After Grief: Crashing the Party of Life

witchOnce a long time ago, I crashed a Halloween party. It sounds as if I am very bold, doesn’t it? But truly, it was out of character for me, and besides, I was in costume. I remember that the party was given by a friend of a friend, but I have no idea how or why I decided to go — perhaps as a joke to see how long it would take for people to realize they didn’t know me.

I dressed as a comic-book witch — the whole bit: long black scraggly hair, puttied nose and chin almost meeting, heavy black brows, green-tinged skin, cackling voice. I walked into the party as if I belonged there, and for a while I was the belle of the ball as people tried to guess who I was. It finally occurred to one guy that I was a total stranger. So I left. Rather hurriedly.

That’s how I feel now as I am reawakening to the world after the numbness that gripped me during the long dying of my life mate/soul mate and the grief I experienced after his death — as if I have crashed a party, and I don’t know myself or any of the guests. Everyone seems costumed in happiness and success, though I know those facades are as misleading as mine. Our smiles and even our laughter hide old sorrows and new insecurities.

I couldn’t follow my mate to wherever he went, so I this is what is left to me — trying to find my way alone, wondering why I am at the party. I don’t belong, but where else would I be?

I remember the quiet excitement I felt at that Halloween party, the adrenaline rush of stepping out of my normal life, and occasionally I feel that now, as if the world is opening to me, if I only knew what to do with it. I left that Halloween party when the situation became too uncomfortable, but I don’t have that option now. Even though I am not comfortable with life’s party I have inadvertantly ended up attending, I have to stick it out, waiting for . . . what? I do not know.

And so here I am, boldly acting as if I belong, but secretly wondering if anyone will guess that I am a stranger in a strange land.

***

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+

Living Each Day We Are Given

SI’m noticing a change in my attitude lately — more cynical perhaps, and at the same time more optimistic about the future. This change showed itself to me in my reaction to a news story that is going around about a couple who holds the record for the longest marriage — 86 years. The story purported to tell the secrets of how they stayed together for so long, and my first thought was, “Because one of them didn’t die.” No matter how much they love each other, no matter how well they get along, if one of them had died, that would have been the end of their being together.

Immediately following my cynical thought was a moment of horror at the idea of being stuck in the same sort of life for all those years. She married very young, so what did she know of life (or herself) before making her vows? And she’ll never have a chance of exploring what she could have been on her own. The universal reaction to the story seemed to be “Oh, how sweet,” so the horror I felt must not reflect their situation but my own changing attitude.

My soul mate and I always thought we would die together since our bond was so strong, and yet, here I am and he is not. The pain of our separation was almost more than I could bear at times, and in fact, sometimes the only way I could get through another minute of continued life was to scream my pain into the wind.

Now, as I pass through to the other side of grief, continuing to process all the various emotions, fears, regrets, guilts, I sense that a new life awaits me, a life of possibilities, maybe even adventure. I don’t know what form this life will take, whether it will entail geographical travels or spiritual travels, new activities or new perspectives, broadening my horizons or only broadening my mind. But a new life is surely coming, and sometimes my heart leaps ahead of me at the thought of such freedom.

I’m not yet at that place of freedom. I still have many concerns to deal with first. Since I am looking after my 96-year-old father, that is my prime concern, but there are also personal concerns such as my continued awareness of my mate’s death. I know he would be the first to applaud my coming adventures — he felt bad that the constraints of his illness and the life we were forced to live destroyed my spontaneity, but the truth is, he gave me the courage to be spontaneous in the first place. And now I’ll have to find the courage to be spontaneous on my own.

It’s a difficult line to walk — being glad of a chance at a different sort of life while at the same time not being glad of the death that will allow such a life, being glad of one more day of life while being aware that such a day was denied him. But I will find a way to handle it as I have handled every step of this grief journey.

Maybe the secret isn’t how to stay together, but how we live each day we are given, whether with someone or alone.

***

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+

Grief Update — Thirty Months of Survival

My life mate/soul mate/best friend died two and a half years ago today. Thirty months. Written out like that, thirty months seems like a very long time, but looking back, it’s no time at all. It takes three to five years to find renewed life after such a grievous loss, or so I’ve been told, and I am only halfway there. It might seem to you as if this talk of grief means I do nothing but cry for him, but the truth is, I do quite well, with only a few unshed tears stinging my eyes now and again.

Feelings other than sadness are beginning to arise, though.

Throughout all these months, I’ve tried not to use the word “loss” when referring to my deceased mate because he isn’t misplaced, he is dead. But now, sometimes out of the blue, I’ll get that dropping elevator feeling of having misplaced something — something of untold value or something I desperately need — and I don’t know where or how I lost it. This sensation is not connected to any memory of him, and is not the same as the feeling of bereftness or yearning I so often had during the first couple of years, but still it makes the world seem precarious and alien at times.

Most things are getting better — I do not have the unimaginable pain I experienced in the beginning. Nor does the yearning for him claw at me, though I still miss him, still long for one more smile, still wish for one more word. But something is getting worse, something akin to a soul thirst or a soul hunger. For many years, being with him satisfied a need in me that I wasn’t aware of. Perhaps a recharging of my energy after a long day or maybe a regeneration of spirit. (For someone who writes and thinks as much as I do, I should be able to come up with a word to describe this need, but I only know it as a void, as something I once had but am no longer getting.) When I am hungry and do not eat, I get hungrier. When I am thirsty and do not drink, I get thirstier. And when this particular soul need is not slaked, I get needier.

I am finding other ways of fulfilling the roles he played in my life. Wherever he was, there was my home, and now I’m learning to find home wherever I might be. He was my playmate for many years before he got too ill, and now I have friends to do things with — have lunch, go to festivals and fairs, take yoga classes (and maybe Tai Chi — something I’ve always wanted to do). There is no one with whom I can talk to about all the things he and I used to discuss, but I can spread those topics around, discussing each with a different friend.

But so far I have not found a way around the role he filled for electrifying my spirit, (for lack of a better word). Walking in the desert helps, being with friends helps, but neither of those things sustains me once they are over. Perhaps a new love — another person or a passion — would help, but I am too new for another relationship (I’m still learning how to be me), and so far something to care passionately about remains beyond my reach.

I hope you understand that I am merely chronicling yet another step on my journey and not feeling sorry for myself or asking for pity. I once had something that few people get to experience — a soul connection with another human being. It was not always a happy or comfortable connection — at various times we both railed against it — but through it all, the good times and the bad, we were together.

I saw a plaque today: We can do anything as long as we’re together. I really believed that when he and I were together, we could do anything, though it turned out not to be true. We couldn’t make him well. We couldn’t keep him from dying. And now, we are not together, have not been together for thirty months, and will not be together for the rest of my life.

A person can get used to anything, so eventually I will get used to plodding along without that galvanizing connection with him, but for now, I’m still trying to find my way.

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.

Desert Revelation: Dealing with Life on My Own

People often tell me how sorry they are that I’ve had no signs from my dead life mate/soul mate, but the truth is, even if he does still exist somewhere, there is no reason for him to try to contact me. A sign from him wouldn’t change anything, not his life, not his death, not my missing him. And it wouldn’t change my life.

I am not an Ebenezer Scrooge who needs to be shown the effects of my evil ways, nor am I a George Bailey who needs to be shown the effects of my benevolent ways. I do the best I can each day, trying to be kind to others, trying to be kind to myself.

All my life, I’ve studied religions, philosophies, mythologies. I’ve even had strong beliefs at various times, and have lived accordingly, though those beliefs have shifted through the entire spectrum of theological thought. I haven’t just been living haphazardly with nothing in my head but me me me. Whatever lies beyond this life, whether we retain our individuality or our energy becomes part of the “everything,” it isn’t germane to my life here on Earth since this is the only life I know. Understanding the truth of my existence won’t change anything I do.

I still question, of course, because that’s what my life is all about — quest(ion)ing. As with all quests, it’s the journey that counts, not the elixir of truth you find at the end. Even if you were shown the truth ahead of time, until you become the person who understands that truth, the truth remains obscure.

And so is this blog post — obscure. But I don’t mean it to be. I’m just trying to put today’s desert revelation into words. I am still prone to strange and mystical thoughts on my daily walks in the desert, though the thoughts could be the result of heat baking my brain instead of true insights. But this one feels true.

As much as I would like to talk to my mate, to find out how he’s doing, to know if he’s glad he’s dead, it wouldn’t change anything. I call him my soul mate because while he was alive, we had an incredibly strong connection, but I don’t think he’s actually sharing my soul. He’s his own person, on his own quest, and the further I get from our shared life, the more I feel the truth of that. Besides, I have my own quest to deal with, and it’s all I can handle right now.

Weeping For Those Who Are Newly Born Into The World Of Grief

Someone stopped by my blog this morning to comment that her husband passed away fourteen days ago, and I started crying. I wept for her, for me, for all of us who have had to deal with the soul-breaking and heart-shattering pain of new grief. (Sometimes the only way I had to keep from bursting with the pain was to scream. I’d never screamed before, but I often screamed during the first weeks of grief.)

I don’t know how any of us survive such agony and angst, but somehow we manage to keep taking one breath at a time. As the months pass, the pain does lessen, though according to others further along in the grief process, the sadness never completely goes away. And always, we revisit grief on the anniversary of the death.

There are so many sad anniversaries for me to remember now. May 24. July 23. July 26. March 7. March 27. October 14. All days when someone who was very loved died and left a grief-stricken soul mate behind. I’ve seen much pain these past couple of years from my fellow bereft but even more courage. It takes courage to continue to live, courage to struggle to accept the changes that death brought, courage to strive for understanding, (especially for those who wish to be done with life).

Sometimes I see only the pain of grief — eyes blank, bodies tensed, hearts bleeding — but sometimes I am privileged to see the light shining through the grief as the bereft find new hope and new meaning.

Where does grief lead us? I don’t know. People often equate grief to a journey, which makes us think we are going somewhere, but grief seems to be more of a process, turning us inside out, stretching our minds, souls, psyches so that we can learn to live with our new reality and find peace (and maybe even happiness) alongside the continued sadness.

Despite whatever dubious benefits and insights I have gained through the experience, I would not wish this process on anyone, and so I weep for those who are newly born into the world of grief.

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.

Introduction to “Grief: The Great Yearning”

Grief: The Great Yearning, the book about my first year of grief has finally been published. I wrote this article during the summer following my life mate/soul mate’s death, long before I ever knew my writings about grief would be published, but with the addition of the last paragraph, it made the perfect introduction to the book. Grief: The Great Yearning is available from Amazon, Second Wind Publishing, and in various ebook formats from Smashwords.

Death came in the spring.

At the beginning of March, the doctors said that Jeff, my life mate—my soul mate—had inoperable kidney cancer and that he had six months to live. He had only three weeks. We’d spent thirty-four years together, and suddenly I was alone, unprepared, and totally devastated. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the wreckage of my life. It wasn’t just he who died but “we.” There was no more “us,” no more shared plans and dreams and private jokes. There was only me.

Other losses compounded the misery. I had to sort through the accumulation of decades, dismantle what was left of our life, move from our home. We bereft are counseled not to make major changes during the first year after a significant loss—one’s thinking processes become muddled, leaving one prey to faulty logic and rash decisions—but I needed to go stay with my father for a while. Although he was doing well by himself, he was 93 years old, and it wasn’t wise for him to continue living alone.

I relocated from cool mountain climes to the heat of a southwestern community. Lost, heartbroken, awash in tears, I walked for hours every day beneath the cloudless sky, finding what comfort I could in the simple activity. During one such walk, I turned down an unfamiliar city street, and followed it . . . into the desert.

I was stunned to find myself in a vast wilderness of rocky knolls, creosote bushes, cacti, rabbits, lizards, and snakes. I’d been to the area several times during my mother’s last few months, but I’d spent little time outside. I hated the heat, the constant glare of the sun, the harsh winds. After Jeff died, however, that bleak weather, that bleak terrain seemed to mirror my inner landscape. Wandering in the desert, crying in the wilderness, I tried to find meaning in all that had happened. I didn’t find it, of course. How can there be meaning in the painful, horrific death of a 63-year-old man? I didn’t find myself, either. It was too soon for me to move on, to abandon my grief. I felt as if I’d be negating him and the life we led.

What I did find was the peace of the moment.

Children, most of whom know little of death and the horrors of life, live in the moment because they can—it’s all they have. The bereft, who know too much about death and the horrors of life, live in the moment because they must—it’s the only way they can survive.

During the first year after Jeff’s death, I lived as a child—moment to moment, embracing my grief, trying not to think about the future because such thoughts brought panic about growing old alone, trying not to think about the past because such thoughts reminded me of all I had lost.

And so went the seasons of my soul. The spring of death gave way to the summer of grief, and grief flowed into the fall and winter of renewal.

Grief: The Great Yearning is not a how-to but a how-done, a compilation of letters, blog posts, and journal entries I wrote while struggling to survive my first year of grief. As you journey through grief, I hope you will find comfort in knowing you are not alone. Whatever you feel, others have felt. Whatever seemingly crazy thing you do to bring yourself comfort, others have done. And, as impossible as it is to imagine now, you will survive.

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.

***

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.

Grief: Being Ripped in Two

One of the truly bizarre aspects of having lost a life mate/soul mate is that his death rips you in two. It’s as if the person you were with him still exists, always bereft, always lost and lonely and amputated from him. At the same time, a new person comes to life: the person you are to become without him.

In the beginning, the person-becoming is so new you’re barely aware of her birth. You’re only aware of being the person-bereft, someone so awash in grief she sees no reason to live. Gradually, the person-becoming gains strength as you learn to live without your mate. You do new things, eat new foods, have new experiences. And all of these take you further away from the person you once were.

For a while — perhaps for several years after the first horrors of new grief have passed — you toggle between the person-bereft and the person-becoming. Eventually, you remain mostly the person-becoming, though the person-bereft is always there, shadowing you. Certain events, such as anniversaries, or new milestones, such as the birth of a grandchild, catapult you right back into person-bereft, and your loss feels fresh and raw and real.

If you’ve lost your mate, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t lost such a significant person, this splitting apart sounds bizarre, and it is. How can you be two people, both a person who looks forward to continued life and a person who wants only to be with their mate?

I had a terrible realization while walking in the desert the other day: he died so I can live. Perhaps his death wasn’t as purposeful as that sounds, but our shared life had become a hell. As the cancer spread, the metastases in his brain grew larger and the drugs dosages became stronger. He kept getting weaker and more disoriented, and he turned into a stranger. There were moments that last year when I feared he would last for a very long time, slowly draining my life away. (Not an admirable admission, perhaps, but an understandable one considering the circumstances.)

Twenty-two months and two days ago, he died. And now I have the gift of life. His death gave me that. As much as the person-bereft wishes the whole thing were over with, the person-becoming sees glimmers of . . . not hope exactly, but possibility. I don’t know what I will do with this gift, but someday, somehow, I need to find a way to live so that I don’t waste his death.