I Am an Eight-Year Grief Survivor

Today is the eighth anniversary of the death of my life mate/soul mate. How is this possible? I remember that after Jeff died, eight minutes seemed like a lifetime, eight hours almost an eternity, eight months incomprehensible. But eight years? Totally unthinkable and unimaginable. How did I survive such sorrow? How do any of us survive?

Actually, I do know the answer to that — we survive one agonizing breath at a time.

The miracle of grief is that the pain does lessen over the years, but I truly don’t see how it can — every year that passes is one more year I did not have with him, everything I do is one more thing I could not do with him, every thought is one more thought I could not share with him.

During these past eight years, most people continued on with their shared lives — happy and sad, arguing and making up, in sickness and in health — and I, and all my brothers and sisters in sorrow, kept going somehow, trying to find a place to set first one shaky foot and then another in our suddenly broken and bleak lives.

Over and over, we had to listen to people tell us to move on, and yet, after their sometimes compassionate, sometimes irritated words, those people went home to their husbands and wives, and we went into our sad and empty rooms, apartments, houses to be faced again — and again and again — with the knowledge that who we loved was gone, what we had was gone, what we needed was gone, what we hoped for was gone. All gone.

Incredibly, I have become used to the goneness. Incredibly, I have moments of happiness. Incredibly, I have even come to like being alone. And yet, I wish I didn’t have to do this anymore, this building a life from scratch, this living without him. Sometimes I want desperately to go home to him. If not that, then see him one more time in the flesh. Be warmed by one more smile. Hear one more word.

For those of you who are still comfortably married, how long has it been since you saw your husband or wife. Eight hours? Eight minutes? Eight seconds?

Well, it’s been eight years since I last saw Jeff. Eight years (and five days) since I last talked to the one person who understood me fully, the one person I never had to explain myself to, the one person who shared my sense of humor, my sense of honor, my sense of history.

Eight years. What was totally unthinkable and unimaginable in the beginning remains totally unthinkable and unimaginable.

For those newly inducted into this hall of horrors, I hope you will find comfort in knowing that a person can survive, find a sense of renewal, maybe even find  new dreams.

For those of you who have friends and family who still mourn their deceased spouses, next time you want to tell them to get over it or move on, think about how long it’s been since you saw your spouse and think how long it’s been since they saw theirs.

Eight minutes. Eight hours. Eight days. Eight months. Eight years. It’s all the same. Grief truly knows no time.

The one thing that does change, the one thing that makes the goneness bearable is us. Grief gradually changes each of us bereft into a person who can survive the loss, but that change brings with it another loss to grieve — the loss of the old self.

Have I spent the totality of the past eight years drowning in tears and sorrow? Of course not. The person who was born when Jeff died has never shared her life with another. That person has always been alone, done things alone, developed into a strong person, gained some wisdom. But the person she left behind is still grieving, and last night, the grieving woman came to visit, bringing her endless tears, her great yearning, her profound loss.

And we comforted each other — the woman who died when Jeff did and the woman who was born eight years ago into the world of grief — as we kept vigil until his time of death.

Eight years. Unfathomable.

After last night’s tearfulness, today I gathered my courage and valiantly began my ninth year without him.

And so it goes.

***

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.

When Grief Comes Calling

desert roadGrief has been leaving me alone lately, probably because I’ve been keeping myself busy with other matters, but Friday night grief came calling. Sorrow has been with me on and off now for two days, perhaps in recognition of my upcoming three-year anniversary. I didn’t think there would be a problem with this anniversary (which is a bit naïve of me considering that I didn’t think there would be a problem with any of the agonizing stops along this grief journey). I’ve been feeling as if the death of my life mate/soul mate happened long ago, so long that he’s been fading in memory. Yet on Friday night, the memory of his last days was so fresh and new, it was as if we’d only recently parted. I could almost feel his arms around me as we said our final good-byes. Could almost see his smile, could almost hear his voice.

And suddenly, just like that, the yearning to be with him one more time overwhelmed me, and the reality lay heavy on my soul. He’s dead? Really? How is that possible?

I know how it’s possible. He got sick, was sick for years, and finally, the inoperable kidney cancer spread, hijacking his body for its own use. But dead? Part of me doesn’t get it. Part of me (just a vestigial part now) thinks I’ll be going home to him when I am free of my current responsibilities, and the truth — that he is gone forever — is again too much to bear.

I do know enough about grief to understand that this upsurge in sorrow will pass, but there will be other days — at ever-increasing intervals — when grief will again come calling. We get so in the habit of life, of dealing with our small everyday concerns, that our grief gets pushed out of sight, but we never completely get over our sadness. How can we? The person who meant more to us than any other is gone, taking part of us with him.

If that weren’t hard enough to deal with, we can never completely forget that we were helpless to keep him here even one more day, which makes life and death seem an arbitrary business. Perhaps if we knew life’s algorithms, we could see how everything fits together, but without such omniscience, we are left with only questions. Where is he? Is he happy? Is he?

Sometimes what keeps me focused on living is the thought of what he would say if we were to meet again. He’d be disappointed in me if I told him that all I did was mourn for him. I can see almost hear him say, “I died to set you free and you did nothing but cry?” Yeah, well, he no longer has a say in what I do. It’s my life and I’ll cry if I want to.

It’s not so much that I want to cry, but sometimes tears are the only way to relieve the incredible stress of grief. I had no idea stress would still come into play at almost three years, but grief, even aging grief, takes a lot out of us. Despite the upsurge in grief and the accompanying feelings of futility, I am making plans, looking forward, trying to find something to live for.

But dammit! I miss him.

***

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+

Portraying Grief Correctly

So often writers get grief over the loss of a spouse wrong, perhaps because unless you have been there, you cannot know the global effect grief has. There are so many mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, even geographical changes thrown at you that it’s almost impossible to understand what is happening.

Grief that has matured, meaning grief that is no longer new and raw, is easier to portray, but even that is often done wrong, since the characters seem to have no yearnings. And grief is so much about yearnings.

One movie that portrayed long time grief well was The Last Dance with Maureen O’Hara and Eric Stolz. O’Hara teared up when she thought of her husband, she treasured the records she had bought of the songs they had danced to (calling them her “memories”), but most of all, she yearned for one last dance from him. And that yearning made her grief real. We who have lost our mates eventually come to terms with going on alone, but we all have yearnings for one last kiss, one last hug, one last smile, one last word. Such simple things, but being deprived of them underscores our loss.

Another example of grief done right occurred in the old television show Golden Girls, of all places. In that particular episode, Blanche dreams that her husband, dead for nine years, comes home. This is a recurring dream, but instead of bringing her sadness as always, this time the dream brings her peace because in the dream, she got to hug him one last time.

Even though I am doing well two years and four months after the death of my life mate/soul mate, I still yearn for one last smile from him, one last hug, one last visit with him at his store where we met. It seems impossible these yearnings will go unfulfilled for the rest of my life. Like Maureen O’Hara’s character, though, I have my “memories” but in my case they are not shared songs but movies he taped. I’ve been going through his movies, weeding out the ones I will never watch again, and each movie I am keeping makes me remember a conversation we had about the movie, a particular time we watched them, a feeling I once had when he watched the movie with me.

Many of the movies he taped toward the end of his life, like The Last Dance, are about people going on alone after the death of a mate. It almost seems as if he is/was trying to help me find my way through the horror to a new peace. Some of these movies, again like The Last Dance, he edited to take out the parts he didn’t like. So not only do I have movies he taped, I have versions no one else in the entire world has. For example, he edited out all the flashbacks in The Last Dance, so I never see Maureen O’Hara’s young husband. I only know him through her love, her tears, her feelings about the possessions she is getting rid of in preparation for her own death, and in the stories she tells Eric Stolz and his family. This makes for a stronger story, keeping it all in the present, and it makes the relationship between O’Hara and Stolz more compelling.

But more than that, it makes it my story, a story about a woman yearning for one last moment with the man she loved.