Telling New Grievers the Truth About Grief

When new widows or widowers ask me about grief, such as how long it took me or when I stopped crying, I never know how much of the truth to tell them. For some people, the idea that grief will be the primary factor in their lives for three to five years before they find some sort of renewal, is a comfort because they know they won’t feel bad forever. For other people, three to five years is an astonishingly long time (which it is, when it comes to grief) and the thought adds to their despair. After the first year, it’s not such a dilemma for me — people have settled into their grief and knowing it will last years more, isn’t such a torment.

Because of my hesitation to tell the whole truth, I’ve gotten into the habit of telling new widows that grief “lasts a long time.” Oddly, when one is on the grief side of those years, it is an immensely long and dreary road, but on this side, the years of grief seem to have been over in an instant, probably because when things don’t seem to change much, when every day seems like every other day, all the emotional memories pile one on top the other like a deck of cards, rather than being laid out on the table so all of it can be seen at once. That sameness is also what gives grief, when one is going through it, a feeling of timelessness, as if we were always grieving and forever after, always would.

But no matter what things feel like, internal changes are being made, and those changes are generally manifested sometime in the fourth year when suddenly, it seems, life seems lighter, more hopeful. (Or it could be we are simply more used to their being gone, because the truth is, one can get used to almost anything, even death and loss and grief.)

Another example of not knowing what to tell is when a friend recently asked me if her going to visit a relative would help. I told her yes, because that is the truth. It’s good to get a respite from the emptiness, even if the effects of that respite don’t linger beyond the visit. What I didn’t tell her, because I didn’t want to ruin her vacation from herself, is the horror of walking into one’s home afterward to find the emptiness waiting to grab hold once more. But she learned the truth when she got home, and oh, my heart goes out to her. It really is a hard thing to deal with — that emptiness, that void, the knowing that for the rest of our lives, we have to live without that one person who gave us a deeper meaning, emotional support, love and companionship.

This same friend asked if the urge to flee would dissipate after she got back from her visit. I said, no. And when she asked how long it would take before that urge disappeared, I told her that everything takes years. It just won’t always be bad. That urge to flee turns into some sort of craving for adventure. And then, even that urge fades away with time.

I never thought “time” was an antidote for grief, since it’s what we do with that time that affects us more than time itself, but time does pass. The void shrinks but never goes away, so that even when we start to lose the memories of living a shared life because of the passing years, we always feel the absence. Do people need to know they will always feel the absence? At the beginning, it’s a burden, but as the years pass, that same void becomes a comfort, a way of keeping the memory even when the memory is gone.

Another lesser reason I hesitate is that the pattern of grief that so many of us deal with isn’t universal. In rare instances widows don’t fall into the black hole of grief but are able to go on, after a few months, as if nothing had happened.

But most of us have to wait until grief is finished with us.

And that takes longer than anyone wants to contemplate. Even ten, fifteen, twenty years later, something will happen (a daughter’s wedding, a grandchild’s birth, a debilitating illness) and grief, as fresh and as agonizing as the day our loved one died, will return.

What I try to emphasize more than anything is that no matter what people feel, no matter how long it takes, it’s normal. In the end, that’s more important that the specifics, because one thing that most new widows and widowers have in common is the feeling they are crazy when their bodies and minds go into overdrive as they try to process the death of the loved one and loss from their life. Death is the great unknowable, and having to confront that unknown as well as dealing with grief puts an unbelievable stress on the body.

People do need to know about that stress so they can do whatever is necessary to combat the stress. In my case, it was long rambling walks. In other cases, it’s sleeping for long hours or reading or keeping a grief journal or even talking to the deceased. It’s all about getting through the days, the weeks, the months, the years until a renewed interest in life asserts itself.

And it will. That I can tell you for sure.


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

I Am an Eight-Year Grief Survivor

Today is the eighth anniversary of the death of my life mate/soul mate. How is this possible? I remember that after Jeff died, eight minutes seemed like a lifetime, eight hours almost an eternity, eight months incomprehensible. But eight years? Totally unthinkable and unimaginable. How did I survive such sorrow? How do any of us survive?

Actually, I do know the answer to that — we survive one agonizing breath at a time.

The miracle of grief is that the pain does lessen over the years, but I truly don’t see how it can — every year that passes is one more year I did not have with him, everything I do is one more thing I could not do with him, every thought is one more thought I could not share with him.

During these past eight years, most people continued on with their shared lives — happy and sad, arguing and making up, in sickness and in health — and I, and all my brothers and sisters in sorrow, kept going somehow, trying to find a place to set first one shaky foot and then another in our suddenly broken and bleak lives.

Over and over, we had to listen to people tell us to move on, and yet, after their sometimes compassionate, sometimes irritated words, those people went home to their husbands and wives, and we went into our sad and empty rooms, apartments, houses to be faced again — and again and again — with the knowledge that who we loved was gone, what we had was gone, what we needed was gone, what we hoped for was gone. All gone.

Incredibly, I have become used to the goneness. Incredibly, I have moments of happiness. Incredibly, I have even come to like being alone. And yet, I wish I didn’t have to do this anymore, this building a life from scratch, this living without him. Sometimes I want desperately to go home to him. If not that, then see him one more time in the flesh. Be warmed by one more smile. Hear one more word.

For those of you who are still comfortably married, how long has it been since you saw your husband or wife. Eight hours? Eight minutes? Eight seconds?

Well, it’s been eight years since I last saw Jeff. Eight years (and five days) since I last talked to the one person who understood me fully, the one person I never had to explain myself to, the one person who shared my sense of humor, my sense of honor, my sense of history.

Eight years. What was totally unthinkable and unimaginable in the beginning remains totally unthinkable and unimaginable.

For those newly inducted into this hall of horrors, I hope you will find comfort in knowing that a person can survive, find a sense of renewal, maybe even find  new dreams.

For those of you who have friends and family who still mourn their deceased spouses, next time you want to tell them to get over it or move on, think about how long it’s been since you saw your spouse and think how long it’s been since they saw theirs.

Eight minutes. Eight hours. Eight days. Eight months. Eight years. It’s all the same. Grief truly knows no time.

The one thing that does change, the one thing that makes the goneness bearable is us. Grief gradually changes each of us bereft into a person who can survive the loss, but that change brings with it another loss to grieve — the loss of the old self.

Have I spent the totality of the past eight years drowning in tears and sorrow? Of course not. The person who was born when Jeff died has never shared her life with another. That person has always been alone, done things alone, developed into a strong person, gained some wisdom. But the person she left behind is still grieving, and last night, the grieving woman came to visit, bringing her endless tears, her great yearning, her profound loss.

And we comforted each other — the woman who died when Jeff did and the woman who was born eight years ago into the world of grief — as we kept vigil until his time of death.

Eight years. Unfathomable.

After last night’s tearfulness, today I gathered my courage and valiantly began my ninth year without him.

And so it goes.


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 a Process that Keeps on Taking

In a blog a couple of days ago, I mentioned that while our current culture emphasizes inclusivity, it manages to exclude a forgotten segment of our society — widows and widowers, especially older ones. I suppose this makes sense because so many people who embrace inclusivity are young folk, and they cannot even imagine the problems of losing the one person who matters more to you than anyone else and then being left to grow old alone.

The primary sociological problem of being widowed (as opposed to the emotional, spiritual, psychological problems of losing your life mate) is being forcedly single in a coupled world. The “triggers” reminding us of our lonely state are ubiquitous. Ads almost always show couples; even ads geared toward older people show couples. Ads about supporting one another in illness show couples. Books and movies often focus on couples. Songs constantly remind us of the importance of love, that loving someone can give our life meaning, that you’re nobody unless someone loves you.

We are showered with studies proving that sleeping (both literally and euphemistically) with someone enhances your health, that daily hugs make you healthy and strong, that merely being in the room with another person has health benefits. That’s all fine and dandy, but what does that have to do with the bereft? Once you’re alone, you can go weeks, sometimes months, without touching another person. (Did you ever wonder why the elderly like hospitals? People touch them. It’s not as simple as that, of course. Or perhaps it is.)

Many people find that the loss of their spouse creates a ripple of other losses, such as loss of their friends, especially if their friends were other couples. If they were a two-income family, suddenly the income is significantly reduced, and yet they end up paying double for many things such as hotel rooms. The bereft are often left on their own, without the resources they need, but even if that is not the case, they now have all the problems not just of widowhood, but of singlehood.

I recently came across an article that explains why being single is not so great. The article mentions five specific points.

  1. Single people make less than married people for doing the exact same job. Sometimes single people are seen as slackers, even if they’re not and sometimes the boss thinks that the person with a spouse and kids needs more money. The discrepancy can be as much as 27%.
  2. Single people work more. They are not allowed time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act, they don’t have as many excuses to take off from work, and of course they are often expected to work holidays and weekends because they don’t have family obligations.
  3. Single people pay more taxes. Married people can file as individuals to get the best tax rate, and more than half of married people get a bonus of up to $1300 a year.
  4. There is a social stigma to being single according to a recent study by Rutgers University. People wonder what’s wrong with you. Single men are considered stupid and dishonest. Single women are more likely to be harassed and treated badly at restaurants.
  5. Worst of all, single people don’t live as long as married folk are more likely to get sick. Married people have better immune systems, they generally have the choice of two insurance plans which gives them the best care, they have a support system (emotional as well as practical), and they have someone to help care for them when they are ill.

So, for all you folks who are lucky to still be married, who have not been forcibly removed from your spouse by death, don’t tell your widowed friends to get over it or to move on. Unlike a gift that keeps on giving, grief is a process that keeps on taking.


On a brighter note, here is my latest watercolor.



(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.

For All of You Who Are Experiencing Grief

I always know when someone who is grieving has discovered my blog — the number of views increases dramatically while the number of visitors stays the same. Only an intense loss (or upcoming loss) keeps someone here long enough to read a sampling of my grief posts.

Although I am on the downward slide of grief, every day someone else encounters the shock of grief that bewilders, steals their breath, shatters their lives, and makes them question their very being.

A long time ago, long before the internet and blogs, I used to write soul-searching letters, similar to my blog posts. I never expected my friends to save the letters. I was young, changing rapidly, and the letters reflected my thoughts about life at any given moment. Once, years after such a spate of letters, my then best friend called me, told me she’d found a stack of letters. She read portions of them aloud to me, and laughed. She couldn’t understand my hurt — she’d seen how far I’d come, and she thought I’d be as amused as she was by my younger self. I tried to be a good sport, but her laughter seemed such a betrayal, I never felt the same about her again. Nor did I ever feel the same about writing letters. In fact, I never wrote another personal letter again lest my feelings linger far beyond their meaning.

Then came blogging and the loss of my life mate/soul mate. I wondered if I would ever regret pouring out my soul on this blog as I did in those letters, but I understood how important it was for both me and my fellow bereft to try to find words for what we were feeling, so writing such personal posts never bothered me. I also knew that if anyone laughed, they were more to be pitied than castigated — only profound and complicated love leads to such all-encompassing grief, and if they’d never felt such grief, well, there was nothing I could do about it. Writing about my grief was simply a risk I took.

But no one laughed.

At the beginning, my grief posts reflected the feelings of me and others in my grief age group (those who lost their mates a few months before or a few months after I did). But grief is eternal. We may not still be lost in the anguish of new grief, lost in the confusion of grief that lingers beyond what family and friends think acceptable, or lost in the maze of trying to create a new life for ourselves, but someone is.

For all of you who are experiencing grief, know that I’ve been there. I understand at least a little of what you are going through, and my heart cries out to you. People who dealt with profound grief before I did told me that someday I will find renewed interest in life, generally (though not always) within four to five years. It was true for them. It was true for me. And it will be true for you.

Until then, wishing you peace.


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.

It Takes Courage to Grieve

People have often mentioned how courageous I’ve been by writing about my grief, but the truth is, for the most part, it didn’t take any courage. At the beginning, I was in such incredible pain and bewildered by all I was feeling, that I tried to make sense of all the emotions and physical symptoms the only way I knew how — by writing.

There were two times, though, where it did take courage. The first time was when my grief continued far beyond what I had expected, and I was afraid people would think I was weak or self-pitying or self-indulgent, unable to move beyond the tragedy. I am moving, but at my own pace.

The truth is, when you lose your mate, you lose not only the person who meant more to you than any other, the person who connected you to the world, you also lose your best friend, your confidante, your support, your sense of self, your hopes and dreams, your shared world, your faith in a universe that makes sense. The changes are so vast and so sudden, it can take years to process them all.

I’d been honest about everything I’d been feeling, so I continued telling the truth about my grief even when I thought it made me seem pathetic. No one wants to show a weak side to the world, but someone has to explain how grief works, to show the ramifications of a certain type of loss. We are steeped in a culture of couplehood. Many songs and movies extol the joys of meeting the one person who makes life worth living, yet when you lose that person, you are expected to continue as if it didn’t matter. Well, it does matter. And it matters more when you lose that person to death. It’s almost impossible to fathom the absence of a person who once breathed the same air you did, who was there through every crisis and triumph, and who now is simply . . . gone. (Well, if I’m going to tell the truth, then I should tell the truth. It’s not almost impossible. It’s totally impossible.)

I’m past worrying about how people see me and my grief, so I’m back to not needing courage to write about how I am doing. I’m just continuing to chronicle the journey of a woman who is trying to rebuild her life after an immeasurable loss, both the steps forward into hope and the steps backward into sorrow and tears.

The second time I needed courage was when I published Grief: The Great Yearning, the story of my first year of grief. It’s one thing to write about grief in the backwaters of the blogosphere, and a completely different thing to put my grief out there for the whole world to read. Well, the whole world isn’t reading the book, so that’s not an issue, but more importantly, those who do read my story find they are reading their own story. Although grief is unique to each person, the pain and angst and bitter losses are the same. And so is the way we make this unwanted and terrible journey . . . one step at a time.

And that takes courage.


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+

The Doors of Grief

Years before my life mate/soul mate died, I wrote a character who grieved for her dead husband. It astonishes me that I got any of the effects of grief right since at the time, I hadn’t a clue what the loss of a mate really did to you, how it turned you inside out and upside down and left you reeling with shock and disbelief, regrets and sorrow. A Spark of Heavenly Fire begins:

Kate Cummings counted backward from one hundred, though she knew it wouldn’t help her sleep. Dead people didn’t slumber, and she hadn’t felt alive for a long time. Not since before Joe’s funeral, anyway.

Three. Two. One. She raised her head, squinted at the illuminated face of the alarm clock, and flopped back against the pillow. Five-fifteen. Six hours of thrashing around in bed. She blinked away the sting in her eyes. All she wanted was one good night’s sleep. Was that too much to ask?

One hundred. Ninety-nine. Ninety-six. . . . A sound startled her awake. A siren’s scream, fading now. She checked the time. Five-thirty. Even if she could doze off again, she’d have to rise in less than an hour. Not worth the effort.

She hauled herself upright and groped for her eyeglasses. After sitting on the edge of the bed for a moment, gathering her strength, she dressed and wandered through the house. She hesitated by the closed door of the second bedroom where her husband had lived during the last years of his protracted illness, touched the knob with her fingertips. Yanked her hand away.

This is ridiculous. Joe’s been gone for thirteen months.

Taking a deep breath, she grasped the knob, but could not force herself to turn it. She rested her forehead on the door for a minute, wondering if she’d ever be able to face the ghosts of sorrow and regret locked inside, then squared her shoulders and headed for the front closet to grab a coat and hat.


Later, she explains to a new friend:

“About two weeks after the funeral, I decided to clean Joe’s room. I didn’t feel up to sorting out his things, but I thought I should dust and vacuum in there. I cracked opened the door, as if expecting Joe, or at least his spirit, to inhabit the room. I stepped inside, but seconds later I scrambled out again and slammed the door.

“Memories of all the shameful, petty, inconsiderate things I had done over the years haunted the room, and I couldn’t bear to face my own mean spirit. Too many times I snapped at him or purposely waited a few minutes before going to see what he wanted when he called out. Other times I felt so angry at the way life had treated us, I stomped around the house, slamming doors and kicking furniture. Usually, though, I pounded my pillow, or cried. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I cried, wishing I had a normal life with healthy children to take care of instead of an uncommunicative and disabled man. Sometimes I even hated him for what he had become, as if he chose to get sick. Can you believe that?”

She didn’t pause for a response, but hurried on, wanting to get it all out.

“Worst of all, I realized I was not a strong woman who had shouldered her burden with courage, but a weak woman who lacked generosity of spirit.”


doorI didn’t have a real door to close — I had to leave our home and come look after my aged father — but there are plenty of doors in my head that I slammed shut. It’s only now, after thirty-four months that I’m able to open them a crack, peek at the ghosts of my ungenerous and petty moments, and understand.

For the most part, I handled the stress of his dying well, but there were times I resented him, even hated him, though now I know it wasn’t he I resented or hated, but his dying. Everything that irked me — his skinniness, his rocking when he stood talking to me (he was so weak, it was the only way he could keep his balance), his inability to carry on a conversation, and his testiness — were all facets of “dying man” not the man himself. To a certain extent, he died long before his last breath. He never blamed me for my resentment because he too hated what he had become. He once admitted he didn’t even recognize himself anymore.

Death does appalling things to people, not just to those who are dying, but to those who have to continue living. Whatever our problems, those last terrible months, we had a chance to reconnect for a few weeks before he died, and I got to say good-bye to the man I love, not just the shadow of that man he had become.

And that is what I will remember — not all the petty secrets I’m gradually bringing out from behind closed doors, but our sweet good-bye.


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.” All Bertram’s books are published by Second Wind Publishing. Connect with Pat on Google+

Portraying Grief Correctly

So often writers get grief over the loss of a spouse wrong, perhaps because unless you have been there, you cannot know the global effect grief has. There are so many mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, even geographical changes thrown at you that it’s almost impossible to understand what is happening.

Grief that has matured, meaning grief that is no longer new and raw, is easier to portray, but even that is often done wrong, since the characters seem to have no yearnings. And grief is so much about yearnings.

One movie that portrayed long time grief well was The Last Dance with Maureen O’Hara and Eric Stolz. O’Hara teared up when she thought of her husband, she treasured the records she had bought of the songs they had danced to (calling them her “memories”), but most of all, she yearned for one last dance from him. And that yearning made her grief real. We who have lost our mates eventually come to terms with going on alone, but we all have yearnings for one last kiss, one last hug, one last smile, one last word. Such simple things, but being deprived of them underscores our loss.

Another example of grief done right occurred in the old television show Golden Girls, of all places. In that particular episode, Blanche dreams that her husband, dead for nine years, comes home. This is a recurring dream, but instead of bringing her sadness as always, this time the dream brings her peace because in the dream, she got to hug him one last time.

Even though I am doing well two years and four months after the death of my life mate/soul mate, I still yearn for one last smile from him, one last hug, one last visit with him at his store where we met. It seems impossible these yearnings will go unfulfilled for the rest of my life. Like Maureen O’Hara’s character, though, I have my “memories” but in my case they are not shared songs but movies he taped. I’ve been going through his movies, weeding out the ones I will never watch again, and each movie I am keeping makes me remember a conversation we had about the movie, a particular time we watched them, a feeling I once had when he watched the movie with me.

Many of the movies he taped toward the end of his life, like The Last Dance, are about people going on alone after the death of a mate. It almost seems as if he is/was trying to help me find my way through the horror to a new peace. Some of these movies, again like The Last Dance, he edited to take out the parts he didn’t like. So not only do I have movies he taped, I have versions no one else in the entire world has. For example, he edited out all the flashbacks in The Last Dance, so I never see Maureen O’Hara’s young husband. I only know him through her love, her tears, her feelings about the possessions she is getting rid of in preparation for her own death, and in the stories she tells Eric Stolz and his family. This makes for a stronger story, keeping it all in the present, and it makes the relationship between O’Hara and Stolz more compelling.

But more than that, it makes it my story, a story about a woman yearning for one last moment with the man she loved.

Review of Grief: The Great Yearning

What a wonderful author Pat is. I found Grief: The Great Yearning so well written and it shows you, as the reader, the full extent of grief at losing a loved one.

I totally recommend you read this author’s books. She has a way with words and knows how to capture her reader right from the start.

Grief: The Great Yearning is an emotional ride and I promise you, you will need a hankie when reading, but I am so glad I have read it and I wish Pat every success with this book.
— review written by Sylvia Kerslake


Excerpt from Grief: The Great Yearning

Day 39, Grief Journal

I detest this roller coaster of emotions, though it’s not a roller coaster since there are no ups, only downs. It’s more of a side-to-side shimmy.

I woke this morning in tears. I am still depressed. Still feel way too much mental and physical pain. Still scream for him.

Someone suggested that I concentrate on the enrichment he brought to my life and less on my loss. It’s too soon for that, though — even good memories bring about a spate of grief. I hate feeling so maimed. I hate feeling that there is no one just for me any more. I hate feeling so damn alone.

At the grief group yesterday a woman said she wished her divorced daughter would find someone to grow old with. As if that’s all that was necessary — to find someone. I did have someone to grow old with, and now I don’t. Even if I come out of this okay, he will still be dead, so how is that okay? Damn it! This is not the way our lives were supposed to be!

I’ve been reading old Reader’s Digests, and boy, are those enough to scare a person half to death — stories of awful diseases, dreadful problems of aging, terrible accidents, all the horrors the world has to offer. And from now on, whatever happens to me, I’ll have to deal with it alone.

We always tried to be safe, to be healthy, and still, he got sick. A mutual acquaintance said to me, “How could he have let himself get sick like that?” What??!! As if he chose to get cancer. Sheesh. A woman at the grief group mentioned that this county has a higher than normal rate of cancer. Could that have been a factor? Even if it is, it doesn’t change anything.

I hope he didn’t suffer too much at the very end.

I miss him. I miss working with him, talking with him, watching movies with him, laughing with him. I miss our shared hopes for a better future. It’s a good thing I have so much to do — getting my car ready for the trip, getting ready for the yard sale—otherwise I’d just sit around feeling even sorrier for myself.

I have to steel myself to go on. I will not molder for the rest of my life. If I’m going to be here on Earth, I want to live, laugh, love. But not yet. I’m not ready to let go of my grief. It’s all I have left of him.


Grief: The Great Yearning is available from Amazon (both print and kindle), Second Wind Publishing (at a $2.00 discount!), and Smashwords (download the first 20% free in any ebook format).