Being in Two Places at Once

Grief:  The Great YearningThe other day, a friend came early to her dance class and sat reading Grief: The Great Yearning while I danced with my class. I thought I would feel uncomfortable seeing such a new friend read the truth of me, but that didn’t affect me, perhaps because I am used to throwing my emotions out there for anyone to catch and make of them what they wish. Still, it did feel odd, as if I were in two places at once — both in the book where I was so abandoned to grief I could only scream my pain to the wind and in the studio where I was so abandoned to dancing I could only smile.

The emotion in Grief: The Great Yearning is so raw, it is as if I myself reside between the pages of the book, and in fact, the friend also remarked on the strangeness of living my story and feeling my grief and then looking up to see me dancing.

For a long time, I thought I would always be that woman lost in grief, but grief itself changed me. From the first moment grief stole my breath from me, I knew it was important to follow where it led, that it would take me where I needed to be, that it would help me become the woman who could survive the loss of her soul mate.

And so it came to be.

Other people read of my grief now, and the description of my journey helps them to follow their own path of grief, which is one great benefit of having written so passionately about my feelings, but another great benefit is that I don’t have to waste time remembering my grief, don’t have to wallow in it. It exists outside of me now. If I ever want to relive those days, I can simply pick up the book, and there I will be.

As strange as it might seem, years from now I probably will want to read the book. I am losing the memory of him and our shared life, losing the feeling of ever having been profoundly connected to another human being, and I might need to remember that once I loved, once I was so connected to another human being that his death shattered me. Even more than that, I still have a void inside of me where he once was, and someday I might need to remember why it is there.

(PS: If you know of anyone who is experiencing profound grief, please consider gifting them with a copy of Grief: The Great Yearning. It might help them to know that others have been where they are, and survived.)

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

Weeping For Those Who Are Newly Born Into The World Of Grief

Someone stopped by my blog this morning to comment that her husband passed away fourteen days ago, and I started crying. I wept for her, for me, for all of us who have had to deal with the soul-breaking and heart-shattering pain of new grief. (Sometimes the only way I had to keep from bursting with the pain was to scream. I’d never screamed before, but I often screamed during the first weeks of grief.)

I don’t know how any of us survive such agony and angst, but somehow we manage to keep taking one breath at a time. As the months pass, the pain does lessen, though according to others further along in the grief process, the sadness never completely goes away. And always, we revisit grief on the anniversary of the death.

There are so many sad anniversaries for me to remember now. May 24. July 23. July 26. March 7. March 27. October 14. All days when someone who was very loved died and left a grief-stricken soul mate behind. I’ve seen much pain these past couple of years from my fellow bereft but even more courage. It takes courage to continue to live, courage to struggle to accept the changes that death brought, courage to strive for understanding, (especially for those who wish to be done with life).

Sometimes I see only the pain of grief — eyes blank, bodies tensed, hearts bleeding — but sometimes I am privileged to see the light shining through the grief as the bereft find new hope and new meaning.

Where does grief lead us? I don’t know. People often equate grief to a journey, which makes us think we are going somewhere, but grief seems to be more of a process, turning us inside out, stretching our minds, souls, psyches so that we can learn to live with our new reality and find peace (and maybe even happiness) alongside the continued sadness.

Despite whatever dubious benefits and insights I have gained through the experience, I would not wish this process on anyone, and so I weep for those who are newly born into the world of grief.

Getting Grief Right in Writing

Long before I knew the truth of grief and its power, I wrote A Spark of Heavenly Fire. The story begins thirteen months after the death of Kate Cummings’ husband, and she is still haunted by her small unkindnesses during his long illness. It surprises me that I got that part right because so much of the grief journey has been a shock to me, including how much I regret my own small undkindnesses toward my life mate/soul mate. I didn’t do anything bad, just lacked generosity of spirit at times during his last year. If he had lived, of course, these lapses would have passed unnoticed in the commotion of daily life, but with his death, they loomed like vultures over my spirit, waiting to tear me to shreds. If I had known how close to death he was, I would have been more patient, more understanding of his dying ways, but I didn’t know. I’ve come to realize that we were under such stress those last years that both of us did the best we could in the untenable situation. Dying is an unpleasant business for both parties.

Here are a couple of excerpts from A Spark of Heavenly Fire that show Kate’s torment. I wasn’t as feisty as Kate. I didn’t kick furniture or slam doors (well, maybe just once), and I didn’t give in to my anger until after he was dead, but otherwise, these passages show how much we bereft regret the small things we did:

Kate hauled herself upright and groped for her eyeglasses. After sitting on the edge of the bed for a moment, gathering her strength, she dressed and wandered through the house. She hesitated by the closed door of the second bedroom where her husband had lived during the last years of his protracted illness, touched the knob with her fingertips. Yanked her hand away.

This is ridiculous. Joe’s been gone for thirteen months.

Taking a deep breath, she grasped the knob, but could not force herself to turn it. She rested her forehead on the door for a minute, wondering if she’d ever be able to face the ghosts of sorrow and regret locked inside, then squared her shoulders and headed for the front closet to grab a coat and hat.

[Later in the book, Kate explains this inability to open the door to her new friend, journalist Greg Pullman.]

“A little over a year ago, during one of Joe’s rare remissions,” Kate said. “I mentioned we were coming up on our fifteenth wedding anniversary. When he ignored me, I asked, ‘Would it kill you to be nice to me once in a while?’

“He didn’t answer.

“I went out for a walk. When I returned, he was gone.”

“Dead?” Greg asked.

“No. Not then. He’d taken our car, an old Volvo, and left. I didn’t know he felt strong enough to drive. He could barely walk and had a hard time gripping so much as a glass of water.

“When the state patrol called to tell me Joe had been in an accident, that he’d driven off a cliff in the mountains and had died instantly, I wasn’t surprised. It did surprise me when they ruled it an accident. It seemed so obvious to me he’d taken his own life that I was sure everyone else could see it, too.”

Kate gave an unamused laugh. “I never did buy another car.”

Greg looked at her, a frown wrinkling his brow. “I don’t see that you did anything shameful.”

Kate toyed with her empty cup. “I’m not proud of what I said, and I hate knowing those were the last words I ever spoke to my husband, but I don’t think it had anything to do with his suicide. I doubt he even heard me.

“About two weeks after the funeral, I decided to clean Joe’s room. I didn’t feel up to sorting out his things, but I thought I should dust and vacuum in there. I cracked opened the door, as if expecting Joe, or at least his spirit, to inhabit the room. I stepped inside, but seconds later I scrambled out again and slammed the door.

“Memories of all the shameful, petty, inconsiderate things I had done over the years haunted the room, and I couldn’t bear to face my own mean spirit. Too many times I snapped at him or purposely waited a few minutes before going to see what he wanted when he called out. Other times I felt so angry at the way life had treated us, I stomped around the house, slamming doors and kicking furniture. Usually, though, I pounded my pillow, or cried. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I cried, wishing I had a normal life with healthy children to take care of instead of an uncommunicative and disabled man. Sometimes I even hated him for what he had become, as if he chose to get sick. Can you believe that?”

She didn’t pause for a response, but hurried on, wanting to get it all out. “Worst of all, I realized I was not a strong woman who had shouldered her burden with courage, but a weak woman who lacked generosity of spirit.”

Greg reached across the table and put a hand over hers. “We are a sad pair, aren’t we?”

She gave him a wistful smile.

A full minute went by without either of them speaking, then she asked, “Would you like some more hot chocolate?”