Grief: The Great Yearning

Now that my grief for my lost soul mate is evolving away from a focus on all I’ve lost and the accompanying pain, I can see the process more clearly. Perhaps for some people the stages of grief — denial, guilt, anger, depression, acceptance — hold true, but for me and for most of the bereft I have met on this journey, those stages have little meaning. For most of us, anger and even guilt are more like quickly passing moods than lingering phases. Some of us get depressed, but most of us don’t. We’re just get damn sad, which is not the same thing as depression. I’ve been in that dark pit and I know what it’s like. This sorrow, no matter how intense, is not depression. And acceptance is not the end — in itself acceptance brings no peace. What does bring peace is feeling the grief and letting it evolve into something we can live with because the loss — the yearning — will always be a part of us. Getting to that point can take years, depending on the depth of the relationship.

Grief is an incredibly complex state that constantly changes and constantly brings changes. The underlying emotion of grief is yearning, not guilt or anger. Even after we’ve put our shattered psyches back together as best as we can, even after we’ve come to an acceptance of our new situation, the yearning to see our loved one last time can be overwhelmingly painful at times. The yearning (such a mild word for the ache or craving or hunger that tears at us) is often manageable, other times it shoots through us like a geyser bursting out of calm waters. Even decades after losing a spouse, or so I’ve been told, we bereft still feel the loss, still yearn for our mates.

A friend who lost her life mate four months after I lost mine, told me how much she hates people telling her to “move on”. She’s not like me, spouting her pain into cyberspace for all to see. If you didn’t know she’d experienced such a soul-shattering loss, you’d never be able to guess it — she’s keeping her grief to herself lest it burden others. She’s taking care of her family. She’s accepting the responsibility for an aging parent. She made the holidays special for those around her. She’s writing. She’s even going out and having fun, or at least as much as is possible considering her situation. In fact, she’s doing all that she ever did, and doing it well. Yet people tell her to move on with her life. What else is there to move on to? Her grief in no way debilitates her. It’s simply a part of her life, this ache to see her mate one more time.

Searching is another major component of grief that is ignored in the “stages” concept. We bereft search for our mates in crowds. We cry out for them, especially at the beginning. We search for them in our dreams. Of course we know we won’t find them. This isn’t a mental aberration, and it certainly isn’t denial. It’s simply a way of coping with the unthinkable. How can our loved ones be gone so completely? It’s the goneness that confuses us, pains us. It destroys everything we always accepted about the world. (Of course we knew all lives end in death, but we didn’t KNOW it.) As the search for our lost one diminishes, we begin searching for ourselves, for our place in this new, unthinkable world.

It would be so much easier to deal with grief if we had a list of stages to go through and to check off as we experience them, but that simply isn’t the case.

So we yearn, and we search, and we go on living.

I Am a Nine-Month Grief Survivor

Thirty-four years ago, I walked into a health food store, and my world was never the same. It wasn’t love at first sight, this first time I saw the man with whom I would share more than three decades of my life. It was a primal recognition. Something deep inside me, something beneath consciousness, wailed, “But I don’t even like men with blond hair and brown eyes.”

I had no expectation of ever spending my life with this radiantly wise and intelligent man. It was enough to know he was alive. The world, which had seemed so inhospitable, became a place of hope and possibilities simply because he lived. Over the months our connection grew, and gradually our lives became entwined.

It confused us at times, our connection. Neither of us were particularly romantic, and we didn’t bring each other fairy-tale happiness. But we were together, and in the end, as at the beginning, being together was all that mattered.

But we aren’t together any more. Nine months ago, he died. And my world will never be the same.

I am doing okay — can even go for a week or two at a time without a major grief attack — but I still feel as if parts of me are missing. Grief shattered me, and I’ve put the pieces back together as best as I can despite those missing pieces. I now get glimpses of hope, of possibilities, of building a new life for myself. I know  there will be times of overwhelming grief and times of peace, times of sorrow and times of gladness. But he isn’t here to share those times. That I cannot comprehend.

Until I became one of the bereft, I thought grief was self-centered and self-pitying, and there is some truth to that. I do feel sorry for myself at times, but mostly I struggle to comprehend the meaning of our connected lives, his dying, and my continued life. I struggle to accept that while (perhaps) there is a second chance of happiness for me in this life, there is none for him. I struggle to understand his goneness. Sometimes the need to go home to him overwhelms me, and I have to learn — again — that his being gone from this life means I can never go home. He was my home. Someday I might learn to find “home” within myself, but until then, I am adrift in a world that once again feels inhospitable.

During those first days and weeks of struggling to survive grief, I kept screaming to myself, “I can’t do this.” I still feel like screaming those words occasionally, but I have learned that yes, I can survive this, because I have. And I will continue to survive.

The Gift of Possibilities

I have been given a very special and unwelcome gift this year — the gift of possibilities.

Thirty-eight weeks ago my life mate — my soulmate — died. During the previous few years, the constraints of his illness bound our lives, and it felt as if we were doomed to an eternity of decreasing possibilities. Every day he became weaker, could do less, had fewer options. We could not plan for our future, knowing each day was all he might have. We could not even spend much time together — it took all his strength and concentration just to make it through another hour.

And so we lived. Waited.

His death brought enormous changes to my life, but during these months of grief, I have focused on the  impossibilities. It is impossible for him to come back to me and it’s impossible for me go home to him. It’s impossible for us ever to have another conversation, watch a movie, play a game, take a trip, start over in a new location as we so often did during our decades together. It’s impossible for me to stop missing him, impossible to conceive of living in a world from which he is absent. It’s been impossible, too, to concede that perhaps my life could be easier without him. What difference does that make when our being together was all that ever mattered to me?

And yet, and yet . . .

I am getting glimmers of myself now, myself alone. I no longer have the financial and emotional burden of his illness. I am no longer weighted down by my own grief, though it is still a part of me, and probably always will be.

I still feel as if I am waiting, but I’m beginning to feel as if I’m waiting for something rather than simply waiting, though I don’t know what I am waiting for. I do know that — slowly — the world of possibility is opening up to me again. I might not be able to do whatever I want — people are so wrong when they say anything is possible — but many things are probable when you’ve been given the gift of possibilities.

One Woman’s Grief

The American Psychiatric Association has labeled grief that lasts more than a few weeks a mental disorder. I wrote about this in my last blog post, “Grief Is Not a Medical Disorder,” but I can’t stop thinking about it. The problem with grief is not the pain, though sometimes the agony is so unbearable it takes one’s breath away, but the reason for the pain: a very dear person, a part of your life, is gone and will never return. When one is depressed for no reason, then perhaps the misery can be classified as a mental disorder. But if there is a reason for the pain, if there is a direct cause for the depression, then it is not a disorder. It is life.

Grief varies, of course. Everyone grieves in a different way, and everyone feels each subsequent death in a different way. The loss of an aged aunt you barely knew is different from the loss of a beloved mate. In the first case, prolonged grief could be a sign of depression, but in the second case, prolonged grief is a way of coping.

When I lost my mate, I was in such pain I thought my heart would burst. I couldn’t breath, couldn’t focus, couldn’t see how I could ever get through the day let alone the rest of my life. I was also still in shock from witnessing his horrific death.

I did get through those first days, though how I don’t know — the pain escalated by the minute. Then I found out about a local bereavement support group. I am a private person, one who keeps her emotions to herself, but I went to the group meeting anyway hoping someone could tell me how to deal with the pain. No one could, of course, but I did meet people who had survived a similar loss, and that taught me survival was possible. One of the problems with grief is how it isolates you, and the group made me feel less isolated. And that was a comfort.

I had no intention of writing much about grief on this blog. I posted a few articles mentioning my pain, and found that not only did the articles help me, they gave comfort and support to others who were going through the same thing. So I continue to write about grief. Perhaps someday the private me will look around and be aghast at all I have made public, but for now it’s my way of coping.

The point of this bloggery is that the pain of grief made me reach out and let others into my world. If I had been treated for depression during this time, I wouldn’t have connected with others. I would have remained isolated, and the effects of intense grief would have last much longer than they did. Everyone has the right to grieve the way they want, of course, but feeling the pain was the only way I could do it, both for me and for my mate. He deserved to have someone grieve that he died, to have someone feel the imbalance of the world without him in it. And that is not a mental disorder.

Grief is Not a Medical Disorder

According to the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders released by the American Psychiatric Association, grief is considered a medical disorder, and should be treated as major depression. There used to be a bereavement exclusion in the description of major depression, but they have taken that away, and now more than a few days of pain is considered a crisis. There can be “a few days of acute upset and then a much longer period of the longing, the tearfulness. But typically sleep, appetite, energy, concentration come back to normal more quickly than that.”

In whose world is grieving a medical condition that needs to be treated? Not my world. In my world, grief is one of the bookends of a relationship. Love. Grief. If grief is a medical condition, then watch out. One day love is going to be considered a treatable disease.

Perhaps emotional pain is not necessary. Perhaps people can survive quite nicely without going through the pain of grief — perhaps avoiding grief won’t cause the future problems people say it will — but the truth is, grief is a life experience, an incredibly deep and painful and raw experience that changes the way you think about yourself and the world. Grief helps you process the amputation of having a child or a mate torn from your life, let’s you experience the loss in a visceral way, makes it real. In past eras, grief was acceptable, in fact, was even encouraged. In today’s world, grief needs to be hidden so that it doesn’t offend people’s sensibilities, so that it doesn’t bring the spector of bad luck into people’s lives. Drugs can hide your grief, of course, but that’s all it can do.

I didn’t grieve excessively when my mother or my brother died, but when my mate died? I was devastated. (Still am, but at the moment I am going through a hiatus, a time of peace.) It wasn’t only the death of him. It was the death of our future, our dreams, our hopes, our lifestyle, our shared life, our private jokes. It was the death of my companion, my love, my friend, my confidante, my fellow traveler on life’s journey. No drug is going to make any of those deaths acceptable.

“He” died. “We” died. But “I” didn’t. Grief made me realize that. Surviving grief has taught me that I can survive anything. No drug could ever give me that.

I know a woman who mourned the loss of her mother for two years. Actually, she wasn’t mourning the loss of the mother so much as the loss of the emotional support and attachment the mother never gave her and now never would. She emerged from this period a strong, vital, wise woman. No drug could ever give her that.

In a strange way, grief is a gift. Easy? No. Painful? Yes. But . . . If you let yourself feel it, let it become a part of you, it will take you where you need to go. And no drug can ever give you that.

Twelve Lonely Weeks

It’s been twelve weeks since my life mate died — twelve lonely weeks that I’ve spent wishing he were here, wishing that we had our life back, wishing that he hadn’t been sick so much.

I’m beginning to understand, though, that to wish things were different is to negate the wisdom, courage, and determination with which he faced his life and death. Until the very end when he was imprisoned in bed by drugs (they did not know how else to handle his terminal restlessness — the restlessness that some people experience near the end — so they tranquilized him into a coma) he was determined to live his life to the fullest he could. He was so weak, so befuddled by the drugs and the metastases in his brain that he could not do much, yet his courage and determination were as strong as ever. Sick of being in bed, sick of being sick, he set up an office in the living room and set to work planning his schedule. That was the last night he was awake. He lived through five more nights and days, but he was not conscious. Or at least I hope he wasn’t. He would have hated being a helpless invalid, so it’s a good thing he only had to endure five such days.

I really was glad — or perhaps relieved is a better word — when he died. He’d suffered so much and that determination of his not to waste a single moment of his life, not to give in to the disease, kept him going long after he was ready to die. Later, as the reality of the situation hit me, as grief devasted me, I began to wish things had been different.

He’d been told he had three to six months to live, but he only had three weeks. I’ve been wishing we had those months — but even if I had a choice, there is no way I could justify putting him through that extra pain so I could have him in my life a little longer.

And yet . . . and yet. I still wish things had been different. I wish he’d had a long, healthy, happy life. I wish we still had “our” life.

I wish I could hug him one more time.

I wish . . .

Coming of Age in Middle Age

Coming of age novels chronicle a young person’s transition from childhood to adulthood, and often (in movies anyway) the term refers to the first sexual experience. In a broader sense, however, coming of age refers to a young character’s growth during the course of a story, either by losing innocence, assuming responsibility, or by learning a lesson.

It is not only in youth that one has to deal with such growth. Every transition in life leads to a new coming of age, and the death of a mate is probably the greatest of these events. Death is undoable. Irrevocable. By middle age or late middle age, we have all lost people who are dear to us, but losing a mate is different because not only is the person gone, so is the life you shared and the plans you made. Adding to the difficulty, everything you do, everything you eat, everything you see is a reminder that he is gone. Forever. That is a bit of innocence that can never be recouped. A bit of hurt that can never be repaired. A true coming of age that makes one’s adolescent transition seem trivial by comparison.

I have not written fiction for a very long time. Perhaps the story I was meant to write had not yet been lived, so I had nothing to say. But now I do have something to say. I am steeped in grief still, but when I can step away from myself for a moment and am not involved in the pain, it strikes me as such an all-encompassing experience that I would like to explore it in a novel. It is a story that needs to be written — it is so little understood, this coming of age in middle age.