Grief Update: Going on Alone

A week ago I mentioned that all of a sudden my grief seemed to have changed, and that change appears to be holding true.

After the second anniversary of the death of my life mate/soul mate I didn’t feel any different than I’d felt the previous year. I was still sad and weepy at times, and more recently I had a week-long grief upsurge starting on the fourth of July, but lately, as I’m nearing the two-and-a-third-year mark, I seem to have made some sort of accommodation with his death and my grief.

For most of the past twenty-eight months, I’ve felt bad for him, for the horror of his last years, and for all that he is missing out on, but I don’t feel bad for him any more. I’m glad he’s out of this life, glad he doesn’t have to deal with any of the political, financial, and medical changes that are coming our way, glad he no longer has to contend with growing old or to be fearful of ending up as a helpless invalid.

I’m sorry his life was cut short, but his death doesn’t shatter me any more. I take comfort in knowing that for the most part, he did it his way. He endured incredible pain, but he knew any drugs strong enough to end his suffering would also end him, and that proved to be true. When he finally had to start taking morphine, he became someone else, and I’m glad he didn’t have to endure living as that stranger for very long. I still miss him, will always miss him, but someday I will be dead, too. He just went first. It would have been nice if we’d had more good years together, but because of his illness, the good years were behind us. It would have been nice to have had more of our dreams come true and more of our hopes work out, but they no longer matter since our shared hopes and dreams died when he did.

I still have times of doubt and fears, sorrow and tears, still question the meaning of it all, but I’m getting used to the idea of going on alone, getting used to the idea of being alone.

Tomorrow, of course, I could be back in the depths of grief, feeling shattered beyond repair, but I don’t think so. The tears that come now are more nostalgic than agonizing. When I think about it, I still hate that he’s dead, but I don’t think about it much. I try to focus more on being me, on being here in this day. I still feel a disconnect, as if some of the tendons connecting me to life that ripped when he died have never healed, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The disconnect reminds me that everything comes to an end sooner or later, even me.

Getting over the worst of the pain of grief is only the first step. Next comes rebuilding. Although I don’t believe in destiny and signs and things that are meant-to-be, part of me clings to the idea that he wouldn’t have left me if he hadn’t known I’ll be okay. I hold on to that thought because otherwise the idea of growing old alone scares me, as does the idea of creating a whole new life for myself.

I won’t say reconstructing my life will be easy in comparison to the agony and angst of losing the one person who connects me to the world since I don’t know what challenges lie before me. But I will say that after surviving such devastating grief, I have become stronger than I ever thought possible, and I will be able to handle whatever comes my way.

Grief — Two Years Minus Five Hours

In five hours, it will be exactly two years since my life mate/soul mate died of inoperable kidney cancer. He and I shared so much that even as I am getting to where I can accept the situation, even accept that I might find peace or possibly happiness, I can’t forget that it’s at his expense. I wonder what this feels like from his perspective. I know he wants me to go on, to get what I can from life — he told me that — but still, where is he in all this? At some point, our separation has to be complete, doesn’t it? I have to realize that whatever I say or think or do has no affect on him — it can’t change anything that happened. It can’t bring him back. And I don’t want him back — his death was too hard-won.

Iron Sam, the dying hit man in my novel Daughter Am I, told my hero Mary that a person experiences death only once. Well, my mate’s dying was my experience of death. The utter undoableness of it — the finality — shocked me to my core (and still gives me that falling-elevator feeling of panic when I think of his being dead). That shock must be what can only be experienced once. A prognosis of my own death probably won’t have the same impact on me as his diagnosis. Will I have his strength, his courage? I won’t have him, and that might not be a bad thing. Maybe my death will be easier to handle if I know I’m not going to devastate anyone when I go. (I think about that, how hard it must have been on him to know he wouldn’t be here to comfort me after he was gone.)

People always talk about finding someone to grow old with (and oh! I so do not want to grow old alone), but I’m not sure growing old with someone is a blessing. Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of very old couples (this area is filled with hospitals, doctors offices, oncology clinics, pain treatment centers, nursing homes) and I try to imagine what it would be like for the two of us to deal with each other’s old age infirmities. I’m glad he’ll be spared that. It was hard enough for him to die without having to worry about my dying, too.

I wish he were waiting for me on the other side of grief so we could start a new life together, and in a way he will be there — he is still so much a part of me. Maybe literally a part of me. If we’re all made of stardust, if everything is commingled, how much more commingled are we who spent so many decades in each other’s company! The biorhythms of people who live together ebb and flow in sync. Benign and not so benign viruses carry cell information from one to the other, intermingling physical bodies on a cellular level. As one of my fellow bereft reminded me yesterday, “The heart puts out an electrical field which is measurable and it intertwines with the electrical field of the other loved one and when that is gone, the body knows it and feels the loss.”

I’ve heard that every seven years a person’s cells completely turn over, so that in seven years you become a different person. In seven years, then, maybe I won’t feel such yearning for him since he will no longer be written into the fabric of new cells. But beyond the physical commingling, there are all the movies we watched together, the books we shared, the thousands upon thousands of hours of electric conversation, the ideas we developed, the businesses we created — all those are part of me.

But  there is so much that will never be part of my life again. His smile nourished my soul, his laughter warmed my heart, his voice soothed my ears, his wise counsel eased my mind.

How have I survived such enormous losses? One day a time, that’s how. Sometimes one tear at a time. And so two years (minus five hours) have passed.

Anniversaries of Grief

I don’t know why certain anniversaries loom so large in our lives, but for whatever reason, the anniversaries of grief are immense. At the beginning of my grief over the death of my life mate/soul mate, a minister friend told me that always on the anniversary, even if I’m not consciously aware of the date, I will feel an upsurge of grief. This is only my second anniversary, with perhaps dozens still to come, but I can already see the truth of his words. Grief comes from somewhere deep within, somewhere deeper than thought, somewhere deeper than volition. And it keeps track of time.

People who have not experienced a grievous loss often think that grief is a choice. Sometimes, especially when young children are involved, the remaining parent can put off grief to focus on the childrens’ needs, but still, grief will surface at the anniversary. Later in life, this grief will surface again, perhaps when the last child leaves home, or when a beloved pet dies. I know a woman who went from taking care of a dying husband to taking care of her aged mother. She didn’t grieve after the death of her husband because of this new focus, but the death of her mother about destroyed her. For most of us, though, grief cannot be denied. We embrace it or it embraces us, and we reap the whirlwind.

This anniversary phenomena does mystify me, though. I’ve been experiencing a devastating grief upsurge, and yet nothing significant happens on the anniversary to count for all the sorrow. In fact, if last year is anything to go by, the day itself will be peaceful, bringing with it a quiet gladness that he was in my life. But the anniversary is not the end of anything. In fact, it is the beginning of something even worse — the beginning of another year without him. Another year where he is dead. Another year of trying to build a future on the ashes of our shared past.

The worst thing, of course, is that I’ve had two years of living in a world where he does not exist. The sheer goneness of him builds rather than dissipates. He is more gone now than he was two years ago, and next year he will be even more gone. Apparently, one can get used to anything, so eventually I’ll simply get used to the feeling of emptiness he left in the world, perhaps even learn to look beyond the blank space on Earth he once inhabited.

I hope, of course, I will be able to find a new life. Or do I mean a new focus? Because, of course, this is my life and always has been. It was my life before I met him, it was my life while we were together, and it is still my life, as alien as it feels. And as much as I hate that he is dead, as much as I fight the idea that I am still alive, the truth is that he is, and that I am.

Counting Down to the Second Anniversary of Grief

I’ve been on a grief hiatus for a few months — no major upsurges of grief — but yesterday, for no apparent reason, I started crying, and I’ve been crying on and off ever since. I’ve been trying not to think of the upcoming two-year anniversary of my life mate/soul mate’s death, trying to look ahead to the future, trying to find something to be passionate about (or at least something to hang my life on). Despite the exhaustion of attempting to put a good face on the seemingly bleak future, I thought I’d been doing well.

And then came the tears.

It still surprises me that the body remembers even when the conscious mind doesn’t. I’d forgotten that yesterday was the two-year anniversary of the last time we talked, the last time we were together in our home, the last time we touched. But something deep inside, something beneath thought, remembered. And grieved.

Two years ago yesterday, the hospice nurse expressed concern for us. I hadn’t slept in I don’t how many days, and neither had he. Some people, as they near death, suffer from what is called terminal restlessness. In his case, the rapidly growing tumors, his impossibly fast heart rate, the morphine, and various other factors made it impossible for him to be still. He wanted/needed to be on his feet, moving, always moving. And since he was too weak to be left alone, I would pace with him.

That last morning at home, the nurse suggested that he go to the hospice care center for a five-day respite, and he and I agreed. He knew I needed sleep (though ironically, I got very little sleep those days) and I thought they would adjust his dosages to give him the most alertness and the least pain. But they never tried. They dosed him with tranquilizers to keep him in bed, and he never had another moment of consciousness.

Those days were exactly two years ago. And I remember them as clearly as if they were happening now. I watched him die. I was there at the end. As agonizing as that was, I know there are worse things. I might not have been there when he took his last breath. I might not have witnessed the very moment he left my life. I might not have been able to say good-bye. Unlike many bereft, I don’t have to deal with those regrets.

For a long time I regretted taking him to the hospice care center — I felt as if I’d deprived him of one more day at home, one more day of lucidity, but in the end, I suppose there was no other choice. He’d stopped being able to swallow, the morphine made him disoriented, and the tranquilizers they prescribed to stop the terminal restlessness made him delusional. I’m glad he doesn’t have to deal with his body any more, but oh, I so wish I could see him once more, or talk to him on the phone, or go back to his store where we spent so much time when we were young and new.

I hope death feels better from the other side than it does from this side, because the only thing that brings me peace is the belief that he is no longer suffering. It’s strange to think that the very moment his suffering ended, mine began. I never expected to grieve. He’d been sick for so very long that his death came as a relief, but when the truth hit me, it hit with the force of a cyclone. And two years later, I am still whirling from the pain.

The Shoulder Season of Grief

I had a rough time around the publication of my new book, Grief: The Great Yearning, due partly to the fact that the story of me and my life mate/soul mate has been told and is now contained between the covers of a book, and partly to the realization once and for all that he is never coming back. I already knew that of course, knew it from the moment he died, and I came to that same realization dozens of times afterward, but this time I reached rock bottom of acceptance, and it took. Surprisingly, the last couple of days have been good ones. My emotional state evened out, and I felt light. It wasn’t just that my grief took a hiatus, but also that my anger had dissipated. I’ve been angry for so long, since way before he died, that it became my default state. Because of that, I didn’t even realize I’ve been angry.

For many years, we sustained loss after loss — his health, our business, security — and finally, his life. So many reasons to be angry. I haven’t been furious or enraged, just a quiet anger that went soul deep. So, why did the anger leave me, even if only temporarily? I don’t know. Perhaps because the realization he is never coming back brought the knowledge that the past really is the past. Or perhaps this is simply the latest stage of my grief, a letting go. Or perhaps it’s because spring is almost here.

Whatever the reason, I no longer fear the third year of grief. I expect to experience grief upsurges, but for the most part, I think I’ll be entering the shoulder season of grief.

In the travel business, the time between the high season and the low season is called the shoulder season. I’m coming up on the two-year anniversary of his death. I will probably have some unbearably sad days as the date approaches, but after the anniversary, I could be entering a time of not-grief but not non-grief, either, a bit of a shoulder between the wildness of my early grief and the road to the rest of my life.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, but I feel a quickening of interest. If I let myself, I still panic at the thought of growing old alone, of being old alone, of dying (although the idea of being dead doesn’t bother me, dying does — it can be a terrible thing) but I still have many good years left. I actually might accomplish something. Or not. I’m not sure if I want to “do” or if I want simply to “be”. I do have a new philosophy, though — the platinum rule. If the golden rule is to treat others the way you would want them to treat you, then the platinum rule is to treat yourself the way you would want others to treat you. So, I intend to be kind to myself, to be patient with my deficiencies, to be proud of my accomplishments. And I intend to encourage myself to be bold and adventurous.

Sounds like a good beginning to my shoulder season of grief.

Counting Down to the Second Anniversary of Grief

And so begins the countdown to the two-year anniversary of my life mate’s death.

I don’t know why the second anniversary of his death has me so spooked. I can’t imagine there are many surprises left for me when it comes to grief, though everything about grief up to this point has shocked me. I was shocked that I even felt grief — he’d been sick for so long, and I’d been looking forward to an ending for his pain that it never occurred to me that I would feel more than relief at his death. I was shocked by the severity of my grief and its global nature, affecting as it does, body, mind, emotions, equilibrium. I was shocked by the recurring violent upsurges of grief that made it seem as if he’d left the earth that very moment instead of months previously. I was shocked by how long grief takes. And mostly I’ve been shocked and continue to be shocked by how very gone he is.

His goneness still affects me, still bewilders me. We spent most of our time together for thirty-four years, and now he’s . . . gone. He’s not just gone from my life, he’s gone from the earth. If he were still here, maybe living with a new love, I’d miss him, and probably would be furious at him for what he put me through, but I could understand that. What I can’t understand is his total goneness. There is a void where he once was, a blankness that my mind cannot comprehend.

Still, this noncomprehension is something I am getting used to. The rough edges of the void are smoothing out, and I don’t always bang my mental shins on that enormous mindblock, though I do occasionally get a freefalling-elevator feeling when the thought hits me . . . again . . . that he is dead.

The countdown to the first anniversary of his death was very painful. It was as if I were reliving the last weeks of his life, feeling everything that I couldn’t let myself feel when I lived through it. This countdown to the second anniversary is mild compared to that, so why am I dreading the anniversary itself? I don’t know, unless I’m afraid grief still has more surprises. Or maybe I’m afraid that it holds no more surprises, and for the rest of my life I will be moving further and further away from our shared life into . . . what? I still don’t know.

For thirty-four years I was constantly aware of his presence. Even if we weren’t in the same room, I was aware of his nearness. For the past twenty-three months, I have been constantly aware of his absence. Even when I don’t consciously remember that he’s dead, there is that subliminal feeling of blank.

This blog might make you think that I have done nothing for the past twenty-three months but sit around and feel sorry for myself, and that is far from the truth. From the beginning, despite the overwhelming agony of my grief, I have taken life into my hands and run with it. I relocated a thousand miles from where we lived to help care for my 95-year-old father. I’ve traveled to new cities, made excursions to museums, fairs, expositions. I’ve walked thousands of miles, lifted weights, eaten in dozens of restaurants, sampled new foods. I’ve written hundreds of blog posts, participated in several different writing projects, read hundreds of books, made new friends.

Yet, here I am, counting down the days to the second anniversary of his death, and I still don’t know where I am going, or if I am even going anywhere. Still don’t know how to live with his ever-present absence in my life.

People keep telling me I need to focus on others, that doing volunteer work and such is how one gets through this, but I’m wondering if perhaps I need to focus on myself. He may be absent, but I am still here.

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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.