Fan Mail Brings Me Grief

Grief: The Great YearningI must be only author who grieves when she gets emails and comments from readers. For most authors, fan mail is a wonderful and affirming event. It is for me too, but the affirmation is usually accompanied by my tears because most often when readers write to tell me how much one of my books meant to them, they are referring to Grief: The Great Yearning.

It’s nice to know that people who are going through grief find comfort in my words, but oh, it breaks my heart to know that yet another person is dealing with the devastating loss, disbelieving shock, unfathomable pain of losing a spouse.

Those who haven’t lost their life mate, soul mate, partner, the person who makes life worth living, the person who connects them to the world, cannot comprehend the reality of the situation. In fact when people tell me they can’t imagine having to deal with such loss, I tell them not to even try. There is no way anyone can imagine the physical, mental, spiritual, emotional upheaval such a loss brings. And yet, the people who reach out to me in their grief know. As do I.

And so I weep.

The tears don’t really help anyone. We all have to find our own way through the horror, and yet, there they are, these prisms refracting my soul. Still, I do love hearing that my words mean something to people, that they brought a bit of comfort. It helps give meaning to those long years of pain.

If you are suffering a soul-numbing loss, maybe you, too would find comfort in my words. And I promise, despite my tears, I’m always glad to hear your story.

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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.

Grief Work

Grief work after the death of a spouse or anyone who makes your life worth living encompasses many tasks, from the simple task of getting out of bed in the morning to the complicated tasks of arranging for funeral services and dealing with financial matters.

As time goes on, the tasks of grief seem to increase, especially the emotional, mental, and spiritual tasks. We need to work through the pain, adjust to the absence of our loved one, find ways and reasons to continue living despite the absence, realize we each have our own path in life, remember them with joy not just sadness. (These might not be tasks so much as the natural progression of grief, but they all fall under the category of “grief work.”)

There are the horrendous tasks of dealing with the loved one’s effects, clearing out the things they no longer have any use for. Sometimes this particular bit of grief work can take years. Although I disposed of most of my life mate/soul mate’s things, I still have items I cannot get rid of, either because he asked me to keep them or because getting rid of them is still unthinkable after Untitledmore than three years. For example, I can’t get rid of his keys, eyeglasses, and wallet. Something in me balks at that, as if he still has use of such things. Especially ridiculous are his car keys. I donated his car to hospice, but kept a set of keys. I just can’t get rid of them.

And then there are the self-imposed tasks, the ways each of us find to honor the end of our shared life. For me, this self-imposed task is watching movies. Think it’s easy? No way!

Long ago, when we realized that we were renting the same movies over and over again because we couldn’t find anything better, he started taping movies for us. Started out with movies for us to watch together, and then expanded into movies he liked but I didn’t. As he got sicker and more housebound, he occupied his time by taping TV movies and television shows by hand so he could cut out the commercials.

There were more than a thousand tapes, some of them with a full six hours of movies or shows. Many of these tapes I had never watched, but during the past two-and-a-half years, I have been watching these tapes, sorting out the ones I have no interest in, keeping the ones that I like or that remind me of special occasions. I started with the tapes he made at the end, the ones I had never seen, and they were painful to watch — so many of them dealt with people who were dying or people who had to find a new way of living after the death of a spouse. It’s almost as if he were leaving me a message telling me to get on with my life.

Even more painful is when I reached the tapes that we always watched together. As I watch each of them, I am aware that the last time I saw the movie, he was by my side. I remember the things we said, the looks we gave each other, the connection we felt. These once-loved movies now seem dull and bland as if a vital spark is missing. And it is missing. He is missing.

I’ve almost worked my way through all the tapes, and I have a hunch that this particular self-imposed task is prolonging my grief since they connect me to the past and at the same time make me aware that the past is gone forever.

Despite all this grief work, there are two things I will never be able to deal with. I will always hate that he is dead. And I will always miss him.

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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.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

When Grief Comes Calling

desert roadGrief has been leaving me alone lately, probably because I’ve been keeping myself busy with other matters, but Friday night grief came calling. Sorrow has been with me on and off now for two days, perhaps in recognition of my upcoming three-year anniversary. I didn’t think there would be a problem with this anniversary (which is a bit naïve of me considering that I didn’t think there would be a problem with any of the agonizing stops along this grief journey). I’ve been feeling as if the death of my life mate/soul mate happened long ago, so long that he’s been fading in memory. Yet on Friday night, the memory of his last days was so fresh and new, it was as if we’d only recently parted. I could almost feel his arms around me as we said our final good-byes. Could almost see his smile, could almost hear his voice.

And suddenly, just like that, the yearning to be with him one more time overwhelmed me, and the reality lay heavy on my soul. He’s dead? Really? How is that possible?

I know how it’s possible. He got sick, was sick for years, and finally, the inoperable kidney cancer spread, hijacking his body for its own use. But dead? Part of me doesn’t get it. Part of me (just a vestigial part now) thinks I’ll be going home to him when I am free of my current responsibilities, and the truth — that he is gone forever — is again too much to bear.

I do know enough about grief to understand that this upsurge in sorrow will pass, but there will be other days — at ever-increasing intervals — when grief will again come calling. We get so in the habit of life, of dealing with our small everyday concerns, that our grief gets pushed out of sight, but we never completely get over our sadness. How can we? The person who meant more to us than any other is gone, taking part of us with him.

If that weren’t hard enough to deal with, we can never completely forget that we were helpless to keep him here even one more day, which makes life and death seem an arbitrary business. Perhaps if we knew life’s algorithms, we could see how everything fits together, but without such omniscience, we are left with only questions. Where is he? Is he happy? Is he?

Sometimes what keeps me focused on living is the thought of what he would say if we were to meet again. He’d be disappointed in me if I told him that all I did was mourn for him. I can see almost hear him say, “I died to set you free and you did nothing but cry?” Yeah, well, he no longer has a say in what I do. It’s my life and I’ll cry if I want to.

It’s not so much that I want to cry, but sometimes tears are the only way to relieve the incredible stress of grief. I had no idea stress would still come into play at almost three years, but grief, even aging grief, takes a lot out of us. Despite the upsurge in grief and the accompanying feelings of futility, I am making plans, looking forward, trying to find something to live for.

But dammit! I miss him.

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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+

All Right With Death?

Mystical desertA friend who lost her husband sent me an email today, relating something a woman told her. The woman said, “I’m not trying to put anything bad on my husband, but I think that if he died I would be all right with that.”

The statement shocked my friend, not just because of the tactlessness, but because of the lack of feeling.

People have said the same thing to me, and to be honest, it’s the way I felt when my life mate/soul mate was dying. I truly thought I would be okay. He’d been sick for so long and in such pain, I thought I’d be relieved when he died. And I was. For about an hour. Those last years of his life, I did many things to prepare myself for going on alone, and I thought I was prepared. That’s why my grief shocked me so much — it came from somewhere so deep inside, I had no idea such a place existed. My grief was beyond rationality, beyond emotion. It was visceral, as if part of my body and half my soul had died.

Some women truly don’t feel much after their husbands die. Sometimes the husband had been sick for so long they did their grieving before he died. Sometimes their relationship was so bad they were glad when it was over. And sometimes people are unable to feel anything. After all, about 5% of all humans are sociopaths — not killers, simply people without human emotions.

But the woman who made the remark could also be in denial, or not know the power of grief. If you know how you would feel if your spouse died, it would put an unbearable burden on you, especially if you think you are an independent woman. I mean, grief to such an extent as I felt seems anachronistic in this liberated day when we are all supposed to be strong and self-reliant. When people found out about my loss, they often gave me strange looks, as if I were an alien species they could not understand. Sometimes after such a look, people would said they could not imagine how they would feel if they lost their spouse. I always told them not to imagine it. They couldn’t. Until you have been there, you do not know the depths of such grief. You cannot know.

To be honest, I wish I didn’t know. Such grief changes your whole perception of yourself and your relationship to life. It makes you rethink who you are, where you came from, and where you are going, and there are no easy answers. The truth is, I was strong and self-reliant. Sure, my mate and I did everything together, but I was perfectly capable of doing things on my own. Still, 2 and 2/3 years after his death, I am struggling with feelings of pointlessness and meaninglessness, as if our shared life was the only thing that mattered. And maybe it was — then. For thirty-four years he was the focus of my life, and to a certain extent he still is. I feel his absence the way I once felt his presence.

For me, the strangest part of the woman’s sentence is her implication that not only would she be all right after he died, but she’d be okay with his death. In my case, I am mostly doing okay dealing with my mate’s absence. I can even accept the idea that he is dead — I have to so I can go on with my life. But as long as I am alive, I will never be all right with his death.

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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+

One Thousand and One Days of Grief

clockAlthough yesterday’s post 1000 Days of Grief — and this one — might make it seem as if I am still counting the days of grief, I actually stopped counting after the first year. Once when I could not imagine ever being able to get through another hour, I counted to the 1000th day and marked it on the calendar. It seemed like a significant number — a guidepost — and I thought I should know the date. It is astonishing to me that I have managed to survive so many days since the death of my life mate/soul mate, but in truth, I am doing more than simply surviving. I am living.

Of the articles I have recently written, posts about celebrating various aspects of life outnumber my posts about grief, which puzzles me since I am not feeling at all festive. When you lose the person who connects you to the world, you have to find new ways of reconnecting to life, and apparently those celebratory posts are indicative of the changes in me, of how on a visceral level, my focus is turning away from death to life.

For so long, I didn’t feel right about embracing life when he was dead. I knew he wouldn’t want me to be sad, but frankly, he had no say in the matter, and for the most part, neither did I. Grief is a force, like a whirlwind, and all I could do was endure as best as I could until it lost its power. Even when the power of grief began waning, I still didn’t feel right about embracing life. It’s not so much that I had survivor’s guilt (especially since I wasn’t sure I still wanted to be here), but that it didn’t seem fair. If life is a gift, why was it taken from him?

Maybe he got the worst end of the deal by having to die so young. Maybe I got the worst end of the deal by having to live. This conundrum of who got the worst of the deal tormented me for a long time, but now I see that it doesn’t matter. It can’t matter. He died. I didn’t. That’s the way things are.

I’m starting to see myself as just me now, not as a shattered, left-behind half of a couple; starting to feel that whatever our life together meant, whatever our connection, this is my life. Not his. Not ours. Mine.

On a larger scale, perhaps, there is no such thing as “my life” and “his life” and “your life.” Maybe we are all somehow connected, like books on a library shelf, our stories interlocking and making a whole. But I cannot think of that larger scale right now. I need to be me, or rather, to find a new way of being, and oddly, this seems to be a typical leg in grief’s journey. I am taking a yoga class (therapy yoga, a gentler form of yoga that allows for one’s imitations) as part of my effort to open myself to new possibilities, and I recently discovered that, coincidentally, all the women in the class have lost their husbands. Our losses vary from one to ten years, but we are all striving for a new way of being, a new focus. We are also all trying to learn how to take care of ourselves in our old age since we won’t be growing old with anyone.

Whether I count the days or not, time is still passing, and at an increasingly rapid rate. On September 16, 2015, it will be 2000 days since his death. (No, I didn’t count those days, I used a decimal birthday counter.) What will I be like in another 1000 days? What will my life be like? If the changes come as rapidly as in the previous 1000 days, I doubt I will recognize me. Whatever happens, though, the number of days since I was born into this new life that his death forced on me, has little significance except as another guidepost. Each day stands alone. Each day finds its own meaning. Each day is mine to survive, or to celebrate, as best as I can.

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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 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+

Echoes of Grief

Today marks twenty-nine months since the death of my life mate/soul mate/best friend. I’ve come a very long way from that shattered woman who screamed her pain to the winds, who cried for hours when she accidentally broke his mug.

I still miss him, still want one more word from him, one more smile, one more day. I still have an upsurge of sorrow when I remember he is gone. And although I know — I feel — how very gone he is from my life, I still am prone to the foolish fantasy that when I am finished looking after my father and leave here to start a new life, my mate and I will be starting it together. But . . .

I barely remember our life together. It seems so very long ago and as if it happened to someone else. (Which is true — it did. Because of what I have endured these past two years and five months, because of embracing the challenges of the present and opening myself to hopes for the future, I am not the same as I was then.) I’ve turned enough corners now that even my grief seems unreal, as if that, too, happened to a different person. And yet . . .

Our shared life is very much a part of me still. Almost everything I do is accompanied by an echo from our past, almost everything I use originates from that time. I’ve bought a few new things — bits of clothing, mugs with my book covers on them (a totally indulgent purchase since I seldom use mugs), but I don’t really need anything. Most of our possessions are in storage, and I both dread and look forward to the day when I unpack them. I’m not sure whether I will find comfort in having our things around me, or if I will find more pain, but that puzzle is for another day, and perhaps another person. I am changing rapidly and will continue to change as my life changes, so the person who will need to deal with those possessions is not the me of today.

In a strange sort of way, I have been getting messages from him. Not messages from wherever he is now, but from where he was when he still inhabited this earth.

He used to tape movies — movies that we both liked, and movies that spoke specially to him. I am going through his movie collection, watching in backward order (from the ones he taped last to the ones he taped first), and I catch glimpses of what concerned him toward the end of his life. Death, of course, and me, perhaps. So many of the movies he taped that last year were about people (mostly women) whose spouse had died, forcing them to create new lives for themselves.

We watched these movies together when he first taped them, and I thought I knew then why he liked them — he was always fascinated with second chances, new beginnings, characters who came out of catastrophes to find renewal. But now, seeing the movies from this side of his death, they have a whole new meaning for me. Over and over again is the message: take care of yourself, accept the challenge and the change and the freedom that death brings, and most of all, find happiness again.

Sheesh. I made myself cry. But dang it — this new life would be so much more happier if he were here to share it.

Two Years, Two Months, Two Weeks, And Two Days of Grief

Two years, two months, two weeks, and two days. That’s how long my life mate/soul mate has been dead, and I still can’t make sense of it all — our meeting, the years we shared, his death, my continued life.

Neither of us had every expected (or wanted) to share a life with anyone, and yet we spent more than three decades together. Our meeting was almost miraculous. In a fit of loneliness, he wished he had someone, and the next week, I walked into his store. We started out with such hope, but our life together was no fairy tale. Much of it was wonderful, more vital than anything I could ever have imagined, yet we were trapped by various failures, not the least of which was his increasingly poor health. I was so tired of it all, so exhausted by trying to hold myself together, that a few times that last year I wished he’d die and get it over with. I never said it aloud, of course, but he knew. How could I have been so horrid? Shouldn’t I have been more patient? Wiser? Kinder? It’s a terrible thing, knowing I am not the woman I thought I was.

During the last few weeks of his life, we reconnected, and I remembered why I loved him.

And then he was gone.

I don’t understand how he can be dead. Well, obviously, I understand the biology of it — I watched him die a bit every day for a lot of years — but the man I knew in the form I knew is gone. Forever. I can’t wrap my mind around that. Even worse, I am forgetting him. My memories are drifting off-center, and I no longer feel the truth of him.

People used to tell me that he still exists in memory, but if so, he is dying a bit more every day. There could come a time when I don’t remember him, when I only remember his absence. I can feel it happening already. Some days now it seems as if he were a stranger I knew long ago rather than a person with whom I spent most of my waking hours for more than half my life. I don’t know whether I should cling to the memory of him, even if it is skewed, or if I should let the memory of him fade and simply deal with what life brings me every day.

I don’t understand my continued life, either. Was I really that woman? That woman who watched a man slowly die, who wanted the suffering to end, yet whose love was so ineffectual she couldn’t make him well or take away a single moment of his pain? That woman so connected to another human being she felt shattered into a thousand pieces after his death? That woman who screamed the pain of her loss to the winds? All these months later, I still don’t know how to deal with his death. Don’t know why I continue to be sad. Don’t know why I feel his absence acutely when I barely remember him.

Mostly I’m trying to look at the future as an adventure, but I’ve had so many immense changes in my life in the past few years, with more on the way, that I feel as if I have no foundation to build on. That feeling, at least, is not true. I have the foundation of all I have done, all I have learned, all I have become — what I don’t have is certainty and security (though no one really does).

And most of all, what I don’t have is him. But perhaps I never did? It could be we were simply passing by and stopped to visit awhile before we continued our journeys. Alone.

I Got Kicked Out Of My Grief Support Group

I got kicked out of my grief support group. During the last meeting, the facilitator told us there was going to be a big influx of new people to the group, though why there would be an influx and how he knew this, he didn’t say. What he did say was that if we were able to function, if we were able to go about our daily activities, we were supposed to leave the group. He also said the group was too social, but isn’t that the purpose of a group? To support each other? We did talk before and after the meeting, but during the meeting, we stuck to the subject — grief — which was why we were all there. It was the only place we could continue sharing our sad tales and talk about what we were feeling. The rest of the world has passed on, leaving us alone with our emptiness and our tears.

In order to break up the group, the facilitator said he was going to cancel meetings for a month so we could evaluate ourselves, and then if we really, really, really needed the group, we could return. This stunned the heck out of me. Because he thought some people had overstayed their welcome, he was going to leave the newly bereft without any support for a month!! With Father’s Day almost here? He finally agreed to cancel only a single meeting, but still, the whole concept is appalling.

Apparently, a group in another town turned into a social gathering, and to change the focus, that group was cancelled for a month. Only two people returned after the meetings resumed, and the facilitators congratulated themselves on a job well done. But no one checked to see why the others didn’t come back. Perhaps, like me, they felt betrayed. A place that was supposed to be safe suddenly became dangerous. Sure, I could go back, but I’d never be able to open up again. I’d always be wondering if I was being judged, if I wasn’t going through grief fast enough to suit the facilitator, if I were depriving some other poor soul of a say, if I were being too social or too articulate. (Apparently, my ability to talk articulately about grief is a drawback. Though why, I don’t know. Just because I can put into words what others feel does not mean I’m not feeling grief myself.)

The facilitator kept saying, “This is hard for me.” He never even looked at the shocked faces of the group participants, just kept saying how hard it was for him. Who cares how hard it was for him? He shouldn’t have said anything in the first place. (I’m not supposed to talk about what goes on in the group, but since I am no longer a participant, I can say what I want. Besides, it was more my group than his. I understood what people were going through. He didn’t. How could he? He still has his spouse. Until you’ve lost a long-time mate, you cannot know, cannot comprehend the vast physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual changes such a death brings to one’s life.)

We were originally told we could keep attending meetings as long as we needed. In fact, Medicare demands that hospice provide bereavement counseling for a minimum of thirteen months. Nowhere in that regulation does it say grievers are prohibited from attending if they could function in the world. Besides, if we couldn’t function, we never would have been able to attend in the first place.

I’d stopped going to the bereavement group for a while, then returned to help support a friend through the worst of her grief, but it’s come full circle and I need the group for me again. I was okay for the first two months after the anniversary of my life mate’s death, but the truth — that he is irrevocably gone — has seeped into the depths of my being, and I am feeling heartbroken. I need to be with those who understand this upsurge in grief. Who don’t mind my tears. Who know that the calendar means nothing when it comes to grief. Who realize that yes, the newly bereft need support, but so do those who are further along.