The Sorrow, Stress, and Solitariness of Grief

A friend asked me how long it took me not to cry every day after Jeff died. My first response was “months” because I didn’t want to freak her out with how long grief lasts, but when I realized that it was better to be forewarned, I told her the truth.

I don’t remember when I stopped crying every day, but I know it went on for years. In a way, it’s not as bad as it sounds. At the beginning I cried almost all the time, but as the months passed, even though I still cried every day, it was not as long or as often. Even years after Jeff died, I was still tearing up almost every day — not really crying, but not not-crying, either. Sometimes the tears came from missing him or loneliness or exhaustion or being around those who were still happily married. Other times, something happened to cause the upsurge of grief: a smell, a memory, something I read or saw.

Now, months go by without a tear, but then, I am not a new widow. I am used to his being gone, used to being alone, used to the void that remains somewhere deep inside.

Not everyone has that deep well of tears, but enough of us do that I know tears are a normal part of dealing with such a devastating loss. Losing a life mate ranks at the very top of stressful situations. On a scale of 1 to 100, the loss of a life mate or child tops all at 100. Divorce, the second worse stressor is 73.

Sorrow. Stress. Solitariness. Any one of those makes for a very rough time, but when they all come at once, as they do when one has suffered a profound loss, they create a near-impossible situation. No wonder tears are such a common occurrence after the loss of a spouse or soul mate or life mate.

Although none of us like to cry, and although we perceive tears to be a sign of weakness, tears are necessary to help us relieve the incredible stress of grief. What adds to an already stressful situation (not the least being that the one person we need to help us through our loss is the very person we are mourning) is the sporadic and chaotic nature of grief. We can be doing fine — fine meaning not tearful — when suddenly, we are overtaken by grief. When that bout of sorrow is over, we think we have a grip, and then we’re hit again with the realization of our loss, and there we are, back at the beginning.

Unsettled times such as this current world-wide crisis, as well as the enforced isolation, can make grief even worse since there is nothing to do to take one’s mind off the pain, nowhere to run to for a moment of solace.

But there are always tears. At the beginning, crying seemed to make me feel worse, but as time went by and I realized that there were worst things than crying — such as suffering the physical and mental effects of stress — I came to appreciate the relief. Later, I came to welcome any tears because they seemed to bridge the gap and make me feel closer to him, and if not to him, then to my grief.

And if there are no tears to relieve the sorrow, stress, and solitariness of grief? Then you can try screaming. That works, too.


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.

The Joys of Packing for Long Term Storage

Packing for long term storage gets complicated, especially when it comes to small items. For example, I have a ball of cord that I use to make i’i for dance class. (I’i are Tahitian hand tassels, sort of like small cheerleaders pom-poms.) So, do I pack the cord with string, or do I pack it with dance costumes? It doesn’t really matter except for when I need it again. I’m not going to like having to unpack two or maybe even three boxes because I couldn’t remember where I put it. Normally, when you pack for a move, you find everything — or almost everything — when you unpack. But what if you aren’t going to unpack? What if you forget what your system for packing was? What if you can’t decipher the inventory notes on the boxes?

boxesThe smart thing to do, of course, would be to throw away the string and buy it when I need it again.

But sometimes the solution isn’t so simple. When I moved from the house I lived for twenty years before coming to take care of my father, I found a couple of buttons in a rummage drawer for a sweater that I’d already packed. I put the buttons where I knew I’d find them, but I didn’t — not for four years, and then by accident as I was again packing up. I wondered where to put those dang buttons so I’d be able to find them again. To show you the level of stress I’ve been under, it took me more than a week before “duh” hit me. Sew them on the dang sweater!

And what about the little tool that pulls snags to the wrong side of knits? For reasons I don’t remember, I’ve been keeping that tool in a bathroom drawer along with stray buttons and safety pins. (I suppose it makes sense. It’s when I’m dressing or standing at the mirror that I discover needed repairs.) I put the gadget with sewing tools because that’s where it belongs, but I know I’ll never think to look for it there.

Although I’ve gotten rid of more than half of what Jeff and I owned jointly, and half of what I owned, I still have an insane number of possessions.

In the coming years, I’ll be working on paring things down even more.

But not now.

Now I have to figure out where to put my small pliers. Where will I think to look for them when I need them? In with the tools? Or in with my craft stuff?


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.

Planning Epic Transcendental and Mystical Journeys

I am so beyond stressed out from taking care of my father’s latest medical crisis, my brother’s continued mental problems, and my own lack of sleep because of caring for them that I can no longer find comfort in planning epic transcendental and mystical journeys. But here is an update for those of you who have expressed concern about my idea of walking up the Pacific Coast to Seattle.

Although I would take precautions, there is no doubt such a walk could be dangerous, but for now, that is not something I want to consider. In the past eight years, I’ve watched three people die slowly and painfully from cancer, and now I am watching my 97-year-old father die even more slowly from old age. Not taking the trip because of possible dangers would be merely saving myself for even more probable trauma in the future. Life itself is a danger. It does terrible things to people, taking everything they have until there is nothing left but a husk of skin and bones.

Despite all my thinking and blogging about an epic adventure, there is a chance this walk is merely a fantasy. I am not sure I have the physical capabilities of walking so far or spending so much time outside. I am not sure I can carry enough water and emergency supplies. And to be honest, I’m not sure I really want to do it — the thought could simply be a means of mentally escaping an untenable living situation. Still, if I take the trip, or try to take it, I will be as prepared as possible without carrying the whole world on my back. I’m looking into such things as mylar emergency blankets, down vests, bear spray (I figure if it can ward off a bear, the spray could ward off any human predator, too). I am also researching the best way of carrying things, and no, it isn’t on the back, it’s on the head, but that I won’t even consider. I want to look as if I am on a walk, not backpacking through the wilderness or trekking around East Africa.

The walk is only one possible adventure I am considering. I started out planning an extended cross-country road trip, perhaps visiting the national parks, sometimes camping out with full camping gear and sometimes staying in motels to catch up on civilization’s offerings, and this is still a possibility, especially if my car is running. (If I were to walk up the coast, I’m not sure what I would do with the vehicle during the year I would be gone.) Another possibility is to somehow use my ancient VW as a means of promoting my books, maybe painting it by hand to attract attention or letting people who buy a book sign my car while I am signing their boobedk. (Although I like that idea, I’m not sure how to market it. Marketing, unfortunately, is not my forte.)

And it’s possible I wouldn’t want to stop taking dance lessons, in which case I would take shorter long walks to prepare for the epic walk or go on weekend camping trips to gain experience in the outdoors. (Besides, my dance teacher says she doesn’t want me to stop, and it’s been a long time since someone wanted me around just for me, not for what I could do for them.)

In other words, despite all my blogging, thinking, talking, I have no idea what I will do when my responsibilities end.

Well, I do know one thing. I will sleep, or at least try to. Being responsible for others’ care is exhausting.


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.

Struggling With the Vicissitudes of Life

I’m still struggling with the vicissitudes of my life. The major stress continues to be my homeless brother. He is camping out in the garage, which isn’t a problem. Nor is it a problem for me to buy a few groceries for him, do his laundry, sympathize with his plight, and even, on occasion, get him a beer. I’m glad to do what I can for him, even if only out of a perhaps misplaced sense of guilt that I have it easier than he does.

If he would leave me alone, I’d have no objection to his being here, but his anger seems to be centered on me. He speedblames me for his estrangement from our father, he blames me for . . . well, just about everything. I suppose, from his point of view, I am to blame. When he gets in one of his “states” (whether bi-polar, the manic part of manic-depression, narcissistic rage, or whatever his as yet undiagnosed problem is), he is truly appalling, demanding attention by banging on my windows, sometimes up to forty times a night, calling me an evil bitch, screaming invectives at me, explaining ad infinitum that I, as a woman, have no integrity. (And these are the most pleasant things he says when he is in his manic mode.) Afterward, he doesn’t remember how ghastly he behaved. He only remembers my reaction. And there is no right way to react. If I yell at him in frustration, trying to get him to shut up, he perceives me as the instigator of our conflict, never remembering he was the one who banged on the window for my attention. If I have no reaction, that too is an affront to him. If I ignore him, he goes into rage overdrive.

I can’t track his moods. He likes to read the newspaper. Sometimes he gets mad at me if I don’t remember to give it to him. Other times he gets angry when I do give it to him because I am “invading his space.” (This is the same man who, when he stayed in the house for a couple of months, came into my room every single night to harangue me.) He hates that I buy food for him (hates the food I buy even though I buy things on a list he once gave me), and yet, most nights, he knocks on my window to see if I have something for him to eat. If I’m nice to him, he gets upset with my “sugary sweetness,” seeing it as phony. If I stop doing things for him, he gets angry with my selfishness.

In addition to his mental issues, he has a lot of physical problems. He goes for days without being able to keep food down, but he won’t let me take him to the emergency room. Oddly, when he is at his sickest, he is at his calmest. Either his anger at me cools because he needs my help, or else he is too weak to sustain a rage-full state.

Added stress comes from the situation between my father and brother. My father doesn’t want to deal with my brother, though he likes the idea of helping him. So it’s up to me to be my father’s surrogate. Not a pleasant situation, by any means.

The hardest part for me was when my brother’s anger would bounce through me and back to him, because I was afraid I’d fatally hurt him. (I even kept a journal for a while in case I did hurt him and needed a defense.) I don’t have that problem any more. I make sure I never get close to him when he is in a rage.

But still, it is an awkward situation. When he goes through calm times, I feel like an ogre, keeping him from the comforts of the house, but always his cycle comes around to rage again, and I am grateful that he is locked out.

I wish he were strong and healthy. I wish . . . oh, I wish so many things, but my wishes tend to have little strength. Writing about the situation gives me no peace, no answers, but it does help to vent my frustration and my sadness, which is a big help to me if no one else.


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.

Figuring Things Out

For the past two months, I’ve been dealing with a situation I can’t write about. It’s outside the scope of this blog, and the people involved would be terribly hurt if I were to make the drama public. It’s a sadly inevitable predicament, with roots dating back to my childhood, and without being able to write about it, I haven’t had any way to deal with my grief over the situation except walking. And tears.

I’ve foundDesert paths myself crying at odd moments, and it’s been comforting, being in the embrace of this old friend. Like most people, I used to think tears were a sign of weakness, but now I know they are a way of getting rid of the hormones that build up with stress. They are also a way of connecting to one’s inner self, as if that self is saying, “There, there. Everything is going to be okay.”

And maybe things will be okay. Eventually. I’ll figure out my dilemma, if only how to deal with the fallout of the situation.

Today I went out walking earlier than normal to try to beat the heat, and apparently that’s what many others did because I saw a lot of people out and about. I don’t like meeting other people when I walk. Walking is my private time, a means of getting in touch with myself and my surroundings, a place to open myself to inspiration and mystical thoughts, a way to deal with my problems, and people disrupt all that. Since the foot traffic kept me away from my usual route to the desert, I took a different direction to get to the back trail I prefer — the trail is a demanding walk with lots of ups and downs and in certain areas a cool wind comes drifting down the hills. Also, for some reason, it’s where I talk to my deceased life mate/soul mate. (I’ve never been able to figure out why I associate him with that particular area. He never liked the desert, he hated the heat, and he’d never been within a thousand miles of the place.)

When I found my way to that back trail, I said aloud to him, “See? I figured it out.” And then I realized how true the words were. During all these years of dealing with the dying of my life mate/soul mate and my ensuing grief, I’ve had a lot of trauma thrown at me, but I figured out each step. I had to deal with funeral services people, get rid of his things, clear out the twenty-year accumulation in our home, store what I wanted to keep, get myself to my father’s house so I could look after him, learn to live with grief and all its torments, deal with the challenges of the book world and of the world in general.

Although I worry too much (I call it weighing my options), and don’t always know where I am headed, when it comes time to take action, I do manage to figure things out. And I have no doubt I’ll continue doing so, which is a good thing. Life isn’t finished throwing challenges at me — besides my current dilemma, there’s still my father’s decline, my need to restart my life when he’s gone, the vicissitudes of aging to deal with alone, and a host of other difficulties that will be sure to taunt me — but I will figure things out when I get there.


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.

If Cowboys Had Wept . . .

During the first months after the death of my life mate—my soul mate—I sometimes felt I wasn’t handing my grief well. I cried around others at the beginning (couldn’t talk about his death without tears streaming down my face) but later I did my grieving in private. Only I (and my blog readers) knew what I was doing to assuage my grief, so why would I think I wasn’t handling it well? Because I was weeping and wailing. In our present culture, tears are a sign of weakness, but who decided that weeping and wailing are inappropriate ways of relieving the incredible stress, pain, and angst of losing a long time mate? Such releases are necessary. Otherwise, where does the pain go? It either stays inside to cause emotional and physical damage, or it gets relieved by truly inappropriate behavior such as illicit drugs or misplaced anger.

Through thousands of movies and books, we are taught to be stoic, to hold back our tears, to be cool. Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven was the epitome of western cool, gliding across the film’s landscape without a single show of emotion. Cinematic heroes such as he could relieve their tensions and emotions through shooting rampages, hard liquor, and harder women. Perhaps, if these men had wept, the west (at least the mythological west) would have been a more genteel place.

Many people, when hit with the maelstrom of emotions we call grief, feel as if they are going crazy. Oddly, I didn’t, even though some of my actions and reactions would have made me a suitable candidate for a fictional madwoman. (Makes me wonder. Were those women hidden away in attics and tower rooms really crazy, or were they simply grief-stricken?) I knew I was sane, knew I was well adjusted, so any emotions I felt or things I did to comfort myself, by definition, were normal. Not having to worry about being crazy enabled me to deal with the pain itself rather than my reaction to it.

Like most people, I am afraid of pain, so I do not know where I got the courage to embrace the agony of losing my mate, to face it head on, arms open wide. But I did, and I still do. I don’t cry where anyone can see me, mostly because my tears are private but also because I don’t want to make people feel bad since there is nothing they can do about my sorrow.

And that, perhaps, is the real reason for tears being frowned on in our culture. We don’t want to be confronted with the outward show of someone’s grief because it forces us to confront our own weakness in the face of life’s (and death’s) enormity.

Post-Traumatic Tress Syndrome

During the two years before my life mate died, my naturally wavy hair became wiry and lost its curl. As a person ages and goes gray, the characteristics of one’s hair changes, so I figured this was an age-related problem. It was a small problem considering everything else going on in my life, so I let my hair grow, wore it tied back, and forgot about it.

A few months after he died, I cut my hair, and was shocked by the further deterioration. It was so wiry and straight, it stood out from my head like a bush. Yikes. This was back when I was writing letters to my dead mate to help me get through the days, and I wrote:

With so much emotion and pain and sorrow and missing you and trying to reconcile your being gone with the memories of you still filling my head, what am I worried about today? My hair. Just like you said would happen as I got older, it’s turning to straw. Straight as can be. I always looked terrible with long hair, but what other choice do I have? It won’t hold a curl—just sticks out in all directions. I wonder what other people do? Oddly enough, I can find people to talk with about the big things but not the small everyday things that worry me.

About a month later, I noticed a bit of a crinkle at my hairline, and I realized my hair was starting to grow again (it hadn’t grown much for a while) and that it was growing in normal. My diet now is atrocious. I have a hard time convincing myself discipline is a good thing, and I feel as if I should be treating myself. But until recently, I always ate healthily. Lots of vegetables, good protein, whole grains. The reason I mention this is that a bad diet can damage hair, but that wasn’t the cause in my case. Nor did a diet change affect the change for the better.

For a while I had question mark hair—wavy toward the scalp, straight as can be on the ends—but a few weeks ago it was long enough that I could cut off the rest of the damaged bits. That’s when I realized my hair change came not from aging but from . . . Post-Traumatic Tress Syndrome.

Grief is exceedingly stressful, and stress affects our tresses. Most often, people undergoing stress begin to lose their hair or go through a period when it stops growing, but apparently stress can also damage the cuticle (the outer layer of the hair shaft). Just another fun thing to have to deal with when so much else is going wrong in one’s life. I’m far enough along in the grief process that I’m done with hair problems for now, at least until my bad diet catches up with me!

Grief: Denying Denial

I never really had a choice about feeling my grief. It wasn’t so much that I embraced it, but that it embraced me. It took hold of my life and didn’t let go, though it is easing enough so that I am able to see the process for what it is.

People talk about denial as if it’s a bad thing. If I’d been able to deny grief and just go on living as if my mate of thirty-four years hadn’t died, I’d probably have done so. Grief is debilitating, disorienting, causes innumerable physical and emotional reactions, makes one susceptible to cancer, accidents, and other closer-to-death encounters and on top of that, it’s just downright painful.

So why deny denial? Because in the end, it’s better to embrace grief, to learn to live with the pain (which does diminish, though according to comments left on this blog from others who have also lost their mates, it never goes away completely. It can resurface even years later). By embracing grief, by learning how to cope with it, you can learn how to feel deeply again, look forward to the future, and embrace life. This in no way negates your loss, but allows you to honor his death with your life.

Another reason to deny denial is that grief will affect you whether you embrace it or not, but the effects of denied grief are not overt ones such as crying, eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little, feeling as if you’ve been kicked in the gut, feeling as if half your heart is missing. Instead, grief that goes underground can create in you long-term problems, including the symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder. Two friends — both of whom lost their husbands a few month ago, both of whom are deluged with family and family obligations that give them no time to grieve  — were diagnosed with PTSD after days of internal quivering that only responded to drugs. They do not have time to spare for grief, but grief is not sparing them.

Grief is stressful, which is why crying, screaming, beating up on defenseless sofas are necessary — they help relieve that pent-up stress. You can go into denial and hold grief in, but it’s like holding in your stomach for years on end — you can never think of anything else but your stomach. If you hold yourself tightly against memories, dreams, unexpected encounters with photos, you have no time for living. Perhaps you don’t see a purpose for living now, but if you do your grief work (and grief is work, there’s no doubt about that) chances are you will regain your desire to live. You might even be able to love fully again, and that means risking more pain, but after dealing with your grief, you will be strong enough to accept the risk.

At least, that’s the way I’ve interpreted the grief process. You might see different reasons for either denying grief or denying denial.

Greening the Desert

I’ve spent many hours during the past few months wandering in the desert, grieving for my lost mate. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in my entire life. Of course, nothing this sad has ever happened to me before, either. At times I felt like a baby, and so I was — a child newly born to grief. I’ve learned much about tears in this crying time. Tears do not designate a lack of courage. Tears do not mean one is steeped in self-pity. Tears do not mean one is weak. Tears are simply a way of relieving emotional tension, and there is evidence that they even remove chemicals that build up in the body during emotional stress.

And apparently tears can do one other thing — they can green the desert. Here’s a photo of one of the trails I’ve been walking most days — visual proof of my river of tears. Or at least the result of them.

I Am a Seven-Month Grief Survivor

Grief is so encompassing that for months my thoughts focused entirely on my dead mate — my soul mate — reinforcing my idea that falling in love and experiencing grief are the bookends of a shared life. When we were together, he was so often by my side as we ran errands, fixed meals, watched movies, talked for hours on end, that I didn’t need to focus on him — he was there. And then he wasn’t.

In the movie The Butcher’s Wife, Demi Moore talks about searching for her split apart. Very romantic this idea of finding your split apart, but what happens when your split apart is split apart from you once more? I can tell you — it releases such a storm of emotion that you feel as if you will never find yourself again, that you will be forever swept away in the tsunami/hurricane/soulquake that is new grief.

I’ve weathered seven months of grief, from the first global storm to the more isolated mists that beset me now. I’m settling back into myself, letting go of the incredible tension that grief brings. We bereft are so focused on our lost one, so tensed against hurtful memories and mementoes, that it can bring on a host of physical problems, including Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

I am lucky. I’ve been able to release this tension through walks, through tears, and — at the beginning — through screaming. I have not passed all the landmarks of grief — some people experience their worst pain at eight months, others need two years just to regain their equilibrium, and of course, there are all those firsts that are yet to come: the first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, first anniversary of his death — but perhaps the worst of the storms have passed. Or I could be fooling myself. This sad but not terribly painful stage I am going through could be just a hiatus, the eye of a storm, and the forces of grief are gathering themselves for a new onslaught. These months of grief survival, however, have taught me that I will be able to endure whatever comes.

I thought I’d be different after going through such storms of grief, (shouldn’t I be?) but I feel as if I am still myself, or rather, I feel as if I am myself again. I am sadder, of course, and that sadness will probably always shadow any future happiness, which is as it should be. One can never unknow such trauma. It will always be part of me.

He will always be part of me.

In many ways, he gave me life. He made me feel that life was worth living because he was in it. I have to learn to feel that life is worth living because I am in it, and that will be a long time coming. I am still at the stage where I don’t care if I live. NO, I am not suicidal. I am not stockpiling pills or thinking suicidal thoughts. This not caring is perhaps one of the longest-lived stages of grief, one that we bereft only talk about to each other — or our counselors — because it is so often misunderstood by those who have not been in a similar situation. One thing that keeps me going is curiosity about where life will take me now that he is not here for me to love.

Where does that love go when it is no longer needed? I don’t know. I do know that you love someone, their well-being is as important to you as your own, and then suddenly that someone is gone, leaving behind those unfulfilled feelings of wanting to help. Of caring. Of empathy. I still think of him almost all the time, still wish I could put my arms around him and make him well. When I hear a noise, sometimes I think it is he, and my first inclination is to go to him. When I hear or see something that would amuse or outrage him, sometimes I get up to go tell him. But these thoughts and actions are not as painful as they once were.

I have survived seven months of grief. I will continue to survive.