After We Said Good-bye

I was looking through some of my old poems to see if I could find inspiration for a peace blog for November 4th, the day thousands people all over the world blog for peace, when I came across a poem I had written shortly after I met Jeff.

you turned around
and waved to me
after we said good-bye
a small gesture
that told me more
than all the words
we had spoken

And suddenly, I remembered that wave as if it were just the other day.

One day in August, forty-four years ago, I stopped by a neighborhood health food store, and there he was. My first reaction wasn’t particularly overwhelming, but my second reaction, which followed less than a minute later, was an internal ping, then a tiny voice inside of me wailed, “But I don’t even like men with blond hair and brown eyes.” Not exactly love at first sight. More like recognition. But recognition of what? I never did know.

I soon became an aficionado not just of natural foods but also of vitamin supplements, because obviously, the more supplements I took, the more excuses I would have to visit him.

I almost stopped going to his store when I encountered a woman talking to him I knew through the fabric store I managed. All of us young women were enthralled with her — she seemed so dramatic, with erect posture, white hair, dark sunglasses, and silence. She almost never talked. Once she realized we shopped at the same health food store, however, she would come into the fabric store and yammer on and on about Jeff and how wonderful he was. I felt foolish, thinking I was just another groupie (he did seem to have an inordinate number of women who shopped at that store) and I decided not to return.

But I had enjoyed talking with him. He was the only person I’d ever met who was interested in the same wide range of subjects I was, and so I ventured back to the store. One day shortly afterward, I stopped by in the morning, and we got to talking as we always did. A little later, when it was time for me to leave, he walked me outside. The two of us were stunned at how dark it was. We’d talked the entire day and far into the night. I started walking away, and then turned back for one last look. He also had turned back. And he waved.

How is it possible that so many years — and tears — have passed since that day? Back then, we were so new, we didn’t even know we would have a relationship. let alone one that would span decades.

But now I know what will happen to those two people. The end to our story has been written. The romance is finished. And I am left alone with only fading memories to tell me that I once loved, that I once was loved.

I don’t know what will happen to me. If I learned anything that far away August, it’s that life can change in an eyeblink. It’s the same lesson that his death taught me — you’re alive, and then, before you can blink, you’re not.

Still, the way things look now, I’ll be living out my life alone. Becoming that pathetic old woman I fear to be — the cat lady sans cats. (Though who’s to say if that cat lady really is pathetic. Maybe she’s living life on her terms the best she knows how.) Even if I — or my life —doesn’t end up being pathetic, I will be an old woman in an ever alien world. The world is already so different from the one Jeff and I lived in that I doubt he’d recognize it. (And if he is at all cognizant of what is going on in this country, I’m sure he’s glad to be done with it since all the things he feared would happen are happening.)

I was lucky for all those years that we were together. That day at this store set the tone for our relationship, and we always talked — about our lives, books, music, history, and oh, too many subjects to list. When the conversations died, I should have realized it was a sign that he, too, would die. (As people near death, they tend to pull away from their loved ones. I don’t know if this is a conscious decision, an unconscious reaction, or simply part of the flow of life and death.)

His voice seemed to have been the soundtrack of my life, and now his voice is silenced forever.

It still doesn’t seem possible that he’s been gone more than ten years. I remember being at his store just the other day. And he waved at me after we said good-bye.

But it wasn’t just the other day. It was decades ago. And that doesn’t seem possible either.

***

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

Lost and Broken Things

During the first months after Jeff died, I lost my grip, not just figuratively, but literally. Things often slipped through my fingers for no apparent reason. I simply couldn’t hold on. It seemed as if when I lost the connection with him, I lost the ability to connect with anything. Or maybe grief sapped all my strength. One night, a mug slipped from my hand. My fingers were crooked through the handle, so I don’t know how it happened, but all of a sudden the mug hit the hard tile floor and exploded. It wasn’t an expensive mug, nor did I have a particularly sentimental attachment to it — it was one of two giveaways we’d received from the phone company during a local festival — but I wept as if my heart had broken. Or as if he had died again.

Gathering up the shattered pieces and slivers of the mug, I understood for the first time that as the months and years passed, all our things would break or wear out, and every loss would take me one more step away from our life.

Looking back, it seems odd that the broken mug affected me so much. I’d spent the first two months after he died getting rid of stuff — his clothes, his personal possessions, mementos of his life before me, food and supplies I couldn’t take with me to California, all sorts of things, perhaps a third of everything we owned. It was a horrific time, and I felt so lost and lonely and devastated that no one particular thing stood out as a loss, probably because anything that had a special resonance, I kept.

A couple years after that, there was another silly loss that sent me back into grief mode. My sister made a gorgeous decoration of ribbons and a bow for a gift she’d sent, and since I thought it was too beautiful to waste, I placed it around the hat I wore to keep off the desert sun. After a couple of weeks, it blew off in the wind, and when I realized it was gone, I went looking for it. Couldn’t find it. The bow wasn’t important in the grand scheme of life and death, but it was important to me. It made me feel good, for one thing, and it was a symbol, in a way, of my struggles to create a new life for myself.

After my father died, I went through the things I couldn’t get rid of after Jeff died and found I could dispose of quite a few more things. Then before I moved here, I got rid of still other things. More recently, I disposed of a damaged mug with only a brief pang when I remembered it was the mate to the one I had broken all those years ago.

You’d think after so much loss, one more thing out of my life wouldn’t make a difference, but apparently, it does. I’ve lost an iced tea spoon that once belonged to Jeff — the only such spoon we had — and I am devastated. I’m not crying over the spoon, though I can feel the tears in the back of my throat. I liked the spoon, liked that it reminded me of him, liked the connection to a previous time. And now, that, too is gone.

It’s not as if I don’t have other things of his. I do. We had a lot of duplication in kitchen stuff, for example — the things he brought to our home, the things I brought, the things we bought together. I still have his eating utensils as well as mine, enough to last me the rest of my life. But I don’t have that iced tea spoon.

The odd thing is, as I grow older and then older still, I’ll have to get rid of even more of our things until at the end, I’ll be gone, too. So the loss of this one dainty spoon shouldn’t be a problem.

But it is.

Now that I think about it, the lost and broken things that bother me are not those I chose to dispose of, but the those I didn’t. Just as I didn’t choose to dispose of Jeff.

Of course, I’ll get over losing the spoon, just as I got over breaking the cup and losing the bow and all the rest of the things that are out of my life. Of course I’m grateful for all the wonderful new things that have come into my life.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

Everything that happens, good or bad, takes me one more step away from my shared life with Jeff.

***

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

What It’s All About. Maybe.

Sometimes I wonder if I will ever be finished with weeping. It’s possible that when Jeff died, the pain dug such a deep well into my psyche, it tapped into an everlasting underground river of tears, and so they will be with me on and off for the rest of my life.

I never expect the grief upsurges. After each one, I think I’m done with the tears, but apparently, the well is deeper than I ever imagined. I should have expected today’s upsurge, though. This is the countdown to the fifth year anniversary of his death, and each day is the anniversary of a last time — the last time we talked, or hugged, or smiled at each other. Of course, in addition to the coming anniversary (the days before are the hard times — the anniversary is an anticlimax), I am still dealing with the fallout of the emotional trauma of the past couple of years, am grieving my father’s death, and am dealing with my impending anchorless and unknown future. (I’m also doing some online tasks for someone I didn’t think I’d ever be working for again, and that adds a whole other layer of remembered pain.)

Still, there are big changes. In between the days of tears are days of feeling great, even feeling sanguine about the future. I can feel the warmth and perhaps even the radiance of my smile, which I haven’t felt in many years. And I’m developing an appreciation for the macabre. (I keep wanting to type macable. What a lovely word that could be! I might have to use it sometime.)

solmate socksFor example, I lost Jeff the other day. Literally lost him as in could not find him. Or rather, could not find his ashes.

When I first got the ashes from the funeral home, I wrapped his robe around them to keep him warm. (Yeah, I know — he couldn’t feel the cold, but such is the magical thinking of grief.) And when I got here, I set the bundle on the couch in my living room, and there it stayed until a week or so ago. I had to clear things out of that room so it could be cleaned, and I placed the bundle in a box in the garage with my packed things, and somehow, I moved the box without remembering what was in it. What a scramble to find him! It truly is time to deal with those ashes. If I remember during the next windstorm, I’ll go to the top of a nearby knoll and let him decide where he wants his ashes to rest. Or I’ll take a trip to the ocean and return him to the font of life. (We are, after all, creatures of water and stardust even more than creatures of the dirt.)

Adding to the silliness someone sent me a gift and inside I found a pair of solmate socks with the logo, “Life is to short for matching socks.” “Yep,” I thought, “lose one soul mate, find another.”

There are some good things happening — I’m finally starting to fathom the way men think, which is not at all the way I think. It’s like the storybook problems of grade school arithmetic. Men jump right to the answer, leaving only sporadic hints of how they got there, and I need to see the whole dang train of thought because important information is contained in each step that is often missing from the solution.

I’m still doing things I would never have imagined myself doing. Today I went shopping for fishnet stockings, not something that had ever entered my mind, but I need them for my jazz costume.

And my car seems to be purring along, frisky and quiet at the same time. After all my plans of traveling the world and not settling down, I might have to move here permanently. Adventure can be found anywhere, but a good air-cooled-VW mechanic is a rare treasure.

Sounds like my life is purring along, too, doesn’t it? Sorrow, smiles, and silliness. That’s what it’s all about.

Maybe.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fireand 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.

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.

I Am a Seven-Month Grief Survivor

Grief is so encompassing that for months my thoughts focused entirely on my dead mate — my soul mate — reinforcing my idea that falling in love and experiencing grief are the bookends of a shared life. When we were together, he was so often by my side as we ran errands, fixed meals, watched movies, talked for hours on end, that I didn’t need to focus on him — he was there. And then he wasn’t.

In the movie The Butcher’s Wife, Demi Moore talks about searching for her split apart. Very romantic this idea of finding your split apart, but what happens when your split apart is split apart from you once more? I can tell you — it releases such a storm of emotion that you feel as if you will never find yourself again, that you will be forever swept away in the tsunami/hurricane/soulquake that is new grief.

I’ve weathered seven months of grief, from the first global storm to the more isolated mists that beset me now. I’m settling back into myself, letting go of the incredible tension that grief brings. We bereft are so focused on our lost one, so tensed against hurtful memories and mementoes, that it can bring on a host of physical problems, including Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

I am lucky. I’ve been able to release this tension through walks, through tears, and — at the beginning — through screaming. I have not passed all the landmarks of grief — some people experience their worst pain at eight months, others need two years just to regain their equilibrium, and of course, there are all those firsts that are yet to come: the first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, first anniversary of his death — but perhaps the worst of the storms have passed. Or I could be fooling myself. This sad but not terribly painful stage I am going through could be just a hiatus, the eye of a storm, and the forces of grief are gathering themselves for a new onslaught. These months of grief survival, however, have taught me that I will be able to endure whatever comes.

I thought I’d be different after going through such storms of grief, (shouldn’t I be?) but I feel as if I am still myself, or rather, I feel as if I am myself again. I am sadder, of course, and that sadness will probably always shadow any future happiness, which is as it should be. One can never unknow such trauma. It will always be part of me.

He will always be part of me.

In many ways, he gave me life. He made me feel that life was worth living because he was in it. I have to learn to feel that life is worth living because I am in it, and that will be a long time coming. I am still at the stage where I don’t care if I live. NO, I am not suicidal. I am not stockpiling pills or thinking suicidal thoughts. This not caring is perhaps one of the longest-lived stages of grief, one that we bereft only talk about to each other — or our counselors — because it is so often misunderstood by those who have not been in a similar situation. One thing that keeps me going is curiosity about where life will take me now that he is not here for me to love.

Where does that love go when it is no longer needed? I don’t know. I do know that you love someone, their well-being is as important to you as your own, and then suddenly that someone is gone, leaving behind those unfulfilled feelings of wanting to help. Of caring. Of empathy. I still think of him almost all the time, still wish I could put my arms around him and make him well. When I hear a noise, sometimes I think it is he, and my first inclination is to go to him. When I hear or see something that would amuse or outrage him, sometimes I get up to go tell him. But these thoughts and actions are not as painful as they once were.

I have survived seven months of grief. I will continue to survive.

Grief: Cleaning Up the Past

Thirty weeks and still counting. I’ve already stopped counting the days since my life mate — my soul mate — died, soon I’ll stop counting the weeks, and eventually I’ll stop counting the months. Perhaps there will even come a time when the anniversary of his death goes unnoticed. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Whatever happens in my life, he will always be a part of it — almost everything I do, feel, say relates to him in some way. He was instrumental in making me who I am, and his death is the catalyst to make me who I will become, though I still don’t feel different from who I was before he died. So much of the change in me came before his death, during the long years of his dying.

During the last year of his life, as the cancer spread from his kidney up to his brain, he spent more and more time alone. I thought I coped well with the situation, continuing with my life, taking his dying for granted. I thought I’d moved on. In fact, I told him I’d be okay after he was gone, that I’d finished with my grieving. And I believed it.

After he died, the depth of my grief stunned me. His death shattered my state of suspended animation, and I was appalled by the way I’d behaved that last year. How could I possibly have taken his dying for granted? How could I have refused to see what he was feeling? How could I have become impatient with his growing weakness, his reclusiveness, his inability to carry on the long ping-ponging conversations that had characterized our relationship? How could I not have treasured his every word? Even after his diagnosis, even after we’d apologized for any wrongs, even after we become as close as we had been at the beginning, I continued to think I wouldn’t grieve. How could I have not known how much I still loved him?

I’d been living that last year over and over again in memory, trying to make it come out right, but no matter what I did, I could not change the past. It haunted me, that year. I could feel everything I refused to feel back then, and it about crushed me. A few days ago, while I was crying uncontrollably, I remembered hearing something during my grief support group session that struck a bell, so I checked back over the paper the counselor had read to us. “Self protection — denying the meaning of the loss.” Aha!

I had never denied his dying, just the immediacy of it. (Which is not surprising. He had the strongest determination of anyone I’d ever met, and he kept rallying until he couldn’t rally anymore.) But unconsciously (or subconsciously), I had denied what his death would mean to me. Denied what he meant to me.

After my aha moment, I started wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t gone into suspended animation, and I realized if, during that last year, I had let myself see what he was feeling, let myself feel what his dying and his death would mean to me, I would have been in such agony I would have cried all the time. He would have hated that he was causing me so much pain, which would have made me feel even worse. I still couldn’t have done anything for him, so eventually I would have blocked out all that was happening. I would have gone on with my own life and left his dying to him. I would have become impatient with the restrictions of our life, with his weakness, with his retreat into himself. In other words, even if I could have gone back and relived that year knowing the truth of it, my behavior would have been the same. And he would still have died.

With that realization, my tears stopped. I continue to have teary moments, but I am at peace with the way I acted that last year of his life. I still wish I could have done something to make that last year easier for him, of course, but perhaps I did — with all his troubles, at least he didn’t have to deal with my grief.

Many Shades of Grief

When you lose someone significant in your life, someone whose very being has helped define you in some way, grief can be overwhelming. So many stages and shades of grief bombard you that at times you think you are going crazy — but except for the very extremes of grief — mummifying yourself so you don’t feel anything for years on end or saving pills so you can end your life — chances are what you are feeling is normal.

Many people who try to deal with the loss completely on their own have no idea if what they are feeling is normal. When you lose your husband, your daughter also loses her father, your sister-in-law loses her brother, your neighbor loses his friend. At first, you grieve together, but one by one everyone else puts aside their grief until you are the only one left crying. And they begin to hint that you need therapy. They got over their pain, why can’t you? After all, you all lost the same man. But you didn’t have the same relationship, so you won’t experience the same shades of grief.

I was in such pain after losing my life mate that I decided to go to a grief support group, hoping they could tell me how to survive the agony. I was afraid, at first, that I would be overwhelmed by everyone else’s pain; instead, I found a group of people who knew what I was going through, who listened to my sad story and who, because of their own survival let me know that I would survive. And that was comforting. I also learned that the only way to survive the pain is to go through the process of grieving.

It’s the hardest thing I have ever done, embracing grief.

Grief takes you to the ends of your limits. It makes you question everything you thought you knew about life, about yourself, about death. It can make you scream at the heavens, make you cry until you think you’re drowning in your own tears, make you want not to live. All this is accompanied by a host of physical symptoms, such as dizziness, tightness in the chest, restlessness, irritability, inability to focus or organize, inability to eat or sleep (or to eat and sleep too much). And when you think you’ve cried all your tears, finished with your panic attacks, come to accept that he isn’t coming back, grief returns, but this time it comes in a different shade, perhaps not so black as in the beginning, but still dark.

Right now I’m going through a time of pearl gray days scattered with storm-cloud gray moments. Though I’ve done the work of grief in my own way, I have had one great benefit that many people don’t have — that grief support group. Because of their support, because I know someone is paying to attention, I have felt free to embrace my grief fully without worrying that I’m crazy or that I need therapy. Because of them, I know I am coping well, I know my grief is normal, I know I am completely sane. I just haven’t finished with my grieving yet, and it’s possible that I may never be completely finished. And that too is normal.

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.