Four Years and Two Months of Grief

In two days it will be four years and two months since Jeff — my life mate/soul mate — died, and even now I can feel the effects of his goneness. I still have occasional grief surges that bring a quiet bout of tears and a great yearning to see him once more. Chances are, I will have will have such upsurges for the rest of my life, though perhaps at a continually diminishing rate.

I keep busy, so I’m not subjected as often to the desperate loneliness and aloneness that plagued me for the first three and a half years of my grief, but holiday weekends, when everyone else is involved with family, brings the loneliness home to me. (I’m not strictly alone, but my 97-year-old father is involved with his personal end-of-life rituals, and my dysfunctional brother is . . . well, let’s just say I am much better off when he leaves me alone. Neither man sees me as real, so although I am not strictly alone, I am actually more alone than if I were truly alone.) Sometimes I wish I had someone for my own, but I’m desert knollsnot interested in getting involved. Not only is it too soon for another connection, but a connection would pull at me, keeping me from doing what I want/need to do — whatever that might be. So I deal with the loneliness as best as I can.

For thirty-four years, I was connected to another human being on such a profound level that when he died, it felt as if half of me went with him, as if I were straddling the line between here and eternity. I don’t feel the nearness of eternity any more, don’t feel the awesome gap between life and death — in that respect, my life has gone back to “normal.” But even after all this time, something in me yawns wide and cries out to be filled. Sometimes I try to fill the emptiness with physical activity. Sometimes I try to fill it with chocolate and other treats. Sometimes I try to fill it with reaching out to others. But it is always there, an itch beneath the surface of my consciousness.

Despite Jeff’s absence, despite my brother’s presence, I am happier than I ever thought possible, and yet . . . Jeff is still gone. Still dead. Still, strangely, a part of my life.

I went walking in the desert today. I haven’t been out there for a while, keeping my ambulation more as a means of transportation than recreation, but it felt right. I used to talk to him in the desert, used to feel close to him in the vastness the open land, used to show him the steps and positions I learned in my various exercise classes, but today I just walked. Felt the ground beneath my shoes, felt the heat on my shoulders. Just . . . felt.

(I did ask Jeff if he’d watch over me when I took my epic walk, but he didn’t respond.)

I know he couldn’t have stayed. I know I couldn’t have gone with him (except for the part of me that died when he did). I know I’ve had and will continue to have many adventures I never could have had if we were still together. I know, though I seldom admit it, that when I am finished with my responsibilities here and head out on my own, my life will be better without him and the demands of his illness.

And yet. And yet . . .

***

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.

The Doors of Grief

Years before my life mate/soul mate died, I wrote a character who grieved for her dead husband. It astonishes me that I got any of the effects of grief right since at the time, I hadn’t a clue what the loss of a mate really did to you, how it turned you inside out and upside down and left you reeling with shock and disbelief, regrets and sorrow. A Spark of Heavenly Fire begins:

Kate Cummings counted backward from one hundred, though she knew it wouldn’t help her sleep. Dead people didn’t slumber, and she hadn’t felt alive for a long time. Not since before Joe’s funeral, anyway.

Three. Two. One. She raised her head, squinted at the illuminated face of the alarm clock, and flopped back against the pillow. Five-fifteen. Six hours of thrashing around in bed. She blinked away the sting in her eyes. All she wanted was one good night’s sleep. Was that too much to ask?

One hundred. Ninety-nine. Ninety-six. . . . A sound startled her awake. A siren’s scream, fading now. She checked the time. Five-thirty. Even if she could doze off again, she’d have to rise in less than an hour. Not worth the effort.

She hauled herself upright and groped for her eyeglasses. After sitting on the edge of the bed for a moment, gathering her strength, she dressed and wandered through the house. She hesitated by the closed door of the second bedroom where her husband had lived during the last years of his protracted illness, touched the knob with her fingertips. Yanked her hand away.

This is ridiculous. Joe’s been gone for thirteen months.

Taking a deep breath, she grasped the knob, but could not force herself to turn it. She rested her forehead on the door for a minute, wondering if she’d ever be able to face the ghosts of sorrow and regret locked inside, then squared her shoulders and headed for the front closet to grab a coat and hat.

***

Later, she explains to a new friend:

“About two weeks after the funeral, I decided to clean Joe’s room. I didn’t feel up to sorting out his things, but I thought I should dust and vacuum in there. I cracked opened the door, as if expecting Joe, or at least his spirit, to inhabit the room. I stepped inside, but seconds later I scrambled out again and slammed the door.

“Memories of all the shameful, petty, inconsiderate things I had done over the years haunted the room, and I couldn’t bear to face my own mean spirit. Too many times I snapped at him or purposely waited a few minutes before going to see what he wanted when he called out. Other times I felt so angry at the way life had treated us, I stomped around the house, slamming doors and kicking furniture. Usually, though, I pounded my pillow, or cried. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I cried, wishing I had a normal life with healthy children to take care of instead of an uncommunicative and disabled man. Sometimes I even hated him for what he had become, as if he chose to get sick. Can you believe that?”

She didn’t pause for a response, but hurried on, wanting to get it all out.

“Worst of all, I realized I was not a strong woman who had shouldered her burden with courage, but a weak woman who lacked generosity of spirit.”

***

doorI didn’t have a real door to close — I had to leave our home and come look after my aged father — but there are plenty of doors in my head that I slammed shut. It’s only now, after thirty-four months that I’m able to open them a crack, peek at the ghosts of my ungenerous and petty moments, and understand.

For the most part, I handled the stress of his dying well, but there were times I resented him, even hated him, though now I know it wasn’t he I resented or hated, but his dying. Everything that irked me — his skinniness, his rocking when he stood talking to me (he was so weak, it was the only way he could keep his balance), his inability to carry on a conversation, and his testiness — were all facets of “dying man” not the man himself. To a certain extent, he died long before his last breath. He never blamed me for my resentment because he too hated what he had become. He once admitted he didn’t even recognize himself anymore.

Death does appalling things to people, not just to those who are dying, but to those who have to continue living. Whatever our problems, those last terrible months, we had a chance to reconnect for a few weeks before he died, and I got to say good-bye to the man I love, not just the shadow of that man he had become.

And that is what I will remember — not all the petty secrets I’m gradually bringing out from behind closed doors, but our sweet good-bye.

***

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.” All Bertram’s books are published by Second Wind Publishing. 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

Lingering Effects of Grief

Even as my pain subsides, even as my memories of a coupled life fade, the effects of grief linger.

When the significant person in your life dies, the tearing away of their presence from your soul creates ripples of changes in your life. In my case, after the death of my life mate/soul mate, I relocated a thousand miles from our home, exchanging a mountainous climate for a desert one. As difficult as that change was, it turned out to be the easiest, probably because my long walks in the desert help me feel connected to the earth. Other changes are harder to deal with, such as loneliness and sorrow, a heightened sense of mortality, and mood swings.

During most of my life, I tried to keep my emotions on an even keel in the belief that what goes up must come down, but now such control seems beyond me.

At the beginning of my grief, I got a newsletter from hospice warning about mood swings and explaining that euphoria followed by despair is common. I didn’t pay much attention to the article because I was not prone to euphoria. I was grief-stricken, heartbroken, and soul-shattered, and I stayed that way for months on end.

Now, though, I can laugh one minute and cry the next. I succumb to irritability more often than I would like. And I am overly sensitive. Things that once I could have taken in stride now bring me to tears, as if something in me, an equalizer, perhaps, is broken. The bloody stump where he was ripped from my psyche is healing, but I am still very tender and sore, and that makes me subject to the vagaries of emotion. (Though I still haven’t experienced any euphoria.)

I don’t like this part of the process. Well, of course not. No part of the grieving process is fun, but there is a big difference between the agony of a soul crying out, “Where are you? Can you hear me?” and the pettiness of a woman upset because someone who promised to call didn’t.

Apparently, part of me believes that I paid my dues with my great loss, and now I deserve to have everything go my way. But life is not like that. Life does not keep a balance sheet.

I know that as I continue to assimilate my grief, I will eventually regain my equilibrium and find a way to deal with the minor heartaches and setbacks of life. But for now, all I can do is cling to the wildly swinging pendulum and hope I can manage to hang on until I find peace once again.

Grief: Denying Denial

I never really had a choice about feeling my grief. It wasn’t so much that I embraced it, but that it embraced me. It took hold of my life and didn’t let go, though it is easing enough so that I am able to see the process for what it is.

People talk about denial as if it’s a bad thing. If I’d been able to deny grief and just go on living as if my mate of thirty-four years hadn’t died, I’d probably have done so. Grief is debilitating, disorienting, causes innumerable physical and emotional reactions, makes one susceptible to cancer, accidents, and other closer-to-death encounters and on top of that, it’s just downright painful.

So why deny denial? Because in the end, it’s better to embrace grief, to learn to live with the pain (which does diminish, though according to comments left on this blog from others who have also lost their mates, it never goes away completely. It can resurface even years later). By embracing grief, by learning how to cope with it, you can learn how to feel deeply again, look forward to the future, and embrace life. This in no way negates your loss, but allows you to honor his death with your life.

Another reason to deny denial is that grief will affect you whether you embrace it or not, but the effects of denied grief are not overt ones such as crying, eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little, feeling as if you’ve been kicked in the gut, feeling as if half your heart is missing. Instead, grief that goes underground can create in you long-term problems, including the symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder. Two friends — both of whom lost their husbands a few month ago, both of whom are deluged with family and family obligations that give them no time to grieve  — were diagnosed with PTSD after days of internal quivering that only responded to drugs. They do not have time to spare for grief, but grief is not sparing them.

Grief is stressful, which is why crying, screaming, beating up on defenseless sofas are necessary — they help relieve that pent-up stress. You can go into denial and hold grief in, but it’s like holding in your stomach for years on end — you can never think of anything else but your stomach. If you hold yourself tightly against memories, dreams, unexpected encounters with photos, you have no time for living. Perhaps you don’t see a purpose for living now, but if you do your grief work (and grief is work, there’s no doubt about that) chances are you will regain your desire to live. You might even be able to love fully again, and that means risking more pain, but after dealing with your grief, you will be strong enough to accept the risk.

At least, that’s the way I’ve interpreted the grief process. You might see different reasons for either denying grief or denying denial.