The Three-Year Anniversary of the Worst Day of My Life

Today is the three-year anniversary of the worst day of my life.

Oddly, the worst day wasn’t the day of Jeff’s death. (Jeff was my life mate/soul mate, a man with whom I’d spent almost thirty-four years of my life. Normally I don’t use his name when I write about my grief, but I need the comfort of seeing his name today.) The day of his death was a sadly inevitable day, one I had actually looked forward to. He’d been sick for so long and in such pain, that I was glad he finally let go and drifted away. I might have cried then. I might have been numb. I don’t really remember. All I know is that I sat there with him until almost dawn when the funeral services people came for his body.

I don’t remember when grief first washed over me, either, but I do remember the anguish building for days on end until I was nothing but a screaming bundle of raw pain. (You’d think that grief would start out strong and then weaken, but it doesn’t. It swells and continues to swell until it reaches some sort of breaking point, which gives you a brief moment of peace until it begins to swell again.)

We bereft are told not to make any major changes that first year since we aren’t always thinking clearly — we just want to escape the pain — but I had to leave our home to come take care of my then 93-year-old father. I put off sorting out Jeff’s things as long as possible since I could not bear the thought of clearing out what was left of his life, but I finally steeled myself to do the job.

I knew what to do with most things because toward the end he had rallied enough to tell me, but still, there were a few items that blindsided me, such as photos and business cards from his first store (where we met). Every single item he owned was emotionally laden, both with his feelings and mine, and I cried the entire time, huge tears dripping unchecked, soaking my collar.

How do you dismantle someone’s life? How do you dismantle a shared life? With care and tears, apparently.

Just thinking about it now makes me weep. If I could have waited a year or two, the task might not have been so traumatic, but the truth is, dismantling someone’s life is always filled with sorrow no matter how long you wait. I kept a lot of his things — things he asked me to save and things I couldn’t bear to get rid of such as his music tapes, games we played, a sweater he wore when we first met — and the thought of getting rid of those things still brings me pain.

I did manage to clear out some of those saved “effects” during that first year when I’d get angry at him for leaving me. (Silly, isn’t it? It wasn’t his choice, but I was still angry. Sometimes I still am.)

It’s amazing to me that I survived that day. It’s amazing to me that I’ve survived three years and 55 days of grief. It’s amazing to me that any of us do.

***

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.

The Ferris Wheel of Life

Relationships, especially between long-term couples, change continuously, but we seldom notice those changes in the whirr and whirl of everyday life. Even our images of each other change to accommodate the passing years. We are always “us.”

A day or two after my life mate died, I couldn’t visualize him, so I looked at the only photo I have of us, and I wept because I did not recognize him. Fifteen years ago, when that photo was taken, it was an exact likeness of him, but during the years of illness, he lost the fullness in his face, first becoming distinguished looking, then gaunt. I have an idea/image of him in my mind, perhaps a composite of him through the years, perhaps what he actually looked like near the end, and that single photo I have of him does not resemble the person I knew. One more thing to mourn.

That is the problem with grief, there is always one more thing to mourn.

It’s not just our internal images of a person that changes to accommodate the vagaries of age; our internal image of the relationship itself changes to accommodate the vagaries of life. Most of the transformation of a relationship from youthful and passionate to aged and (perhaps) wise and companionable goes unnoticed. We are always who we are. We are always in the present.

The big events of life — starting a business or losing one, having children or losing them — we celebrate or grieve as the case may be, but other things disappear without acknowledgement. We used to walk together, ride bikes, play tennis, kick a soccer ball, but such activities were supplanted with other, more sedentary activities as his health deteriorated. But still, there we were, on the great Ferris wheel of our relationship — always current, always us. And then he died.

When one of a couple dies, the Ferris wheel of your shared life comes to a halt. Those who have not experienced the loss of a long-time mate think that the Ferris wheel continues with the survivor, but that isn’t true. It looms there, empty. The continually evolving, revolving living relationship is dead. All you have is what has already happened, and now you can see every transformation throughout all the years. You don’t simply mourn the man he was at the end, you also mourn the man you met and the men he became during the subsequent years. And you grieve for all those little things that passed unnoticed during the course of your relationship. They didn’t matter while you were together because you were together, but now they add to the overwhelming whole of grief.

Gradually, the survivor climbs aboard another Ferris wheel of her own, but the original one still haunts. If I live long enough, my grief will fade and perhaps disappear in the whirr and whirl of everyday life, but for now, newly recalled memories keep seeping into my life, and they have to be processed, mourned, dealt with. Sometimes these are minor issues, sometimes major. And all a surprise. How could so much have happened during those quiet years?

One recurring theme in our lives was vitamins and other food supplements. We met at his health food store. The first time we connected physically was when he handed me a bottle of vitamin A and our touch lingered. The first time our gazes locked was over his checkout counter. The supplement regimen he created for me changed as new research came out, but always, there were the supplements, a symbol of how much he cared for me. Now all that loss has to be dealt with somehow.

And that is just one aspect of our shared life. There were almost 34 years worth of good things and bad. 408 months. 1756 weeks. 12,296 days. When he was alive, all those days blended together, but now each exists separately, a thing in itself. A thing to be mourned. No wonder grief is such a major undertaking.

I Am a Four-Month Grief Survivor

People who have not suffered a devastating loss don’t understand grief, and those who have suffered such a loss often cannot describe what they are going through. No wonder few writers are able to accurately portray a grieving person.

I read a novel the other day about a woman who lost her husband, and the only acknowledgment of her grief was a single sentence: She went through all five of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. I wish grief were that simple, that clinical, but grief is one of the most complicated — and agonizing — states a person will ever suffer. There are not just five stages of grief, or even seven. There seems to be an infinite shading of emotions in the process we call grief, and Kubler-Ross’s stages form the merest scaffolding.

We bereft feel do feel shock, denial, anger, guilt, sadness, depression, and perhaps acceptance (I say perhaps because I can’t vouch for acceptance since I have not yet reached such a stage. In fact, I fight it — what right do I have to say it’s acceptable for my life mate to have died?). We also feel anxiety, frustration, loneliness, confusion, despair, helplessness, panic, questioning (both as a need to know why and as a cry of pain), loss or gain of faith, loss of identity, loss of self-esteem, identifying with the deceased (taking on their characteristics or wearing their clothes), resentment, bitterness, isolation,  inability to focus, suspended animation, waiting for we know not what, envy of those who are still coupled or who have yet to suffer a loss. And we suffer myriad physical symptoms such as queasiness, dizziness, sleep problems (too much or too little), eating problems (too much or too little), bone-deep pain, inability at times to breath or swallow, exhaustion, lack of energy, restlessness, and seemingly endless bouts of tears.

Even worse, we do not move through these stages one at a time as if it were a checklist, but we experience several emotions and ailments at once. Worst of all, we visit each of these states again and again. I suppose there is an end to this spiral of grief, but I am so far from seeing the closing stages that I have to put my head down and endure however I can.

If there were a market for tears, I would be a very rich woman.

Every time I think I’m getting on solid footing, something happens to slam me back into the black hole of grief. The hardest times to get through are the day of the week he died (Saturday) and the day of the month (the 27th). Sometimes unexpectedly coming across a note in his handwriting reminds me of all I am missing. Other times such a find makes me feel close to him. There is no logic to grief. It has its own timetable, its own method, and whenever I think I understand the process, grief changes its tactics.

I am a private person (at least I was until grief turned my life inside out) and not a joiner. But after he died, I was in such unbearable pain I didn’t know what to do, so I went to a bereavement group sponsored by Hospice. When I relocated, I started in with a new group. It’s good to be with people who understand, who have suffered what I am suffering. It’s good to know that one can survive. It’s good to see a bit of life growing in the cracks of grief.

You’d think that after all this, I would know what to say to someone who has suffered a loss similar to mine, but I am as tongue-tied as the uninitiated. A friend recently lost her mate of two decades, and all I had to offer her were my tears.

So much sadness. So much anguish. I still don’t know how any of us get through this, but we do.

***

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.

I Am a Two-Month Grief Survivor

I have now survived two months without my life mate — not easily and not well, but I have managed to get through all those days, hours, minutes. The absolute worst day, though, was last Thursday. You would think it would have been the day he died, but that was a sadly inevitable day, one I actually had looked forward to. He’d been sick for so long and in such pain, that I was glad he finally let go and drifted away. After he died, I kissed him goodbye then went to get the nurse, who confirmed that he was gone. She called the funeral home, and I sat there in the room with him for two hours until they finally came for him. (They came in an SUV, not a hearse. And they used a red plush coverlet, not a body bag.) I might have cried. I might have been numb. I don’t really remember. All I know is that I sat there with him until almost dawn. I couldn’t even see his face — they had cleaned him and wrapped him in a blanket — so I just sat there, thinking nothing.

But last Thursday I spent all day cleaning out his closet and drawers, and going through boxes of his “effects.” He had planned to do it himself, but right before he could get started, he was stricken with debilitating pain that lasted to the end of his life, and so he left it for me to do. I did know what to do with most things because he had rallied enough to tell me, but still, there were a few items that blindsided me, such as photos and business cards from his first store (where we met). Every single item he owned was emotionally laden, both with his feelings and mine, and I cried the entire time, huge tears dripping unchecked, soaking my collar.

How do you dismantle someone’s life? How do you dismantle a shared life? With care and tears, apparently.

A couple of days later I started cleaning out my office (I have to leave the place we lived for the past two decades, as if losing him isn’t trauma enough). I didn’t expect any great emotional upheaval — it was my stuff after all — but still it turned out to be an emotional day, though nowhere near as catastrophic as Thursday. This is the first move as an adult I will make alone. It will be the first move I ever made with no real hopes, no lightheartedness. I’m going to a place to write and to heal, not to settle down for good. And my mate will not be there.

Part of me is glad to be getting away from this house, this area — our life here started our with such hope and ended in such despair. Part of me feels as if I’m running away from the pain of losing him, but I have a hunch the pain will always be with me. At least I will never again have the agony of clearing out his things. Oh, wait! I’ve sent several boxes of his stuff to be stored, the things I cannot yet get rid of. Eventually I will have to dispose of the things I can’t use, but perhaps I can wait until it won’t be such a traumatic event. I never want to live through another day like last Thursday. I’m surprised I lived through it this time.