excess of pain. A trauma that affects every part of us and our lives. A process that changes us and our relation to ourselves and all that surrounds us.

This blog post itself seems an exaggeration, especially in the bright sun of this day so many years after Jeff died, and yet, I know the truth.

My message is as it always is — if you are experiencing what seems to be an insane level of grief, it is normal. Horrendously painful, but normal. Know that one day, you will find peace.

If you haven’t experienced such grief, be kind to those who are dealing with a profound loss. If you think someone is exaggerating grief years after the death of a child or soul mate, give them the benefit of their own truth. Don’t dismiss their feelings or downplay their grief as self-dramatization. I’m sure they wish that’s all it was — a bit of melodrama — but be assured they still feel the loss in every cell of their being.

Wishing you all a peaceful — and kinder — day.

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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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 8

Marrying again after the loss of a life mate can be a tricky business because a new love does not negate previous loves. Nor does a new love negate grief.

I’ve met people who started dating quickly after the death of their spouse because they couldn’t stand the pain and loneliness of their grief any longer. To their shock, and to the shock of their new mate, grief did not abate. In at least one case, the new spouse felt betrayed by his wife’s continued grief, thinking his love should have made a difference to her grief, and she felt isolated — and unloved — because he didn’t have compassion for her bouts of sorrow.

Whether we remarry, embark on a long-term relationship without remarrying, or never find anyone else to love, the emotional attachment for the first partner remains a part of us. Despite continued grief for one partner, both men and women are able to form new attachments that can be just as strong as the previous one. The key is to understand the nature of grief and love and to let grief continue to happen, which is why the strongest remarriages are often between widows and widowers.

This concept — that remarrying does not negate grief — is important for both grievers and their friends and family to understand. Sometimes friends and family us urge us to “move on” (meaning to find someone else), and as well-meaning as this might be, it ignores the intrinsic nature of grief — that grief is how we move on after the death of our beloved mate. A new love will not change that. Occasionally, friends or family will feel conned if a widow or widower “moves on” too quickly, thinking that perhaps the grief was a sham or that the griever hadn’t really loved their first partner.

Many of us never find anyone else to love. This doesn’t mean we are holding on to our grief, are not “moving on,” or are refusing to accept a new love. We can’t control what happens to us, and love doesn’t always happen again. We do the best we can with what life (and death) deals us and all we can do is hope that our loved ones will support us even if they can’t understand what we are feeling.

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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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 7

We don’t need to be angry at someone or something to feel anger as part of grief. This anger is not a stage of grief, not a complication, but an intrinsic part of the process. Since much of grief is visceral — a response to perceived danger — we experience a tremendous fight or flight hormonal upsurge. The panic we feel after the death of a life mate is a natural part of this survival mechanism; it alerts us to the danger of being suddenly alone. Anger is the other side of this mechanism, the part that generates the energy necessary to take action.

In many cases, the anger comes first, and the reason for the anger second. Our minds scurry around trying to find a reason for how we feel because as rational beings, we cannot accept unfocused anger, so we search for a focus. Sometimes there really are causes for anger, such as doctors who don’t tell us the truth or who made horrendous mistakes that caused the death. Other times we focus on the deceased, for example, a smoker who died of lung cancer after refusing to give up smoking. Other times we are angry at the cancer that stole our loved ones, at death, at the loved one for leaving us, at ourselves even for not being more of whatever we think we should have been.

Anger is generally considered to be a negative emotion, but like all emotions, it has a positive side. In small doses, anger is a good thing. Anger can give us the strength to survive. Anger can give us the energy to do things we couldn’t do under normal circumstances. Anger can give us a feeling of control in uncertain times, and for sure, grief is an uncertain time. Anger can keep us going when we want to give up. Anger can give us the courage to live with the injustice of death. Anger can motivate us to find solutions to problems, can motivate us to undertake dreaded tasks, can motivate us to change our lives.

Much of grief is a process of change, of adaptation, taking us from a relatively-safe shared life to a relatively-safe solitary life. And it is anger that helps get us there.

In those first weeks after Jeff died, not only did I have all those ghastly end-of-life chores to do by myself, such as arranging for the disposition of his body and dealing with banks and government agencies, I had to pack up and leave our home to go take care of my ninety-three-year-old father. I managed to do everything necessary by using the power of anger. When I was too enervated to do anything, when I was too dazed to think or too stressed, I cried, or paced, screamed or went to bed, but when waves of anger came over me, I didn’t fight the feelings. Instead, I used the faux energy of anger to get things done.

After the initial anger dissipated, I clung to the vestiges of anger to help me get through the lonely days.

The wild grief for a life mate/soul mate makes us feel as if we are out of control or even crazy, but understanding the process and realizing what we are feeling is normal, can make it easier to deal with those feelings.

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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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 6

People who haven’t experienced the profound grief for a life mate or a child presume grief is simply an emotional and psychological response to the death, so they tell us not to think about our loss, as if that will make the pain go away. (And yet, oddly, at the same time, they try to make us feel as if it’s okay the person died by saying the deceased will always live in memory.)

For some losses, such as an aged relative who lived a long and happy life, pushing aside grief might work. But when it comes to a child or life mate, not thinking about the loss in no way mitigates the grief because the grief is also in our bodies, not just our minds and hearts.

When we are profoundly connected to another person, when their well-being is as important to us as our own. when the two of us share the air we breathe, the electrical emanations from our hearts and brains, the atoms in the atmosphere, the cell information that gets passed back and forth via viruses, we grow so entwined that we become a unit—a survival unit. We humans are essentially pack animals, and our very survival depends on the strength of this pack unit.

After our beloved life mate dies and the unit is dissolved, our lizard brain goes into a panic. Danger! Danger! Something is wrong. Where is the rest of you? What happened? What do I do? Do I freeze you? Make you run? Make you fight? It sends so many chemical and electrical signals throughout our bodies, setting off a cascading series of hormonal reactions, that it leaves us feeling bewildered and traumatized. This is all in addition to our emotional grief.

To make things worse, our half of the survival bond remains strong, a constant reminder of our grief.

Yet people tell us just to forget our loss. To think of something else.

Even if it were that simple, even if we could put the deceased out of our minds, we’d still grieve because our bodies remember. Body memory is not a flashback, where you are actually experiencing the trauma again. Nor is it simply a vivid memory. In fact, the body memory comes first, and only afterward do we remember why we felt such an upsurge of emotional and physical grief reactions.

Jeff died early on a Saturday morning, and for a long time, I would hit emotional lows on Saturdays, even if I didn’t recall what day of the week it was. The effects of body memory were most potent as I neared the first anniversary of his death. For example, after a hiatus of a couple of weeks during the eleventh month where I was mostly at peace, I was so overcome with grief that I wanted to scream out in anguish. I couldn’t figure out what hit me or why, but when I tracked down the source of the pain, I realized it was the first anniversary of the last time we kissed. Apparently, my body thought it was an anniversary worth remembering.

For those witnessing our grief, our plight seems simple, but for us living the horror, as you can see, things are not simple at all.

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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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 5

Not long ago a woman wrote to Dear Abby expressing concern about her new friends, a couple who had lost their grown son six months previously. This so-called friend thought it creepy that the couple displayed photos of their son throughout the house.

Attitudes like this make me glad of my efforts to explain grief because the neighbor is so very wrong on so many levels. First, as we discussed in Part 1 of this series, the couple’s grief is not the neighbor’s responsibility. Grief belongs to the griever. Second, as we discussed in Part 3, grief for a life mate takes a long time, and from I have come to understand from fellow grievers, the only thing worse than losing a life mate is losing a child. Six months is barely a blip on the grief spectrum after such a devastating loss. At six months, that couple is still so new to grief that it’s amazing they managed to socialize at all, let alone make new friends.

And third, the subject of this discussion, is that whatever a person does to help get through the shock and horror of losing a life mate or a child is normal. Some behaviors aren’t as healthy as plastering your house with photos, but basically anything one does to get by is normal. When you are standing on the edge of the abyss with the tsunami of grief washing over you, anything you can do to keep from being blown into the abyss is normal.

Many people who have to deal with the onslaught of emotions and the whole chaotic mess of new grief feel as if they’ve gone crazy. They cannot imagine that such sheer breath-stealing agony is normal. And yet, it is.

What isn’t normal is for experts, friends, family, to categorize another’s grief as abnormal. What isn’t normal is for people to make someone else’s grief about them. If the friend thought all those photos depressing, imagine how depressing it must be for the couple who have only photos instead of a living son. Even if the couple removed the photos to satisfy the friend’s sensibilities, it would not change anything. The son would still be gone. And the couple would still be grieving.

So, if you are a griever, know that whatever you feel, others have felt. Whatever you have done to get through the days, others have done.

If you’re a witness to someone’s grief, be compassionate. Don’t judge. Know that your friends are doing the best they can. Whatever they are doing is not creepy. It’s normal.

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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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 4

Although I have experienced many losses in my life, the one I talk about is the death of my life mate because that is the big one. The one that devastated me. The one that catapulted me into pain beyond imagining. The one that destroyed life as I knew it as well as all our hopes, our plans, our shared dreams of a golden old age.

It’s also the grief that’s most incomprehensible to outsiders. (For that matter, it’s often incomprehensible to those who are living it, which is why I’ve spent so many words over the past nine years trying to explain how grief for a life mate feels.) Such grief is frequently minimized by witnesses. Partly, the uninitiated can’t believe it’s that bad — after all, they too have experienced grief and their life went on, so the griever’s life should too. And partly, they cannot face the idea that they might also be hit by such devastation, so they have to minimize other people’s grief to minimize their own fears.

All this adds pain upon pain. Not only are the grievers faced with the destruction of their shared life, they have to face other people brushing off their grief as if it isn’t important. Which leaves the grievers, living alone in a home created for two, even more isolated.

One person’s grief can’t be compared to another’s grief because no one knows what anyone else is feeling. But you can compare realities.

And the reality is, the most stressful event in a person’s life by far is the death of a life mate or a child. The reality is, such a death is so devastating that the survivor’s death rate increases by a minimum of 25% percent. The reality is that such grief brings about brain chemistry changes and lowers the capacity to function. Three finance professors from major business schools investigated Danish CEOs who lost someone significant in their lives, and they found that family deaths were strongly correlated with declines in firm operating profitability. The loss of a child or a spouse brought about the largest declines. (The death of a mother-in-law correlated to a small but definite increase in profitability.)

I don’t write this to minimize anyone’s grief — all losses are traumatic. I just want people to understand the incredibly complex experience of grief for a spouse and to stop minimizing such a loss. If nothing else, it will help them when/if their time comes.

A woman I know lost her husband, and one of her friends was rather dismissive of her grief. Then her friend’s husband died. Grief stricken, the friend called the woman and apologized. She truly hadn’t known what our mutual friend was going through.

You don’t know. You can’t know. And I truly hope you will never learn the truth first hand.

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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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 3

Grief for a life mate takes much longer than everyone assumes that it does. Long after our family and friends have grown weary of our sadness, long after the grief experts say we should have returned to our normal life, we still grieve. Even we grievers underestimate the time it takes — most newly bereft think that the one-year anniversary is some sort of magic goal, and it is a goal, though not the end of grief. When we wake on day 366 to continued sorrow, it hits us that this not some sort of test. It’s real. They are gone for the rest of our lives.

The complex and painful experience of grief for a spouse, life mate, soul mate is not something we see on television shows, in movies, or read about in novels, so we get no sense of how long grief takes. Fictional folks shed a fictional tear or two, perhaps go on a fictional spree of vengeance, then continue with their fictional lives unchanged.

Of course, there is always that one old woman in Mafia movies who, draped in black from head to toe, throws herself on the casket, screaming for her Joey. Or the even older woman, also draped in black, who moans for her long-deceased Vinnie. These characters are so overdone, we cannot believe their grief is normal, but in many ways, this portrayal of grief is more realistic than the character whose life isn’t affected at all by the death of a life mate.

Despite the experts’ belief that our lives should return to normal after six weeks or even six months, our lives never return to normal. Usually, by the fourth anniversary (though sometimes not until the fifth or even longer), we’ve created a different normal for ourselves that makes room for the absence of our life mate as well as the possibility of future happiness.

Even then, grief isn’t completely gone. Many people feel a strong resurgence of grief during any life passage, such as the wedding of a child or the birth of a grandchild. Any subsequent loss brings back grief for that special someone. Any trauma brings with it a yearning for support from the one who is gone.

Still, the pain and the sorrow do pass. It just takes so much longer than anyone ever assumes that it does. So if you are grieving, be patient with yourself. If you know someone who is grieving for longer than you think is healthy, think again. They are doing the best they can, finding new ways of living, filling the emptiness (or trying to fill it). And yet, through it all, the dead are still dead. You might not remember that fact, but believe me, your grieving friend will always remember.

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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.

What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 2

A big myth perpetrated on those who are grieving a profound loss, and what leads experts to postulate that some people’s prolonged grief isn’t normal, is the prevalent belief that all losses are equal. But all losses aren’t equal for the simple reason that all relationships aren’t equal.

Sure, we grieve the loss of the person, but we grieve the loss of the relationship and the many roles the person played in our lives.

The son of a friend who’d lost her spouse was contemptuous of his mother’s grief, thinking she was overdramatizing herself. He’d gotten over his grief quickly and thought she should have, too, but what he didn’t realize — what most people don’t realize — is that although they lost the same person, they didn’t suffer the same loss. He’d lost a father he hadn’t been particularly close to, and his life didn’t change at all. Her life changed drastically — not only had she lost the one person who had always been there for her, the person she needed to help her get through her devastating loss, she lost her constant companion, her lover, their shared friends, their shared dreams,, her sense of her own identity, a big chunk of her income, and a whole slew of other losses compounding that one big loss. (Including the son since he refused to have anything to do with her.)

And each of those losses needed to be mourned, which makes mourning the loss of a life mate/soul mate a horrendous and horrendously long task.

Most of us who have lost our live mates have had the experience of someone comparing the loss of their pet to our loss, which leaves us speechless. Even if we could think of a suitable comeback, most of us are sensitive enough to understand the other person’s pain, so we don’t say anything, but the truth is, as traumatic as the loss of pet can be, the relationship of a person with their pet is far from the multi-faceted relationship of a person with their life mate/soul mate.

Although most people have experienced grief, all grief isn’t the same. All losses aren’t the same. All relationships aren’t the same. If you know someone who is grieving the loss of their life mate, please be patient with them even if you think they are being melodramatic. Especially if you think they are being melodramatic. They’ve probably lost more than you can ever imagine.

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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.

I Am a Five-Year Grief Survivor

I’ve been doing well recently, trying to be excited and optimistic about the future, accepting the uncertainty of it all as something wonderful, but this afternoon, I crashed.

Today is the fifth anniversary of Jeff’s death.

In my grief blogs, I call him my life mate/soul mate, which gives people an erroneous idea of our state of bliss. We weren’t a romantic couple, and we didn’t bring each other a lot of happiness. In fact, we weren’t happy very often — we had to deal with too many setbacks with both our finances and his health. And yet, through it all, we remained together, connected in a profound way that neither of us ever understood. We used to joke that the trickster gods hated us because of that connection so every time we almost reached success, they toppled our lives, leaving us to start over.

The connection was so great, in fact, I often thought that when he died, I would die too, that he’d pull me with him when he left, and at times it felt that way — as if I were straddling the invisible line between this world and eternity, with half of me a mere shadow of death.

But life isn’t so simple or dramatic.

I survived his death. I survived the breath-stealing and heart-stopping pain of grief. I survived the long bleak years of loneliness. In many ways, I’ve even thrived.

People seem astounded by my ability to accept an uncertain future, but those are people with something to lose. After Jeff died, I came to look after my father, and now that my father is gone and his house sold, my future is up for grabs. I don’t want to settle down, don’t want to deal with a lease, utilities, and all the rest of the responsibilities that come with a “normal” life, and so I will fling myself to the mercy of the winds.

It’s not really a virtue, this acceptance of uncertainty, but more of a necessity. What do you do when the one person who connected you to the world is gone? Where do you go? How do you choose? The truth is, it simply doesn’t matter. If he were alive, of course, I’d go home to him. He was my home. Everywhere else is simply a place. I suppose as time goes on, it will matter where I am, and I will make plans accordingly, but now . . . uncertainty is as good a way to live as any other.

If it works out, of course, I’ll stay in this area and continue to take dance classes. I have friends here. People who care about me. But if it doesn’t work out? I’ll get in my soon-to-be-restored VW Beetle and take off.

I think Jeff would like my feeling so free. He told me once he admired my spontaneity, and how it bothered him that our life together changed me. What he didn’t know is that meeting him and knowing there was someone like him in the world is what inspired me to try new and daring things. Until then, spontaneity had never been one of my defining characteristics. Not that it matters any more what he would like — he left me. I know he didn’t have a choice, but still, he did leave me to fend for myself.

And now I am free for . . . whatever.

Tomorrow I’ll again be optimistic and try to be excited about the world opening up to me, but not tonight. Tonight I’ll remember him, and weep. I’ll indulge in wishful thinking of what might have been. And I’ll give thanks that once I was lucky enough to be so connected to another human being that even five years after his death I can feel his absence.

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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.