Getting Over Grief

People often ask me how to get over grief, but the truth is (despite the title of this piece), we never get over grief for the simple reason that the person being mourned is gone for the rest of our life on Earth. Still, over time, the focus does change from the past and from our lost love to the future and perhaps a new love.

At the beginning, our focus — when it’s not on what we have lost — is about breathing. Taking one breath after another. Generally, breathing is simple. It’s something we do without thinking. But after the death of a person intrinsic to our life, such as a spouse or soul mate, it’s as if they took our breath with them when they left us, and breathing becomes something we need to focus on. A breath in, a breath out. Such a painful thing, those breaths! Adding to the complication is that so often we don’t want to breathe. We’d just as soon it was all over for us, too, and yet, we are compelled to continue taking those breaths.

As the years pass and the pain begins to subside, we hold on even tighter to our pain because grief is all that connects us to our lost love. During all those months and years, grief does its job, changing us into a person who can survive without the person we most loved. And gradually, a new love creeps into our life. Actually, I should say, a new focus comes into our life. Whatever it is that we find to focus on, it’s compelling enough to take our mind off our pain and sorrow and loneliness for a short time. And over the next months and years, all those “short times” add up. New memories are made. The past lessens its demands. The future becomes more compelling. And life goes on.

This new love or focus doesn’t have to be a person. It can be almost anything. Visiting museums. Hiking. Planning epic adventures. Yoga. Dance classes. Traveling. A new home. Gardening. For me, it was all of those things.

I tried so many things at the beginning. I wrote about my grief. I walked for hours. I visited museums. I went on day trips with people from my grief group. I took yoga classes. Sometimes, I could forget myself and my pain for minutes at a time, but nothing held. When the moment passed, I was right back where I started, in full grief mode.

It wasn’t until I started learning to dance that the focus lasted more than the moment. I started thinking about dancing, started practicing at home. Although grief didn’t leave me alone for long, it did start to lose its intense hold on me, and I could finally focus on something other than my loss and my pain.

As grief further eased its grip on me and I could sometimes imagine a future, I dreamed of — and planned — epic adventures. I was going to visit independent bookstores all over the country to see if they would sell my books. I was going to walk up the coast to Seattle. I was going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I was going to take a freighter to New Zealand. I was going to go on a year-long camping trip. I was going to drive cross-country in my vintage VW. I still have the research I did for all these adventures, but in the end, the only one I followed through with was my 12,500 cross-country road trip as well as a north/south trip along the western coast and several trips from California to Colorado.

A couple of years ago, I changed my focus yet again when I bought a house and found a place to call home.

And now, what I find compelling enough to propel me into the future is gardening.

I’m far enough away from my focus on grief that I seldom get snapped back to those early months, but for the first seven years, no matter how compelling my current focus was, I often found myself blindsided by grief.

I’m not sure how a person goes about finding a new focus. I tend to think that when a griever is ready, a new focus — a new love — appears, rather than needing to search for it, but however it happens, the readiness and the new focus are part of this process of change we call grief.


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 Gardening

When I was out weeding earlier, it dawned on me that grief and gardening have something in common. With gardening, you have to concentrate solely on what is within arm’s reach. If you think of the whole yard as a single entity, you’d never get anything done because the totality of the work involved is immense, more than one mind can hold. So the only way to get a yard or garden the way you want is to do what you can when you can and hope that someday the whole will be worth it.

That’s pretty much the same as grief, though with grief, you also have to deal with a whole lot of pain and trauma and sorrow. The totality of the loss and the pain is beyond the comprehension of most of us, so all we can do is concentrate on each day, each hour, sometimes even each minute. As with a garden, you can only hope that there is something at the end of all the grief work you’re doing that will be worth it.

Nothing, of course, will ever be commensurate with the death of that one person who was intrinsic to your life, but there needs to be the hope that someday, somehow, you will find a new way of being — of being you alone, not you as half of a couple.

It’s a long time coming, that hope. For years, most of us can’t even imagine having any sort of hope, and yet we get up each day, survive each minute the best we can, deal with all the tasks that can’t be put off. That all of this is accompanied by tears or anger or screaming or any of the other ways we have of dealing with the pain and stress of grief doesn’t mitigate the hope that getting up each day signifies. Even if we don’t feel hopeful, the mere act of living shows hope. A rather despairing sort of hope, to be sure, but hope nonetheless.

It’s only in retrospect that I can see the bigger picture of grief. For a very long time, all I had were the small increments, though over the years, the increments did expand from seconds and minutes to hours and days, and finally to years. And now I am in a place where I have a house and yard and garden and thoughts of bigger pictures.

I can’t say that that all the grief work was worth it to get me here because while the work of a garden might be worth it, “worth it” is meaningless when it comes to grief. Once I lived a shared life and now I don’t. In the end, after years of pain and sorrow and grief, that might be all it comes down to.

But I am here. And I am surviving on my own. That has to mean something.


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

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

Seven Things Everyone Needs to Know About Grief

1) Grief belongs to the griever. It’s no one else’s responsibility. No one should tell a griever how to grieve, when to grieve, or how long to grieve. No one can bind grief or limit it, usually not even the griever.

2) All losses aren’t equal for the simple reason that not all relationships are equal. The more deeply committed the relationship, the more roles a person played in your life, the more you will grieve.

3) Grief for a life mate takes much longer than everyone assumes that it does. Many people find a sense of renewed interest in life or at least a sense of peace between three and five years, and even afterward, they can experience grief upsurges.

4) The most stressful event in a person’s life by far is the death of a life mate or a child. Such a loss is so devastating that the survivor’s death rate increases by a minimum of 25% percent.

5) Grief is normal. The whole chaotic mess of new grief, no matter how insanely painful, is normal. Whatever a person does to help get through the shock and horror of losing a life mate or a child is normal.

6) Grief is physical, too. People often tell the bereaved to put the deceased out of our minds (at the same time they tell them that the deceased will always live in their hearts), but that’s hard to do because grief is also in our bodies.

7) Anger is an effect of grief. It is not a stage of grief, not a complication, but an intrinsic part of the process. In fact, we don’t need to be angry at someone or something to feel anger as part of grief. It is the body’s natural response to a perceived danger.


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

Fourth Anniversary of Grief

It’s very windy today, with gusts up to 40mph, but the sun is shining through the clouds.

And so begins my fifth year of grief.

Four years ago today, my life mate/soul mate died without a sound, not even so much as a whimper. His Adam’s apple bobbed once, twice, and then he was gone.

100_1807aThe world is poorer because of his absence. I am poorer. He was the best person I ever knew, kind and helpful to all, not just those who were close to him. (In fact, it was his unfailing kindness to others that cemented my love for him.) He was smart and wise and witty. He was exceedingly knowledgeable about many things — movies, music, mobsters, history, humans, health. It always seemed odd to people that someone so interested in health had physical problems, but his lack of good health is what made him interested in how the body worked and what could be done to make it work even better. He believed in self-discipline and, even at the end, despite pain and debility, he strived to learn, to be better, stronger, wiser.

I’ve gone through a couple of days of sorrow and tears as I neared this anniversary, and I’m glad I did. I seldom cry any more — in fact, I didn’t even know there were tears left in me — and oddly, I miss the tears. Tears kept me connected to him in a way nothing else has since he departed this earth. Besides, he deserves my sorrow now and again. I don’t want to live blithely without a thought for him and what he meant to me.

As always, once the time of his death passed (12:50a.m. MDT), I started to regain my equilibrium. I miss him, but the reality is that as much as I hate it, he isn’t here.

And I am.

Many of my grief mates (those who lost their mates within a few months of when I did) still have relationships with their deceased spouses. Their belief in the continued survival of their soul mates is so strong, they know without a doubt they are still connected; some people can even feel the connection. Others have moved into new relationships. While I . . . I do the best I can on my own, taking each step as it comes, trying not to cling to the past, trying not to fear the future.

And I strive to learn, to be better, stronger, wiser.

It’s what he always did, and I can do no less.


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.

Challenges of the Fourth Year of Grief

The challenges we face during the first year after the death of a life mate/soul mate (or any other significant person in our lives who connects us to the world), are too great to enumerate. It’s all we can do to cope with the seemingly endless chores of laying our beloved to rest while dealing with the emotional shock, the physical pain, the psychological affront that are our constant companions. Sometimes the first anniversary of his death is one of peace when we realize that we managed to survive the worst year of our life, but then we wake up to the second year and find a whole other set of challenges to meet.

The five main challenges we face during the second year after the death of a life mate/soul mate are:

1. Trying to understand where he went.
2. Living without him
3. Dealing with continued grief bursts.
4. Finding something to look forward to rather than simply existing.
5. Handling the yearning.

There are other challenges, of course, some unique to each individual, but all the challenges are dealt with the same way: by continuing to feel the pain when it erupts rather than turning away from it to satisfy the concerns of those who don’t understand; by taking care of ourselves even when we don’t see the point; by trying new things.

In other words, we meet the challenges of the second year by living. It sounds simple, but nothing about grief for a life mate/soul mate is simple. By living, we begin to move away from our pain, but we also move away from the person we loved more than any other. For some bereft, this feels like a betrayal of their love — how can you continue to live when life on this earth is denied him? For others, it seems like a betrayal of themselves — how can you become the person you need to be without betraying the person you once were?

The third year of grief seems to be a year of transition with only one new challenge — beginning to rebuild our lives. (We still have upsurges of sadness, still miss our loved one, still yearn for him, but these feelings are not as prominent as they once were.) Most of us no longer feel that continued life is a betrayal of our love because we understand that we had no choice in the matter, either in his death or in our continued life. Nor do we feel we are betraying the person we once were — we are no longer that person, though we have not yet developed into the person we are to become. Most of us are still trying to figure out who that person is and what that person wants and needs.

You’d think by the fourth year there would be no challenges of grief left, but for most of us, this is the year where we make the necessary disconnect from our loved ones, and that is big though necessary step. No matter how close we were to our mates, no matter how much we felt as if we were two parts to a whole, we realize that in terms of life on this earth, we were two separate beings on two separate journeys. The questions that haunted us, such as the big question of who got the worst end of the deal, seem muted. Our mates had to deal with death and dying, and we had to deal with grief and living. It all seems the same now — life and death — though perhaps it’s more that we’re used to them being gone than that we made any great leap of understanding. We also don’t feel their absence the way we once did. The clawing yearning to see our mates once more has by now muted to a gentler feeling of intermittent melancholy.

Although my fifth year of grief doesn’t start for another two weeks, I am getting an inkling that this is going to be the main challenge of the coming year — dealing with grief’s absence. Grief was a part of my life for a very long time and the immensity of the loss and the enormity of the pain gave my life a feeling of epic importance, as if I were standing on the very edge of eternity. Well, eternity has retreated, and I am left with the ordinariness of life, and that ordinariness seems . . . well, it seems ordinary. Still, the lessons of grief taught me well, and so I will continue to take each day as it comes. Continue to find something to look forward to rather than simply existing. Continue to look for something to be passionate about, even if it’s just life itself.


(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.

A Few Moments in an Unsettling Dream

I woke too early this morning and a hard time getting back to sleep. When I finally dozed off, I dreamt of my deceased life mate/soul mate. The events in the dream must have taken place at the end of his life when he was so often disoriented, because he was trying to cook something, and he continued pouring whatever it was into the pan after the pan was filled, getting the food all over the stove, him, the floor, even me. I tried to catch his attention so he’d stop, and when I couldn’t, I slapped him to bring him back to reality.

I don’t know where that dream came from. I seldom dream of him, and never once did I slap him in real life, especially not at the end when it took all he had just to get through another hour — or even minute — of life. I never even considered slapping him. I hate women who slap men. If it’s not okay for men to raise a hand to women, it’s just as not okay for women to raise a hand to men, no matter what the provocation.

During those last weeks of his life, I was so eaten up with sorrow for him and for me, so focused on him and his well being, or rather his as-well-as-possible being, that I found infinite patience. (It was the year before that, when I didn’t know what was happening to him, when he became a stranger I didn’t even particularly like, that too often I found myself impatient. But even then I never raised a hand to him, though I did sometimes bristle and clench my fists in frustration.)

Still, whatever the origin of the dream, it’s left me feeling teary and even ashamed as if I really had slapped him. Although I always miss him and never forget him, I sometimes forget that once I lived a different life — a life with him — and the dream reminded me of that life. I do know that if he had continued to live, life would have been pure torture for both of us, and the dream reminded me of that particular reality. But oh, it was so good to see him, if only for a few brief moments in an unsettling dream.


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.

Camping on the Edge of Life

Too often now I feel as if I am camping on the edge of life. To a certain extent, this feeling comes from my current living situation. I am staying with my 96-year-old father to make sure he retains his independence as long as possible, but since his house is fully furnished, that means most of my stuff is in storage. I have my clothes, of course, my computer, my own towels, a few kitchen items, a couple of furniture pieces (such as the table and chair I’m presently using for my desk) — just enough to connect me to the past but not enough to make me feel settled. I won’t be staying here once my father is gone campingand that knowledge also keeps me from feeling settled, makes me feel as if I am just camping in. (Rather than camping out.)

More than that, though, this feeling of camping on the edge of life comes from being single in a coupled world. It’s been three and a third years since the death of my life mate/soul mate, and I’m still not comfortable with his being gone. Despite that, quite inexplicably I’m forgetting that I once shared my life, once loved deeply, once felt as if I lived smack dab in the middle of life. As my grief continues to wane, as I move further from him, it seems as if this is lonely existence is what my life has always been — and it should be enough, but it isn’t. Not yet.

We live in a world where movies, books, songs, videos, shows, ads and commercials all extol the virtue of being in an intimate relationship. Love makes the world go round. You’re nobody till somebody loves you. All you need is love. Love makes you feel complete. Love makes you feel fulfilled. Love makes life worth living.

This constant barrage of coupled love and happily ever after is a sad message for many of us — either we lost our love too soon through death or divorce, or never found someone in the first place.

Intellectually, I know that whatever I am doing or feeling is life. Being together or being alone, feeling fulfilled or feeling unfulfilled — all of it is life. And yet, I can’t help feeling that something is missing.

It might sound as if I’m looking for someone to share my life with, but I’m not. I’m just aware of the realities of being uncoupled in a coupled world. I suppose there will come a time when I embrace the freedom of my alonehood, and plunge deep into the heart of life, but for now, all logic to the contrary, I feel as if I am camping on the edge of life.


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.

Grief: “It was a long time ago.”

Last night I watched the 2002 movie Heaven Must Wait. In one scene, Andrew McCarthy tells Louise Lombard that his mother died. She told him she was sorry. He said, “It was a long time ago.”

And I started crying.

I don’t know why that line struck me as being so poignant since I’ve heard the same sentiment in dozens of movies during the past few years. Maybe it was the sadly resigned way McCarthy delivered the line. Perhaps it was the underlying truth of the words — that time passes. Probably it was the reminder that my life mate/soul mate is moving further and further away from me. Or am I moving away from him? Either way, time is separating us.

Certain parts of our shared life are still very fresh in my mind: the day we met, the last time I held him in my arms, the moment of his death. It sometimes seems we parted such a short time ago that he could still be at home, waiting for me. But the years are passing. That first year crept by slowly, as if time itself were reluctant to let him go, but the years are beginning to pass swiftly now. It’s been more than three years since he died. Soon it will be four years, then five. And some day, I too will say, “It was a long time ago.”

Who will I be then? What will I have done? Will I still miss him? Of course I will miss him. I will always miss him. He was a major part of my life for thirty-four years, but with the passing years, his influence on my life might wane. Other experiences will have an impact on me. Other thoughts will change the way I view life. And he will have no part in any of it.

I don’t cry much for him any more. Days, weeks go by dry-eyed, though I have occasional upsurges of sadness. “Long time ago” is still a long way away, and yet last night I had the first inkling that such a time is approaching. And so, I cried for the coming years when he will be so very far from me that the tears will no longer come.


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.

A New Permutation Of Grief?

The months keep passing. Thirty-seven of them have come and gone since the death of my life mate/soul mate.

I never imagined I would continue to be so affected by his absence after all this time. And back at the beginning of this bereft life, I never imagined I would survive to this point. The pain and shock of new grief was so vast that it took my breath away. (Grammar Check has underlined that phrase “took my breath away” as being trite. They want me to change it to “astounded me.” Yes, the pain astounded me, but the truth is, it literally took my breath away. I remember gasping for air, unable to suck enough oxygen into my lungs to make them inflate.)

Even now, all these months later, the thought that he is dead still has the power to steal my breath.

I am doing as well as anyone who has lost the one person who connected them to the world, and perhaps a bit better — or worse — than some in my “grief age group.” (Though this is not a contest. We have all lost, and we keep on losing every day they are Low tidegone.) I can get through the days, sometimes quite peacefully. I am lonely, of course, and even more than that, I am lonesome for him, but still, I do okay. I keep busy, both online and off, and I am getting used to his absence. Sort of.

But . . . when I remember the reason that he is absent — that he is dead, gone from this earth, forever beyond the reach of my arms — I again forget how to breathe. I gasp for air that somehow doesn’t make it beyond the tears that are blocking my throat.

Tears always seem to be pooling deep inside, even when I am at my most content, and they spill over at the least provocation. I find myself crying at losses (my own and other people’s, especially if they have lost a soul mate). I cry at changes, including change of season. (I’m not crying because the seasons changed, of course, but seasonal changes create corresponding hormonal changes in the body, and those changes bring on the tears.)

And I cry at movies. I’ve been going through my mate’s movie collection, and it’s rare for me to get through an entire movie without tears. I cry when a character leaves, because it reminds me that he left. I cry when a character returns because it reminds me that he never will come back. I cry at the moments we used to turn to each other and smile in shared enjoyment. The last time I watched these movies, I watched them with him, and sometimes I weep when the movie is over, no matter what the ending, because never again will I watch it with him.

This oversensitivity and tears might be a new permutation of grief (others who have lost their mates around the same time I did are also dealing with this same tendency to weepiness). Or it could be that my grief has changed me in some fundamental way, and now tears are a way of life.

Whatever the reason, this hypersensitivity is just something else to deal with as the months — and years — of this grief journey slip by.


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.