Saying Good-bye

100_0876bDuring the past three years, I’ve met way too many people who have lost their mates. (Until I became one of them, I had no idea the vast numbers of people living with such grief). Some, like me, lost their mates through a long dying. Others lost them instantly. I’ve never been able to figure out which is worse for survivors to deal with. The quick deaths bring such shock and disbelief that it seems impossible to survive, but we who have plenty of time to get used to the idea have to deal with the memories of our lack of generosity toward our long-dying mates. The trouble is that when someone dies slowly, as the months and maybe even years pass, we get used to their dying. The dying itself becomes a way of life, so that a flash of irritation here or a lack of empathy there means little in the fullness of the days. It’s only when they are gone that these things loom large, and we wonder why we couldn’t have held to our equanimity just a couple of months longer.

But of course, we did not know how short a time we had to be with him. It felt like a new low is all, and at the end, death came in an instant, as all deaths do, bringing shock and disbelief.

In the world of grief, I am one of the lucky ones — I got to say good-bye. That is the thing that haunts so many bereft — their inability bid farewell to the person who meant more to them than any other. It’s not just those whose spouses died suddenly in an accident or from an unnexpected heart attack who never got a chance to say good-bye. I’ve heard sad stories of hospital personnel cleaning out the emergency room too quickly so that the person left behind never even got a chance to see their beloved one last time. I’ve heard of nurses who demanded the bereft to be quiet in their weeping or quick in saying those few final precious words. I’ve heard of doctors who insisted the ill one would get better, giving the couple no reason to believe they would need to say good-bye.

One woman, whose husband died in a vehicle accident, was particularly sick with regret. After she’d been notified of the tragedy, she’d gone to the hospital to find him already on the way to the morgue, leaving her  with no way to say good-bye. She too, is one of the lucky ones. He came to her in a dream, and told her it was okay, that he’d already been gone from his body, and that he loved her. And in a way, he had already said good-bye. Shortly before his accident, he had called family and friends he hadn’t talked to in a while and chatted with them for no real particular reason, and then a day or two later he unexpectedly invited her to a special lunch. Two hours after that lunch, he was dead.

Such pre-good-byes are fairly common, as if something in us knows the time of our death and prepares for it, but many bereft are left without even such a farewell to bring them comfort. Since parting words seem so important to the grief process, the unfarewelled bereft have to find other ways to say good-bye such as writing letters to the one who is gone, talking to him, or taking a memorial trip to a place that had special meaning. Actually, these are good ideas even for those of us who did get to say good-bye. I’ve written him and talked to him. Maybe one day I’ll take a memorial trip to a place with special meaning, though to be honest, everyplace we ever went — even the grocery store — was special because we were together.

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

Death and Dying: Good-bye Experiences

70During the past thirty-two months since the death of my life mate/soul mate, I have shared my grief, and in turn others have shared their grief with me, telling me stories they never told anyone else. I have heard incredible tales of signs and dreams and feelings of connection to the one who has left earthly life behind, which makes me realize that something is going on beneath the surface of earthly life, though I don’t know what.

Although I concede that near death experiences exist, I do not believe that NDEs are necessarily an encounter with those who are dead. We humans are so incredibly complex, that these experiences could be an as yet unknown state of consciousness, such as a dream state, or maybe even a dip into the collective consciousness. I’ve heard of too many people who saw the white light, saw their loved ones begin to draw near and then immediately recede as the nearly dead person returned to consciousness. It seems peculiar to me that the dead have nothing better to do than wait for someone to begin to die, to hurry and don their earthly bodies to rally round on the off chance that the person will die, and then shrug off their earthly personas and go back to doing whatever their disembodied selves were doing before being called to reception duty.

On the other hand, there have been an incredible number of instances of people saying good-bye before they left the earth for good.

Sometimes the good-byes were said while the people were still alive. I’ve heard many stories of perfectly healthy people who visited and called family and friends they hadn’t seen in a while, and then a few days later they had an accident or a heart attack and died. It was as if part of them knew they were going to leave this earth, and they were saying good-bye even though they didn’t consciously realize that is what they were doing.

Sometimes the good-byes were said after the people were dead. A boy’s grandmother stopped by to tell him that she would be okay and not to spend his life in sadness. A woman whose husband died in an accident never got a chance to say good-bye before the hospital removed his body, but that night, she felt a kiss on her cheek and his whispered words that it didn’t matter, that he’d already been dead when he reached the hospital. A woman who swam too far out into the ocean and was floundering in panic heard her mother tell her to relax, that she would be okay, and later found that her mother had died at that very moment. A woman who lost her husband had incredibly rich and coincidental experiences every Monday during the first six months after he died. She could even feel his anger, but now, eighteen months later, he is finally leaving her alone to find her own way.

And sometimes the messages come in dreams. One daughter planned to move in with her mother, and that night her father visited her in a dream and said he was glad, that her mother needed her. (The daughter told her mother to tell her father to stay out of her dreams.)

Even I had a good-bye experience. Two of them, actually.

For the last year of his life, my love and I argued about what I would do afterward. He thought I should go stay with my father where I would be safe and warm and fed, but I could not bear the thought of doing so. I’d just finished caring for one dying man, and I didn’t want to look after another. While he was in a coma during his last days, however, I finally decided to follow his wishes and come stay with my dad, and I told him so. Just a few hours later, he died.

At the moment of his death (or rather, when his breathing and his heart stopped), I did not feel anything except a moment of relief that his suffering was over. I watched the nurses clean his body and shroud it in a blanket, then I waited numbly for the funeral director. After she took away his body (in a black SUV, not a hearse), I left. The highway was dry, but about halfway home, my car suddenly went careening, around and around, back and forth, totally out of control. (I assumed I hit a patch of black ice, but that was such a peculiar night, I can’t say for sure.) I thought I was going to die, but oddly, I never left the road. The car finally came to a halt facing the wrong way on the highway. I was fine. So was the car. As I sat there gripping the wheel, I wondered if he had stopped by on his way out of this world to save me, to leave me a final reminder to be careful, or maybe give a shake of his ghostly head at this evidence of my carelessness. (He always worried that I wasn’t careful enough.) I remember feeling him leaving this earth — like a breath passing over head — but to be honest, I don’t know if I really felt his leaving at the time or if the impression was something my mind created later to explain the bewildering event. It was after this particular near death experience (as out of control as the car was, it truly is amazing that I survived intact), that the feeling of his goneness slammed into me, and I never again have had any sense of his presence in my life.

What was he doing for those hours before he left this earth? Finishing his dying, possibly. Closing down systems of the body and brain that have yet to be discovered. From grief, I have learned the power of our lizard brain, learned that there is way more to the brain — and human biology, psychology, and consciousness — than is in our textbooks.

So what does all this mean? I don’t know, and that’s the truth of it.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy 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+

Dealing With Grief After a Loved One’s Long-Term Illness

There are so many misconceptions about grief that still, after two years of being steeped in the culture of the bereft, I am surprised by people’s comments. I met a woman the other day who asked about my experiences with the death of my life mate/soul mate, and when I told her that he had been sick for many years, she said, “It must have been a lot easier for you than if he had died suddenly in a car accident or something.” Um . . . no.

All deaths bring trauma to the survivors, and you cannot compare relative severities. If someone dies suddenly, the survivors have to deal with unbelievable shock, with the dreadful chores of laying the dead to rest, with the after effects of the loss, with the despair of not having been able to say good-bye, with finding hurtful troves of personal belongings that the deceased would have gotten rid of if they had known they were dying, and probably dozens of other issues of which I am unaware.

If someone dies after a prolonged illness, you still have the shock. Even though you know the person is dying, you get used to it. Their dying becomes a fact of your life, and you just somehow assume that is the way it will always be — their dying, your struggling to live despite it. And when they die, it comes as an unbelievable shock. And, as with any death, the total goneness of the person adds to the confusion and shock. You expected to feel the same way when they were gone as you always did, because, after all, you’d been preparing yourself for years for that eventuality. But you don’t feel the same, you don’t feel any way you could ever have imagined. The onslaught of physical/emotional/spiritual trauma is the same as if he had died suddenly, because all death is sudden. He is alive and then a fraction of a second later, he is dead. There is no in between state. And there is no way to prepare yourself for his total goneness. Nor is there any way to prepare yourself for the reactions of your body and mind. These reactions come without your knowledge, your consent, or your inclination.

Afterward, of course, you have to deal with the chores of laying the dead to rest and with the effects of the loss. Sometimes you have to deal with the despair of not having been able to say good-bye — often doctors hold out hope, wrongly assuming they are doing you a service, when in fact the truth would have been more compassionate. At the very least, you’d have had a chance to say good-bye. This might not seem like much to those who have not suffered a grievous loss, but I did have a chance to say good-bye, and it brought me enormous comfort over the past couple of years. I cannot imagine the pain of not being able to say good-bye or saying one last “l love you” or hugging one more time. Those are moments that are stolen from so many bereft, moments that can never be captured.

Those whose loved ones take many years to die end up with all sorts of traumas and issues because of the long dying. You hate yourself for having taken his dying for granted. You are appalled at yourself for all the times you got angry at or irritated by his infirmities. You feel guilty that you held fast to your own life while his seeped away. You wish you could recall every impatient word, every bristling stance, every horrible thought. (I remember once wishing he’d just die and put us both out of our misery. It was a fleeting thought, and understandable, but still, I wish I’d been less human at that moment and more humane.) All of these traumas add to your grief, because each has to be acknowledged, understood, forgiven.

If your mate died after suffering a long time, you do have the scant comfort of knowing he is no longer in pain, but you also have to deal with the agonizing corollary that he shouldn’t have had to suffer at all.

Even if it were easier to deal with death after a prolonged illness rather than a sudden death, (or vice versa) the truth is still the same, and still unbearable. He is dead, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

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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.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.