What It’s All About

Today is the eleventh anniversary of Jeff’s death, and as with everything to do with grief, I am feeling a bit bewildered. None of it makes sense to me. 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 still felt broken years after his death? That woman who screamed the pain of her loss to the winds?

I’ve always considered myself a passionless woman, so how could that woman be me? I’m mostly living in a state of relative equilibrium at the moment, feeling more like myself than I have at any time since his death, which makes that bone deep grief I lived with for so long seem even more unreal. Sometimes looking back, it almost seems as if all that emotion was an effort to make myself seem important, and yet I know it was real. It came from a part of me I didn’t even know existed. It makes me wonder if maybe that’s what changed over the years — not that I became more used to Jeff being gone, or that time healed my grief, but that the part of me that surfaced after he died has simply sunk back into the muck from which it rose.

Making the situation even more unreal, I can barely remember what he looked like — I do not think in images, so it’s understandable (though distressing) that I have no clear image of him in my mind. Even worse, I don’t have a photo that matches what I remember of him. (The only photo I have was taken about twelve years before he died.) And so the image of him in my mind now is the image in that photo. I remember the first time I looked at the picture after he was gone — I was shocked that it no longer looked like him. I put the photo away, not wanting that false image to be the only picture of him in my head, but when I moved here, I put his photo on the bedside table, finding comfort in that now familiar image. Does it matter if it didn’t look like him at the end? When I was going through his effects and found a picture of him around the time we met, I didn’t recognize that image of him either. And yet, they were both good images of him at those times. So what difference does it make how I picture him? He was all those men, and none of them.

Nor do I have a clear sense of time. Sometimes it feels as if he died just a couple of months ago. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago. The demarcation between our shared life and my solitary life was once so stark it was like the edge of a cliff. All I could see was the past and what I had lost. The living I have done in the past eleven years has blurred that edge almost to the point of nonexistence, adding to the sense of unreality.

I didn’t really expect to grieve for him today, and I didn’t, though the day isn’t yet over, so there’s a chance a bout of sadness will visit me tonight as I prepare for sleep. What I did today is what I have done every day since he died — lived the best I know how, finding joy in simple things, finding life in novel experiences. He was so sick at the end, it seemed as by dying he set us both free — he from pain, me from a lifetime of servitude to his illness — and I have been careful not to waste that gift.

Today’s simple joy was the blossoming of the Glory of the Snow bulbs I planted last fall.

And the novel experience was getting to drive a baby John Deere. The worker who is laying rock around my house drove here in the tractor to make it easier to transport the rock from one side of the yard to another, and to my delight, he let me drive the thing up and down the street, and even showed me how scoop up the rocks.

Those two things in particular add to my bewilderment today about life and death and grief. If Jeff were still alive, I wouldn’t have had those treats. In fact, if he were alive, I would be someone else, more like the person I was eleven years ago rather than the person grief shaped me into.

Then I have to add in the aging factor to the bewilderment. He will always be the age he was when he died, and I am getting ever older. Sometimes I feel the injustice of it all — we were supposed to grow old together, and because of our healthful lifestyle, we were supposed to beat the odds and be vital to the end. And yet, he’s gone and I am trying to pick my way through the minefield of growing old by myself. I am glad he won’t have to deal with that. I’m also glad he didn’t have to deal with the angst of surviving the death of a life mate, though what do I know. It’s entirely possible, if the dead have any sort of consciousness, that they grieve for us as much as we grieve for them.

But what all this comes down to is that it’s been eleven years since he died, and I don’t have any clearer idea now of what it’s all about than I did back then.

***

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

4,000 Days

This is the 4,000th day since Jeff died. That’s a lot of days, taken one at a time.

I never used to count days or months or years. Well, my birthday, that’s the one count we all make, though after I reached adulthood, the number of years I’d lived became a curiosity rather than celebration, a number to acknowledge and then move on.

After Jeff died, counting became a part of my life, of my grief. Surprisingly, I’m not the only one who counted the days; most of us who have been left behind count at least for a while.

When we lose a significant person in our life, one whose death rocks us to the very depths of our being and changes us forever, it’s as if we are born into a world of grief, and our internal clocks reset themselves to that moment of birth.

At first, we count the minutes and hours we’ve lived, then after we’ve survived twenty-four or forty-eight interminable and interminably painful hours, we being counting the days. Eventually we move on to counting weeks, months, years, and even decades. To the uninitiated, this counting seems as if we’re dwelling on the past, constantly reminding ourselves of our sorrow, but the truth is, counting is a way of helping us survive this new, alien world.

Grief distorts time. Sometimes it feels as if time stops, but simultaneously it feels as if it speeds up. Seconds seem like hours. Hours can feel like days or pass by in seconds. We lose track of what the date is. The past and future might become so entwined that we can’t always be sure if we’re going forward or backward. A particularly strong flashback to the days before our loved one died can make it seem as they are still alive, in another room perhaps. An especially serene moment between grief upsurges can catapult us to a future world of possibility, a world without pain. Counting the days helps put time back into perspective.

Mentioning that this is the 4,000th day makes it seem as if I am still counting, but the truth is, I stopped counting days, weeks, and months, a long time ago, though I still count the years. (On March 27, it will be eleven years.) During research on another matter, I came across the number 4,000 and I put in on my calendar, otherwise this day would have passed without a comment. And maybe it should have. After all, what difference does it make how many days he’s been gone? He’s gone, and no amount of counting will change that.

Still, I did survive all those days, too many of which were pain-filled and angst-ridden, so that’s something worth acknowledging, I suppose.

***

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

My Recycled Year

A few years ago, someone gave me an expired but unused calendar still in its original packaging. I’m sure it was more for the origami aspect than any sort of nostalgia, but the interesting thing to me is that the calendar was for 2010, the year Jeff died. I never did the origami, just set it aside, and lo and behold, the calendar is current again. 2010 has been recycled and has now become 2021.

There are many differences of course. Not in the days — everything lines up between the years 2010 and 2021, including non-date-specific days such as Easter — but in the events of the year.

Eleven years ago, Jeff and I were dealing with the stress of his dying, he was dealing with excruciating pain, and then later after he died, I had to deal with the incredible angst of grief.

This year, instead of being assaulted by my grievous loss, I am tending more toward gratitude. I am grateful he is no longer suffering. I am grateful I was able to be there at his end. But most of all, I am grateful he spent more than half his life with me. I got the benefit of his kindness, his intelligence, his gift for appreciation. He brought so much to my life, taught me so much, and even his dying and the gift of grief he left behind taught me much more.

I’m sure it seems odd to people who are still dealing with the daily grief of a deceased loved one that I would call grief a gift, but it is. All that turmoil brought me to the place I am today, both geographically and mentally. More than that, it showed me that there is so much more to us — to me, specifically — than we can ever imagine. I had no idea such a profound experience as grief for a soul mate existed. I had no idea the human heart could hurt so much. I had no idea that given that hurt — and the void he left behind — the heart could heal.

It reminds me of an Edwin Markham quote I’ve always loved:

“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!”

In this case, my grief took in the void, and made it a part of me.

For that, I am also grateful. Even in his absence, he is a part of me.

It makes me wonder if gratitude is the final aspect of grief — for in gratitude, we find the grace to continue living, to embrace all the joys the new year (and all the new years) hold.

If, as the day of my eleventh anniversary of grief approaches, and I get sad and don’t want to relive that year for real, I won’t have the daily reminder (other than the reminders that are in my heart, mind, and soul) because the calendar doesn’t specify a year. Only the day. And that will quite to deal with — one day at a time — during this recycled year.

Wishing you a happy, healthy, and harmonious New Year.

***

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