Letter From a Griever

I received this email yesterday from a blog reader:

Dear Pat. Would you allow me a guest slot on your blog to talk about the book, and your grief writing in general?  I quite understand if you’d rather not needless to say, but I’d quite like to enthuse about your work if I may. — Treve

Of course, I said yes, not just because I was flattered but because what Treve has to say about me, my grief writing, and Grief: The Inside Story — A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One is important to both grievers and those who know grievers.

I first came across Pat’s blog in about 2015, about eighteen months after my wife died of cancer.  During that first year and a half, like most grievers I had experienced extraordinary emotional turbulence, the like of which I have never had before nor since.  It seemed to me that nobody ever tells you about what grief is really like, you just guess that it’s not nice and assume that it probably gets better after a while.  If only it were so simple!  I would occasionally browse the internet to see if there was some help or advice that would make sense to me, but it usually seemed to be written as if it were generic lifestyle advice, rather than designed for people experiencing profound turmoil. 

Be kind to yourself.  Everyone grieves differently.  Go out with friends and try to enjoy yourself.  Try to move on.  

It seemed to me that whoever wrote these sort of things had never actually experienced the kind of grief I was going through.  Perhaps it was just me, maybe this sort of advice would make sense to most people?

After 18 months, I chanced across Pat’s blog.  I can’t remember with absolute certainty, but I think the first of her posts I read was “The Five Major Challenges We Face During the Second Year of Grief” —  [https://bertramsblog.com/2012/01/08/the-five-major-challenges-we-face-during-the-second-year-of-grief].  I think I spent a whole evening reading through Pat’s writings about grief, and I was amazed.  For the very first time I was reading something that actually reflected what I was going through.  And the really weird thing was that Pat was an American lady some years older than myself (a British man in his early forties at the time), and yet she was the first – and only person – who was writing about grief in a way that made sense to me.  And I began to realise that a lot of the received ‘wisdom’ about grieving seemed to be based on various absurd notions, such as the so-called ‘five stages of grief’, that had no real basis in reality.  I was captivated, because for the first time it seemed to me that there might be some common pattern to grief, despite the profoundly different backgrounds of the grievers.  Seven years on I still occasionally read material about grief, often written by highly-trained ‘experts’, that bears no relation to what I went through (and I suspect what most grievers go through).

I was delighted when Pat published her book Grief: The Inside Story — A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One.  It was fascinating to be able to read her considered reflections about grief, not least because she had obviously had years of contact with fellow grievers who had shared their feelings with her.  Two chapters in particular are of great importance to me.  ‘Why Can’t Other People Understand My Grief?’, which discusses why so many folks seem to be embarrassed or uneasy when they around those who express their grief.  Likewise the chapter entitled ‘Metamorphosis’, on how grief changes us irrevocably.  This has shaped my thinking about grief, and continues to help me even today in trying to make sense of all that has happened to me in the last seven years.

I would sincerely urge any grievers reading this blog to buy Pat’s book, and keep it close to hand.  It covers the first few years of grief, and how its nature and impact change over time, written with great clarity by someone who has experienced it all first hand.   Nobody can take away the intense sting experienced at losing a loved one, but having a wise guide who can point out the emotional and practical road ahead (and also hazards along the way) is a huge help in dealing with grief.  I will always be grateful for the help Pat has given me through her writing.

Vulnerability and Upsurges of Grief

Lately I have been experiencing an upsurge of grief so strong it feels as if Jeff died a short time ago and is just out of reach. If I could only stretch my arm a bit farther. . . and farther . . .

But no matter how far I reach, he is gone. In one month it will be seven years. Always the weeks leading up to an anniversary are hard, but this year is much harder. I even had to resort to writing Jeff a letter last night, which is something I haven’t done in years. The letter writing helped enough that I will probably repeat the exercise until I get through this difficult time.

Because of this blog, I have been in touch with many people who have lost their mates, and I discovered that a common occurrence was a huge upsurge of grief at 18 months just when we thought we were over the worst of it. My current upsurge makes me wonder if there is a significance to the seventh anniversary. It’s been said that because of the constant changing of cells in our bodies, every seven years we have undergone a complete changeover. After the loss of a life mate/soul mate, it takes 3 to 4 years to find a renewal of life. I call that time the half-life of grief because half the physical connection is gone. Does this mean that at seven years, any remaining iota of his physical presence in my life and body is now gone and hence this grief upsurge?

This morning while texting with a friend, I mentioned my upcoming anniversary. She thought my grief had less to do with the number seven and more to do with increased vulnerability because of my poor shattered arm and my needing “a soft place to lean.” (She also thinks I should be documenting what I’m going through for a possible future book that might help others who are dealing with a similar situation, but this blog is all the documentation I will need.)

She could be right about my needing a soft place to lean. Ever since my fall, I had been feeling a bit of an upsurge in grief, both for my arm and for my now long-gone shared life, but it wasn’t until I lost my occupational therapist (the one person I had to lean on) to bureaucracy that I began this downward slide into profound grief. But also, coincidentally, that is when I began the downward slide to the anniversary.

Whatever the truth of the matter, this current upsurge surprised me because I thought I left such deep sorrow in the past. You’d think after all these years of learning about grief firsthand, there would be no more surprises left for me, but grief does what it wants.

People tell me to get over it, to move on, not to be sad, and in recent years I have been doing all those things, even went on a great adventure. But now, suddenly, I am in a place of “not doing.” I have to be very careful with the fixator attached to my arm. Because the pins go through skin and muscle and all the way through bone, the insertion points are prone to infection, and it is a full-time job keeping them clean. I want to hurry up with my hand exercises, to try to quickly get back as much range of finger motion as I can, but too much stress and stretch aggravates those puncture wounds. So here I sit, isolated, alone with my hand-me-down Nook filled with books, and my computer. (Though the poor Nook is threatening to quit on me, and my aged computer is struggling to keep up with today’s technology.)

I don’t feel quite so sick or so lost in the post anesthetic fog as I did the first couple of months after the fall, and I only take pain pills now to help control the pain so I can sleep. I hope that one day soon I can go back to writing. I try to put myself in a happy place, and it seems as if it’s been years since I’ve been happy, it was only a few months ago. Last October. Writing. Finishing my dance novel.

When I started working on my grieving woman book, I couldn’t help feeling sad for that poor woman and all she went through, so it did not bring me much happiness. But now that my normal state is sadness, writing might offset some of the sorrow. It does amuse me, though, thinking that this grief upsurge, so reminiscent of the early months, puts me in the proper frame of mind to write about a brand-new widow. Also amusing, though in a more ironic way, I can’t figure out how to end that woman’s story, just as I can’t figure out how to end mine.

Luckily, I have a treat in store for me today — I am going grocery shopping! A friend who comes to town occasionally to help with her aging mother makes time to help me with errands, and today is the day! I will revel in the company, the laughter, the largess spread out all around me, and be grateful for this chink in my isolation.

And tonight, if tears flow once again, I will write Jeff another letter, thank him for letting me share his life, and tell him how glad I am that at least one of us is spared any further pain and sorrow.

But dammit, I miss him.

Apparently, I always will.

heart

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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.