Upsurges in Sadness Are Like Shortness of Breath After Exercise

I’m fine. Truly I am. For all of you who have expressed concern over my current upsurge in grief, I just want to tell you there is nothing to worry about. Upsurges in sadness do not in any way affect my life or my dealings with other people. They are just there, a fact of my life like shortness of breath after exercise. If I didn’t write about my feelings, no one would know about my times of sadness. There is so much bad advice given to people about grief, such as acceptable durations and ways of grieving, that I want to provide a counterpoint, and I wouldn’t do much good if I kept silent about what I happened to be feeling at any given moment.

Many people have told me that after the death of their husband, they never found happiness until they married again. People have told me that even after they got married, they still experienced upsurges in grief, sometimes years afterward. People tell me they never got over grief at the loss of a life mate, it just got different. The death of a cousin or even a brother doesn’t affect us the same way as the loss of a child or a soul mate, so the severity of the loss has to be taken into affect before you start wondering if someone is grieving inappropriately. Some people do fall in a pit of depression and cannot get out without help, but I am not one of them. Nor am I ruining my health by riding out the sadness. That’s what tears are for — to release the stress. Walking, exercising, and blogging also relieve the stress of trying to create a new life for myself out of the embers of the old one.

For me, an upsurge in grief usually comes right before or right after a new level of acceptance or a greater understanding. This latest upsurge began on Independence Day. It’s a day for families to get together, to have fun, to do whatever it is that families do when they get together, and I was alone. I understood that this could be the way holidays will be for the rest of my life, and I found it difficult dealing with the unwelcome understanding. Also, while walking in the desert recently, I’ve had several revelations that are helping me with my search to find a new focus for my life, and such forward motions bring on an upsurge of sadness because they take me further away from the past I shared with my deceased life mate/soul mate.

And anyway, even though I am no longer a child in the world of grief, I’ve not yet achieved full growth, either. Therapists who have studied grief and grievers admit that it takes three to five years to find your way back to life, and I am just past two years. I still have a long way to go. Besides, what’s a few tears among friends?

The truth is, though, I am more exhausted than sad. I’m tired of living in an alien world, tired of having to figure out where to go from here, tired of not feeling like me, but mostly, I’m tired of his being dead. Whether I continue to be sad or find happiness, whether I continue floundering of find new focus, he will still be dead. And absolutely nothing I do or say or feel will ever change that.

Floundering in a Sea of Sorrow

A friend sent me a link to website describing grief as walking a tightrope back to life, which is an interesting metaphor, but doesn’t fit with what I’ve been feeling lately. Mostly it seems as if I am bobbing on a sea of sadness, going with the flow, accepting what has happened to both me and my deceased life mate/soul mate, then suddenly I start floundering and, occasionally, I feel as if I am foundering.

The verb flounder means to struggle, to make clumsy efforts to move or regain one’s balance, much like a fish out of water. The verb founder means to fail utterly, to collapse, and comes from a Latin word meaning “bottom.”

I seldom feel as if I am reaching bottom any more, though sometimes, grief catches me unaware and I feel as if I am once again drowning in the sea of sadness. Those times confuse me, because after two years and three months, I feel as if I shouldn’t still become so submerged in sadness. Luckily, though, my times of feeling as if I am foundering don’t last long. My times of floundering, however, are still fairly frequent. A few days can pass without an up swell of grief, and then for no reason I can fathom, I begin floundering again, and have to try to regain my balance.

Even though I’m becoming used to his absence, his goneness still confuses me at times. How can such a vital human being be gone from my life, gone from this earth, just . . . gone? And why do I still miss him? Shouldn’t I be over him? Accept that he is gone and get on with my life? But grief doesn’t work that way, or at least, my grief doesn’t.

He was a big part of my life for more than half my years. Almost everything I own belonged to the two of us. I have a few things that predate his appearance in my life — my car, some household goods — but everything else reminds me of him. He was my best friend, the one person to whom I could say anything, no matter how shocking the rest of the world would find my musings. Oddly, he is still the only person I can talk to, though I do find it pathetic at times that the only one I have to converse with on a regular basis is a dead guy, especially since he doesn’t keep up his end of the conversation.

I am getting on with my life, though I seem to be missing something — verve perhaps, or buoyancy. Even when things were going wrong, our togetherness brought lightness to my life, and I don’t know how to find that in myself. I feel heavy-hearted and lead-footed, as if every movement takes more effort than it should. I suppose it’s just a matter of getting used to this weightiness as well as his goneness and my loneliness and everything else I have to get used to.

And I will get used to it all. My good days, my days of going with the flow show me that it’s possible. And then I flounder, and I wonder how I ever managed to get as far as I have without foundering.

Grief: The Twenty-Seventh Twenty-Seventh

My life mate/soul mate died of inoperable kidney cancer on the 27th of March, 2010, and today is the twenty-seventh twenty-seventh I have managed to survive. Some such dates are fading — I no longer count the days or weeks, no longer count my sad Saturdays (he died on a Saturday, and always on Saturday, I feel an upsurge of sorrow), but I am still very aware of the day of the month he died.

This twenty-seventh month marks a big change. For the first time in my long odyssey, I am more grateful for what I had with him than I am sorrowful for what I didn’t have. I can even smile when I think of him, though I don’t think of him as often as I used to. For the first two years of my grief, he consumed my thoughts. It was as if I were afraid to stop thinking of him, lest he disappear completely from life and memory. Despite that vigilance, my memories of him are fading, and while I still feel the sorrow, still feel the immense hole in my life, I am forgetting the particulars. Forgetting, even, what he looked like.

This forgetting seems like a death in itself, but I can’t keep him here by thinking of him. Though I wish with all my being that he were strong and healthy and living, he is gone. And I am not.

In recognition of this, I have put away the only two photos I have of him. I could not bear to look at the pictures for the first fifteen months after he died, but I gradually inured myself to the sight of them. For a while, the images brought me comfort, but now they only remind me of my sadness. Maybe someday I will set out the photos again; meantime, I am learning to survive without this crutch. The photos might not be a crutch so much as a reminder, or maybe simply something to talk to, but whatever these pieces of paper are, they are not him.

I am still beset by tears and fears, and there’s a chance I always will be. His death seemed to open a crack in the EveryThing, and I could almost feel the winds of eternity. Some of the wildness of my grief and the accompanying panic came from this contact with a truth I am not yet capable of understanding. I don’t know what I will become because of the experience, but even though I don’t feel any different, I know I have changed in some fundamental way.

I am weary of trying to find my way, weary of trying to work around the immense hole he left behind, weary of trying to emphasize the good in my life. Perhaps one day, I won’t have to expend so much effort to find ways and reasons to live. I will simply . . . live.

Grief: Finally Grateful

Two years and three months after the death of my life mate/soul mate, I am finally beginning to understand that this is my life and my life alone.

Sharing a life with someone might shroud the basic aloneness for a while, but after the person dies, it eventually becomes apparent that your destiny belongs only to you. (Because, obviously, if it belonged to both of you, he would still be here.)

Surviving a mate is hard on many counts. The sheer agony of his being ripped from your life leaving you feeling amputated. The bewilderment and angst that come with confronting death. The collateral losses that go along with losing a mate, such as the loss of one’s connection to the world, the loss of one’s best friend, the loss of someone to share the burden of decisions and chores. But beyond the obvious hardships are the more subtle problems of loving someone who is no longer alive, of continuing to worry about their wellbeing, of feeling bad for them that their life was cut short. (Much of my grief was for him, a posthumous empathy for his suffering and for his dreams that never came to fruition.)

I do not know the truth of his death — perhaps he is sunning himself on some cosmic beach or playing with a couple of galactic cats. Perhaps he is glad to be dead, assuming he even knows that he is. The corollary to this being my life and my life alone is that his life is his alone. Despite all that we did together, all that we shared, all that we were together, I am no longer part of his life.

In some ways, his death set me free. Our lives had become so constrained because of his illness and our financial concerns, that it trapped both of us in a world that was barely tolerable. (I was going to say that it was unbearable, but we did bear it.) His death brought an end to that world for both of us, though losing him catapulted me into the world of grief.

I am not over my grief — I never will be — but my sorrow is being assimilated into my life, and I am coming closer to an acceptance of the gift of freedom he gave me. I am still prone to tears and fears, but finally, after all these months, I am able to think of him and smile, and be grateful that he shared his life with me.

New Steps on the Journey Through Grief

I’ve reached a new level of grief. I’m still sad, but I can barely remember why. I still feel the absence of my life mate/soul mate, who died two years and two months ago, yet I can barely remember the living man. The life I shared with him is receding, as if it happened to someone else. There is still a hole in my life and a decided lack of “life” — no sparks kindling new ideas, no electricity of excitement, no radiance — but I no longer have anything with which to compare that lack of life. It’s as if these sad and lonely days are the way it has always been for me.

During those years when we were together, I had someone to talk to, someone who could help put life into a different perspective, and now there is just me. To tell the truth, I still talk to him, but he never offers a different perspective. I used to feel a tenuous connection to him (or at least to our shared past) when I talked to him, but now I have no idea if I’m even talking to him or simply talking aloud.

With our shared life moving further into the dim past and my memories of him fading, I worry that I will forget him. I know I’ll forget the person I was when I was with him. No matter how I change, I’m always just me, and yet, (for example) I cannot remember this little girl, cannot remember being her. She has receded far into my past. Or perhaps she’s become subsumed into my current persona? Either way, she no longer exists even in memory. And so will the person I was with him disappear as I move further into the future without him.

The irony is that I was in such pain after his death that I made a special point to experience new things so I could create new memories. I thought new memories would help cushion the severity of the break between our shared life and my life alone, yet those very memories are taking me further away from him.

I might not completely forget him. I have moments when I flash onto a vivid image of him, and as heartbreaking as those moments are (because I am reminded once again that he is dead), they are all I have left of him except for some of his things. It seems cruel that their things outlive the dead. Shouldn’t people live longer than things? Or else, shouldn’t the things disappear when our loved ones do? And yet, as my memories fade, the things I kept of his and the things I kept of ours, such as our household goods, will be all I have to remember him by.

Every new step on the journey through grief brings its own grief. It saddens me that he is forever receding from me. Yet I am still here, and I must live. I can’t cocoon myself in memories of him and our life together. I can only go on doing what I have been doing — experiencing new things and making new memories, even if they take me further away from him.

Two Years and Two Months of Grief

I never expected to feel so sad two years and two months after the death of my life mate/soul mate, and I never expected to still be so easily brought to tears. But then, I never expected most of what I’ve experienced with grief, especially since I tend to be more contemplative and stoic than emotional. As I’ve learned, though, grief might manifest as emotion, but it is so much more than that — it’s a restructuring of the world as we know it, a reconfiguring of reality. And that takes a lot of energy, both mental and physical. And it takes time. A person who was a major part of our life is gone, ripping a hole in our reality, and our brains are struggling to patch the hole (or at least to figure a way around it), which causes an incredible amount of stress.

Part of that restructuring is a new consciousness of death. We all know we are going to die, but after the death of someone we are profoundly connected with, we KNOW deep within our psyches. This knowledge makes life on Earth seem at once more significant and less vital (or do I mean more vital and less significant?), which is why so many of us bereft struggle for meaning. Some of us will eventually settle back into every day life, but for the rest of us, life will always seem a bit off, as if a part of us knows we are aliens in an alien land.

Mostly, I’m doing okay. If we were to meet, you’d have no idea of my ongoing sadness. I don’t try to hide it, it’s just that the sadness has become such a part of me that it doesn’t impede my living. I can smile and laugh and chat as if everything were fine, and it is, for that moment. But when I am alone and not focused on a task, sorrow percolates to the surface. Sometimes our life together seems very far away, as if it were only a dream born of loneliness, but this ongoing sadness reminds me of the truth — I once was with someone I loved deeply, and now I’m not.

I never feel his presence, but his absence hovers beside me as if it were a living thing. When I make a salad, I am aware that he is not washing the vegetables for me. When I am at the grocery store, I am aware that he is not helping pick out what we need. When I am exercising, I am aware he is not in the room. When I need someone to talk to, I am aware he cannot respond. When I watch one of his many video tapes, I am aware he is not sitting next to me. Every time I use something of ours, even something as inconsequential as a spoon, I am aware that he has no need of the article.

I don’t purposely think of such things. In fact, the awareness is not a thought. It’s just that everything I do and everything I own echoes with his absence. Maybe someday even the echo will die away and all I’ll have of our shared life are fading memories. But no matter how I feel or what I forget, I’ll always be grateful that an extraordinary man shared his life with me.


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 Update — Two Years and One Month

Grief continues to confound me. It is now two years and one month after the death of my life mate/soul mate. I would have thought I’d have moved beyond grief’s ability to disquiet me, but I still have times where tears rush in to fill the void he left behind.

Some of my grief now is the poking-at-a-sore-tooth-to-see-the-extent-of-the-pain kind rather than the overwhelming agony and angst of the first year. There are still sore spots, most notably the obvious one — that he is dead. I cannot fathom death. My mind just cannot work itself around the conundrum of a once living person being so very gone from this earth. And there is the corollary murmuring deep in my psyche, “and someday you will be gone, too.” But . . . gone where?

When my grief was new, I often wandered in the desert crying out in desperation, “Where are you? Can you hear me?” I don’t call out any more, though I still wonder where he is, if he is, what he is. I envy those who believe without a doubt that their deceased loved ones still exist and that they will see them again because I have no such constant belief, though I do have flickers.

One of the many paradoxes of my grief is that I hope he still exists somewhere, but for myself, I’d be okay with oblivion. Is his death worse for me if he still exists somewhere beyond my ability to connect with him? Or is it worse if he is completely deleted except for a spark of indestructible non-conscious energy? Either way, he is gone out of my life. Either way, I have to deal with the mysteries of death, love, grief, and what the heck am I going to do with the rest of my life?

I met my life mate when I was young and believed in fate and destiny and a mystical connection with the universe. I subscribed to the belief that when the student is ready, the master will appear. And he appeared. He was so radiant, it seemed to me he was a higher being come to earth to help me on my life’s quest. In the few ups and many downs of our shared life, I forgot that feeling. And no wonder — as he got sicker and sicker, his radiance dimmed and all but went out.

During that last year, when he could no longer carry on a two-sided conversation, he would lecture me on what I should do after he was gone. He kept saying, “Listen to me. I won’t always be here to teach you.” I didn’t accept that his dying was imminent, so these lectures aggravated me, as if he thought I was so stupid I couldn’t live on my own. (I’d give anything to hear one of those “lectures” again. How could I not have treasured every word?) But the point is, apparently, deep in his subconscious, he believed what I had once believed, that he came here to be my teacher.

There is not a single question (except the unanswerable ones such where he is and if he is) that has arisen in the past twenty-five months that I didn’t know the answer to. We had discussed everything, sometimes all day, day after day, year after year. He took me as far as he could, imparted his wisdom, and left.

If there is any truth to this scenario, rather than being the rather romantic idea created by a bereft woman grasping hold of life any way she can, then the question of what I am going to do with the rest of my life takes on even greater significance. What is so important about me and my life that this radiant creature would share half his lifetime and all of his long and painful dying with me? I suppose that is what I am left to find out.

Counting Down to the Second Anniversary of Grief

And so begins the countdown to the two-year anniversary of my life mate’s death.

I don’t know why the second anniversary of his death has me so spooked. I can’t imagine there are many surprises left for me when it comes to grief, though everything about grief up to this point has shocked me. I was shocked that I even felt grief — he’d been sick for so long, and I’d been looking forward to an ending for his pain that it never occurred to me that I would feel more than relief at his death. I was shocked by the severity of my grief and its global nature, affecting as it does, body, mind, emotions, equilibrium. I was shocked by the recurring violent upsurges of grief that made it seem as if he’d left the earth that very moment instead of months previously. I was shocked by how long grief takes. And mostly I’ve been shocked and continue to be shocked by how very gone he is.

His goneness still affects me, still bewilders me. We spent most of our time together for thirty-four years, and now he’s . . . gone. He’s not just gone from my life, he’s gone from the earth. If he were still here, maybe living with a new love, I’d miss him, and probably would be furious at him for what he put me through, but I could understand that. What I can’t understand is his total goneness. There is a void where he once was, a blankness that my mind cannot comprehend.

Still, this noncomprehension is something I am getting used to. The rough edges of the void are smoothing out, and I don’t always bang my mental shins on that enormous mindblock, though I do occasionally get a freefalling-elevator feeling when the thought hits me . . . again . . . that he is dead.

The countdown to the first anniversary of his death was very painful. It was as if I were reliving the last weeks of his life, feeling everything that I couldn’t let myself feel when I lived through it. This countdown to the second anniversary is mild compared to that, so why am I dreading the anniversary itself? I don’t know, unless I’m afraid grief still has more surprises. Or maybe I’m afraid that it holds no more surprises, and for the rest of my life I will be moving further and further away from our shared life into . . . what? I still don’t know.

For thirty-four years I was constantly aware of his presence. Even if we weren’t in the same room, I was aware of his nearness. For the past twenty-three months, I have been constantly aware of his absence. Even when I don’t consciously remember that he’s dead, there is that subliminal feeling of blank.

This blog might make you think that I have done nothing for the past twenty-three months but sit around and feel sorry for myself, and that is far from the truth. From the beginning, despite the overwhelming agony of my grief, I have taken life into my hands and run with it. I relocated a thousand miles from where we lived to help care for my 95-year-old father. I’ve traveled to new cities, made excursions to museums, fairs, expositions. I’ve walked thousands of miles, lifted weights, eaten in dozens of restaurants, sampled new foods. I’ve written hundreds of blog posts, participated in several different writing projects, read hundreds of books, made new friends.

Yet, here I am, counting down the days to the second anniversary of his death, and I still don’t know where I am going, or if I am even going anywhere. Still don’t know how to live with his ever-present absence in my life.

People keep telling me I need to focus on others, that doing volunteer work and such is how one gets through this, but I’m wondering if perhaps I need to focus on myself. He may be absent, but I am still here.


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.