What Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 6

People who haven’t experienced the profound grief for a life mate or a child presume grief is simply an emotional and psychological response to the death, so they tell us not to think about our loss, as if that will make the pain go away. (And yet, oddly, at the same time, they try to make us feel as if it’s okay the person died by saying the deceased will always live in memory.)

For some losses, such as an aged relative who lived a long and happy life, pushing aside grief might work. But when it comes to a child or life mate, not thinking about the loss in no way mitigates the grief because the grief is also in our bodies, not just our minds and hearts.

When we are profoundly connected to another person, when their well-being is as important to us as our own. when the two of us share the air we breathe, the electrical emanations from our hearts and brains, the atoms in the atmosphere, the cell information that gets passed back and forth via viruses, we grow so entwined that we become a unit—a survival unit. We humans are essentially pack animals, and our very survival depends on the strength of this pack unit.

After our beloved life mate dies and the unit is dissolved, our lizard brain goes into a panic. Danger! Danger! Something is wrong. Where is the rest of you? What happened? What do I do? Do I freeze you? Make you run? Make you fight? It sends so many chemical and electrical signals throughout our bodies, setting off a cascading series of hormonal reactions, that it leaves us feeling bewildered and traumatized. This is all in addition to our emotional grief.

To make things worse, our half of the survival bond remains strong, a constant reminder of our grief.

Yet people tell us just to forget our loss. To think of something else.

Even if it were that simple, even if we could put the deceased out of our minds, we’d still grieve because our bodies remember. Body memory is not a flashback, where you are actually experiencing the trauma again. Nor is it simply a vivid memory. In fact, the body memory comes first, and only afterward do we remember why we felt such an upsurge of emotional and physical grief reactions.

Jeff died early on a Saturday morning, and for a long time, I would hit emotional lows on Saturdays, even if I didn’t recall what day of the week it was. The effects of body memory were most potent as I neared the first anniversary of his death. For example, after a hiatus of a couple of weeks during the eleventh month where I was mostly at peace, I was so overcome with grief that I wanted to scream out in anguish. I couldn’t figure out what hit me or why, but when I tracked down the source of the pain, I realized it was the first anniversary of the last time we kissed. Apparently, my body thought it was an anniversary worth remembering.

For those witnessing our grief, our plight seems simple, but for us living the horror, as you can see, things are not simple at all.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, 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.

The Massive Mission of Grief

Now that my own sorrow has considerably lessened, there have been many times when I have felt strange continuing to talk about grief. But despite the long years that have passed since the death of my life mate/soul mate, I am still bound by my grief. What I do, think, hope, even dream or not dream are because he is dead. Interestingly, I am discovering that these latter posts are perhaps as important as the early ones. Friends, relatives, and coworkers of the bereft are a lot more understanding those first months and even that first year of grief, but long before the end of the second year, they get impatient with any signs of continued grief. Most bereft stop talking about what they are feeling long before they are ready (and in way, I did, too. I spewed out my thoughts on this blog and mostly kept my mouth shut in real life).

And yet, grief is a life-long thing. And how can it not be? The pain might diminish, the hole might be filled to an extent with the gold of new relationships and new experiences, but the loved one is still dead. Even for those who believe their mate is in a better place, even for those who believe they will see them again, life is long and lonely without that special person.

If it were only about emotion and loneliness, grief would still be a massive mission, but all the physical, mental, chemical, hormonal upheavals change us and leave us feeling . . . not like us. Like some alien who no longer fits in this earthly environment.

But over the years, we do change and adapt. For this, I am glad to have continued these grief posts — people need to know they are not alone. They need to know that grief isn’t something you get over. They need to know that, unlike what some people believe, grieving long after others think you should stop is not a sign you lack resilience. Although people seldom admit it, there are gradations of grief. The death of a total stranger is not the same as the death of a soul mate. The death of a pet is not the same as the death of a child. (Yes, I understand that one grieves the loss of a beloved pet, but it is not the same, and I will delete any comment that says it is.) It’s easy to get over grief for a person you seldom saw, but grief for a person who shared your every waking moment is something you never get over. Everything that happens reminds you they are gone. Even after the pain has diminished, every moment of their not being with you makes you want to twitch with the feeling that something is not right.

But life — and grief — do go on, just maybe not the way we would prefer.

I am far enough away from those first horrendous years that I can start to see a pattern, and when I get a comment from someone who wails, “when will it be over?” I can give them an estimate. When they ask when life will get back to normal, I can safely say it will never get back to the old normal, but will eventually feel normal, though it will be a lot different from the normalcy of their shared life.

Although there is a pattern to dealing with grief after the death of a long-time spouse (or even a short time partner because you not only grieve what you lost but also what you will never have), all grief is different because all relationships are different.

I can’t, of course, tell people when it is time to find a new love — that is dependent on the person. I do know that those who manage to incorporate their first spouse’s memory into their new marriage are a lot happier than those who marry someone who feels injured by that grief, or who urges you to forget that previous marriage. I know one woman who incorporated her grief for her first husband into her marriage vows. Though she cried as she talked about her first husband, and her voice shook with emotion as she vowed to love the man she was marrying, she radiantly straddled those two worlds. It was beautiful to see.

So, if you know someone who is still grieving the loss of a spouse (or a child), please be kind; the bereft don’t live according to your timetable but according to the timetable of grief. And if you are the one who is still grieving long after others think you should have “moved on,” know that you are doing exactly the right thing, and someday you will get to where you need to be.

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See also: What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas? And if by chance you know someone who is grieving, either of my books about grief — Grief: The Great Yearning or the novel Unfinished would make a nice gift.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, 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.

You Don’t Get Over Grief

I called a friend today to offer support on the third anniversary of her husband’s death. She is a strong woman, shouldering the burdens of an unemployed middle-aged daughter and a lively granddaughter, which takes her mind off her loss, but still, there are times (such as this anniversary) when grief descends on her once more.

During the conversation, she said, “I wish I could get over it.” The truth is, you don’t get over grief. Grief gets over you. The uninitiated, those who have never lost the one person who connects them to life, think we have a choice when it comes to grief, but most of the time, grief chooses us. We can, of course, choose to ignore our grief, burying it so deeply that we never have to acknowledge it, but doing so is like stuffing an inflated air mattress in a small storage pouch. Eventually, the pressures of the mattress will burst the seams of the pouch, and that unruly mattress will explode out into the open, causing all sorts of unforeseen damage.

As it is, even with accepting the dubious gift of grief, sometimes sorrow bursts wildly into the open, taking us unaware. For the most part, grief is leaving me alone. In fact, I thought I had gotten over the death of my life mate/soul mate, but on March 1, as I began the countdown to my fourth anniversary, sadness returned. My few tears are not at all stormy, more like a gentle mist. Strangely, I miss the grief tempests — they made me feel connected to him because I could feel the enormity of my loss.

To a great extent I have let him go. Somewhere during this past year, I realized that no matter how connected we were when he was alive, we are two distinct people, each on a special journey. For a while, our paths entwined, but now our roads have swung into two different directions. No matter how much I miss him, miss the me I was when I was with him, miss our shared dreams and goals, there is no turning back. The future beckons, and I must go where it leads me.

And yet, despite this acceptance, I still sometimes feel lost. We were together for thirty-four years, were business partners as well as life partners, making joint decisions about every aspect of our lives. He was my support, my inspiration, my cheering section. I enjoy my newfound independence and growing spontaneity, but I cannot forget why we are estranged. He is not somewhere else on this earth, happy and fulfilled. He is dead. Gone. Deleted from my life. Erased, at times, even from memory. (Which makes him seem doubly dead.)

My friend will get to this place soon enough. Grief will be through with her for the most part, and what she will be left with is . . . I don’t know. Herself, I suppose. In the end, that’s all we have for as long as we are here. Ourselves.

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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.

Grief Update: Forty-One Months

Forty-one months ago, my life mate/soul mate died of inoperable kidney cancer. At times his death seems recent, as if he’s just beyond reach, at home maybe, waiting for me to finish with my present responsibilities. At the same time, his death seems very far away. Last night I looked at his photo and was perplexed to realize he no longer seems real to me. I have no concept of him as a person. It’s as if he were merely an idea I had once a long time ago or maybe a character I created for a book. And yet I know he lived, loved, laughed. I know he was real. I feel the loss in the depth of my being, and tears of sadness and yearning for him are always close to the surface, though the tears seldom fall any more.

starbMy life doesn’t seem real, either. I walk, write, make friends, lose friends, make plans and break them, try new activities, see new places, sample new foods, wish on the first star I see at night. (Okay, so it’s Venus — from here, it looks like a star.) Despite all that I’m doing to create a life for myself, I feel as if I’m just going through the motions. I don’t want to live alone, yet I don’t want to live with anyone, either. I don’t want him back to suffer more, yet I wish desperately to see him once again.

Even if I did get a chance to see him, I wouldn’t know what to say — grief has changed me in some fundamental way, and I don’t know if we’d have anything to talk about. Of course, I’d ask him what his life was like, if he were happy, if I seem as abstract to him as he now does to me. We might reminisce a bit, and I’d probably tell him of a few worldly developments, but to be honest, nothing that has happened in the past forty-one months is so important that I’d drag him back from the dead to talk about.

I’ve been looking forward to a time when grief no longer has me in thrall (they say it takes three to five years to find a renewed interest in life, though from talking to people who have gone through a similar grievous loss, I found out it’s more like four to five years). And yet, if I feel this way now — as if he isn’t real — then I’m not sure I want to find out what’s ahead. But I have no choice. In seven months, it will be four years since his death, and twelve months after that, it will be five years. And he will seem even more gone than ever.

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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+. Like Pat on Facebook.