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+

After the Waiting Comes the Dread

So, no more 2011. I stayed awake until the year was officially over . . .  waiting . . .  but I felt no different when the clock hit 12:01 a.m. than I did at 11:59 p.m. It was the passing of a moment, that’s all. But this morning, I woke with a feeling of dread. I haven’t felt such a roiling since the months immediately following the death of my life mate/soul mate. I feel as if I’ve lost something precious that I can never get back, as if the world has changed in some unidentifiable way. I don’t know what that something is, though. It’s not the loss of 2011 — those are just numbers. It’s not the loss of my mate — he already died and cannot die again.

Perhaps it’s the past that I’ve lost? All that’s left for me now is today, and the rest of my today’s, however many there will be. (And considering the age my mother was when she died and the age my father is today, I could have a LOT of days.)

Perhaps it’s that irrational hope of reunion that I’ve lost? For a long time, I had the feeling that if I am strong, if I pass the test of living without him, if I face life with hope, then I will be able to go back home to our shared life. That feeling was very strong at the beginning, and I was careful to deal with all the challenges that grief brought me. But he never came back, never called, and of course, he never will, not in this life anyway (and this life is the life I am living).

Perhaps it’s the sense of togetherness that I’ve lost? During the months since his death, I’ve often felt as if this were still our life — his and mine — with the tasks of living now solely my responsibilty.  But the truth is, this is my life, and my life alone. He’s not here to help, to listen, to care. (I talk to him, especially when I am out in the desert, but so far he’s keeping silent.)

Despite all my losses, I hope I will be able to face the coming years and the coming changes in my life with courage and hope and generosity of spirit. I am in a transitional stage, and someday — perhaps before I’m ready — I’ll have to figure out where to live, what to do, how to grow old alone.

But for now, today, all I feel is dread.