Grief: Being Ripped in Two

One of the truly bizarre aspects of having lost a life mate/soul mate is that his death rips you in two. It’s as if the person you were with him still exists, always bereft, always lost and lonely and amputated from him. At the same time, a new person comes to life: the person you are to become without him.

In the beginning, the person-becoming is so new you’re barely aware of her birth. You’re only aware of being the person-bereft, someone so awash in grief she sees no reason to live. Gradually, the person-becoming gains strength as you learn to live without your mate. You do new things, eat new foods, have new experiences. And all of these take you further away from the person you once were.

For a while — perhaps for several years after the first horrors of new grief have passed — you toggle between the person-bereft and the person-becoming. Eventually, you remain mostly the person-becoming, though the person-bereft is always there, shadowing you. Certain events, such as anniversaries, or new milestones, such as the birth of a grandchild, catapult you right back into person-bereft, and your loss feels fresh and raw and real.

If you’ve lost your mate, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t lost such a significant person, this splitting apart sounds bizarre, and it is. How can you be two people, both a person who looks forward to continued life and a person who wants only to be with their mate?

I had a terrible realization while walking in the desert the other day: he died so I can live. Perhaps his death wasn’t as purposeful as that sounds, but our shared life had become a hell. As the cancer spread, the metastases in his brain grew larger and the drugs dosages became stronger. He kept getting weaker and more disoriented, and he turned into a stranger. There were moments that last year when I feared he would last for a very long time, slowly draining my life away. (Not an admirable admission, perhaps, but an understandable one considering the circumstances.)

Twenty-two months and two days ago, he died. And now I have the gift of life. His death gave me that. As much as the person-bereft wishes the whole thing were over with, the person-becoming sees glimmers of . . . not hope exactly, but possibility. I don’t know what I will do with this gift, but someday, somehow, I need to find a way to live so that I don’t waste his death.

The Silent Language of Grief

The so-called five stages of grief are so ingrained that most people think that’s all there is to grief. You deny, you get angry, you feel pain and guilt (and sometimes you bargain for the return of your loved one), you feel depressed, and finally, you accept. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? A brief checklist of stages, and then you get on with your life.

But grief is not that simple. First, those stages were described by Kübler-Ross to show how people come to terms with their own death and perhaps that of a loved one. It bears little resemblance to how people grieve after the death of a long time mate. Sure, we bereft have moments of anger, times of depression, some feelings of guilt, but most of us undergo a completely different set of stages, such as shock, bewilderment, hopelessness, loss of identity, anxiety, panic, isolation, loneliness, yearning. (For most of us, not anger or guilt but a vast yearning to see our mates once more drives our grief.) We also have physical changes to cope with that aren’t addressed in the Kübler-Ross model, such as immune system deficiencies, stress, dizziness, nausea, changes in brain chemistry, hormone disturbances, loss of equilibrium, and a higher death rate from all causes than non-grievers.

Still, whatever stages of grief a person goes through, there does come a time when you accept the truth deep in the marrow of your being — he is gone forever. You think this acceptance signifies the end of your grief, but do you want to know what often lies on the other side of acceptance? Heartbreak and tears. Sure, there are times of peace as you become used to your aloneness, but acceptance feels like another death, and it needs to be grieved. (It’s one thing to know he’s never coming back, and another thing to KNOW it. This acceptance is why the second year of grieving is often worse than the first year.)

Grief is a way of processing information. We know our loved one is absent, but is it possible to comprehend how very gone he is? To understand the nature and finality of death? Perhaps not, but by feeling the pain of separation and releasing it through tears, we can come to accept (however unwillingly) the idea that our loved one is gone from this earth.

It’s been sixty-nine weeks since my life mate — my soul mate — died of inoperable kidney cancer, and I still have bouts of tears. I was always a stoic and believed in facing reality, but this is one reality I cannot comprehend. I try to conjure him up in my mind, but he is forever out of reach. Forever gone.

According to Voltaire, “Tears are the silent language of grief.” When we have no words to describe our loss, when we have no way of comprehending the incomprehensible, all we have left are tears to communicate to us the depth of that knowledge and the depth of our loss. And so I weep.

Grief and Remembrance

The problem with grief is that while the subject of the grief stays gone, grief comes again and again, sometimes when one is least expecting it. I’d been doing well handling my grief after the death of the man with whom I spent thirty-four years of my life, yet these past couple of days grief has come to revisit me, and my sorrow is as great as it was a year ago.

I mentioned before about the terrible anniversaries of my grief. I lived through the first anniversary of the day pain struck him with such force that he took to bed for the rest of his life. I lived through the first anniversary of the day we got the diagnosis: inoperable kidney cancer. I lived through the first anniversary of the day we signed up for hospice, of the day we signed the DNR (the do not resuscitate order).

I had a hiatus of a couple of weeks where I was mostly at peace, then yesterday I was so overcome with grief that I wanted to scream out in anguish. I couldn’t figure out what hit me or why, but as it happens, the body remembers even when the mind doesn’t, and my body remembered that yesterday was the first anniversary of the last time we hugged, the last time we kissed.

And today . . . today is the first anniversary of the last time we talked. The last time he spoke to me. The last time he knew who I was. Today is also the anniversary of the day we took him to the hospice care center to live out the remaining few days of his life.

I’d been looking forward to the anniversary of his death, supposing that after a year of grieving I would be mostly finished with the pain, that he would have receded from my thoughts. It was a realistic expectation — my focus on him has been diminishing, so much so that sometimes it feels as if our life together was a story I told myself long ago — but as always, grief has its own agenda.

The past year seems to have disappeared. I know I lived it, know what I accomplished (and what I didn’t) yet the cliché is true — it passed in the blink of an eye. If I turn my head quickly, perhaps I will see him. He feels that close. If the world could turn back for just a second, I could catch him. Hang on to him. Never let him go.

But he is gone. And all the tears I shed this year will never bring him back.

Today was my grief support group day. I’d stopped going for a while. At the time, I wasn’t in the same place as the other bereft, and I was afraid I was doing them a disservice by my dissociation. After a few weeks, I did go back to be there for a friend, and today she and the group were there for me. Since I hadn’t had a memorial service for my mate, the facilitator asked me to say a eulogy, to make sense of his life, but I couldn’t make sense of it — I don’t understand the point of his having had to suffer so much. I could make sense of his life as pertains to me, though. I talked about how he accompanied and mentored me on my journey — my quest for truth and meaning — how he went with me as far as he could. Oddly, we’d used up our relationship, not in a bad way, but in a good way. We’d talked for hours on end, day after day, year after year. We read books and discussed them, studied films, researched various topics and shared information, tried to see the big picture and connect all the disparate parts of life.

I want so much to talk with him once more, to have one of those electric conversations where ideas were zinging back and forth, but the truth is, we said everything that was important. I have not come up with a single question for him this past year that he had not already answered. (Except for what he wants done with his ashes, but even that is an answer. If he cared, he would have told me.)

The last thing he ever said to me was, “Remember everything I told you.”

And I do remember.

The First Terrible Anniversaries of Grief

The first anniversaries, holidays, and special days after a loved one’s death are difficult because we are so intensely aware that the person is no longer here to share in the joyous occasions. This is especially true if that person is a spouse, a life mate, a soul mate. Whatever traditions we developed together become obsolete when only one of us remains to carry on. The pain, the yearning to be together once more can be devastating on these days.

If those first anniversaries do not mark joyous occasions and celebrations but days of horror, the pain is oh, so much worse.

This has been a particularly difficult month for many who lost their mates because Valentine’s Day is shoved down our throats. Wherever we go, we see images of happy couples. We remember we once were loved, once were part of a couple, and now we are not. Oddly enough, my upsurge in grief this month has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day. We were not a romantic couple, did not see the point of following the crowd and celebrating a day just because someone once decided we should. We ignored the day, hence it has no baggage to bring me pain. In fact, today was a good day for me — I had lunch with a couple of friends from my grief group. We have graduated from the need for the group but still need the companionship of those who have experienced the same losses, so today we initiated our own little social group. There was no maudlin talk, just the normal pleasantries of friends sharing a meal.

Still, this has been a dreadful month for me, a month of painful anniversaries. A year ago last week, my life mate — my soul mate — bent down to pick up something off the floor and pain hit him so severely, it sent him to bed for the rest of his life. A year ago next week we got the diagnosis. At the beginning of March, when he saw a doctor for the last time, the oncologist told him he had three to six months to live. Two days after that, we signed up for hospice. Three weeks later, he died.

I hadn’t thought of these days as anniversaries, so I did not steal myself for the onrush of grief. But grief has a schedule all its own, and it came for me. Again. How can his descent into these final stages of dying have begun a year ago? Those days seem so close that if my arms were long enough, I could reach behind me and touch him. Hug him. Keep him safe.

Today, thinking about his last weeks of unendurable pain, I feel self-indulgent for all my yearning to have him back. How could I ever subject him to that again? And yet, like a child, I weep for what I cannot have. I wonder what, in my youth or childhood, I did that was so terrible to deserve such punishment. I listen for the phone, hoping he’ll call me and tell me he forgives me and I can come home.

Grief is irrational. It stems from a part of us that has no logic. I know I did nothing to send him away. I know he is never going to call me again. I know I am not being punished for some long ago transgression.

And yet the grief keeps pounding at me during this time of terrible anniversaries.

I Am a Ten-Month Grief Survivor

I mentioned to someone the other day that it’s been ten weeks since the death of my life mate and that I didn’t know how I managed to survive that long, then it hit me. It hasn’t been ten weeks. It’s been ten months. How is it possible to live almost a year with half your heart ripped out? I still don’t know, but I do the only thing I can: live.

After the nine-month mark, I had a respite from grief. I liked the symmetry of nine months of grief (gestation) before being born into a new life, but as happens with grief, the respite was merely that — a respite. A couple of weeks ago, the need to see my mate one more time grew so great it felt as if the yearning would explode from my body like the creature in Alien. The feeling came and went for a while, and now the creature has gone back into hibernation. But still, the yearning lingers.

I’m learning to live with the remnants of my grief. From others who have also borne such a loss, I’ve come to understand this is the next phase of grief — not soul-destroying pain as at the beginning, but blips of varying intensity and frequency. I know I can deal with this new stage of grief because I have been dealing with my grief all along, but still, a part of me rebels at the necessity.

Planning signifies hope and is supposed to be a sign of healing. Strangely (or perhaps not strangely; perhaps it’s to be expected ) every time I make plans, I have an upsurge of grief. Plans take me further away from him and our life. They remind me of similar things we did together, and they tell me that from now on, he won’t be sharing new experiences with me. Still, I am not holding myself back. I need to fill the hole he left behind, and new experiences are one way of doing that.

In the past four months I’ve gone to various art galleries. I’ve seen Mesoamerican antiquities, aristocratic clothing through the ages, local artists, classic art work. I went to a wild life sanctuary where they take care of captive-bred animals that zoos don’t want. I went to the beach. In May, I’ll be going to a writer’s conference where I’ll be a speaker.

All this shows that I’m moving on, and yet . . .

And yet he’s still gone. That goneness is something I struggle with — how can he be dead? I wanted his suffering to be over, so I was relieved when he died, but somehow I never understood how very gone he would be. I don’t want him to be gone, but he’s not coming back, and there is not a damn thing I can do about it.

Grief Update — Throwing a Tantrum

I haven’t blogged about grief recently. Actually, I haven’t blogged about anything for a while. I’m in a transitional stage — not sure what I’m feeling, not sure what direction I want to go with this blog, not sure what I want to do with the rest of my life. I’ve been purposely thinking of other things than the death of my soul mate, though grief does geyser up without my volition now and again, especially on Saturdays, the day of the week he died. Even if I’m not consciously aware of that day, still, nine and a half months later, something in me acknowledges the date, and sadness grabs hold of me.

Except not this Saturday. This Saturday (yesterday), I wanted to throw myself on the ground and beat the floor in a full-fledged tantrum. I’ve never thrown a tantrum in my life, but if I’d been someplace where no one could hear me, I would have made an exception. I wanted desperately to talk to him. His death was the most significant aspect of our lives since the day we met, and he’s not here for us to compare notes. I want know how he’s doing. I want to know what he’s doing. Is he doing anything, feeling anything? Or is he drifting on a sea of light, like a newborn star?

It seems impossible that he’s gone, and the simple truth is that I don’t want him to be dead. Sure, I can handle it. Sure, I can deal with living the rest of my life alone. Sure, I can do whatever I need to do. But I don’t want to. I want him. I want to see him. I want to see his smile. I want . . . I want . . . I want . . . All those wants erupted Saturday night, hence the desire to throw a tantrum.

I’ve never heard of tantrum as a phase of grief, but I’ve never heard of most of the stages I’ve gone through. My grief cycle does not at all resemble the stages defined by Kubler Ross. Hers is a simplistic view of grief when in fact grief is a cyclical emotional and physical quagmire. The frequency of my grief eruptions has diminished, and so has the worst of my pain, but the hole his death created in my life remains. I try filling the emptiness with physical activity, talking to people, reading, writing, even eating, but nothing fills the want.

How can someone who was so much a part of my life be gone? Even if he is waiting for me on the other side of eternity, he’s still gone from this life. And I don’t want him to be. I want . . . I want . . . I want . . .

Clear the area. I feel a tantrum coming on.

I Am an Eight-Month Grief Survivor

When you love someone deeply, their well-being is as important to you as your own, but what do you do with that feeling when your someone is gone? Eight months ago, my life mate died, and now he has no need for stories to amuse or outrage him, no need for tasty meals to tempt his appetite, no need for comfort or caring or kindness, and yet my habit of thinking of him remains. Eventually, I imagine, the habit will wear itself out, but for now I still find myself thinking of ways to make his life a bit easier or a bit more enjoyable.

After eight months, I am still in . . . not shock, exactly, but a state of non-comprehension. I can’t comprehend his death, his sheer goneness. I can’t comprehend his life, though perhaps that is not for me to bother about. Most of all, I can’t comprehend my sorrow. I never saw much reason for grief. Someone died, you moved on. Period. I thought I was too stoic, too practical to mourn, and yet, here I am, still grieving for someone who has no need for my sorrow.

Despite my continued grief, I am moving on. My sporadic tears do not stop me from accomplishing the goals I set myself, such as NaNoWriMo and daily walks. My sorrow doesn’t keep me from taking care of myself — or mostly taking care of myself. (I don’t always eat right, and I don’t always sleep well.) Moving on, as I have learned, is not about abandoning one’s grief, but moving on despite the grief.

Grief is much gentler on me now, and I can sidestep it by turning my mind to other things, but I don’t always want to. I have not yet reached the point where thoughts of him bring me only happiness, and I need to remember him. If tears and pain are still part of that remembrance, so be it.

We shared our lives, our thoughts, our words — we talked about everything, often from morning to night — yet even before he died, we started going separate ways, he toward his death, me toward continued life. I often wonder what he would think of my grief, but just as his life is not for me to try to comprehend, my grief does not belong to him. It is mine alone.

And so the months pass, eight now. Soon it will be a year. Sometimes it feels as if he died only days ago, and I expect him to call and tell me I can come home — I’ve proven that I can live without him, so I don’t have to continue to do so. Sometimes it feels as if he’s been gone forever, that our life together wasn’t real, perhaps something I conjured up out of the depths of my loneliness. Sometimes my grief doesn’t even feel real, and I worry that I’ve created it out of a misguided need for self-importance. Such are the ways of grief, this strange and magical thinking. This could be magical thinking, too, but it seems to me that having survived eight months of grief, I can survive anything.


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.

Is Hate a Stage of Grief?

Is hate a stage of grief? If not, it should be. I don’t see how one can avoid it.

I’ve proved, to myself at least, that I can live without my life mate. It’s been twenty-eight weeks since he died, and in that time I’ve managed to get rid of his clothes and his car, clean out the accumulation of decades, move 1000 miles from our home, walk at least that many miles, eat, drink a lot of water, sleep (after a fashion), make new friends (mostly people who have also lost their mates, which gives us an instant bond of understanding). I smile now, and laugh. I can even look forward to the immediate future: I’ve planned an excursion (going to an art museum to see Mesoamerican antiquities, including an Olmec head) and I’m thinking about doing NaNoWriMo (something I said I would never do, but I need to kick start my writing after all the kicks life has given me lately). The point is, despite my grief, despite the oceans of tears I’ve shed and continue to shed, I have done these things. I can live without him. But I hate that I have to.

I’m coming to an acceptance of his death, though I’m not sure I understand it. (Don’t much understand life, either, but that’s a topic for another day.) I know I will never see him again in this life, and I hate it. I hate that I will never go back home to him. I hate that I will never talk to him again. I hate that I will never see his slow sweet smile again.

I hate that he will never watch another movie. I hate that he will never plant another tree and watch it grow. I hate that he will never have another cat. I hate that he will never read another book. I hate that he will never listen to his music tapes again. I hate that he will never start another business. I hate that he will never play another game of baseball, or smell another flower, or swim in another lake. I hate that so many of his dreams are going unfilfulled.

Most of all, I hate that he is dead.

I am thankful that I had him in my life for as long as I did, but I hate that his years were cut short. I know I should be glad that he isn’t suffering any more, and I am. But I hate that he had to suffer in the first place.

This stage will pass as have all the other stages of grief I’ve lived through. I might even find happiness again, but he will still be gone. And I hate that.