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

Grief Is Neither Simple Nor Logical

Most people, when they think of grief, if they think of it at all, tend to believe that grievers go through a series of stages, and once each of those stages have been dealt with, the person goes back to normal. Well, at least as normal as most people are or rather as they assume they are.

But going back to normal is not feasible. The truth is, there are no stages when it comes to grief. In fact, the five stages of grief model is dangerous because it makes grief seem like a checklist, as if grief were logical, but there is no logic to grief. Grief has its own timetable, its own method, and whenever we think we understand the process, grief changes its tactics. For days, weeks, months on end, a dozen emotions will attack us all at the same time making us feel that we can never get a grip. And then, for no fathomable reason, we hit an emotional trough where we feel nothing, and we begin to think that we can handle our grief after all, and then—pow! Out of nowhere, grief returns and slams us in the gut, and we go through the whole gamut of emotional and physical symptoms again. And again. And again.

Sometimes, even years later, someone who survived the death of a spouse or other person intrinsic to their life, will be blindsided by grief. A friend, whose first husband had died more than a decade before, was happily remarried, but when the daughter she had with her first husband got married, she had a full-blown grief attack. This sort of thing makes sense to those who have experienced profound grief because any major life experience reminds us of what we lost, of what the deceased lost, and so, for a short time, we are back at the beginning when grief was new.

I haven’t been blindsided by grief for a long time, though I did have a weird bit of vertigo the other day. I was simply walking down the hall (a very short hall) when I got an awful falling-elevator feeling, and I remembered . . . again . . . that Jeff was dead. I have no idea where either the vertigo or the thought came from, except that the anniversary of his death is coming up in sixteen days, so he — and my memory of that time — are close to the front of my mind, rather in the back where they generally reside.

Perhaps some people can put the deceased entirely out of their heads, but most of us can’t, at least not all the time. They were a big part of our lives for many years, and even after they died, they were a big part of our lives through our grief, our memories, our attempts to find a new life for ourselves. Who I am today exists because he lived. Who I am today exists because he died. I have no idea who I would be if I had never met him; have no idea who I would be if we were still together. But none of that matters. I have to deal with the reality of my days, and the reality is that every once in a while, for no reason at all, grief makes itself felt.

Admittedly, this recent episode lasted only a moment or two, but such moments are important, if only to remind us that our grief is never completely finished. How can it be? No matter how much we get used to the void in our lives where they once were, the void is still there. And they are still gone.

My mission in talking about grief, to the extent I had a mission, has always been to let people know that grief is normal. Even years later, if one breaks down in tears or gets a vertigo attack or whatever manifestation grief happens to take at that moment, it’s still normal.

What isn’t normal is believing that someone’s life can be the same after the death of someone intrinsic to their life. What isn’t normal is believing that grief is simple and logical and fits into a few recognizable stages. What isn’t normal is believing that grief is easily dispatched. Well, actually, all that is normal since that’s what most people believe, but just because most people believe something, it doesn’t make that belief true or right.

***

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 Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 7

We don’t need to be angry at someone or something to feel anger as part of grief. This anger is not a stage of grief, not a complication, but an intrinsic part of the process. Since much of grief is visceral — a response to perceived danger — we experience a tremendous fight or flight hormonal upsurge. The panic we feel after the death of a life mate is a natural part of this survival mechanism; it alerts us to the danger of being suddenly alone. Anger is the other side of this mechanism, the part that generates the energy necessary to take action.

In many cases, the anger comes first, and the reason for the anger second. Our minds scurry around trying to find a reason for how we feel because as rational beings, we cannot accept unfocused anger, so we search for a focus. Sometimes there really are causes for anger, such as doctors who don’t tell us the truth or who made horrendous mistakes that caused the death. Other times we focus on the deceased, for example, a smoker who died of lung cancer after refusing to give up smoking. Other times we are angry at the cancer that stole our loved ones, at death, at the loved one for leaving us, at ourselves even for not being more of whatever we think we should have been.

Anger is generally considered to be a negative emotion, but like all emotions, it has a positive side. In small doses, anger is a good thing. Anger can give us the strength to survive. Anger can give us the energy to do things we couldn’t do under normal circumstances. Anger can give us a feeling of control in uncertain times, and for sure, grief is an uncertain time. Anger can keep us going when we want to give up. Anger can give us the courage to live with the injustice of death. Anger can motivate us to find solutions to problems, can motivate us to undertake dreaded tasks, can motivate us to change our lives.

Much of grief is a process of change, of adaptation, taking us from a relatively-safe shared life to a relatively-safe solitary life. And it is anger that helps get us there.

In those first weeks after Jeff died, not only did I have all those ghastly end-of-life chores to do by myself, such as arranging for the disposition of his body and dealing with banks and government agencies, I had to pack up and leave our home to go take care of my ninety-three-year-old father. I managed to do everything necessary by using the power of anger. When I was too enervated to do anything, when I was too dazed to think or too stressed, I cried, or paced, screamed or went to bed, but when waves of anger came over me, I didn’t fight the feelings. Instead, I used the faux energy of anger to get things done.

After the initial anger dissipated, I clung to the vestiges of anger to help me get through the lonely days.

The wild grief for a life mate/soul mate makes us feel as if we are out of control or even crazy, but understanding the process and realizing what we are feeling is normal, can make it easier to deal with those feelings.

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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.

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.

Grief: The Great Learning, Day 445

I’ve saved the letters I wrote to my life mate/soul mate after he died, thinking that one day I would write a sequel to Grief: The Great Yearning, the story of my first year of grief. I’d planned to call the sequel Grief: The Great Learning, and detail the lessons gleaned from the second and third years of my grief. Because I no longer want to keep revisiting such angst, there will be no sequel, so I’m publishing the letters here on this blog as a way of safeguarding (and sharing) them.

Although this letter was written three and a half years ago, it reflects much of what I am thinking about now. My father recently died, and now I am facing what I could only think about back then — the vast open plain of the future before me.

I am packing to leave this house and go . . . I know not where. I’ll probably stay around here for a while. I have made new friends after those referred to in this letter disappeared out of my life, and it just occurred to me that I can speak about all of my concerns to at least one of those women. It’s nice and helps offset the loneliness that still hits me every evening.

And oh, yes. I still keep hoping for major changes — good changes.

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Day 445, Hi, Jeff.

I’ve been going through an upsurge of grief, missing you so damn much. It stuns me, like a snake stunned by a rock thrown at it, to think I’ll never see you again. You’d think I’d have come to an accommodation with that, but such ”acceptance” of that fact does not bring acceptance of what it means — death for you, loneliness for me.

Life involves people, doesn’t it? I’m trying to “people” my life, but it’s not the same thing as being connected to one specific person. We were often lonely even when we were together, but this loneliness is incomprehensible. I’m considering staying here after my father dies because at least I know people here, but so many of the people I have met, especially those from my grief group, have already faded from my life. And if the rest disappear, then what?

It should be exciting to have the vast open plain of the future before me, but all I see is bleakness and aloneness. I have no one to talk to about my concerns. I don’t know how to cope with that. I keep hoping for major changes (good changes), but all that seems to be happening is a slow descent into inevitability.

I hope you’re not lonely. I couldn’t bear that.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fireand 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.

Letter to Jeff, Day 435

 

Day 435, Hi, Jeff.

Another Saturday. I’m tearing up again, though I’m not sure why. Loneliness, I guess. Feeling sorry for myself. I need to get on with my life, concentrate on myself. But how lonely is that? Perhaps it’s better to have no hope. Just try to take the days as they come. It sounds a lot easier than it is. The damn emotions get in the way.

Will this sorrow ever end? Will anything good ever happen to me? Do you miss me? Do you still exist? Will I ever love again? Will anyone ever love me? Is this all there is — this emptiness? I can fill the emptiness with doing things — reading, writing, walking, whatever comes my way — but as soon as I stop concentrating on the “fill,” the emptiness shows up again.

I need something to hold on to. I need something concrete to build my life on, but there isn’t anything but maybe survival. Survival — that’s what your life ended up being about. Is that all there is? Survival until there is no more survival?

How did you manage to survive as well as you did? Was it worth it living with such pain? I guess, in the end, there isn’t really a choice. You have to play out the hand you’re given. Damn. I wish I weren’t so lonely. I might be able to deal with your being gone if not for that. And I really should be able to deal with it. For cripes sake, I am not a child.

What a mess my life is, well, if emptiness can be called a mess. I wish I cared about something. I wish I could talk to you. I wish you weren’t dead. I wish you hadn’t been so sick for so long.

Maybe I’m being insensitive, whining about my life when you no longer have a life. But then, maybe you got the better end of the deal. I hope so.

I love you.

***

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.