Nothing is Something

In a book I just finished reading, a kid insisted that nothing was something. The comment was irrelevant to the story; it was just one of those things authors throw in there because they can. My mind did not skim over the idea as it normally would have, nor did it start philosophizing about somethings and nothings. Instead, my mind immediately shifted to thoughts of the “nothing” that is left behind after someone intrinsic to our life dies. That void inside us — that nothing — is definitely a something. We feel it in the very depths of our being long after the loved one leaves us.

The definition of “nothing” is “the absence of a something or particular thing that one might expect or desire to be present.” And boy, do we desire the presence of our loved one. We also expect them to be present. For years, every time I answered the phone, I expected it to be him telling me I could come home. I knew it was impossible, and of course, that expectation came to naught.

That expectation as well as the great yearning that so consumed me during the first years of grief are finally gone, replaced by . . . I’m not sure what, exactly. It’s not really nostalgia, more like a restructuring of his absence. Instead of yearning for him, I talk casually to him. Or rather, I talk to his picture. The photo — the same one I could not look at for years after he died because it brought me great pain — sits on the bedside table on the opposite side of where I sleep. I’ve gotten into the habit recently of telling him I miss him, talking about my day, and asking him about what’s going on with him. This is a very short conversation, mostly just a few sentences on my part as I get ready for bed, and none on his part. Though to be honest, if that photo ever answered me, I’d be scared out of whatever wits I have.

Despite this new, rather pleasant permutation of my grief, I can still feel the void he left behind as a physical thing. I shouldn’t be able to feel that — right? — because after all, a void by definition is an empty space. And yet, there it is, an emptiness, a nothingness that seems to color my life, just as his somethingness once colored it.

And, after more than eleven years of his being gone, it’s beginning to look as if that nothing/something inside me will be a permanent fixture for the rest of my life.

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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

Do the Loneliness and Tears Ever Stop?

A friend who became a widow about a year ago asked me if the loneliness and tears ever stopped. I always hate to have to tell the truth that so many of us discovered — that it takes three to five years to find some sort of renewed interest in life, but even then, tears still come, though not as often or for as long as they once did, and the loneliness can continue to be a problem.

It took me ten years and a major life change — moving to a new town and buying a house — before I settled into a feeling of normalcy. I do still tear up at times, but that’s all it is — a momentary tearing up without enough moisture to escape my eyes, and I do still get lonely, though again, it’s more of a blip than a barrage of feelings because after all these years (it will be eleven years in seven weeks) I am used to being alone.

I still marvel that we can get to the point of feeling any sort of normalcy because the truth is, no matter what happens in our lives, they are still gone.

I remember having lunch with a woman who asked me how I was. This had to have been about four years after Jeff died, because I was mostly doing okay, which is what I told her. I would never even have mentioned him except that she asked, which is why her subsequent lecture on how I must really get over it and move on seemed so unfair. It’s not as if I brought up the subject or even bemoaned my fate. My response was just a simple, “I’m doing okay.” She eventually changed the subject back to herself, and this is where things really got bizarre. Her husband was gone for the weekend on a fishing trip, and she spent the rest of our time together talking about how much she missed him and how lonely she was.

I could only gape at her. Her husband had been gone but a day, would be home in another day or two, and their lives would continue as before. Jeff had been gone years, and would never return. It simply did not occur to her to correlate the two situations. Somehow it was okay for her to miss her husband, but not okay for me to miss Jeff. It was as if in her mind, death had erased him, not just in the present, but in the past, so that whatever we had shared was gone, eradicated from the record of my life, and for me even to think of him was an affront.

You’d think as the years pass, our loneliness and missing them would escalate because every new day is another day piled on the heap of days we’ve already spent missing them, but the miracle of grief is that although those feelings are still there, they become subsumed into the depths of our being, and so they don’t demand as much attention.

And so our lives continue.

But for most of us, getting to that point takes years.

If you are still in the midst of the hard years, I am truly sorry, but there is hope. Most of us who manage to claw our way out of the chaos of grief do find renewal of some sort. For me, first it was dance classes, and now it’s my house and home. For so long, Jeff was my home, but now I have an actual place I can call home. It’s not the same, of course, but considering the circumstances of my life, it’s pretty amazing that I got here.

This renewal isn’t unique to me. Many of us find ourselves, ten years after the death of a spouse, life mate, soul mate, in a completely different place, sometimes geographically, sometimes mentally or emotionally, sometimes spiritually, sometimes all three.

It doesn’t in any way make it okay that they are gone, doesn’t eradicate them from our lives, but it does make it easier for us to embrace life once more, to move away from the edge of the abyss where we teetered for so long.

Meantime, in your loneliness, know that at least one person understands, at least to some extent, what you are going through.

***

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

Happy Decimal Birthday to Me

A decimal birthday is any birthday that can be evenly divisible by ten, and though it can refer to yearly birthdays, a decimal birthday is most often counted in days. The more zeros, the more significant the decimal birthday, such as 10,000, 15,000, 25,000.

When I discovered my father was going to reach his 35,000th day, it seemed so significant, I created a party for him.

Today is my decimal birthday, one of the significant ones (though many thousands of days away from 35,000). I’ve been trying to think of something special to do to celebrate, then I realized I don’t need to celebrate the day. The day itself is a celebration, as is any day I am alive.

I’ve always tried to make each day special, particularly after Jeff died. (Before that, every day was a celebration because of his presence. Even the days that weren’t particularly pleasant were worth celebrating because we were together.)

The worst of my grief was a sort of celebration — a celebration of life, both his and mine. The grief was proof that he once lived, that I once loved greatly. Every day I lived through the agony and angst was a day of triumph because I did live through it. Those days were of such heightened pain and sorrow that ironically, I felt more alive than any time since. And that, in itself, was a celebration of sorts.

My celebrations (and triumphs) are much less cosmic today than they were during my time of grief, but still, each day is a celebration — a day that is mine to do with as I can. (I was going to say to do with as I wish, but so often, life does not grant us such wishes, but it does grant us the ability to do something.)

I’ve been spending my most recent days alone. Not lonely, just alone. And that is a celebration in itself, a boon, since the non-loneliness was a long time coming.

During all the years of grief, I had a hard time reading — I couldn’t handle books that feted death such as thrillers because I’d had enough of death, couldn’t handle books where two people got together in the end because I didn’t have that, couldn’t handle two people not getting together because I did have that and knew how it felt. But I’m finally past that time, and have reverted back to my youth when reading was like breathing. Something I did without thinking. In fact, the local library had a summer reading program for adults, and I was the big winner.

I haven’t just been reading, of course, because now I have the house, and the house needs attention. Each little project has definitely been a celebration. I never expected to own a house, never even wanted to, but here it is. And here I am.

Some of the projects were simple and fun, such as painting a boarded-up garage window to look like a window.

Some of the projects have been simply fun, such as ordering bulbs to plant in my front yard this fall. I’m not sure how much fun it will be to plant all 200+ bulbs but, as I have learned, a lot can be accomplished little by little. Besides, there is no better way to celebrate life and hope than to plant flowers.

Until then, there is today — a special day because it is a day that has been granted to me. To all of us.

I hope you will take a moment to celebrate this day.

***

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.

Fabulous Fall

Today was an astonishingly beautiful day, the sort that makes up for the summer days of blistering desert heat.

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It was an especially nice day because I was able to share it with a friend I haven’t seen in over a year. There’s been too many traumas for both of us, which shouldn’t surprise me since trauma was always something we had in common. We met at a grief group at the absolutely worst times of our lives. I still remember the look on this woman’s face the first time I saw her — absolutely disbelieving, eyes wide with indescribable pain,  clutching the arm of a friend as if afraid grief would swallow her.

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Well, grief didn’t swallow either of us. And today, the sparkle in her eyes along with her easy smile was, I am sure, matched by my own.

And the day smiled at both of us.

We walked twice around “our” lake, the place we’ve most often gotten together, and afterward promised each other we’d do it again.

It might even be so.

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***
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.

Wordlessly Hibernating

Almost every day, it seems, I get on the computer to write a blog and end up playing an hour or two of various solitaire games before shutting down without ever having written a word to post. Haven’t even written a word to add my work in progress, either. I seem to be in a sort of wordless hibernating mode. I can’t even say I’m waiting for anything, except for maybe something worth waiting for.

During all those long years of grief, I expected something astonishingly wonderful to happen because only something stupendous could balance out the horror and impossible pain of Jeff’s dying. I no longer expect that awesome thing to happen, though I suppose it’s still possible for something miraculously good to happen. I’ve had many great experiences during the past seven years, but the only things that “happened” all on their own were the not-so-wonderful things such as my father’s death, my having to leave another home, and destroying my elbow/wrist/fingers. The good things didn’t just happen; I had to push for them, such as learning to dance, taking a cross-country trip, finishing two of my WIPs. And now I seem to have run out of pushability.

I still do push myself, of course, but I don’t seem to be able to push myself beyond a few simple tasks. I manage to get to my dance classes. I exercise my hands to try to get them to work better. (The hands work for most important things, such as driving and typing and gripping a ballet barre, but the fingers tend to act more like claws than human fingers.) Because of the intense heat, I hadn’t been walking, but now it cools off a bit after the sun sets so I can walk a couple of miles before dark. That’s a long way from the hours I used to be able to ramble, but I’m hoping to build up my strength again. I still have intermittent dreams of an epic hike, but that epic hike has shrunk from something like walking across the country or hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to maybe a week or so of back-packing. (Still an impossible dream at the moment because I can barely carry myself along, let alone a thirty-pound pack. And anyway, thoughts of an epic hike seem to surface when I want to run away from life, and I seem to be doing that just fine in my current hibernating state.)

It feels good to be out walking again, so I’m glad I can push at least that much — somehow I feel most myself when I am walking — and there is always something lovely to see, such as the owl tree I often stop to touch to connect in a hands-on way with the wonders of the world.

Hope you are doing well and surviving this intense summer.

***

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.

Dreaming of Adventure

I’ve been spending way too much time lately thinking/talking/writing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, especially since I doubt I will ever travel more than small pieces of it. There are many problems to deal with when hiking the length of the trail — food (two pounds a day is recommended), water (either too much in the high sierras, with swollen rivers and icy trails, or too little in the deserts), heavy packs, wind, ticks and other unfriendly insects — and I would prefer a trouble-free life.

Still, just thinking and researching the logistics of such an adventure are an escape from my life. In looking after my 97-year-old father and dealing with a dysfunctional brother, I amcamping always aware of others, either listening for signs of distress from my father or listening to my brother’s moans and cries without knowing if these sounds come from pain or are a way of manipulating me. When one is hiking alone, away from civilization, away from other hikers, even, one only has to listen to oneself, only has to fulfill one’s own needs. That idea is restful to me. One foot in front of another, nothing to think about, no one to worry about.

Even more that that, thinking about such an adventure is like working a puzzle, helping to keep my mind active and alert despite too much loss of sleep. I’ve even gone so far as to join a few Facebook groups, including a couple just for woman hikers. Lots of good information in those groups, lots of things to consider. Planning such a trip gives me a new way of looking at ways of life we take for granted. Modern plumbing, for example, has made basic body functions easy for us. But what if there isn’t a restroom for hundreds of miles? How does one keep clean? How does one remain infection-free?

Thinking about living an adventurous life (simply thinking about it, not living it) has also helped me past the last hurdle of grief, giving me something to concentrate on besides what I have lost. It’s been almost four years since the death of my life mate/soul mate, and I have adjusted to life without him. In fact, sometimes I forget that I once had a different life, that once someone loved me. I don’t want to forget — I loved him deeply — but I can’t spend the rest of my life yearning for him, can’t be always looking to the past. Thinking about a life on foot makes me realize that, whether my life will be on my feet or on my behind, I do still have a life.

Throughout all these years of grief, I have been afraid of the future alone, afraid of becoming the crazy cat lady (sans cats, of course), afraid of settling somewhere and waiting for entropy to take its course. Thinking about other possibilities — hiking the PCT, walking to Seattle, car camping, going abroad and just winging it, taking a freighter to New Zealand — helps me realize that I don’t have to moulder. I can live. I can be adventurous. I can take chances. I can try new things. I can learn new things. I can become the sort of person who could hike the PCT if she so desires.

I don’t know what I want to do, and there’s no reason to make any plans since my stay here at my father’s house could continue for many more years. But I can prepare. In fact, tonight I will take a backpack on my Sierra Club walk (I walk with the club three nights a week) and fill it with a five pound weight. Five pounds is heavy! I cannot imagine trying to carry thirty pounds for any distance, but at least, this will be a start.

But a start of what? Maybe someday I’ll find out.

***

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.

Life After the Death of a Soul Mate

What I love most about blogging is that sometimes when I start writing a post, new or buried thoughts percolate to the surface, ending up on the page and surprising me with insights. Yesterday, when I wrote Living Offline, I had no idea I was starting to look forward to the rest of my life. I’ve kept my head down, plodding along, trying new things, meeting new people, visiting new places, and apparently, somewhere along the line, I went through a renewal of sorts.

Many people who had gone through a grievous loss have told me that it takes three to five years to find a renewed interest in life, and so it is with me. In just a few days, it will be three years and seven months since the death of my life mate/soul mate, and I find myself involved deeply in life, not just with such difficult matters as looking out for my 96-year-old father and dealing with problematic family members, but also with taking care of myself and my well-being.

Sierra Club conditioning walkI’m physically active, eat right, and have accidentally become part of an intelligent and talented coterie. I say “accidentally” because when I joined a group of walkers, I didn’t expect to end up going to art shows that feature members’ work, hearing one member in a choir of madrigal singers, and seeing others dance. Because of these people, I’ve also learned not to fear old age. Although people of all ages walk with us, some of the most active members could be considered elderly, but I can barely keep up with those in their seventies. I have no idea what life has is in store for me, of course, but I do know that getting older doesn’t necessarily mean getting feeble. It just takes a bit of luck and a lot of physical activity and mental stimulation.

Grief goes in cycles, so chances are I will still be experiencing occasional grief surges (especially on the weekends when I can’t feast on the endorphins and friendship of the group walk), but now I know the truth: there is life after the death of the person who connected you to the world. There is even laughter. Maybe even joy.

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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.

Living Offline

I seem to have more of an offline life lately than I do online, which is a throwback for me. I didn’t get a computer or get on the internet until 2007, but they came at a time of upheaval in my life (my mother was dying and my life mate/soul mate was declining) and they proved to be lifesavers. Well, mindsavers. I needed something to occupy my mind to keep from giving in to foolish worry (foolish because there was nothing I could do about either situation except to be available when needed), and learning has always been my forte. So I learned what I could about using computers, navigating the internet, blogging, social networking, and everything else that goes to making up an online life.

Origidesknally, I was gifted with a year of the internet, and after checking out libraries and finding other interesting sites such as the Internet Movie Database, I wondered how I could possibly use this unexpected gift. I figured that by the end of that first year, either I would find something to do, or I would get rid of it.

It didn’t even take a year, just a few months. Not only did I find something to do, I found a life, excitement, friends, even love of a sort. (I loved blogging from the first time I posted an article and understood what blogging was all about.) I also found support and encouragement. I don’t know how I would have dealt with the death of my life mate/soul mate if it weren’t for the bereft I met because of opening myself to the blogosphere.

Now, almost three and a half years after his death, I’m looking around my offline world, and I’m finding life, excitement, friends, even love of a sort. (I love walking with the local Sierra Club.) I no longer seem to need the screen of a computer to filter the worst of my worry or pain. I see the world through the excited eyes of child rather than the angst-ridden eyes of a bereft and lonely woman.

Parts of my offline life are hard, of course. I’m looking out for my 96-year-old father, dealing with problematic family members, and experiencing occasional upsurges of grief, but what isn’t hard is easy. Fun, even.

Instead of fearing the rest of my life alone, now I’m looking forward to seeing what I will make of myself.

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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.

Echoes of Grief

Today marks twenty-nine months since the death of my life mate/soul mate/best friend. I’ve come a very long way from that shattered woman who screamed her pain to the winds, who cried for hours when she accidentally broke his mug.

I still miss him, still want one more word from him, one more smile, one more day. I still have an upsurge of sorrow when I remember he is gone. And although I know — I feel — how very gone he is from my life, I still am prone to the foolish fantasy that when I am finished looking after my father and leave here to start a new life, my mate and I will be starting it together. But . . .

I barely remember our life together. It seems so very long ago and as if it happened to someone else. (Which is true — it did. Because of what I have endured these past two years and five months, because of embracing the challenges of the present and opening myself to hopes for the future, I am not the same as I was then.) I’ve turned enough corners now that even my grief seems unreal, as if that, too, happened to a different person. And yet . . .

Our shared life is very much a part of me still. Almost everything I do is accompanied by an echo from our past, almost everything I use originates from that time. I’ve bought a few new things — bits of clothing, mugs with my book covers on them (a totally indulgent purchase since I seldom use mugs), but I don’t really need anything. Most of our possessions are in storage, and I both dread and look forward to the day when I unpack them. I’m not sure whether I will find comfort in having our things around me, or if I will find more pain, but that puzzle is for another day, and perhaps another person. I am changing rapidly and will continue to change as my life changes, so the person who will need to deal with those possessions is not the me of today.

In a strange sort of way, I have been getting messages from him. Not messages from wherever he is now, but from where he was when he still inhabited this earth.

He used to tape movies — movies that we both liked, and movies that spoke specially to him. I am going through his movie collection, watching in backward order (from the ones he taped last to the ones he taped first), and I catch glimpses of what concerned him toward the end of his life. Death, of course, and me, perhaps. So many of the movies he taped that last year were about people (mostly women) whose spouse had died, forcing them to create new lives for themselves.

We watched these movies together when he first taped them, and I thought I knew then why he liked them — he was always fascinated with second chances, new beginnings, characters who came out of catastrophes to find renewal. But now, seeing the movies from this side of his death, they have a whole new meaning for me. Over and over again is the message: take care of yourself, accept the challenge and the change and the freedom that death brings, and most of all, find happiness again.

Sheesh. I made myself cry. But dang it — this new life would be so much more happier if he were here to share it.

Grief Update: Going on Alone

A week ago I mentioned that all of a sudden my grief seemed to have changed, and that change appears to be holding true.

After the second anniversary of the death of my life mate/soul mate I didn’t feel any different than I’d felt the previous year. I was still sad and weepy at times, and more recently I had a week-long grief upsurge starting on the fourth of July, but lately, as I’m nearing the two-and-a-third-year mark, I seem to have made some sort of accommodation with his death and my grief.

For most of the past twenty-eight months, I’ve felt bad for him, for the horror of his last years, and for all that he is missing out on, but I don’t feel bad for him any more. I’m glad he’s out of this life, glad he doesn’t have to deal with any of the political, financial, and medical changes that are coming our way, glad he no longer has to contend with growing old or to be fearful of ending up as a helpless invalid.

I’m sorry his life was cut short, but his death doesn’t shatter me any more. I take comfort in knowing that for the most part, he did it his way. He endured incredible pain, but he knew any drugs strong enough to end his suffering would also end him, and that proved to be true. When he finally had to start taking morphine, he became someone else, and I’m glad he didn’t have to endure living as that stranger for very long. I still miss him, will always miss him, but someday I will be dead, too. He just went first. It would have been nice if we’d had more good years together, but because of his illness, the good years were behind us. It would have been nice to have had more of our dreams come true and more of our hopes work out, but they no longer matter since our shared hopes and dreams died when he did.

I still have times of doubt and fears, sorrow and tears, still question the meaning of it all, but I’m getting used to the idea of going on alone, getting used to the idea of being alone.

Tomorrow, of course, I could be back in the depths of grief, feeling shattered beyond repair, but I don’t think so. The tears that come now are more nostalgic than agonizing. When I think about it, I still hate that he’s dead, but I don’t think about it much. I try to focus more on being me, on being here in this day. I still feel a disconnect, as if some of the tendons connecting me to life that ripped when he died have never healed, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The disconnect reminds me that everything comes to an end sooner or later, even me.

Getting over the worst of the pain of grief is only the first step. Next comes rebuilding. Although I don’t believe in destiny and signs and things that are meant-to-be, part of me clings to the idea that he wouldn’t have left me if he hadn’t known I’ll be okay. I hold on to that thought because otherwise the idea of growing old alone scares me, as does the idea of creating a whole new life for myself.

I won’t say reconstructing my life will be easy in comparison to the agony and angst of losing the one person who connects me to the world since I don’t know what challenges lie before me. But I will say that after surviving such devastating grief, I have become stronger than I ever thought possible, and I will be able to handle whatever comes my way.