Grief and Lingering Feelings of Resentment

Desert CactusDuring the past three years, I have chronicled my journey through grief, trying to make sense of the myriad emotional and physical stresses one has to deal with after a major loss, such as the death of one’s child or life mate/soul mate. I’ve explained that grief is not the simple and almost clinical state that Kübler-Ross’s five (or seven) stages of grief seems to indicate. Instead, there seems to be an infinite shading of emotion in the process we call grief.

Some of us do feel shock, denial, anger, guilt, sadness, depression, and acceptance, but most of us 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, 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.

Except for sadness, I thought I’d pretty much dealt with most of grief’s effects, but recently I’ve become aware of lingering feelings of resentment. I’m mostly over the resentment of those who are still coupled, with only an occasional twinge of self-pity when I see couples out walking together, and I thought I’d come to terms with my resentment of his long illness and his leaving me here to deal with grief alone, but apparently a pool of resentment still lies deep within.

I am thin-skinned, taking offense at things that were not meant to be offensive, feeling hard done by when things do not turn out my way, railing against real or imagined unfairness. Of course, we all feel this way at times, but grief seems to take minor faults and magnifies them into major stumbling blocks. The death of the one person who connected us to life also makes us (well, me anyway) feel as if life should be granting us special privileges to make up for that great loss, but life doesn’t work that way.

I’m not proud of this resentment, but there it is. The good thing is that grief’s effects are now mostly making themselves known one at a time rather than all at once in a horrifying and cloudy kaleidoscope of feelings so that I can pay attention to the resentment, and perhaps get beyond this stage to a more even-tempered state.

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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+

The Mythic Stages of Grief

Joseph Campbell was the first person to write about the motifs and archetypes underlying myths, stories, and spiritual traditions. Christopher Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey, further developed this idea of the “hero’s journey,” making it applicable to writers, both in their stories and in their lives.

The hero’s journey is an endlessly fascinating structure because it is endlessly malleable, able to fit any character, any story, any life. We are all on our own mythic journey through life, but our lives are so much more complicated that the life of a character in a novel because we are dealing with quests within quests within quests rather than a single straightforward journey.

Growing up, falling in love, marrying, parenting, writing, making art, growing old are all quests of their own, though each quest is a but a step on our journey though life.

My most recent mythic journey has been the journey through grief. Grief has been, perhaps, the most mythic of all my quests, each of the stages clearly delineated. (In fact, these mythic stages of the hero’s journey are much more applicable to grief than Kübler-Ross’s stages.)

All of us who embark so reluctantly on this journey through grief are true heroes. It takes a hero’s courage and commitment to deal with everything grief bombards us with and come out on the other side stronger, wiser, and accepting of whatever comes our way.

The mythic stages of our heroic journey through grief:

1. Ordinary World. A hero’s journey begins with the normal world, and in the grief quest story, the normal world is the life we shared with our life mate/soul mate.

2. Call to Adventure. His (or her) dying calls us to grief’s adventure, though death is too traumatic an event to be dismissed as a simple call to adventure. There’s no warble of a bugle call; it’s more like the shriek of a smoke alarm that cannot be silenced.

3. Refusal of the Call. We are frozen with grief, reluctant to continue life alone, refusing to see that perhaps continuing alone could be an adventure.

4. Meeting with the Mentors. We go to grief groups for support, and we talk to others who have also lost their mates. Some of us go to bereavement counselors or read about grief to learn how to deal with this horrifying new world.

5. Crossing the threshold. We commit to grief, to whatever changes will come because of it. We allow ourselves to feel without blocking out the pain because we know that is the only way to find our way through the angst to a more peaceful time.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies. Grief encompasses all these aspects. Grief tests us, our strength, our commitment to life, our beliefs. Grief is an ally, changing us so we can become the person we need to be in order to survive in this new world. And grief is an enemy, bringing more pain than we could have ever imagined.

7. Approach to the Innermost Cave. Grief takes us further away from our ordinary world of a shared life. This is a stage where we regroup. We find a respite from grief for a few days or weeks, leading us to believe that perhaps we can do this after all.

8. Ordeal. Although all of grief is an ordeal, at this particular stage of grief’s journey, the greatest ordeal is accepting that we are alone, that although he is dead, we have to continue living. We thought getting through the initial raw pain of grief was our greatest agony, but now grief throws us even more anguish with the realization that he is never coming back. This new life without him is forever.

9. Rewards. There are many rewards for going through grief. We seize the sword of courage, we find the elixir of patience, we discover the crucible of greater insights. There are consequences, of course, and generally we pay for any rewards with a huge upsurge of grief.

10. The Road Back. The road back is not easy, especially when it comes to grief. Although we can never return to the ordinary world from which we came since that world was shattered forever by his death, we do return to an ordinary world, a world where grief is a companion that merely shadows us, rather than being the trickster that taunts us, the enemy that torments us, the shapeshifter that bewilders us.

11. Resurrection. The hero faces death and is resurrected, and in the case of grief, we face the death of who we once were. We realize we are separate from our life mate/soul mate, that he has his journey and we have ours, and hence we are reborn into a new life. A life that is ours alone.

12. Return with the Elixir. We all bring back from grief certain gifts, whether wisdom or patience or simply the knowledge that we survived the worst ordeal of our lives, and often we share this gift with others. Many of us end up taking care of aged parents, exhibiting a patience we never knew we had. Some of us write or paint to show the world our truth. Some of us go into grief therapy to help others. My magic elixir — my gift, my blessing — has been the unexpected ability to decode grief and write lyrically about the process, such as recognizing the mythic stages of grief and writing this post describing grief as a heroic journey and quest. A strange gift, indeed.

And so life’s journey continues . . .

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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+

There is No Journey Through Grief

People often talk of the journey through grief. (I myself have iterated this adage.) During the past few months as my grief is waning, I’ve come to see that there is no separate journey through grief. There is only the journey through life. Grief accompanies us part of the way, maybe even most of the way, though not always with the intensity of new grief. Grief, in fact, has driven me through the steep rocky path of my life during the past few years, first a numbing grief at my life mate/soul mate’s dying, and then later, a soul-shattering grief at his death.

Like many bereft, I was not always sure I want to continue living, but I wasn’t particularly ready for death, either, so I did the only thing I could do — continue my journey, taking each day as it comes, trying new things, finding comfort in knowing that nothing lasts forever.

By sheer waves of happenstance, I’ve been temporarily beached in a residential area that borders the desert. (If you have been following the Second Wind online collaboration called Rubicon Ranch, you will be familiar with this community, though so far, unlike my hapless alter ego, widow Melanie Gray, I have not yet stumbled upon body parts out in the desert.)

Someday, those waves of chance might sweep me into other climes, so I am making sure I use this opportunity to get to know my desert self. There are few frills in the desert, no vibrant colors or showy flowers (though brilliant cactus flowers do bloom in the spring). There are just stark hills, creosote bushes, hard-packed sandy soil. The bleak landscape suited me when I first came here, sodden with tears and steeped in pain, and it suits me still. There is peace in starkness — no particular sight rivets my attention, no exotic sounds or aromas tantalize my senses. There’s just me, the hills, the air I breathe.

Other waves of happenstance landed me in a yoga class. The teacher has a different approach, focusing not on the forms so much as breathing and being. That, too suits me.

I’ve added a few of those exercises to my morning perambulations. I stand out in the desert, away from the things of humankind, open my arms and breathe in the desert. In that moment, I am happy. There are no shadows of grief, no sad memories or niggling fears. There’s just me, believing I am where I am supposed to be.

The Power of Grief

Even though grief has been with me on and off for twenty-one months, I still don’t understand where it comes from or where it gets its power.

Like most people, I used to assume that grief was merely the deep sadness we feel after the death of someone we loved, and that any feelings beyond that came from an innate weakness, an inability to cope, self-pity, or a desire to create drama and importance in one’s life. When my brother died, and then a year later when my mother died, I felt what I expected to — deep sadness but nothing more, which enforced my idea of what grief is.

But all deaths do not affect us the same. During my life mate/soul mate’s long illness, I thought I’d become inured to the idea of his death. I’d even looked forward to the end of his suffering. I knew I’d feel sad and lonely, but I had no concerns about being able to continue my life. I’m strong and independent, and have never minded being alone.

And then he died.

At first, I was glad his suffering was over. I just sat there numb, waiting for the funeral director to come and collect his body. But then, like an ever-growing tsunami, grief washed over me — grief such as I never knew existed. The continuous onslaught of intense emotions, physical reactions, and psychological torments, along with the inability to understand how totally gone he was made it impossible to sort out any one feeling from the global trauma.

I started blogging about grief when I realized most novelists got it wrong. (I can’t tell you how many times writers have dismissed the grief of their characters with a simple: He went through the five stages of grief. Sheesh. For most of us, the Kübler-Ross grief model doesn’t even begin to explain what we are going through.) I continued blogging about grief when I realized how important it was for me and my fellow bereft to try to understand what we are experiencing and why.

None of us are weak. None of us lack the ability to cope. None of us are self-pitying. None of us are self-indulgent, wallowing in grief for the sake of making ourselves feel important. None of us are drama queens, wanting to draw attention to ourselves or make people feel sorry for us. (We don’t feel sorry for ourselves, at least not often, so why should anyone feel sorry for us?) Nor have any of us chosen our grief. It was thrust on us with such power that we still reel from it months and perhaps even years later. We aren’t dwelling on our grief. It’s dwelling on us. Or in us.

Although everyone’s grief is different, grief does follow patterns of ebb and flow. For many of us in our second year, the eighteen month mark came with a huge upsurge in grief. And now the end of this year — the end of the first full year without our loved ones — is causing another upsurge. I do not know why this is so, I just know that it’s the latest manifestation of the process.

I’ve passed many (maybe most) of grief’s milestones, though I’m sure future milestones will surprise me as I continue this journey through grief. I can deal with these milestones. They come. They go. But no matter how I feel — sad or unsad — he is still and will always be dead. I can understand that he is out of my life, but I cannot understand his total goneness from this earth. Perhaps that unknowableness is where grief comes from. Perhaps that unknowableness is where grief gets its power.

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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.

Thinking Through My Fingers

Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers. — Isaac Asimov

The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe. — Gustave Flaubert

Occasionally, after writing about grief, I get concerned messages from readers or facebook friends suggesting that I might want to see a therapist. Or I get messages of pity, which is strange — why should they feel sorry for me when I don’t feel sorry for myself? The very word — grief — scares people, and worries them, and my use of the word gives people the wrong impression of me. Although I’m on a journey through grief, I don’t spend my days in bed crying my eyes out. I don’t shrink from life or hold myself stiff against onslaughts of pain. I haven’t numbed myself into unfeelingness. In fact, I live normally. I’ve come through the worst of the pain stronger (though not much wiser, at least not yet). I do still have grief bursts, but mostly I’m just . . . journeying.

The problem with continually putting my thoughts and feeling out there for anyone to see is that readers draw their own conclusions based on their own experiences, and sometimes those conclusions don’t reflect my truth. I don’t always like seeing myself through pitying eyes, so periodically I decide to stop writing about grief, and sometimes I do stop for a week or two, but I always come back to it because my message is an important one:

Grief is normal. If a friend or loved one is grieving, and it bothers you, get over it. It is not your problem. Give them the respect they deserve and the space they need to find their way through grief in their own time. (Admittedly, a small percentage of people have trouble and get stuck in one place, but if a person’s grief is fluid — continually changing — chances are she is doing just fine.)

Besides, whether I’m actively grieving or just processing what I’ve learned, writing about grief is a way for me to learn the truth. (And, as I explained yesterday, in my Grief is a Gift post, I have always been a truth-seeker.) So why should I let anyone’s “concern” stop me from thinking with my fingers and discovering what I believe?

Sometimes the discoveries surprise me. In a post a few days ago, What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas?, I wrote: “Nothing you can ever say will bring the bereft what they most need: life to make sense once more. (That might not be what we most want, but it is what we most need.)” I didn’t realize this before I wrote those words, but it’s the truth. And in this post, I discovered something. I didn’t know until I saw the words, “my message is an important one” that I had a message, had something I wanted to impart with my grief posts.

So, as I continue on my journey through grief, I will still write about it — or not — depending on how I feel, not how anyone else feels.