Grief: Divorce vs. Death

A week after Jeff died, I had to go to the bank to open a new account in my name only, and the woman who helped me said she had recently undergone a devastating, unasked for divorce. She was the first person I met who understood at least part of what I was going through, and we commiserated with each other.

Up to a point, there are many similarities between the two losses. Both involve:

  • Deep emotions: shock, pain, yearning, angst, loneliness.
  • The death of hopes, dreams, the future the two of you had planned for yourselves.
  • The ripping apart of the pair bond, the survival unit, which causes a fight or flight hormonal upsurge and puts tremendous stress on the body.
  • A disruption of habits. Once a behavior becomes automatic, the prefrontal cortex no longer has to make decisions about that particular behavior, which saves the prefrontal cortex from becoming overwhelmed. Disruption of routine after the loss of a life mate, however, destroys this balance, and contributes to brain fog.
  • Being suddenly uncoupled in a coupled world. Ours is a culture of couplehood. Many songs, movies, books, holidays are about love and the importance of being with that one special person, and now you are expected to slough off the weight of this culture and go on as if nothing happened.
  • Dealing with betrayal and rejection. Divorce is a betrayal and a rejection, but so is death. The fact that someone who died of illness did not choose to leave does not mitigate the betrayal and rejection. It’s not as if a person has done these things to us, but as if life itself turned its back on us.
  • Learning a whole new way of living. What you once did together, now needs to be done by you alone.

But there is a divergent point, and that point is death. With all a person has to contend with while going through a divorce, they do not also have to deal with death as a concept or as a reality. Death is shrouded with an element of blank. It is the great unknown and unknowable, and our brains are not equipped to handle the immensity. And yet, while we bereaved are going through the most traumatic event of our lives, we also have to learn to deal with and accept this utterly unfathomable concept.

We all know, of course, we are going to die, but we don’t KNOW. And now we do. This knowledge sends so many chemical and electrical signals throughout our bodies, setting off a cascading series of hormonal reactions, that it leaves us feeling bewildered and traumatized. This is all in addition to our emotional grief. We feel the loss, feel the death, in the depths of our soul. We feel the very winds of eternity screaming through the gaping wound in our heart where our love had been amputated from us.

Divorced people know where there erstwhile mate is, and if they don’t, they can find out, but we bereaved don’t know, can’t know. We call for them, we wonder how they are doing, look for them in crowds. But they are no longer here in the flesh.

When people would tell me how much worse divorce is than death, I would fight back my tears and wish that Jeff really had divorced me. At least I would know he was happy (once I got over being furious with him, that is), at least I would know he was well.

Beyond this empirical evidence, there is an actual, factual difference between the two types of losses, and statistics bear out the truth of it. On a scale of 1 to 100, the loss of a life mate or child tops all at 100. Divorce, the second worse stressor is 73.

I’m not trying to downplay anyone’s pain. We all deal with the traumas life throws at us the best way we can, but ever since Jeff died, my goal has always been to help the bereaved understand what they are going through, and to help their friends understand the enormity of their loss.

Whatever your loss, I wish you peace.

***

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 to Jeff, Day 423

 

Hi, Jeff.

I went to St. Simons Island where I gave a speech on creating characters. My talk went well — I dazzled. I could see it in their eyes. I met soLighthouseme authors, toured the town, climbed the lighthouse, steeped myself in island culture, even ate fried green tomatoes, though I didn’t like them — too much rosemary. Then, on the last day, I got sick. Might be a cold, might be an allergy flare-up, might be psychological (I couldn’t bear the idea of coming back here rather than to you, and it was a way of keeping me isolated.)

I refused to think about you this past week — didn’t want to suffocate. The stuffiness of tears on top of the stuffiness from being sick would have made it impossible to breathe, but Saturday, my sadder day, I did cry. Just kept crying, crying, crying.

I’m doing okay mostly, but I miss you. I hate that you’re gone, both on your behalf (though I doubt you care) and on my behalf. I still panic at the thought of dealing with life alone. Growing old alone. Dying alone. Living alone. I never expected to be so lonely, but I am. I’m lonely for someone generically and for you specifically. You’re so far out of reach! It seems pathetic that I need you — needed you — to give my life shape, form, focus, but it seems even more pathetic to be alone.

What’s to become of me? How can I go on alone? I know I’m strong enough, but shouldn’t there be more to life than simply endurance?

I miss you. I yearn for you. Just one more word. One more smile. Doesn’t seem too much to ask, but it kills me they are things I can never have again. How can it be over? And how can it still be painful after all these months?

I love you. Take care of yourself.

***

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.

Letter to Jeff, Day 409

Hi, Jeff.

It’s been a while since I wrote or talked to you. I’ve been trying to let you go, trying to get on with my life, but I’m tired of being upbeat. I just want to be me, however I feel at the moment. I’m tired of trying not to think of you just so I won’t be sad. I’m tired of not having anyone to talk to, which is strange because I now have more people to talk to than I have had in years, but we don’t say much of anything, just talk St. Simons Islandabout the minutiae of our lives. I’m tired of not having anyone who understands. For example, if I tell anyone of my small infirmities, they just tell me to go to doctors, and we know that’s not much of an answer. You often had an answer, and if you didn’t, you simply listened to my worries, which made me feel better.

I miss you, not just because I’m tired you’re gone, but because of you. I’m going to St. Simons Island to give a speech at a writers’ conference, and you’re not here to send me off, to see my new clothes, to wish me well. Odd to think I’m taking only a couple of garments you have ever seen. Most of my clothes are new since you’ve been gone.

I wish I knew why things worked out the way they did. Or maybe I don’t. I just wish . . . I wish . . . that you were here, happy, rich, and loving me. I guess that’s what I wish. But perhaps you’re better of where you are. If so, where does that leave me?

I know it doesn’t sound that way, but I really do try to be upbeat and not to be sad all the time, but it’s wearying. It’s going to be worse when I get back from St. Simons. I won’t be coming home to you and a hug and a smile. I’ll be coming back here to my father’s house.

Funny, I wasn’t going to write to you again, but it does make me feel close to you, if only for a minute.

I miss you, Jeff. I love you. I want to go home. Please?

Damn it! I hate this. Are you okay? Are you taking care of yourself? Do you miss me? I guess I’m glad for the upsurges of grief. At least I know I still remember.

***

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.

Letter to Jeff, Day 386

 

Hi, Jeff.

I’m lying here in bed thinking of you. I’m tired and don’t want to get up so I thought I’d write you. I’m trying to focus on the good things, but it’s hard. My books aren’t selling. I’m living somewhere I don’t want to be, being someone I don’t want to be. I have a pilot light of anger to keep me going, otherwise I probably never would get out of bed.

And yet, looked at from a different direction — forgetting the past, forgetting what I want — my life isn’t so bad. I don’t have to worry about paying bills. I’m warm, comfortable, fed. And I have new clothes. A couple of women from my grief group took me shopping (a belated birthday present). They bought me pants and tops. I detected a hint of something not totally altruistic, as if they thought I was clueless when it came to clothes. One woman said she was sick of the blouse I was wearing. Who says something like that? What difference does it make to her how I dress? Still, it was nice. And I don’t look like me, which is even nicer. I go to lunch with those women a couple of times a month and a couple of times a month I go to lunch with a few others from my grief group. So see? Things aren’t totally terrible, but no matter how I look at it, it’s a lonely life.

I miss you. I want to come home. Or start over with you somewhere else. It’s a good thing I don’t have to make a decision where to go because I haven’t a clue. Maybe I’ll know when the time comes to leave here. I just wish, with all my heart, you were well and I was going to go home to you.

Adios, compadre,. I love you.

***

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.

Letter to Jeff, Day 383

 

Dear Jeff,

I’m having a hard time coping, but maybe it isn’t necessary to be stoic in order to cope. Maybe tears and tantrums are my way of coping for now. If nothing else, those tears and tantrums help get rid of the terrible stress of grief.

I feel as if I’ve been abandoned by you. You were the only one who ever truly cared for me, and I don’t know how to be alone. I don’t mean physically alone — that I can do. I mean that mental, spiritual, emotional aloneness when there is no one in the world who cares on a daily basis. I know there are some people who care sporadically when they get a few minutes, but it sure isn’t something for me to build a life on.

I’m feeling sorry for myself. I keep hoping something good will happen. I need something to offset this pervasive sadness. The years stretch bleakly before me. It’s just too sad.

Adios, compadre. I love you.

***

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

Letter to Jeff, Day 378

 

Dear Jeff,

I don’t want to dump my problems on you, but I have no one else to talk to, at least not about what’s really bothering me. I am so disheartened that I need someone to tell me it will all work out. You told me things would come together for me, but so far they haven’t.

I try to hold on to positive things, such as being glad you don’t have to deal with life’s problems, yet I can’t help thinking that if you were here, these problems wouldn’t matter — we’d be together. But that is foolish thinking. You’re not here.

One of my brothers has a golf analogy about hitting a ball into a sand trap, and how you need to figure out where to go from there rather than obsessing on how you got there. I can see that at the time of making the shot you need to concentrate on getting out of the trap, but still, at some point you need to figure out how you got in that position so it doesn’t happen again. But thinking how I got in this state of disheartenment gains me nothing. It was no mistake, not something I could fix, not something that will ever happen again so I don’t need to figure out how to prevent it since you will never die again. If I knew you were okay, I could handle this. (This meaning being alone.)

I am not totally selfish. I want you to be happy. After all those miserable years, you deserve that. I find I’m most content when I don’t think of you being dead, when somewhere in the back of my mind I have the feeling you’re back home doing well.

I hate knowing you’re gone. I hate feeling so disconnected from you. How am I going to get through the coming years, Jeff? I dread living in an apartment, dread growing feeble alone. I don’t want to live with anyone else — just you. But that’s not going to happen. I also dread taking all our stuff out of storage and using it. It will be so very painful, having the constant reminder that you no longer need the household items we bought together.

I’m tired of being sad. Tired of having things to be sad about. But I guess I better get used to it. Even if by chance things do work out for me, you’ll still be gone.

Ah, well. Apparently I’m feeling sorry for myself today. I’m going to go for a walk. Change my circumstances for a bit to see if I can change my attitude.

I miss you dreadfully. You were my one. Take care of yourself and I’ll take care of me.

Adios, compadre.

***

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.

Letter to Jeff, Day 376

 

Dear Jeff,

I was going to give up this crutch of writing to you, but here I am. I miss you terribly. I’d forgotten how I used to wake each morning with such expectation, thrilled to see you, thrilled to be with you. Your years of illness took their toll. I don’t know when that expectation turned to dread, and I woke never quite knowing what horrors the day would bring. Now there is neither expectation nor dread, just a heavy emptiness.

Light Bringer was published on the one-year anniversary of your death. I wanted so much for the book to burst on the scene to great acclaim, but sales have been disappointing. I don’t know whether I hoped success would offset the bleakness of losing you, or if disappointments are greater because I have to bear them alone. I’m glad I don’t have to tell you in person. I wouldn’t have liked burdening you with such bad news. There would have been more silence between us, and toward the end, there were already too many things we didn’t talk about, not wanting to bring more sorrow to each other.

I hope my writing you doesn’t keep you from going on to wherever you need to go, but I still need this connection to you. I still cry way too much, though the tears come in short bursts now rather than unending storms. I’m trying to keep hope alive, trying to believe that somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, things will work out for me, but how can they work out when you’re dead? The good things that happened were so much better when shared with you.

It’s so hard to believe that it’s over. I so yearn to talk to you once more, to see your smile, to fix one more meal together.

I’m glad you were able to do things your way at the end. I’ve heard such terrible tales of people regretting what they put their loved ones through in the hopes that the doctors could make them better. At least I don’t have that guilt.

I miss you. I love you.

***

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.

Letter to Jeff, Day 366

 

Day 366, Dear Jeff,

Well, here I am. Survived a whole year without you. It’s puzzling — it feels like weeks. I don’t think I’ve ever had a year go by so fast, at least in retrospect. The individual days were exceedingly long and agonizing.

I still don’t know where to put you in my mind. I can deal with your absence — as if perhaps I’ve come here to take care of my father and afterward I’ll be going home to you — but I can’t deal with your goneness. That goneness still makes me sick to my stomach at times, gives me the stepping-onto-air-instead-of-solid-ground sensation.

Today I remembered that when we met, I had the feeling you came into my life to be my guru, a companion on my journey. You know that saying, “when a student is ready, the teacher will appear”? Back then, I thought you were the one who appeared when I was ready.

I wondered if you too had that feeling about coming here as my guru, and I realized that you did, at least toward the end, and you felt burdened by it. That last year, you kept telling me you wouldn’t always be around to teach me, so I had to grow up and learn to do things on my own. You also said once that it wasn’t your job to teach me. I used to bristle when you talked that way because I didn’t know where you got the idea I thought it was your job (having completely forgotten the guru aspect of our meeting — that particular idea got lost many years ago in our struggle to survive). And yet, you did stay for as long as I needed you. You took me as far as you could on my journey.

I could accept that you left to rejoin the pantheon of radiance because your job was done, but when I factor in your illness and all your suffering, it doesn’t compute; it seems too selfish, as if our relationship were all about me, but if this “teacher” aspect of our relationship isn’t true, why did two such truth-seekers meet? And if it is true, why would such an exalted being as I once thought you were come here to help me search for truth? If ours wasn’t a cosmic connection, was it some sort of primal recognition?

When me met, “I” didn’t recognize you, but something deep inside of me did. “I” am not aware of who or what that something is. Is it the eternal me and the “I” simply the physical me? If so, that means something in us will recognize each other again if you still are, if you still have being.

This is the sort of jibber jabber you had no use for, but you’re not here to keep me grounded in reality. Hmmm . . . When I was young and would go off on such flights of fancy, I thought I’d get lost in the insanity. (For much of my youth, I did think I was crazy.) Perhaps you were here to help keep me grounded until I matured enough to handle where such thoughts would take me.

Because now, today, I do know I am sane. Totally. This grief experience has taught me the truth of that — even the natural insanities of grief didn’t rock my sanity.

Thank you for journeying with me. Thank you for being my guru. I hope my life will be an honor to you.

Adios, compadre. I love you.

***

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.

Grief is NOT Self-Indulgent

I was looking at search terms people used to find this blog, and someone googled “I feel self-indulgent when I think of my deceased partner and I cry a lot.” That got my ire going — not about her feeling that way, but at the way our society handles grief. Thinking about one’s partner and crying are not wrong, but there is something seriously wrong with a society that makes the bereft feel self-indulgent for grieving. What the heck is wrong with crying? With grieving? With talking about one’s grief?

Grief is not something to be shoved under the bed like a box of junk that you don’t quite know what to do with. Grief is how we learn to deal with a world suddenly gone crazy, and tears are how we relieve the tension of that grief. I don’t know how long this particular person had been dealing with her grief, but I’m at eighteen months, and though I’ve gone on with my life, I still have upsurges of grief and bouts of crying. Though these bouts have diminished significantly and I recuperate quite quickly, I’m prepared to go the distance, however long it takes. Some people say it takes a minimum of two years to get over the sadness and tears, some say four years, some say one year for every seven years of togetherness, some say never — that even after twenty years they still have times where the truth of their partner’s death hits them and the tears flow.

Since mourning is considered by the uninitiated to be unacceptable behavior after a month or two, most people quickly learn to hide their grief. Grown children especially get irritated at tears, perhaps because they can’t bear to see their once-strong parent brought low or perhaps because they think their parent is being self-indulgent. A friend of mine lost her partner six months ago, and her son berates her for being a drama queen. Such non-acceptance of a natural process adds more agony to an already agonizing time. As I said, there is something seriously wrong with a society that demonizes grief.

After my partner died, I asked the moderator of a grief support group how I should handle questions about my grief. I didn’t want to bore people with my ongoing emotional traumas, but at the same time I didn’t want to pretend everything was fine. I’d also been blogging about my grief but wasn’t sure I wanted to continue since I didn’t want to seem whiny and self-indulgent. She told me it was okay to tell people I was coping if I didn’t want to go into details, but she suggested I continue writing about grief because people needed to know the truth of it. And I’ve followed her advice even though it was hard at times. I mean, after eighteen months, shouldn’t I have gotten over it? The truth is, you never get over a significant loss — you learn to manage living without him or her.

It used to be that women hid their pregnancies, but now they flaunt their “baby bumps.” Maybe it’s time we brought grief out into the open so that the bereft do not feel as if they are self-indulgent for dealing with loss the only way possible — with remembrances and tears.