You Can’t Imagine

A friend is reading my grief book — Grief: The Inside Story – a Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One — not for herself so much because she is still happily and healthily married, but for those she knows who have had to deal with the death of a spouse or child.

I am impressed with her willingness to try to understand what others have to go through in dealing with such a horrendous loss. Most people don’t want to know. Not that I blame them — I would have preferred not knowing, would have preferred to continue believing I was immune to such wild emotions, would have preferred . . . well, I would have preferred a lot of things. Or rather, I would have preferred them back then. I’ve gotten so used to the way my life now is, I can no longer imagine a different life. I can barely remember, at times, what my life used to be.

My friend and I talked about the book for a few minutes, then, as people often do, she said, “I can’t even imagine . . .” And as I often do, I responded, “You can’t imagine it, so there’s no reason to even try. It truly is an unimaginable experience.”

I was going to offer further words of comfort by mentioning that she is still way to young to have to worry about being a widow. Even though I know people of all ages who have had to deal with the experience, the widows I’ve been meeting since my move here are usually much older, and had long years with their spouse. Not that the length of time with a spouse mitigates the pain, but it seems more . . . fitting? understandable? . . . than the death of a someone still in their middle years.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized this woman friend is only four years younger than I was when Jeff died. I tend to forget how relatively young I was (though I never forget how young Jeff was), probably because by the time I reared my head and looked around after all those dark years of pain and sorrow, I was way older.

I think it was my relative youth that made me so determined to live and thrive, not just survive, after Jeff’s death. Perhaps if I had been older, nearing my own expiration date, I might not have thrown myself into the whole grief experience but just . . . waited. Back then, I figured it was better to experience grief as it came rather than try to fight it off because I didn’t want to have to be dealing with the problems unlived and unresolved grief can cause in later years. (Buried grief can find its way to the surface through illness and emotional problems even decades later.) I wanted to be sure that I would be whole (except for that eternal void deep inside that still remains), that I would be able to experience to the full any happiness I could find. I also wanted to see where grief would take me.

Although I’m glad the pain and sorrow are gone (except for a residual sadness and nostalgia), I am grateful I gave myself over the experience. I never knew, couldn’t even have imagined that a person could experience such a depth of emotion, could experience something so . . . primal.

Now that I am through with that particular experience, I have no idea what I am going to do with my remaining years except continue to apply the lessons grief taught me, such as live each day the best I can, enjoy the good times, endure the bad, and be thankful for any blessings that come my way.

***

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

Letter From a Griever

I received this email yesterday from a blog reader:

Dear Pat. Would you allow me a guest slot on your blog to talk about the book, and your grief writing in general?  I quite understand if you’d rather not needless to say, but I’d quite like to enthuse about your work if I may. — Treve

Of course, I said yes, not just because I was flattered but because what Treve has to say about me, my grief writing, and Grief: The Inside Story — A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One is important to both grievers and those who know grievers.

I first came across Pat’s blog in about 2015, about eighteen months after my wife died of cancer.  During that first year and a half, like most grievers I had experienced extraordinary emotional turbulence, the like of which I have never had before nor since.  It seemed to me that nobody ever tells you about what grief is really like, you just guess that it’s not nice and assume that it probably gets better after a while.  If only it were so simple!  I would occasionally browse the internet to see if there was some help or advice that would make sense to me, but it usually seemed to be written as if it were generic lifestyle advice, rather than designed for people experiencing profound turmoil. 

Be kind to yourself.  Everyone grieves differently.  Go out with friends and try to enjoy yourself.  Try to move on.  

It seemed to me that whoever wrote these sort of things had never actually experienced the kind of grief I was going through.  Perhaps it was just me, maybe this sort of advice would make sense to most people?

After 18 months, I chanced across Pat’s blog.  I can’t remember with absolute certainty, but I think the first of her posts I read was “The Five Major Challenges We Face During the Second Year of Grief” —  [https://bertramsblog.com/2012/01/08/the-five-major-challenges-we-face-during-the-second-year-of-grief].  I think I spent a whole evening reading through Pat’s writings about grief, and I was amazed.  For the very first time I was reading something that actually reflected what I was going through.  And the really weird thing was that Pat was an American lady some years older than myself (a British man in his early forties at the time), and yet she was the first – and only person – who was writing about grief in a way that made sense to me.  And I began to realise that a lot of the received ‘wisdom’ about grieving seemed to be based on various absurd notions, such as the so-called ‘five stages of grief’, that had no real basis in reality.  I was captivated, because for the first time it seemed to me that there might be some common pattern to grief, despite the profoundly different backgrounds of the grievers.  Seven years on I still occasionally read material about grief, often written by highly-trained ‘experts’, that bears no relation to what I went through (and I suspect what most grievers go through).

I was delighted when Pat published her book Grief: The Inside Story — A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One.  It was fascinating to be able to read her considered reflections about grief, not least because she had obviously had years of contact with fellow grievers who had shared their feelings with her.  Two chapters in particular are of great importance to me.  ‘Why Can’t Other People Understand My Grief?’, which discusses why so many folks seem to be embarrassed or uneasy when they around those who express their grief.  Likewise the chapter entitled ‘Metamorphosis’, on how grief changes us irrevocably.  This has shaped my thinking about grief, and continues to help me even today in trying to make sense of all that has happened to me in the last seven years.

I would sincerely urge any grievers reading this blog to buy Pat’s book, and keep it close to hand.  It covers the first few years of grief, and how its nature and impact change over time, written with great clarity by someone who has experienced it all first hand.   Nobody can take away the intense sting experienced at losing a loved one, but having a wise guide who can point out the emotional and practical road ahead (and also hazards along the way) is a huge help in dealing with grief.  I will always be grateful for the help Pat has given me through her writing.