Keep On Keeping On

Oh, my. Two months without a vehicle, and my car still isn’t ready.

I took my ancient VW to a recommended body shop to be restored. He said it would take three weeks and every time I called him after those initial weeks, he’d tell me the car would be done in another ten days or two weeks or “soon”, reminding me every time that old cars take longer than expected because so much of the damage is hidden until the vehicle is taken apart.

I finally got a chance to go see what is going on and found my car the way I left it minus the chrome. That’s all he’d done. Take off the chrome trim. It turns out the car he was talking about with all the hidden damage was another vehicle he was working on, a 1930’s truck.

Oddly, I wasn’t angry. Just devastated. I trusted the guy, and he’d been lying to me. Even worse, I started crying. I didn’t expect that reaction, but I suppose it’s natural. I’ve endured so many losses in recent years, and the car is all that’s left of that earlier life.

The guy’s wife was there, and she hugged me. He said nothing. When I asked why he didn’t tell me that he couldn’t get to it for two months so I could keep driving the car instead of leaving it sitting there, he said that he’d made a mistake.

Normally when such things happen, I get angry, demand my deposit back (and in this case would also have demanded that he put the chrome on immediately), but I walked away. Left my car there. I just couldn’t deal with the situation. I have a lot of things going on this week, such as dress rehearsals and performances, and I don’t want to lose focus on that.

Besides, if I took the car back, it would never be restored. He was the only one who offered an acceptable estimate, and there’s no guarantee that anyone else would treat me better.

So we’ll see. If in another week nothing further has been done, I will negate the deal. Until then, I’ll keep on keeping on.

***

(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.”)

***

No Hero’s Journey

I cannot even begin to make sense of the events of the last week, let alone the last year. It will take me a long time, if ever, to process the horror, heartbreak, grief of dealing with my dysfunctional brother’s presence, the trip to take him back to Colorado, and now his absence.

I do not miss him, of course, he was too abusive (when I heard a noise outside my window last night, I got scared thinking he’d returned), but he was such a major part of my life for the past fifteen months that his absence looms large. I don’t understand how I reconnected with him, don’t understand why he treated me so badly, don’t understand why I thought it important for him and his father to forgive each other. (Except that for my entire life, the two of them have used me as the rope in their tug of war, and I needed to be done with both of them.)

I don’t even understand how I became the one to take him back to Colorado. I don’t remember the sequence of events leading up to the trip, though I do know I refused to let my siblings just toss him on the streets of this dusty, windy, and hellishly hot town. (Partly because I knew he wouldn’t stay away.) I also refused to let them get him thrown in jail where he certainly wouldn’t get help for his many mental disorders.

And so, somewhere along the line, I agreed to take him and the stuff he’d collected back to Colorado. It’s odd that I did so. The very thought of the trip terrified me. I didn’t know if I could put up with his relentlessness and nonstop abuse for all those miles and hours. Knowing how violent my reaction to his verbal abuse was, I feared me as much as I feared him, and I didn’t think we’d survive it. The trip was almost as bad as I thought it would be, and though we came close to an accident several times, we both did survive, probably because of all the prayers and well wishes people sent our way.

He kept opening the door to the car while I was driving (I think he thought he was opening the window, though I don’t really know). One time he climbed into the back seat to sleep on top of all of his stuff, and when he climbed back into the front, he climbed over me, making it impossible for me to see. I pulled over, and helped him get untangled. Because I had to push his foot, it seemed as if I pushed him out the door, and so he refused to get back in the car. He stared at me for a few minutes, then went into a field and fell asleep. I finally got him back in the car, but when he left the moving car a little later, I took off without waiting for him, thinking maybe it would scare him enough to behave.

When I went back, I found him with rescue workers from the fire department, screaming for water. Apparently, he’d fallen asleep by the side of the road while he waited for me. They wanted to arrest him, said a police car was on its way, but I begged and pleaded for them to let me take him to Fort Collins. (A repeat of the night before when I had to beg the cops to let me take him away rather than arrest him. I’d said the car was all packed; just let us go. And finally they did.) The fire folk expressed concern for me, and I told them I’d be fine, that I’d been dealing with him for the past fifteen months. And they too let me go.

My brother demanded that we stop so he could get cold water, and when I did so and gave him the bottle, he clubbed me with it. (I don’t know why, and later, when I told him what he had done, he didn’t know either. He didn’t believe he’d done it, not even when I showed him the huge bruises on my upper arm.) I wanted so much to leave him there, and even planned to call the police to come get him, but I reminded myself to keep focused on my goal. And so, we continued the terrible trip.

The only way I can make sense of any of this trauma is to think in terms of “The Hero’s Journey” with him playing all the roles except hero. His moods change so rapidly, it would have to be a fantasy story, where sometimes the hero is driving a dragon, sometimes a little boy, sometimes a lost soul.

But I am no hero. Heroes don’t cry all the way home.

People think it strange that I cried. Well, so do I — I figured I’d be relieved to be done with him, but he was once my brother. I know some of the tears were simply a way of washing away all the emotions I’d felt, both his and mine. Some of the tears were pure grief since my brother is lost to me — I don’t know who that stranger is. And some of the tears were just plain sorrow for our unsolvable problems, both his and mine.

***

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.

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.

Grief is NOT Self-Indulgent

I was looking at search terms people used to find this blog, and someone googled “I feel self-indulgent when I think of my deceased partner and I cry a lot.” That got my ire going — not about her feeling that way, but at the way our society handles grief. Thinking about one’s partner and crying are not wrong, but there is something seriously wrong with a society that makes the bereft feel self-indulgent for grieving. What the heck is wrong with crying? With grieving? With talking about one’s grief?

Grief is not something to be shoved under the bed like a box of junk that you don’t quite know what to do with. Grief is how we learn to deal with a world suddenly gone crazy, and tears are how we relieve the tension of that grief. I don’t know how long this particular person had been dealing with her grief, but I’m at eighteen months, and though I’ve gone on with my life, I still have upsurges of grief and bouts of crying. Though these bouts have diminished significantly and I recuperate quite quickly, I’m prepared to go the distance, however long it takes. Some people say it takes a minimum of two years to get over the sadness and tears, some say four years, some say one year for every seven years of togetherness, some say never — that even after twenty years they still have times where the truth of their partner’s death hits them and the tears flow.

Since mourning is considered by the uninitiated to be unacceptable behavior after a month or two, most people quickly learn to hide their grief. Grown children especially get irritated at tears, perhaps because they can’t bear to see their once-strong parent brought low or perhaps because they think their parent is being self-indulgent. A friend of mine lost her partner six months ago, and her son berates her for being a drama queen. Such non-acceptance of a natural process adds more agony to an already agonizing time. As I said, there is something seriously wrong with a society that demonizes grief.

After my partner died, I asked the moderator of a grief support group how I should handle questions about my grief. I didn’t want to bore people with my ongoing emotional traumas, but at the same time I didn’t want to pretend everything was fine. I’d also been blogging about my grief but wasn’t sure I wanted to continue since I didn’t want to seem whiny and self-indulgent. She told me it was okay to tell people I was coping if I didn’t want to go into details, but she suggested I continue writing about grief because people needed to know the truth of it. And I’ve followed her advice even though it was hard at times. I mean, after eighteen months, shouldn’t I have gotten over it? The truth is, you never get over a significant loss — you learn to manage living without him or her.

It used to be that women hid their pregnancies, but now they flaunt their “baby bumps.” Maybe it’s time we brought grief out into the open so that the bereft do not feel as if they are self-indulgent for dealing with loss the only way possible — with remembrances and tears.

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.

I Am a Fourteen-Month Grief Survivor

Fourteen months sounds like a long time, doesn’t it? Plenty of time to get over the death of one’s lifemate/soulmate/best friend. And yet, those who have been where I am today know you don’t ever truly get over it. You deal with it, you get on with your life, but there is always that niggling feeling of something being not quite right.

I still feel bad for him that he’s gone, that he suffered so much, that he died too young, that he is no longer here to enjoy something as simple as eating a bowl of his chili. (Though the batch I made today in his honor wasn’t worth coming back from the dead for. The kidney beans were overcooked, the onions undercooked.)

I still feel sad for me, that I’ll never get to see him again in this lifetime, that we’ll never get to do all the things we planned, that his smile exists only in my memory, that I’m alone. I’m glad we had all those years together, but that doesn’t ease the loneliness he left behind. It is odd, but for some reason I never expected to be lonely. I’m used to spending time alone, I know how to entertain myself, and I’m quite capable of taking care of myself (though the thought of growing old alone makes me panic at times). I also have more friends now than I’ve had in many years. But still, I’m lonely — lonely for him specifically, and lonely in general. Perhaps my loneliness is another stage of grief rather than a character flaw. Perhaps someday it, too, will pass, as have other manifestations of my grief.

One stage of grief I am clinging to is anger. Not rage, just a quiet pilot light of anger. I accept that he is dead in the sense that I know he will never be coming back (though I still long desperately to go home to him, still yearn to see him one more time). But I cannot accept the rightness of his death. It seems so terribly wrong that death was the only resolution of his illness, the only solution to his pain. And that does anger me. Anger is generally considered to be a negative emotion, but during the past few months I’ve found that in small doses, anger is a positive thing. Anger can give us the strength to survive. Anger can give us the energy to do things we couldn’t do under normal circumstances. Anger can give us a feeling of control in uncertain times. Anger can keep us going when we want to give up. Anger can give us the courage to live with the injustice of death. Anger can motivate us to find solutions to problems, can motivate us to undertake dreaded tasks, can motivate us to change our lives. So, yes, I’m clinging to whatever vestige of anger I can. It’s the only way I can get through these lonely days.

I am now more aware of the years looming in front of me than the years behind me, those years we shared. I’ve been saying that I don’t know who I am now that he’s gone, but I do — I’m still me. Still the person I’ve always been, just older and sadder. I’ve mostly untwinned our lives, no longer see me as half of a couple. And yet, something is missing. I don’t cry much any more, but sometimes I find myself crying for . . . I don’t know what.

It’s a relief to be telling the truth. I’ve been keeping upbeat the past few weeks — preparing for my presentation at the writers’ conference, traveling, being around people who only know me as an author, posting photos of my adventures. It was wonderful, but it’s only half my story. The adventure ended, and now here I here I am. Fourteen months of missing him, and still counting.

I Am a Twelve-Month Grief Survivor

Twelve months.

One full year.

It seems impossible that my life mate — my soul mate — has been gone for so long. It seems even more impossible that I’ve survived.

His death came as no surprise. I’d seen all the end signs: his unending restlessness, his inability to swallow, his disorientation, his wasting away to nothing, the change in his breathing. Nor did my reaction come as a surprise. I was relieved he’d finally been able to let go and that his suffering (and the indignities of dying) had stopped. I was relieved his worst fear (lingering or a long time as a helpless invalid) had not had a chance to materialize. What did come as a surprise was my grief. I’d had years to come to terms with his dying. I’d gone through all the stages of grief, so I thought the only thing left was to get on with my life. And yet . . . there it was. His death seemed to have created a rupture in the very fabric of my being — a soulquake. The world felt skewed with him gone, and I had a hard time gaining my balance. Even now, I sometimes experience a moment of panic, as if I am setting a foot onto empty space when I expected solid ground.

I have no idea how I survived the first month, the second, the twelfth. All I know is that I did survive. I’m even healing. I used to think “healing” was an odd word to use in conjunction with grief since grief is not an illness, but I have learned that what needs to heal is that rupture — one cannot continue to live for very long with a bloody psyche. The rupture caused by his dying doesn’t yawn as wide as it once did, and the raw edges are finally scarring over. I don’t steel myself against the pain of living as I had been. I’m even looking forward, curious to what the future holds in store for me.

Strangely, I am not ashamed of all the tears I’ve shed this past year, nor am I ashamed of making it known how much I’ve mourned. The tears themselves are simply a way of easing the terrible stress of grief, a way of releasing chemicals that built because of the stress. And by making my grief public, I’ve met so many wonderful people who are also undertaking this journey.

I’ve been saying all along that I’d be okay eventually, but the truth is, despite the lingering sorrow, my yearning for him, and the upsurges in grief, I am doing okay now.

I expected this to be a day of sadness, but it is one of gladness. I am glad he shared his life (and his death) with me. Glad we had so many years together. Glad we managed to say everything that was necessary while we still had time. Tomorrow will be soon enough to try to figure out what I am going to do now that my first year of mourning is behind me. Today I am going to watch one of his favorite movies, eat a bowl of his chili (his because he created the recipe, his because he was the one who always fixed it), and celebrate his life.

I Am an Eight-Month Grief Survivor

When you love someone deeply, their well-being is as important to you as your own, but what do you do with that feeling when your someone is gone? Eight months ago, my life mate died, and now he has no need for stories to amuse or outrage him, no need for tasty meals to tempt his appetite, no need for comfort or caring or kindness, and yet my habit of thinking of him remains. Eventually, I imagine, the habit will wear itself out, but for now I still find myself thinking of ways to make his life a bit easier or a bit more enjoyable.

After eight months, I am still in . . . not shock, exactly, but a state of non-comprehension. I can’t comprehend his death, his sheer goneness. I can’t comprehend his life, though perhaps that is not for me to bother about. Most of all, I can’t comprehend my sorrow. I never saw much reason for grief. Someone died, you moved on. Period. I thought I was too stoic, too practical to mourn, and yet, here I am, still grieving for someone who has no need for my sorrow.

Despite my continued grief, I am moving on. My sporadic tears do not stop me from accomplishing the goals I set myself, such as NaNoWriMo and daily walks. My sorrow doesn’t keep me from taking care of myself — or mostly taking care of myself. (I don’t always eat right, and I don’t always sleep well.) Moving on, as I have learned, is not about abandoning one’s grief, but moving on despite the grief.

Grief is much gentler on me now, and I can sidestep it by turning my mind to other things, but I don’t always want to. I have not yet reached the point where thoughts of him bring me only happiness, and I need to remember him. If tears and pain are still part of that remembrance, so be it.

We shared our lives, our thoughts, our words — we talked about everything, often from morning to night — yet even before he died, we started going separate ways, he toward his death, me toward continued life. I often wonder what he would think of my grief, but just as his life is not for me to try to comprehend, my grief does not belong to him. It is mine alone.

And so the months pass, eight now. Soon it will be a year. Sometimes it feels as if he died only days ago, and I expect him to call and tell me I can come home — I’ve proven that I can live without him, so I don’t have to continue to do so. Sometimes it feels as if he’s been gone forever, that our life together wasn’t real, perhaps something I conjured up out of the depths of my loneliness. Sometimes my grief doesn’t even feel real, and I worry that I’ve created it out of a misguided need for self-importance. Such are the ways of grief, this strange and magical thinking. This could be magical thinking, too, but it seems to me that having survived eight months of grief, I can survive anything.

***

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.

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.