Gardening Is the Answer

I finished digging the grass out of a soon-to-be wildflower meadow. For a few minutes this morning, I thought I’d get rained out and would have to save the last six-foot square until tomorrow, but the clouds spat a few drops at me, got bored, and moved one.

After I finished digging and shaking the dirt out of the clumps of grass roots, I raked the area flat, which oddly was the hardest part of the whole task. But I got that job done, too.

An experienced gardener left a comment on my blog yesterday that a wildflower field doesn’t have to be tilled, and I wondered if I had done all that work for nothing. And yet, that Bermuda grass is so strong and overpowering, I was afraid my poor wildflower seeds wouldn’t stand a chance if I didn’t do something about the grass. In fact, that grass is so strong it’s starting to go through the weed-barrier fabric on the north side of the garage. Supposedly, the contractor got the strongest fabric available, but as I said, that grass is strong. It looks like they are going to have to add another strip of the fabric, as well as finish putting up the gutters on the garage, but that is not something I can to do, so I won’t worry about it.

I’m glad to know about not having to till the soil for a wildflower meadow, so in some other spots where I want wildflowers, I can just toss the seeds and stamp them into the ground. Well, after I dig up the weeds, that is. And the grass.

A friend sent me a quote: “The answer is gardening. It doesn’t matter what the question is.”

I thought that was lovely. And it does sort of reinforce a surmise I made. A fellow griever once told me about an old woman she knew who had lost everyone she had ever loved and yet was the happiest person the griever knew. We both marveled at the possibility of finding joy despite all the sorrow, but now I know the woman’s secret. The woman was a gardener, so as I surmised, that’s the answer to the conundrum.

I wonder if I will be that person? More likely, unless gardening keeps me mellow and allows me a life of sorts without having to deal with too many irritations, I will become a curmudgeon.

Either way, gardening does seem to be the answer.


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.

Grief and Peace

Studies have indicated that happiness is found mainly in retrospect. For example, happy children don’t know they are happy. They simply are happy. It’s only later, when they look back, perhaps after a terrible time in their adult lives, that they realize they had been happy in their early years. For another example, when someone is involved in a challenging situation that takes all their time and energy, they don’t realize until later they were happy. In fact, often while going through this “happy” situation, people think they are decidedly unhappy.

It happens with grief, too. Sometimes a couple isn’t particularly happy, but after one of the partners is deceased, the remaining person looks back and realizes that, despite the disagreements and difficulties, they really had been happy. Or after caring for a loved one during a long illness, the void they leave behind makes those painful days of being with the loved one seem akin to happiness.

Happiness might also be found in anticipation, in hopes for a time when joy might come again. Oftentimes, when someone has gone through a difficult time, they find it easy to look ahead to future happiness, but not when that difficult time is grief for a loved one, and especially not when the loved one is a spouse or soul mate.

The chaos of grief is so great, the blackness so opaque, the pain so all-consuming, that we cannot look to the future as a rosier time. How could there be happiness again when the person we loved more than anything, when the person whose very presence brought us happiness is dead? Chances are there will be happiness again. We change, our perspective changes, our focus changes, so the pain and yearning that once filled our being gradually shrinks into the essence of our souls. We still feel the loss, but like with bark that has broken to allow a tree to grow beyond its confines, our hearts and souls break and then expand to allow other feelings to exist alongside the pain.

Although I often offer a promise of future peace to grievers who show me their pain, I never promise happiness. In fact, I seldom mention the possibility because it’s no consolation. For a long time, the very idea of finding happiness without our deceased mate seems too much of a betrayal of our shared life.

But peace is attainable. Even in the days when the yearning for one more smile or one more word feels as if it will explode out of us, we can find brief moments of peace when the chaos is temporarily stilled, when the roar of pain and loss is temporarily silenced. As time goes on, these moments happen more frequently, and as even more time goes on, the duration of these moments is extended, until one day the peace begins to linger longer than the chaos.

When grievers call out to me in their pain, I want what any caring person wants — to ease their pain. But I, more than most, know that their grief belongs to them. It’s not up to me to take it away from them or even to add to the pain by “bleeding” for them, as people used to tell me they did. (Did they really think it eased my pain to have them bleed for me? That I bared my pain as plea for someone to take the burden of loss from me? If so, they were wrong. Baring my pain was a gift, to show other grievers that they are not the only ones who feel the pain and chaos of grief, that no matter how insane those feeling seemed, they were a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.)

All I can do is offer grievers a place to voice their pain and to send them a wish for (and a belief in) the possibility of peace.

So today, whether you are struggling with grief or trauma, or feelings of unworthiness and guilt for whatever happiness has come your way, I wish you peace.


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

To Everyone Who Has Shared This Day With Me

I am always touched by the comments left on this blog from those who are also struggling to live and find meaning after the death of the one person who meant more than anyone else in the world. So often I feel as if I am merely indulging myself by continuing to chronicle my progress through grief and into a renewed interest in life, especially when all I have are dreams and tentative plans that might come to naught. The comments left here show me how narcissusconnected we are, those of us on this difficult path. Although our situations are different, although our grief is individual, many of us face the same blank future that we need to color with dreams, goals, fantasies, interests, and especially a renewed love of life.

It’s as if we are children again, carefully building our futures one dream at a time. As when we were children, these dreams might not come true, but they help us expand our “what is” into new paths of “what might be.”

It could be our time of life that makes this struggle so complex. Although young widows have the same struggles we do, life is still rushing in their veins. Often they have small children, which makes their loss at once easier and more difficult — easier because they have built-in meaning so they don’t have to go searching for it, more difficult because they have to raise the children alone without that special person to share in the joys (and worries) of caring for the young ones. (Please know I am not denigrating anyone’s loss. All losses are unbearably painful, but each of us has our own unique set of collateral losses to deal with.)

As we age, we lose many things we counted on, not just people but jobs, stamina, health, and we need to find a way around these limitations to some sort of revitalization otherwise the last decades of our life would be nothing more than waiting for entropy to win. When grief and the destruction of a shared life are thrown into the mix, it’s even more difficult to find a way through the murk to joy.

And yet, somehow we do find our way. Today is the 47th 27th since the death of my life mate/soul mate. (For those of you who are arithmetic-challenged, that means in one month it will be four years since his death on March 27, 2010.) Despite my complicated and sometimes stressful situation — looking after my 97-year-old father and dysfunctional brother — I am happier than I ever imagined I could be four years ago. And I expect to become even happier.

Life is full with new friends, new activities (mostly physical pursuits, which is odd considering that until recently, I preferred a more literary life), and new dreams.

None of us knows what the future holds, but those of us who have survived a profound loss seem especially aware of that truism, and we try to live each day to its fullest. It’s all we have. It’s all anyone has — this day.

To everyone who has shared this day with me, whether in person or online with a comment, thank you. You have made this day a joyful one.


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.

Visualizing a Life of Joy

When a fellow grief survivor once told me about a woman she knew — an old woman who had lost everyone she had ever loved — and how the woman was the most joyful person she had ever met, I could only marvel. At the time, I was in the midst of unfathomable grief for my life mate/soul mate, but even before my terrible loss, I’d never been a candyparticularly joyful person. I couldn’t understand how, in the midst of the traumas and dramas life doles out like Halloween candy, anyone could find joy. And yet, and yet . . .

If you’ve read any of my posts about my current situation, looking after my 97-year-old father and dealing with my dysfunctional brother, you might think I’m in the throes of despair, but oddly, there is a feeling of . . . could it be joy? . . . deep within me. It’s as if something — my psyche, my inner child, my soul — is smiling.

When my brother is relentlessly demanding my attention, particularly late at night when I’m exhausted, or when I’ve had to explain something for the tenth time to my bewildered and hearing impaired father, I wonder how I’ll ever make it through another moment, but in the quiet times, I’m finding peace and an illusive joy. I feel as if I am letting go of ties that kept me bound to an unhappy past and a burdensome present.

What helps is that I’ve found refuge in new friends and new activities that make me feel alive, especially exercise classes that stretch my body and my mind. Like yoga, these classes make me aware of possibilities I had never considered, and teach me to reach further, imagine more, dream deeper. They make me feel beautiful and graceful, even though the mirror quite clearly shows I am many years past such an ideal. Or not. My teacher skews the whole age curve, making seventy-seven look like fifty. For so long, I’ve been afraid of growing old alone, worrying about dragging a decrepit body through long and solitary decades, and while such a scenario is possible, it’s not necessarily true. The exercise teacher’s radiant smile and still sensual movements show what is possible if someone keeps active, has a great attitude, and is blessed with a bit of luck.

I don’t know what life has in store for me, of course, but for the first time in I don’t know how long — maybe forever — I can visualize a life of joy.

The very thought makes me smile.


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.

Dead Man Walking

In the movie The Nature of the Beast, Eric Roberts tells Lance Henriksen that “dead man walking” refers to an inmate on death row when he’s on the move. Anytime they take the prisoner anywhere, they make sure all the other inmates are locked down and that the condemned man is accompanied by several armed guards. As they walk, they announce, “Dead man walking,” because this is the most dangerous sort of person in the world. He can do anything to anyone without any repercussions. He has nothing to lose. He’s already going to die, so what can they do, kill him twice?

prisonListening to that exchange, it struck me that we are all dead men walking. We are all on death row, condemned to die, just waiting for the day when life executes us.

When my grief was at its worst, a bereft friend who was also struggling for reasons to live told me about a woman who had lost everyone she had ever loved, was now alone in her old age, but was the most joyful person my friend had ever met. We marveled at that because it seemed incomprehensible to us, but perhaps the woman knew something we didn’t. Perhaps she knew that we are all dead men walking, the penalty of death has already been handed out, and so we have nothing left to do but live each moment until the sentence is carried out. Maybe the truth is that within the prisons of our aging (and sometimes disabled) bodies, within the prisons of our responsibilities and financial burdens and fears, we can do whatever we want.

Of course, most of us have no interest in killing, robbing, or doing anything that will land us in the slammer; our desires are more socially acceptable and carry fewer penalties. And perhaps it’s not even a matter of doing what we want, but simply living each day as it comes and being open to whatever happens.

A woman who lost her husband many years ago recently told me that things will get better in ways I never imagined. She said she believes that we are all blessed and will know joy to the degree that we have felt sorrow.

Perhaps that, too, is a lesson the old woman learned, and now she is experiencing that joy. Maybe someday we all will. If nothing else, it’s something to believe in, that despite (or because of) our sentence of death, we will be blessed with unimaginable joy.


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.

“I don’t worry about a thing because I know nothing is going to be all right.”

A friend told me about an old woman who was the most joyful person she knew, though the woman had suffered grievous losses in her life. I couldn’t fathom how the woman could be so joyful, and yet now I can. . . . almost. Perhaps the woman knows that everything comes to an end. Perhaps she knows that the little things are important. Perhaps she has found herself in all of the losses.

Or, like me, perhaps she has an awareness of death, of knowing, deep down, that her life will end, maybe even badly. Since I’ve become steeped in the grief culture, I’ve heard stories of terrible deaths, either doctors keeping people alive past any usefulness or alertness, or the person’s own will keeping them alive long after they wanted to be done with it. I’ve heard stories of so much pain and suffering that it’s amazing any of us ever manage to smile let alone be joyful in such a world.

We all know we are going to die, but after the death of someone we are profoundly connected with, we KNOW deep within our psyches. People tell me not to dwell on death, and I don’t. It’s more that the knowledge of death now is a part of the very fabric of my being and can never again be unknowable. This knowledge makes life on Earth seem both more and less significant, which adds a strange flavor to my days. I don’t know how this knowledge will affect me long term, but there is freedom in knowing that things will end.

I heard a song today by Mose Allison. “I don’t worry about a thing because I know nothing is going to be all right.” It sounds cynical, but it isn’t necessarily negative unless you give up and stop trying to do whatever you can. Does it matter what success you had here on earth when you are dead? Does it matter how many toys you had when you died? Of course not. It only matters that you lived.

It’s like writing — all stories are the stories of someone’s life, and as such, end in death. What we as writers do is end the book at an upbeat point for a happy ending and an ironic place for a more tragic ending, but still, life continues on past those significant moments.

I know how my life is going to end — the same way all of our lives are going to end. It will end in death. I’ve always been a bit of a worrier, but with death on the horizon (the far horizon, considering my longevity genetics) worry seems a bit foolish. All that counts is today — not future successes or failures, not future acquisitions or losses. Just today.

There is peace in that, maybe even joy.