You Are Not as Alone as You Thought

John Steinbeck wrote, “We are lonesome animals. We spend all our lives trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say — and to feel — ‘yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’”

In no other life experience is this need to share stories as vital as with grief. In other life transitions, such as graduating from school, falling in love, having a baby, there are other people around to share the experience, to tell their stories. In the case of graduation, there are your classmates, and hopefully, at least one of them is your confidant. When falling in love, there is the lover with whom to share the experience. When becoming a parent, there is the other parent, and if not that, maybe a mother, grandmother, midwife, sister, friend, someone who knows the same trials and terrors and awe and sheer love you are experiencing.

But when it comes to grief over the death of a spouse, life mate, soul mate, we are alone. Often, we are the only person in our circle of acquaintances who have had to deal with such a loss, so the loneliness is exacerbated beyond our ability to cope. Our friends and family don’t understand, can’t understand. Everyone has grief in their lives, but the all-consuming grief after the death of the one person who meant life and meaning and connection is simply not understood or even understandable by the uninitiated. We grievers don’t even understand. It doesn’t seem possible that one heart/soul/mind can be in such turmoil, and survive.

Yet we do survive, often by seeking out the stories of those who have been where we are.

The responses to a recent grief post, Note to My Grieving Blog Visitors, illustrates the need to share our experiences. I went to a grief support group until I got kicked out because they didn’t think I was grieving enough. Despite the ignominious end, it was an important time for me. I heard other people’s stories, both from the newly bereaved and those who have lived for months without their mates. I have often written about grief over the years, and people have shared their stories with me. They found comfort and inspiration in my words, I have found comfort in their telling me, “Yes, that’s the way it is. That’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.”

I often think of the blog reader who told me at the beginning that she’d lost her husband ten years previously, and though she was happily remarried, she still grieved for him. It helps knowing that we don’t forget, because yes, that is a fear. We hold tightly to our grief because it is the only thing we have still connecting us to our deceased beloved. If we loosen the hold, will we forget? The truth is, there are days I forget, but there is in me a void remaining where he once resided in my heart and soul, and even if I forget that I once loved, once was so connected to another human being that he almost pulled into the abyss with him when he died the void holds the memory.

I’m glad there is a growing trend toward blogging about grief. Grief is one of those things that no one wants to acknowledge. They have to believe we did something wrong, that we purposely lost or misplaced our loved one, otherwise the thought that the same thing could happen to them would be more than they could bear. They urge us to move on, not just for our comfort, but for theirs. They don’t like the reminder of death and mortality that hangs on our shoulders like a mantle, so they want us to shrug off the mantle of grief and get on with the business of living, without ever realizing that grief is how we are going about the business of grieving.

The metaphor of the cloak of grief does not originate with me. After about three months of writing about grief, a fellow writer, a widower, told me it was time for me to drop the mantle of grief. I didn’t, of course. It might have been important for him to pretend his life was the same, but I couldn’t. I felt the need to tell the truth. My intense grief shocked me to my core. It seemed astonishing that even though I’d read tens of thousands of books, seen thousands of movies, read copious article, that never once did I come across talk of such intensity. Oh, there is always that one old woman in widow’s weeds in mafia movies falling on the coffin of her son and screaming her anguish. This scene always seems so over the top and is played up for the almost comic melodrama, but comes closest to how grief for a spouse or child feels. (In fact, the death of my younger brother killed my mother; she died exactly a year later.) But mostly, there was silence when it came to grief such as I’d experienced.

So yes, it’s important to tell our stories. We need to know that whatever we feel, others have felt the way we do. We need to know that despite the belief we can’t survive either the death of our loved one or our grief, we will. We need to know that we will never forget. We need to know that life goes on. We need to know that we are not as alone as we think we are.

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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

No Life in My Life

I am heading toward the two-and-a-half-year anniversary of the death of my life mate/soul mate/best friend. The breath-stealing pain that I endured for many months has dissipated, so much so that I have a hard time believing I ever went through such agony. The all-encompassing loneliness that followed the pain has also dissipated, and I am comfortable with the idea of growing old alone (or if not comfortable, at least tolerant of the possibility).

I’ve even gotten over the horrendous feeling of always waiting. Not waiting for something. Simply waiting. Nothing has changed, of course, except my attitude. I am training myself to be in the present, to be me, to believe that nothing is important but what is right here, right now. It’s working — I am more at peace than I have been in a long time.

But . . . there is no life in my life, no spring in my step, no spark in my spirit.

I’m not a sentimental person. I seldom kept keepsakes and I never chronicled my life with photos, but now I do both to prove to myself that yes, I am alive, and yes, I am doing something with my years. It feels as if I have done nothing but stagnate the past two years, and yet I have that scrapbook of paper memories showing me the truth:

Since October of 2010, when I started keeping the scrapbook, I have spent time on both USA coasts, hiked in the desert and on sandy beaches, climbed lighthouses and rocky knolls, ridden an amphibious vehicle and the world’s largest traveling Ferris wheel, fed ducks and sea gulls, walked along rivers and around lakes, visited ghost towns and overgrown cities, trekked the length of four piers on four different beaches, gone to art exhibits and historical museums, attended fairs and festivals, learned to shoot guns and amazing photographs. I’ve traveled alone and with friends on planes, trains, and automobiles. And I have tasted hundreds of different foods, some delicious, some that can barely be considered edible.

So why do I feel as if there is no life in my life? Do I need to be in love to sparkle with vitality? I hope not. I hate the thought that my well-being rests in someone else’s hands. The truth is probably more prosaic — although I am not actively mourning, I am still grieving, still disconnected from the world. After the death of the one person who connects you to the world, it takes years to find a different way of connecting. All of these experiences I have mentioned are ways to keep me busy while the real work of reconnecting to the world is going on deep inside.

Besides, the experiences were good ones.

        

Lingering Effects of Grief

Even as my pain subsides, even as my memories of a coupled life fade, the effects of grief linger.

When the significant person in your life dies, the tearing away of their presence from your soul creates ripples of changes in your life. In my case, after the death of my life mate/soul mate, I relocated a thousand miles from our home, exchanging a mountainous climate for a desert one. As difficult as that change was, it turned out to be the easiest, probably because my long walks in the desert help me feel connected to the earth. Other changes are harder to deal with, such as loneliness and sorrow, a heightened sense of mortality, and mood swings.

During most of my life, I tried to keep my emotions on an even keel in the belief that what goes up must come down, but now such control seems beyond me.

At the beginning of my grief, I got a newsletter from hospice warning about mood swings and explaining that euphoria followed by despair is common. I didn’t pay much attention to the article because I was not prone to euphoria. I was grief-stricken, heartbroken, and soul-shattered, and I stayed that way for months on end.

Now, though, I can laugh one minute and cry the next. I succumb to irritability more often than I would like. And I am overly sensitive. Things that once I could have taken in stride now bring me to tears, as if something in me, an equalizer, perhaps, is broken. The bloody stump where he was ripped from my psyche is healing, but I am still very tender and sore, and that makes me subject to the vagaries of emotion. (Though I still haven’t experienced any euphoria.)

I don’t like this part of the process. Well, of course not. No part of the grieving process is fun, but there is a big difference between the agony of a soul crying out, “Where are you? Can you hear me?” and the pettiness of a woman upset because someone who promised to call didn’t.

Apparently, part of me believes that I paid my dues with my great loss, and now I deserve to have everything go my way. But life is not like that. Life does not keep a balance sheet.

I know that as I continue to assimilate my grief, I will eventually regain my equilibrium and find a way to deal with the minor heartaches and setbacks of life. But for now, all I can do is cling to the wildly swinging pendulum and hope I can manage to hang on until I find peace once again.