Alone in a Stranger’s House

This is the fourth house I have stayed in since I left my father’s house, and the first one where I’ve been totally alone for any length of time. I’m tiptoeing around, feeling a bit guilty about borrowing another orangeroseperson’s luxury, especially since I don’t know the people all that well. (I know the woman from Hawaiian dance class, but I’d only just met her husband.) She assured me I am doing her a favor by being here since she doesn’t have to worry about stopping the newspaper, putting a hold on her mail, and risking the death of her plants, but still, I feel as if I’m encroaching. I suppose it’s this hesitancy to encroach that makes me an ideal housesitter — I’m not disrespectful of other people’s space and belongings.

They’ll be back at the end of next week, and when I mentioned the possibility of my leaving after the end of those ten days, she said, “Oh, no. You’re staying through Saturday, at least.” Her book club meets that day, and apparently, I will be the main attraction, the sacrificial lamb, or the guest of honor. Not sure which. With any luck, my car will be done by then, and I’ll be able to go to my storage unit and dig out my books. And if not, maybe I can find a ride. It will be nice to play author for a change.

People still tell me I need to make plans for my future, that I need to move on, but this is how I am moving on — embracing the uncertainty of life. Some people understand my reluctance to settle down, especially those who have also lost parents, spouses, soul mates, but others look at me with bewilderment, as if I am an alien species.  For now, though, I’m enjoying this catch-as-catch-can existence. It helps me appreciate the immediacy of life, concentrating on today, and not callalilylooking too far in the future. I have a comfortable place to spend this cloudy and humid night, and for several nights to come. After that, things will work out or they won’t, but either way, those future “things” whatever they might be, have nothing to do with today.

Today I had dance classes. Today I had lunch with a friend. Today, my friend and I explored my new neighborhood, peeking through wrought iron gates to see the secret community hidden within. (Lovely stone houses, so at odds with the usual bland stucco and tile architecture of this area.) Today I read a book. Today I ate well, maybe too well! Today I watched the birds at the bird feeder and the hummingbirds at the hummingbird feeder. Today I took photos of flowers that caught my eye. Today I have my computer set up, which always gives me a feeling that all is right with my world. Today I am blogging, and so I know all is right with my world, even if — especially if — I am alone in a stranger’s house.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels 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.

We Are Not Our Stuff

Strange day today. I packed what was left of Jeff’s things, both the items he asked me to save and the items I still can’t get rid of such as the sweater he was wearing when we met and his “new” jacket. I’ve had his antique perpetual perpetual calendarcalendar and several of the smaller items on my dresser ever since I got here to my father’s house. They brought me comfort then, and I thought I would feel sad now that they are packed away, but it just seems part of the process of my moving on.

Only two things caught me off guard. I have two original copies of his death certificate, and I opened the envelope to pull out one so I could put it with my papers to make it more accessible if I need it, and in the envelope I found the certificate of cremation. Did I ever read it? Did I ever know it was there? I can’t remember, but oh, the pain when I read those stark words today. “This is to certify that the remains of ____________ were cremated by authority of Pat Bertram.” Cripes. Even worse was the label they gave me to put on the urn if I ever traveled with those remains: This package contains the remains of _______________ whose body was cremated on March 31, 2010. Apparently, it’s illegal to travel with unmarked human remains. Well, that’s just too bad. One of these days, I will figure out what to do with those remains, and I sincerely doubt I will be labeling him (it? them?) like a commonplace parcel. (Unless you are on the human remains regulatory committee, then of course I will be labeling them.)

But the pain of dealing with his remains is reserved for another day. Today, after I packed up what is left of his possessions, I hesitated, not sure how to label the box. If he were alive, of course, I’d just put his name on the carton, but I didn’t want it to seem (even to me) as if he were inside that box. We are not our stuff. In the end, I just wrote, “J’s things.”

One amusing note (amusing to me, anyway). When I came here after Jeff’s death, a local mover gave me a great rate since his driver was going to be passing this town, and he had empty space in his moving van. I asked him if he would come pick the stuff up when I was ready to leave, and mentioned that there would be less to move back. He laughed and said, “That’s what everyone says, that they are going to get rid of things, but they always end up with more.” Not me. I have done a good job of getting rid of stuff. By the time I figure out where I want the stuff moved, I hope I will have gotten rid of even more.

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

A Child of Grief

My life mate/soul mate died thirty-three months ago today, and I found myself hesitating before writing this post. I worried it might seem as if I am trying to keep myself in the center of a drama, a drama that has long since lost its power and poignancy. But the truth is, even though I am not actively mourning — at least not often, and not much — grief still shades every moment of my life.

untitledvWhen people fall in love, when they are giddy with hormones, when they get caught up in the emotion of their love and the dream of a wonderful new life together, their friends and family never tell them,  “Okay. Enough. It’s time to get over your love and move on.” The whole world celebrates their love (or so it seems to the new couple), and everything they say and do for the rest of their lives is shaded by this focus on each other.

Grief reflects this process, though through a dark mirror. The newly bereft are buffeted by hormones, caught up in the emotion and pain of their loss, tormented by a future that no longer has any meaning, focused on someone who is no longer there. The loved one might be dead, but the love doesn’t die. (What do you do with love when it is no longer needed? I never have figured that one out.) And the bereft are told, “Okay. Enough. It’s time to get over your grief and move on.”

Other people get tired of our drama, but for us, it is always there — a blankness in our lives. An absence.

I am doing well, trying new things, preparing myself for a future alone. I have hermit tendencies, so to make sure that I don’t stagnate, I am planning adventures — simple excursions and experiences for today and complicated journeys for another time. From the beginning, I embraced my grief, wanting to process the guilts and regrets, the anger and fears as quickly as possible so I could charge into whatever the future held for me. I am now more determined than ever to celebrate life, and yet . . .and yet . . .

I am aware that if it weren’t for his death, I wouldn’t need to worry about my hermit tendencies. We were hermits together, friends in our solitude. Until those last years when he could barely drag himself out of bed, we did everything together, so there was no reason to plan solitary experiences or excursions. Every day with him brought the possibility of something exciting, even if only a long rambling conversation through history, science, philosophy and back to history, so there was no need to find a way to keep from stagnating. But now there is.

Grief has shaped my life in other ways. I am here in the desert because he is dead. I am taking care of my father because I am not needed elsewhere now that my life mate/soul mate is gone. I made new friends through my attendance at a grief support group, and those friendships have long outlasted the group. I am taking yoga classes, learning to find a new way to open to the universe because he is no longer here keeping me connected to the world.

His absence is still a very real presence in my life. I don’t feel his total goneness as much as I did at the beginning, but I am aware of his absence. My yearning to see him once more doesn’t claw at me the way it once did, but I am aware that I will never again hear his voice or be warmed by his smile. I am far beyond the days where I curled up, cradling my new pain and sorrow as if it were some sort of new born creature, but what those days did to me — stealing away the last of my naiveté, lightheartedness, and innocence — will remain with me forever.

I am a child of grief. No matter how adventurous or fulfilling my life might end up being, no matter who or what I grow to be, something deep inside of me will always be aware of the death that made these changes necessary, the absence that made them possible.

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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+

Echoes of Grief

Today marks twenty-nine months since the death of my life mate/soul mate/best friend. I’ve come a very long way from that shattered woman who screamed her pain to the winds, who cried for hours when she accidentally broke his mug.

I still miss him, still want one more word from him, one more smile, one more day. I still have an upsurge of sorrow when I remember he is gone. And although I know — I feel — how very gone he is from my life, I still am prone to the foolish fantasy that when I am finished looking after my father and leave here to start a new life, my mate and I will be starting it together. But . . .

I barely remember our life together. It seems so very long ago and as if it happened to someone else. (Which is true — it did. Because of what I have endured these past two years and five months, because of embracing the challenges of the present and opening myself to hopes for the future, I am not the same as I was then.) I’ve turned enough corners now that even my grief seems unreal, as if that, too, happened to a different person. And yet . . .

Our shared life is very much a part of me still. Almost everything I do is accompanied by an echo from our past, almost everything I use originates from that time. I’ve bought a few new things — bits of clothing, mugs with my book covers on them (a totally indulgent purchase since I seldom use mugs), but I don’t really need anything. Most of our possessions are in storage, and I both dread and look forward to the day when I unpack them. I’m not sure whether I will find comfort in having our things around me, or if I will find more pain, but that puzzle is for another day, and perhaps another person. I am changing rapidly and will continue to change as my life changes, so the person who will need to deal with those possessions is not the me of today.

In a strange sort of way, I have been getting messages from him. Not messages from wherever he is now, but from where he was when he still inhabited this earth.

He used to tape movies — movies that we both liked, and movies that spoke specially to him. I am going through his movie collection, watching in backward order (from the ones he taped last to the ones he taped first), and I catch glimpses of what concerned him toward the end of his life. Death, of course, and me, perhaps. So many of the movies he taped that last year were about people (mostly women) whose spouse had died, forcing them to create new lives for themselves.

We watched these movies together when he first taped them, and I thought I knew then why he liked them — he was always fascinated with second chances, new beginnings, characters who came out of catastrophes to find renewal. But now, seeing the movies from this side of his death, they have a whole new meaning for me. Over and over again is the message: take care of yourself, accept the challenge and the change and the freedom that death brings, and most of all, find happiness again.

Sheesh. I made myself cry. But dang it — this new life would be so much more happier if he were here to share it.

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: The Great Yearning

Now that my grief for my lost soul mate is evolving away from a focus on all I’ve lost and the accompanying pain, I can see the process more clearly. Perhaps for some people the stages of grief — denial, guilt, anger, depression, acceptance — hold true, but for me and for most of the bereft I have met on this journey, those stages have little meaning. For most of us, anger and even guilt are more like quickly passing moods than lingering phases. Some of us get depressed, but most of us don’t. We’re just get damn sad, which is not the same thing as depression. I’ve been in that dark pit and I know what it’s like. This sorrow, no matter how intense, is not depression. And acceptance is not the end — in itself acceptance brings no peace. What does bring peace is feeling the grief and letting it evolve into something we can live with because the loss — the yearning — will always be a part of us. Getting to that point can take years, depending on the depth of the relationship.

Grief is an incredibly complex state that constantly changes and constantly brings changes. The underlying emotion of grief is yearning, not guilt or anger. Even after we’ve put our shattered psyches back together as best as we can, even after we’ve come to an acceptance of our new situation, the yearning to see our loved one last time can be overwhelmingly painful at times. The yearning (such a mild word for the ache or craving or hunger that tears at us) is often manageable, other times it shoots through us like a geyser bursting out of calm waters. Even decades after losing a spouse, or so I’ve been told, we bereft still feel the loss, still yearn for our mates.

A friend who lost her life mate four months after I lost mine, told me how much she hates people telling her to “move on”. She’s not like me, spouting her pain into cyberspace for all to see. If you didn’t know she’d experienced such a soul-shattering loss, you’d never be able to guess it — she’s keeping her grief to herself lest it burden others. She’s taking care of her family. She’s accepting the responsibility for an aging parent. She made the holidays special for those around her. She’s writing. She’s even going out and having fun, or at least as much as is possible considering her situation. In fact, she’s doing all that she ever did, and doing it well. Yet people tell her to move on with her life. What else is there to move on to? Her grief in no way debilitates her. It’s simply a part of her life, this ache to see her mate one more time.

Searching is another major component of grief that is ignored in the “stages” concept. We bereft search for our mates in crowds. We cry out for them, especially at the beginning. We search for them in our dreams. Of course we know we won’t find them. This isn’t a mental aberration, and it certainly isn’t denial. It’s simply a way of coping with the unthinkable. How can our loved ones be gone so completely? It’s the goneness that confuses us, pains us. It destroys everything we always accepted about the world. (Of course we knew all lives end in death, but we didn’t KNOW it.) As the search for our lost one diminishes, we begin searching for ourselves, for our place in this new, unthinkable world.

It would be so much easier to deal with grief if we had a list of stages to go through and to check off as we experience them, but that simply isn’t the case.

So we yearn, and we search, and we go on living.

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.

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Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.