Preparing for Grief

An online friend who will soon be experiencing grief due the death of a loved one, asked me which of my books I would suggest she read to help her prepare.

To be honest, there is no way to prepare for such a physical, emotional, and spiritual upheaval. No matter how much we are prepared, the actuality of the experience is more than we could ever imagine because there is nothing that compare. Even people who have suffered comparable losses, such as an undesired divorce, are shocked when they have to contend with death as well as all the painful changes they were expecting.

We simply do not have the capacity for understanding death, what it means to the person dying, what their death means to us. When it happens, all we can do is stand at the abyss, and wonder if our grief will carry us over the edge.

The best way to prepare is to try to keep from falling into the pitfalls of regret and guilt, to try to act in a manner that won’t carry an additional burden into grief. I say “try” because there is no way to prevent such pitfalls. Even though a person might be dying, they are still alive, and life carries with it emotions and actions that that seem reasonable at the time and only in memory prove to be problematic. When one of a couple is struggling to live while the other is preparing to die, emotions run strong. The only time Jeff and I ever got into a verbal altercation was three weeks before he died. The problem is, although we know they are dying, we don’t know it. It seems as if forever after, they will be dying, and so we don’t truly fathom that one day they will be gone from our lives.

All we can do is love the person, do the best we can for them and for ourselves, and try to keep up our strength. A dying vigil is exhausting. Death tasks are exhausting. Grief is exhausting.

All that being said, both my books can help a person get through the lonely years that follow.

Grief: The Great Yearning is a compilation of letters, blog posts, and journal entries I wrote while struggling to survive my first year of grief. As one reviewer said, “This is an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Many people use this book as well as my blog posts as a checkpoint to see if what they are feeling is normal, because the truth is, such grief feels anything but normal. They need to read my story partly as a validation of their own experience and to see that they are not alone in what they feel. Grief is horrendously isolating. Few of us know anyone who has experienced grief. Few of us know anyone who is willing to let us talk about how we feel without trying to “fix” us. Death is simply not fixable. It’s something that must be assimilated. And grief is how we assimilate such a profound loss.

Although the official consensus is that everyone’s grief is different, I have found the opposite to be true. We may actually grieve differently in that some people cry, some scream, some become ill, some refuse to acknowledge their feelings, but the pattern of grief after the loss of a spouse, life mate, soul mate is more or less the same for most of us. So this is not just my story, but the story of many grievers I have encountered during the years after the death of my life mate/soul mate.

Grief: The Great Yearning is a personal look at grief from the inside out. Grief: The Inside Story is look at grief from the outside in, written eight years after the onset of my grief. It’s more of a guide, an explanation of the various permutations of grief and how it changes us than simply one woman’s story. Although the book is obviously personal since my grief is the grief I am most familiar with, other people have allowed me to use their thoughts and experiences to create this guide, this explanation of grief and what the experience entails.

Coping with the death of a loved one can be the most traumatic and stressful situation most people ever deal with — and the practical and emotional help available to the bereaved is often very poor. As the bereaved struggle to make sense of their new situation they often find that the advice they receive is produced by medical professionals who have never personally experienced grief; and filled with platitudes and clichés, with very little practical help. How long does grief last? What can I do to help myself? Are there really five stages of grief? Why can’t other people understand how I feel? Will I ever be happy again? Grief: The Inside Story debunks many established beliefs about what grief is, how it affects those left behind, and how to adjust to a world that no longer contains your loved one.

Although I don’t often include it with my grief books because it is fiction, Unfinished is also an important about grief. It shows the emotional instability and practical concerns the woman character experiences while her husband is dying and shows the surreal thinking that she experienced after he was died. One reviewer found it unbelievable that a woman who so loved her husband that she experienced so much mental and physical devastation after he died, would act the way she did, carrying on with another man during that last year. But all that shows me is that she was never there. You truly do not know the skewed way one can think when forced into such an untenable situation.

Would anyone believe, considering all my talk of grief, considering our almost cosmic connection, considering all he had meant to me over the decades we were together, that there were times during that last year of our shared life when I hated him, when I just wished he’d die and get it over with? Many of us have been there, and it is a secret we hold close, seldom admitting it even to ourselves. (Thinking back, I’m sure he knew, and I’m sure he never held it against me, though I did.)

I guess, then, after reviewing all my books, a person who wants to prepare themselves for what is coming, should read Unfinished first, then Grief: The Great Yearning, and finally, Grief: The Inside Story.

Open Sesame!

I had lunch with a friend today, and she asked if I was writing anything, so I told her the story of my grieving woman, one of the two moribund works I’ve been slowly resurrecting.

It was gratifying to see her rapt face as the story unfolded, and her attention gave me a boost of ambition to finish the story. To be honest, though, I don’t need the boost — I’ve been enjoying working/playing with the manuscript.

I say working/playing, because it isn’t work — work connotes toil and energy expended with perhaps a monetary reward at the end, and though I have been working on the book, it hasn’t been work. More like puzzle play. I wrote many of the scenes a few months after my life mate/soul mate died, attempting to deal with my grief and record the pain before I NaNoWinnerforgot some of the particulars. It’s been long enough now that the pain is mostly a faint and bewildering memory, so working on the book, even the agonizing scenes, isn’t a hardship.

I started the novel as a NaNoWriMo project to see if I could meet the challenge of 50,000 words in a month. Despite being a slow writer, I did complete the required number of words, though to do so, each day I had to write whatever scene came to mind. I have a stack of scenes that have to be put into some sort of order before I do the difficult scenes, the fill-in sections, the transitions, the descriptions — all the parts that are hard for me to write but need to be included. That could take a while, since I only have about 40,000 words, which falls short of a full novel.

Now, however, I am typing up what I’ve written and trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. For example, I have a flashback scene that shows her dying husband laboriously filling page after page with what looks like his daughter’s name, and he keeps talking about his “sesame.” (Like my life mate/soul mate, the poor guy is not able to find the correct words to say what he means.)

In another scene, my grieving woman checks his computer to see if she can find his estranged mother’s address so she can notify her of her son’s death, and she comes across a file labeled “journal.” She clicks on the file, curious, because she’d never known him to keep a journal, and finds it password protected. Though she tries all the passwords she’s known him to use, she can’t open the file.

Now here’s the problem — which scene should come first? The sesame flashback or the journal scene? “Sesame” of course, is short for “open sesame,” which is what his poor cancer-addled brain is calling a password, though she doesn’t know that. If the sesame flashback came first, would it be obvious when the journal scene comes around that he’d been trying to figure out the password? If the journal scene comes first, would it be obvious when the sesame flashback comes around that he’d been trying to figure out the password?

Oh, that all my problems should be so insignificantly significant!


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.