As If Somehow It Were Meant to Be

Some people believe everything happens for a reason. Although I’m not one of those people, I had a strange experience today that made me wonder if for some unknown reason (unknown to me that is) I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

It all started three and a half years ago on my birthday. I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant with friends from my grief support group. They gave me cards and gifts, and even sang “happy birthday” to me over candlelit flan. I remember thinking how far I’d come from the life I’d lived with my life mate/soul mate, and how a year previously, when he was dying, I could never have ever imagined such a felicitous occasion.

On that very same day, a lovely and still youthful woman was murdered, and an older man died an agonizing death.

A week or two later, the woman’s mother and the man’s wife began attending the same grief support group I did, and we eventually became friends, though the friendship is often rocky — you could not find three people more disparate than we are.

The mother has been staunch in her fight to get her daughter’s murderer behind bars, and finally, just the other day, he was arrested. Today was the arraignment.

speedI wasn’t aware of the arraignment, but when our friend, the wife, called me on a different matter and mentioned she was on her way to the courthouse, I was but a block away. And so I joined the other two women at the arraignment.

Courthouse officials told us the wrong courtroom (and there was no docket anywhere that we could check), so we sat through the arraignment of dozens of people we had no interest in. (As it turns out, the mother didn’t miss anything. The accused put in an appearance, but we talked to a lawyer who had been in the right courtroom, and he told us the “alleged” murder’s family said they’d get a lawyer, and so the arraignment was postponed until tomorrow.)

But I did learn something. The courtroom we were in looked like courtrooms you see in movies — all lovely oak (or faux oak), with a bench extending across the entire front of the room, a long table in front of the bench with a placard on each side designating plaintiff or defendant, a railing, and then the seating gallery behind the railing. But that was where the similarity ended. Except for the bailiff and a few onlookers, there were no people visible. Since the arraignments took place via television, all we could see was the orange-garbed defendant on a screen angled our way. We could hear the judge’s bored voice as he droned the charges and what he was going to go about them, but the judge, the clerk, and the court reporter, though physically present, were all completely hidden behind computer screens.

So why was I there at the courthouse today? I don’t know. It just seems odd that I was nudged in that direction, especially since the arraignment didn’t happen. Even odder, though we were all born far from this dusty desert town, our three lives converged on that very moment in the courthouse, as if somehow it were meant to be.

***

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.

What to do When Grief Support Group Members Never Leave

Two years ago, I Got Kicked Out Of My Grief Support Group. It’s been bugging me lately, thinking about how traumatic that whole situation was (the facilitator even told me if I ever came back, he’d call the cops. Sheesh.). But today I finally got my say. Not to him, of course — he’s long out of my life — but to another facilitator who found my blog and wanted to know if I had any Canadian Geesesuggestion about how to deal with a group when it turns social, when the members hang around for two to three years without moving beyond the group.

This is my response to her:

I am so glad you asked! I’ve had a lot of time to think about that group, how good it was for me and how badly it ended, and what an idiot that facilitator was. Truth be told, he was a preacher and not a grief counselor, and he had no experience with support groups, which makes the whole situation even more upsetting. He had no business running the group.

It was a small group. At the most, there were fourteen people, but generally only six to ten. Two old ladies who had been coming to the group for three years had no friends or resources and they came to be around people once a week. One of those women suffered a significant loss each of those three years, and so had every right to still come, regardless of the reason. The other old woman was gradually losing her hearing, her sight, her autonomy, all of which needed to be grieved. The rest of us ranged from one month to fourteen months into our grief. Yes, we bonded, and occasionally we went out to lunch together, but we weren’t a social group. We were there for one reason only. To find support with our own kind. There was no one else to talk to about our problems with grief.

I especially bonded with one of the newest widows who had lost her husband a year after I lost mine. Her experiences mirrored mine, and I knew what she was going through. I could see it in her thousand-yard stare. She would look to me for answers to her questions because she knew I had been there and could understand. The facilitator hated this. He’d read a couple of articles about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, and tried to fit everything anyone said into that grief model, even though it wasn’t at all what this woman was experiencing. He hated that I had a different perspective than he did. (He was still married, often talked about how supportive his wife was, and didn’t have a clue that one of the things we were grieving was that lack of such support.) And he hated that I printed out my blogs that showed the new woman what I had been going through. As I said, he was ignorant of support groups and didn’t understand that it was the nature of a group for the “older” members to help the newer ones, to be co-moderators in a way. And seeing how the newly bereft are dealing with their grief helps the older ones see how far they have come. This is why it’s important to have everyone in all stages of grief to be in the same group rather than to separate them out into special groups.

If most of the people in your group have been there for two to three years, you do have a problem. If you have no new members, you can do what my group did — cancel it for three to four weeks while everyone searches their conscience to see if they still needed the group. If it is not feasible to cancel the group for a while because of newly bereft members, it would be better to talk to each person individually, asking how they are dealing with their stage of grief, ask them what they want from the group and how you can help them move beyond the group.

Or you can cancel the group for three to four weeks, but still continue with the newest members during that time, saying you need to give the newly bereft special attention. (The people who have been around a long time should respect that — they themselves had once been so bereft.)

The newly bereft should never be penalized by long-term members. Those first weeks and months are so horribly painful that sometimes the only way to survive is through the support of a group. They are the ones who need special consideration.

Other things you can try:

When new people come to the group, focus on the new people. Have each group member introduce themselves to the new person, tell them who they lost and how, and how long ago it’s been. Then have the new member tell his or her story. Focus on the new member. Let the new member talk as long as s/he wants while the others keep their mouths shut. They all had their opportunity to tell their stories.

Make the group more focused. Set up a specific question, and have people answer only that question, starting with the newly bereft. Making sure the newest people get their say first in case there is not enough time for everyone to talk. (You can get some sort of “cards” with topics and choose a separate topic each time.)

Set up the group like a grief-orientation class. When I first started with the group, it was set up as a ten-week class, each class focusing on a different aspect of grief. When one set of classes was finished, the series began again. Gradually, the older members get bored with the repetition and leave the group.

Have the members only address the moderator or the person who is telling their story, not each other.

Make sure only one person talks at a time. If any of the long-time members have side conversations, ask them to take the conversation outside.

Do not allow any conversation that is not strictly grief oriented. Do not let anyone but new members (who desperately need to talk) to monopolize the group.

If it sounds harsh to focus on new members and pretty much ignore the members that have been there for two to three years, keep in mind that at these later stages of grief, vocalizing isn’t as important as it is at the beginning. In the group I was in, most of us who had been there a while had no real need to talk about our grief. It had all been said. But we did need the comfort of being with our own kind. (And in my case, I needed the comfort of passing on what we had learned so that all my pain didn’t go to waste.)

Many in the later stages find just as much comfort by listening. And if they don’t, if they only want to talk (or talk among themselves), then they don’t belong in the group.

To give you the short answer to your question: drastically restructure the group.

I hoped this helped.

Let me know if I can be of further assistance.

***

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.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Rethinking Ways to Think About Grief — Part II

In yesterday’s post, Rethinking Ways to Think About Grief — Part I, I discussed some of the opinions about grief mentioned in the Time Magazine article of January 2011 “New Ways to Think About Grief.” Today’s post continues my evaluation of that Time Magazine article.

Supposedly, researchers have identified specific patterns to grief’s intensity and duration. (Sounds like “the stages of grief” all over again, doesn’t it?) “And what they have found is that the worst of grief is usually over within about six months. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2002, Bonanno tracked 205 elderly people whose spouses died, and the largest group — about 45% of the participants — showed no signs of shock, despair, anxiety or intrusive thoughts six months after their loss.”

First, you can’t extrapolate a defining pattern of grief from 205 people, let alone a group of elderly people. Though there are some similarities in how those of us who lost a mate feel, grief is specific to each person. To make any generalities, especially with such a small group (and one that is not reflective of the population in general) is like telling us there are stages we go through when we know very well we didn’t go through any stages.

Second, the age of the person who died affects your grief. One of the things that has driven my grief is that my mate died when he was only 63. I could not comfort myself by saying that he’d lived out his full lifespan. I couldn’t comfort myself by saying at least he accomplished all he wanted. His dreams died with him. Another thing that drove my grief in the first year after my life mate’s death was my age. I come from long-lived people. I might have twenty-five or even thirty-five years to live without him. If we were both old, then we would already have grown old together, but I am now left to grow old alone. I’m not saying the elderly don’t grieve as much or feel as much as younger people. Nor am I denying that they have their own particular challenges to face. All I’m saying is that a study of elderly people has little relevance to the challenges the rest of us face. So much of my grief and that of my bereft friends stems from the relative youth of our mates and the long, lonely years stretching out before us, both facets of grief the elderly do not have to face.

Third, so what if 45% of the participants showed no signs of shock, despair, anxiety, or depression six months after their loss. That means a lot of people continued to suffer with these symptoms. And just because you’ve gotten over your shock and anxiety by six months, that does not mean you got over your grief. There are other facets of grief that do continue — bursts of grief, upsurges of sadness, missing your mate, yearning for him.

And Bonnano agrees: “That didn’t mean they didn’t still miss or think about their spouse, but by about half a year after their husband or wife died, they had returned to normal functioning.”

As for normal functioning (whatever that is) — I do not know of a single person who lost their mate who wasn’t functioning normally after a month or so. Generally, we functioned normally from the beginning. We felt our grief, we wept, we screamed, we cried out to our dead mates, but all of that was about relieving the incredible stress the death of one’s mate, one’s way of life, one’s dreams, all put on a person’s psyche. It was about making sense of the totally senseless. Coming to grips with how terribly gone the person is. But we continued to do everything we had to do despite how we felt.

Still, according to Bonnano’s study, some people’s grief left them earlier than other people’s grief. (I wonder how much grant money he spent trying to figure out that little gem.) His conclusion was that some people were simply more resilient than others, and the resilient ones handled their grief better.

Resilient? Resilient? I’ll tell you about resilient. While dealing with the horrendous loss of their mates, while still grieving well into their second year, women have travelled the world alone to honor their husband’s dream. By themselves, they have closed up the house they lived in for twenty years and moved halfway across the country. They have put in irrigation systems, have finished building a house, have written books, have taken up painting, have gone back to school, have started businesses, have blogged about their journey. They have made new friends. They have worked to support themselves and their families, and to pay the bills their husbands left behind. They have welcomed grown children back into their homes, helped take care of newborns and elderly parents. All while dealing with active grief. These women sound pretty resilient to me!

The article continues; “Only about 15% of the participants in Bonanno’s study were still having problems at 18 months. This small minority might be suffering from a syndrome clinicians are starting to call Prolonged Grief Disorder.” Perhaps some of those 15% needed help, but perhaps some of them had an added depth to their grief that not everyone feels. Grief depends in part on how many roles your spouse played in your life, perhaps best friend, lover, companion, support group, home, business partner, teacher/student, the one person who understood you, the one person who loved you no matter what. If your spouse played a single role, and other people played other roles, then your grief is considerably less complicated. But if your spouse was your soul mate, and he played all the roles, then each role has to be grieved and processed. Which could take a lifetime, especially since the one person who could help you through your grief is the very person you are grieving

For a small percentage of grievers, there is an additional shock to the system. If you were deeply connected to your mate in some mystical way, then part of you went with him when he died. You feel the breath of the eternal, the awesomeness of life and death. You feel — or almost feel — the driving force of the universe. This is something we humans are not equipped to handle, and so we grieve. And we yearn. And we search for new meaning.

But this mystical aspect of prolonged grief is not one that shows up in any study.

Bonnano concluded “What we do know is that while loss is forever, acute grief is not.” Sounds like a contradiction to me. Nowhere in the Time Magazine article, except for that last sentence, was there any mention of “acute grief.” Because yes, there are variations of grief, perhaps even vague stages, just not the typical stages that have been rammed down our throats.

One final contradiction. The woman who wrote the article spent many words telling us that talking about our grief or going to grief support groups didn’t help, but that “perhaps just the knowledge that our survival instinct is strong and that a great many people have not only endured terrible losses but also thrived can be a source of hope, something in scarce supply in our grief culture.” That is exactly true. But without grief support groups, without talking about it, without sharing what we are experiencing, how would anyone ever know there is hope?

Rethinking Ways to Think About Grief — Part I

A few months ago, another woman who had lost her mate and I were talking about how unstoic we’ve been about our grief. We cried when we needed to, screamed it to the heavens, flung it into the blogosphere. We admitted to feeling a bit childish, because in earlier days, people just accepted death and moved on. We decided that if we had lived in an earlier age — pioneer times, for example — we might have acted the same as they did, but since we live in the times we do, we have the luxury of letting grief take its course.

This conversation niggled at me. How do we know pioneer women just accepted death and moved on? How do we know they didn’t cry themselves to sleep when they lost a child or a their husband? How do we know they didn’t scream their loss to the heavens or suffer a crisis of faith?

So much of what we know about earlier times is from men — probably sociopathic men who have no feelings or sense of empathy for another’s suffering. (Not all sociopaths are serial killers. Some psychologists estimate that there are thirty thousand psychopaths who are not serial killers for every one who is. What makes a sociopath is lack of empathy, conscience, and remorse.) Most pioneer women didn’t read or write. (Which could be another myth?) If so how would they ever be able to convey to future women (us) how they felt?

Last night online I tried to find out the truth about the way early American women grieved, not just as dictated by their societal and religious mores, but how they really coped.

I didn’t find out much. Since grief is such an individual process, I would presume they grieved much like anyone today who has to work from morning to dawn. In other words, they found themselves crying at odd moments of privacy when no one could see them. Grief at the loss of a child or a partner is endemic. The show of grief is what changes from culture to culture.

In my online search, I came across an article in Time Magazine that had been published at the beginning of the year: “New Ways to Think About Grief.” The article started out great, debunking Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. They agreed with what I’ve been saying all along, that what we bereft mostly feel is a yearning to see our loved ones again. The Kübler-Ross grief model doesn’t hold true for most of us, and why should it? Those stages were conceived as a way of showing how people came to accept their own dying, not how people learned to deal with the death of others.

Then the article entered a gray area: One study of 66 people by George Bonanno, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who specializes in the psychology of loss and trauma, suggests that tamping down, not expressing, or avoiding negative feelings, known as “repressive coping,” actually has a protective function.

Another 60 person “study conducted by the husband-and-wife research team Wolfgang and Margaret Stroebe of Utrecht University found that widows who avoided confronting their loss were not any more depressed than widows who “worked through” their grief. As to the importance of giving grief a voice, several other studies done by the Stroebes indicated that talking or writing about the death of a spouse did not help people adjust to that loss any better.”

I don’t know who those people in the studies are or how they were chosen. All I know is that in life and on the internet, every one of the bereft I have encountered found comfort in talking about their grief, or in writing a grief journal or letters to their mates. But what really helped all of us was listening to others tell their story. Grief is so isolating that it’s important to know we are not alone. It’s possible some of those people in the study weren’t deeply connected to their spouse — not every spouse is a soul mate — and so it didn’t feel as if they’d had part of them amputated. It’s possible some of those in the studies had young families to care for. Like the pioneer women mentioned above, they would have no time for grief. It’s also possible those in the study had large families or many friends to surround them with love and give them needed hugs. Those at the grief support group I went to were mostly alone and lost, with no one to hang on to. So we hung on to each other. That is the benefit of grief groups. The connection.

Interestingly enough, in not a single discussion, online or offline, did any of the bereft I encountered indulge in negative thinking. We were all trying to find a way through the morass of physical pain and emotional shock. We were bewildered by what had happened to us and our mates, and though some had unresolved issues with their mates, they never gave in to bad mouthing their relationship. It was all about the love that once was there and now is gone.

(This rant of mine was so long, I’ll post the other half tomorrow.)

Grief Group Update

In my last post, I told you that I got kicked out of my grief support group. The facilitator cancelled the meeting this week to give us time to “self-evaluate.” If we are functioning in the normal world, we are not to return. Since we didn’t want to leave the newest member of the group without support at this critical time, we went on a picnic during the regular meeting time. Chances are, if the facilitator hadn’t said anything, several of us would have left the group in the next couple of months anyway, but this whole situation has brought us closer together. Like disaster survivors.

We’re all going to the scheduled meeting next week. (What’s he going to do? Give us grief? That doesn’t scare us. We’ve been there.) We want to find out the truth, whether the directive was instigated by hospice, by the facilitator himself, or in response to a complaint. And then we’ll see what happens.

Perhaps I have stayed with the group longer than absolutely necessary, but even if I’m just there to be around those who understand, what’s wrong with that? My grief is dissipating, (though I am troubled by an upsurge in tears the past three weeks).  Mostly I feel like I’m disappearing from life. Don’t feel quite real.

The truth is, I’m functioning well in the normal world (except for the small matter of being unable to write). It’s the abnormal world of grief I have problems with.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

My bags are packed, I’m ready to go, but I have a few minutes before I have to start donning my traveling togs, so I thought I’d say good-bye. Unlike Mary Travers, I do know when I’ll be back again — late Sunday night. I’m going to take notes and photos to show you, but most of all, despite 100% humidity (yikes!!), I’m going to have fun. It’s been so long since I’ve had fun, I’m not even sure what the word means any more, but I intend to find out.

I had an interesting revelation today, and oddly, it wasn’t even my revelation. I showed the preparations for my Scribbler’s Retreat Writer’s Conference presentation to a couple of people at different times the past two days. One said, “You have enough here for a book.” The other said, “This would make a good book.” And it would. I’m surprised I didn’t think of it, but sometimes we’re too close to things to see the truth. So, I haven’t even left for my conference, and I already have what I hoped to gain from it — a new direction and the confidence to go where it takes me.

Knowing I have something to do after my grief book is published will give me the impetus to type and edit the writings from my year of grief. My first year of grief. I’m still not over it, though I am healing every day. And perhaps I’ve outlived my stay at my grief support group. One woman brought a poem to read today, purportedly from our loved ones on the other side. At the end, everyone was wiping away tears but me. I was horrified by one of the lines: “everyday is the same here.” When I mentioned my horror, it sort of broke the mood. Ah, well. I’m mostly there for the hugs and to help the newly bereft however I can. They (whoever “they” is) say that grief brings strange blessings, and mine appears to be the ability to put into words what others are thinking.

The past few days have been so busy, I’m looking forward to doing nothing but sitting back and letting the plane take me where it wills. And even the five hour layover in Atlanta is even looking good. I was on top of the situation the whole time until Facebook decided to archive my old groups unless I acted immediately, so I couldn’t wait till I get back.

I have a favor to ask. If you belong to one of my facebook groups, and if you have time, will you go to the group, scroll down the wall (and click “older posts” when you get to the botttom of the page), look for discussion threads and make a comment? That brings the discussions to the top of the group page, and is a way of keeping them from getting lost. I’ll do it when I get back, of course, but any help will be appreciated.

My facebook groups: Suspense/Thriller Writers, Genre Book Club, and Second Wind Publishing.

I already did Help Support Independent Publishers,, but feel free to stop by and comment in a discussion anyway, especially the one where we are posting the first sentences of our books.

My ride is here. Gotta go!

I Am a Thirteen-Month Grief Survivor

Yesterday at my grief support group we were asked to complete the sentence, “After he died, I was surprised that . . .” Everything that happened in the thirteen months since the death of my life mate — my soul mate — has surprised me. No, not surprised me. Shocked me.

I was shocked that the end came so quickly. He’d been sick such a very long time, his health fading slowly, that his dying became our way of life. When he was finally diagnosed with inoperable kidney cancer, we were told he had three to six months to live. He had only three weeks. And those weeks seemed to evaporate in just a few hours.

After he died, I was shocked by the very presence of grief. My brother died four and a half years ago, and my mother died a year later. I handled both deaths well, so I thought I could cope with the death of my mate. I didn’t know, had no way of knowing, that one didn’t grieve the same for every loss. I didn’t know, had no way of knowing, that there was a physical component to the death of a long time mate, that it would feel like an amputation.

After he died, I was shocked by the depth and breadth of my feelings. During the last year of his life, and especially the last six months, he’d begun withdrawing from the world and from me. This withdrawal, this lessening of a need to be with others is a natural part of dying, and my response to his withdrawal was just as natural — an increased determination to live. He might be dying but I wasn’t, and I had to untangle our lives, find a way to survive his dying and his death. I thought I had successfully completed this task, but his death rocked me to the core of my being.

After his death, I was shocked by his sheer goneness. Because I’d spent so much time alone that last year, I thought life without him would feel much the same, but it isn’t like he is in another room or another city or another country — it’s like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I still have no words to describe the finality, the undoableness, the vacuum of death. He was part of my life for thirty-four years. We breathed the same air. We were connected by our thoughts, our shared experiences, the zillion words we’d spoken to each other. And then he was gone from this earth. Erased. Deleted. I still can’t wrap my mind around that.

After his death, I was shocked that I felt so shattered. So broken. And I am shocked that I still feel that way at times. I am shocked that no matter how strong you are, how well you are healing, grief can slam into you at any time, especially after a good day when you’re not expecting it, and the pain feels as raw as it was at the beginning.

After his death, I was shocked by the scope of grief. You grieve for the one who died and you grieve for yourself because you have to live without him. You grieve for all the things you did and the things you didn’t do. You grieve for what went wrong in your shared life and what went right. You grieve for the past and you grieve for the lost future. You grieve for all the hopes and dreams and possibilities that died with him. It’s amazing that anyone can survive all that pain, but we do, and that shocks me, too.

After his death, I was shocked by how complicated human emotions can be. You can feel sad and unsad at the same time. You can be determined to live, yet not care if you live or die. You can know in your depths he’s gone, but still listen for him, still yearn for him, still worry about him.

Mostly I’m shocked that I am still the same person I was before he died. Such emotional trauma should have changed me, made me stronger and wiser perhaps, yet I’m still just me. Sadder, but still recognizably me. Well, there is one change. I’ve always been a worrier, but now I try not to fret about the future, try not to wonder how I’m going to cope with growing old alone. After his death, I am no longer shocked that life can remain the same year after year. Nor am I shocked that it can change in an instant.

Going Along for the Ride

Life takes odd twists and turns. It seemed to me, when my life-mate — my soul mate — was dying of inoperable kidney cancer, that our lives would never change. He’d been sick for so many years, dying cell by cell, that it felt as if we were locked in a horror show of endless, predictable misery. Last year at this time, his disintegration suddenly speeded up, and he started dying organ by organ. And then he was gone.

I’ve made no secret of my grief, of the pain his “goneness” has caused me, but through it all, I’ve been getting on with my life, trying to open myself to new experiences, trying to hope for . . . what? That is the kicker. How do you know what to hope for if you can’t even imagine where you are headed?

A couple days ago I sat in a restaurant, one thousand miles from our home, celebrating my birthday with new friends and acquaintances I’d met through a grief support group. Though all nine of us are trying to deal with the devastating loss of a loved one, we talked and laughed and had a good time. It showed me that there is life after death — we lived despite our loved ones’ deaths. And it showed me something else. That for all of life’s seeming predictability, it can still surprise. A year ago, when my life mate was a couple of weeks from death, there is no way I could ever have envisioned that restaurant scene.

Back then, I knew I’d have to leave our home, to find a temporary haven where I could deal with my grief, but I had no clear idea of where I wanted to go, and somehow I found myself in the desert. And, since I’d been a virtual hermit for years, I could never have guessed that I would make so many friends. Nor had I celebrated my birthday in . . . well, never mind how many years it’s been. And yet, there I was, with new friends in a time and place I couldn’t have even imagined a year ago.

So where am I going? How will I get there? Who will I be? Who will I be with?  There is no way of knowing. I’ll just have to go along for the ride and hope that everything works out when I get there. Wherever “there” is.

Many Shades of Grief

When you lose someone significant in your life, someone whose very being has helped define you in some way, grief can be overwhelming. So many stages and shades of grief bombard you that at times you think you are going crazy — but except for the very extremes of grief — mummifying yourself so you don’t feel anything for years on end or saving pills so you can end your life — chances are what you are feeling is normal.

Many people who try to deal with the loss completely on their own have no idea if what they are feeling is normal. When you lose your husband, your daughter also loses her father, your sister-in-law loses her brother, your neighbor loses his friend. At first, you grieve together, but one by one everyone else puts aside their grief until you are the only one left crying. And they begin to hint that you need therapy. They got over their pain, why can’t you? After all, you all lost the same man. But you didn’t have the same relationship, so you won’t experience the same shades of grief.

I was in such pain after losing my life mate that I decided to go to a grief support group, hoping they could tell me how to survive the agony. I was afraid, at first, that I would be overwhelmed by everyone else’s pain; instead, I found a group of people who knew what I was going through, who listened to my sad story and who, because of their own survival let me know that I would survive. And that was comforting. I also learned that the only way to survive the pain is to go through the process of grieving.

It’s the hardest thing I have ever done, embracing grief.

Grief takes you to the ends of your limits. It makes you question everything you thought you knew about life, about yourself, about death. It can make you scream at the heavens, make you cry until you think you’re drowning in your own tears, make you want not to live. All this is accompanied by a host of physical symptoms, such as dizziness, tightness in the chest, restlessness, irritability, inability to focus or organize, inability to eat or sleep (or to eat and sleep too much). And when you think you’ve cried all your tears, finished with your panic attacks, come to accept that he isn’t coming back, grief returns, but this time it comes in a different shade, perhaps not so black as in the beginning, but still dark.

Right now I’m going through a time of pearl gray days scattered with storm-cloud gray moments. Though I’ve done the work of grief in my own way, I have had one great benefit that many people don’t have — that grief support group. Because of their support, because I know someone is paying to attention, I have felt free to embrace my grief fully without worrying that I’m crazy or that I need therapy. Because of them, I know I am coping well, I know my grief is normal, I know I am completely sane. I just haven’t finished with my grieving yet, and it’s possible that I may never be completely finished. And that too is normal.

I Am a Five-Month Grief Survivor

Five months ago, my life mate died . . . and I am surviving. I had not expected to grieve much — he had suffered a long time, and his death was hard-won — but still, those first endless weeks were difficult. The delineation between “us together” and “me alone” was so abrupt, so stark, so uncompromising that I had a hard time fathoming it. I finally went to a grief support group to find out how one survives such pain. I never did find out, but I discovered that one can survive the trauma, which helped, as did talking about my experience and listening to what others had to say. Grief is so isolating that it’s nice not to feel alone.

What helped most of all, though, was simply living. During the past five months, I have read dozens of books, walked hundreds of miles, written thousands of words, taken I-don’t-know-how-many photos, met many people both online and offline. All of those experiences have helped create memories, memories of a life without him, and those memories have softened the threshold between “us together” and “me alone.” I still have times of great sadness, still have that falling-elevator feeling when I remember I will never see him again, still miss him (probably always will), but for the most part I am doing okay.

I’ve abandoned my mental crutches — I no longer write a letter to him every day, don’t talk to him very often, don’t feel a need to scream. I am thinking more of the future, which signifies hope and getting on with my life, but such thoughts also bring moments of panic when I think of having to grow old alone. Mostly, I try to live in the moment and take each day as it comes.

One big trauma this past month was when I finally accepted in my depths that I will never see him again in this life. I knew that from the beginning, of course, but knowing it, feeling it, and accepting it are completely different things. People talk about acceptance as if it’s a peaceful thing, yet it at the time it felt as if I were losing him all over again. But that passed as everything does.

One big advancement this past month happened just this morning — for the first time since his death, I smiled when I thought of him. He would be glad — he’d have hated being the cause of so much pain.

He was a good man. I’m glad he shared his life with me.