Trying to Fill the Hole in My Book

When my life mate/soul mate died, I went into a tailspin of grief that lasted years. It came as a shock to me because I thought I was stoic and had my feet so solidly on the ground that I would be sad and lonely and then get on with the business of grief. The sort of grief I felt, I had never heard of before. I’d seen a few characters in movies shrieSunrise/Sunsetk in agony at their husbands’ funerals , but these theatrics always seemed more for effect than as a sign that half their soul had been ripped away.

The few mentions of grief in novels were pretty lame. One book said, “She went through the five stages of grief.” That was the only mention of how the woman felt after the death of her husband, and it especially seemed phony because there are not five stages of grief or seven. There are an infinite permutation of emotions that come again and again in ever widening spiral until finally the spiral is wide enough you don’t feel the loss every moment of every day.

A character in another book cried one night, then woke up the next morning, with a determination to be done with tears, and she was. Again, this was a phony reaction. Sure, we can be determined to be done with tears, but grief has physical life of its own, throwing hormones out of whack and interfering with brain chemistry. Those physical effects cannot be ignored. They are there whether you want them or not. It’s not just that we go through grief, but grief also goes through us.

So, being both a writer and a woman who experienced grief, I decided I needed to write a novel about a woman going through grief. I wrote much of it during National Novel Writing Month the November after his death so I could show the emotions while they were fresh. To do the daily word counts required to “win” the challenge, I wrote whatever chapter came to mind.

Now, all these years later, I’m trying to put those scattered chapters into a reasonable facsimile of a novel. I’ve had to get rid of thousands of redundant words, had to winnow out many of the paragraphs that talked about her pain rather than showing her going through grief, and I have to struggle to make her likable even though she doesn’t much like herself. (Many of us don’t like ourselves when we are grief-stricken.) We are so bludgeoned into believing that we must be upbeat at all costs, that crying is for sissies, that emotions are to be controlled, that a character going through grief sounds like a whiner or a loser or a weakling.

I had envisioned the ending of the book as her driving off alone, probably because since I am alone, I can’t envision a different life. And anyway, it’s too soon for her to hook up. If I keep that same ending, I have a huge hole in the book, not just a lack of about 25,000 words, but a lack of character growth. You can’t have a woman whining and crying and screaming for most of a book, and then suddenly, it’s over with. What a cheat for the reader! If you suffer through all that sorrow, you need a bigger payoff. (Of course, in life there generally is no payoff, but in a story, there needs to be.)

So, this is what I’ve been doing the past couple of weeks when I haven’t been blogging — trying to figure out how to dig myself out of the hole. No success yet. Although I wanted to finish this book, I might have to set it aside when I get all those original chapters typed up and inserted into the proper place in the story. You can’t survive with a hole in your heart where love once lived, and a book can’t survive with a hole in its heart, either. I do have a cyber romance for her. I suppose I could fill that out a bit. I also have a a mystery about why her husband has a gun — I suppose I could fill that out too.

But still, the hole is there.

Could it be because I still have a hole inside me? If so, there’s not much I can do about it. Apparently, that hole is here for good.


(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.

I Don’t Want Your Sympathy

If you think I write about grief to elicit sympathy or to look for a shoulder to lean on, well . . .  you just don’t get it.

As I’ve said so often, I started writing about grief to make sense of my own feelings, and I kept doing so as a rebellion against a society that reveres happiness at all costs.

Although I am a private person, not given to airing my problems in public, I thought it wrong to continue the charade that life goes on as normal after losing the one person who makes life worth living. So, over the past three years, I have made it my mission to tell the truth about grief. Even though I have mostly reached the stage of peace, and life is opening up again, at least a little bit, grief is still a part of my life. There is a void in my world — an absence — where he once was, and that void shadows me and probably always will. Although his death changed the circumstances of my life, thrusting me into an alien world, grief — living with it, dealing with it, accepting it — changed me . . . forever. It has made me who I am today and who I will become tomorrow — strong, confident, and able to handle anything that comes my way. (And maybe even a bit tough to deal with at times.)

Would I prefer to have him in my life? Absolutely. But that is not an option. All I can do, all any of us can do, is deal with what lies before us, regardless of a society that frowns on mourning.

But I don’t need sympathy, I don’t need you to bleed for me, and I don’t need your shoulder to lean on. So what if I’m unhappy? Does that diminish your happiness? If it does, then that’s your problem, not mine. And you miss the point of these grief blogs —  to survive a horrifyingly grievous loss by finding my footing in an unbalanced and alien world.

I do want something from you, though. If you are still coupled, I want you to smile at your loved one tonight instead of kicking him or her in the shin as you might prefer to do. I want you pause to hug him or her, and maybe give an extra kiss. This is an incredible gift I am giving you — a memory to cling to if ever you should become one of us bereft.


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.

It Takes Courage to Grieve

People have often mentioned how courageous I’ve been by writing about my grief, but the truth is, for the most part, it didn’t take any courage. At the beginning, I was in such incredible pain and bewildered by all I was feeling, that I tried to make sense of all the emotions and physical symptoms the only way I knew how — by writing.

There were two times, though, where it did take courage. The first time was when my grief continued far beyond what I had expected, and I was afraid people would think I was weak or self-pitying or self-indulgent, unable to move beyond the tragedy. I am moving, but at my own pace.

The truth is, when you lose your mate, you lose not only the person who meant more to you than any other, the person who connected you to the world, you also lose your best friend, your confidante, your support, your sense of self, your hopes and dreams, your shared world, your faith in a universe that makes sense. The changes are so vast and so sudden, it can take years to process them all.

I’d been honest about everything I’d been feeling, so I continued telling the truth about my grief even when I thought it made me seem pathetic. No one wants to show a weak side to the world, but someone has to explain how grief works, to show the ramifications of a certain type of loss. We are steeped in a culture of couplehood. Many songs and movies extol the joys of meeting the one person who makes life worth living, yet when you lose that person, you are expected to continue as if it didn’t matter. Well, it does matter. And it matters more when you lose that person to death. It’s almost impossible to fathom the absence of a person who once breathed the same air you did, who was there through every crisis and triumph, and who now is simply . . . gone. (Well, if I’m going to tell the truth, then I should tell the truth. It’s not almost impossible. It’s totally impossible.)

I’m past worrying about how people see me and my grief, so I’m back to not needing courage to write about how I am doing. I’m just continuing to chronicle the journey of a woman who is trying to rebuild her life after an immeasurable loss, both the steps forward into hope and the steps backward into sorrow and tears.

The second time I needed courage was when I published Grief: The Great Yearning, the story of my first year of grief. It’s one thing to write about grief in the backwaters of the blogosphere, and a completely different thing to put my grief out there for the whole world to read. Well, the whole world isn’t reading the book, so that’s not an issue, but more importantly, those who do read my story find they are reading their own story. Although grief is unique to each person, the pain and angst and bitter losses are the same. And so is the way we make this unwanted and terrible journey . . . one step at a time.

And that takes courage.


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+

Do Us All a Favor and Let Your Characters Cry

Writers have a saying: if your character cries, your reader doesn’t. Writers seem to take this to mean that characters can never cry, that a tearful character is not a sypmathetic one, that readers cannot identify with a weeper. But tears are contagious — when watching a movie, I tend to cry if a character does. Still, even if the adage is true and readers don’t cry when a character does , is that so terrible?

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Why “Grief: The Great Yearning” is Important, I started writing about grief when I discovered that so many writers get it wrong. Many novels are steeped in death, with bodies piling up like cordwood, yet no one grieves. The surviving spouses think as clearly as they did before the death. They have no magical thinking, holding two disparate thoughts in their minds at once. (For example: I know he will never need his eyeglasses, but I can’t throw them away because how will he see without them?) The characters have no physical symptoms or bouts of tears that are beyond their control. There is no great yearning to see the dead once more (and this yearning is what drives our grief, not the so-called stages). In other words, we are continually conditioned to downplay the very real presence of grief in our lives. If we don’t see people grieve in real life, in movies, in books, where are we to get a blueprint for grief?

It’s simple enough to deal with the situation. Writers can let their bereft cry, and then later figure out a way to get the readers to cry. For example, if the character cries, is unable to staunch his tears, but later gathers himself together to deal dry-eyed with a story task, then the character’s strength and courage will have a heart-breaking quality about it. Or if the character deals with the task despite the tears running down his face, then that also is heartrending.

When my life mate/soul mate was dying in a hospice care center, I couldn’t stop the flow of tears, but I kept after the hospice workers until they made sure he was comfortable. (They screwed up his drug dosages, so he was in a massive amount of pain, and they wouldn’t give him the anti-nausea pill he needed because . . . why? I still don’t know. He was days away from death. What difference did it make?) They kept wanting to comfort me, kept wanting to ease my pain, but I told them every time, “Ignore the tears, they don’t mean anything. I have the rest of my life to grieve. Take care of him.” I couldn’t stop the tears, but, as I said, they didn’t mean anything (well, except that I was sad, in shock, and undergoing an incredible amount of stress). I still managed to do everything I had to do to keep him comfortable, and then later to deal with his funerary arrangements. The following two months, I had to dispose of his effects, clear out the house we’d lived in for twenty years, put my stuff in storage, travel 1000 miles so I could go take care of my 95-year-old father. During most of that time, I was crying (or screaming). Yikes, I never felt such pain and angst, and I hope I never do again. I can’t imagine how I ever survived those months. Yet I did. The point I’m making is that abstaining from tears does not make one heroic. What one does despite the tears — that is heroism. And such heroism will make your readers cry.

Another way writers can deal with a tearful character is to have a POV character overhear the hero sob, but when the character sees the hero a few minutes later, the hero is dry-faced, though perhaps with glistening eyes.

It’s not tears that readers don’t like — it’s self-pity. The surprising thing about grief is that very little of it (at least in the beginning) is self-pity. The questions and worries that beset the bereft are real and have to be dealt with. Ignoring the panic aspect of grief (that the world is forever altered, that there is a huge absence where once there was a presence) is a disservice to your characters and to your readers. You don’t have to let your character wallow — you can use their grief to catapult them to greater efforts. During those first two months when I had so much to accomplish (by myself, I might add), I used my periods of anger to fuel me. When the anger was overtaken by angst, I’d stop for a while.

And forget the “stages of grief” crap. There are no stages of grief, at least not for everyone. The absolutely worst fictional depiction of grief I ever read was “She went through all the stages of grief.” What does that mean? Simply that the author was lazy and didn’t do any research on what grief feels like. Having your character cry might not make your readers cry, but a silly sentence like that won’t make your readers feel anything.

In our society, we seem to believe that tears are a sign of weakness, when in fact they are a necessary stress release. The loss of a spouse is the most stressful thing a person will ever have to deal with. Tears release the hormones that build up in the system. If your protagonist’s loved one is not a major factor in the his/her life, you can get away with no tears, but please, if the loss is a major one, do us all a favor and the poor character cry.

What To Do (And What Not to Do) When Someone is Grieving

Every few weeks I decide to stop posting articles about grief and my grieving process. When one talks, the words dissipate into the atmosphere and are soon forgotten. When one writes, the words last until the paper is lost or destroyed. But when one posts to a blog on the internet, the words are eternal. And I’m not sure showing such vulnerability forever is healthy. As I gather strength and courage to face the challenges of my new life as a woman alone, as I change and grow into the person I will need to become, the vulnerable me of these grieving years will still exist in cyberspace. I don’t know how much this ever-living past will shadow my future; at the very least, it will be a perpetual reminder of a very dark time.

But life doesn’t seem to want me to give up these posts quite yet. Today’s decision to stop posting was forestalled by an email from a grieving friend who thanked me for voicing what she could no longer say. Any mention of her grief worried her family, and they suggested therapy so often, she now hides her grief from them. And if she writes about grief, relatives call up with advice about moving on or looking for someone new.

People often worry about what to say to someone who is grieving, but they should be more worried about what not to say. Saying almost any heartfelt words will do. We bereft see beyond the sometimes bumbling, often touching attempts to breach the grief gap, and we appreciate the effort.

What we don’t appreciate and have no use for is advice. Generally, the people who offer advice have not a clue what we are going through, so it seems to them a simple matter of just moving on, and they are quite free with suggestions of how to accomplish this. (I cannot think of a single instance where someone who suffered a grievous loss offered me advice, probably because they know how unwelcome and unproductive it would be.)

When I started writing about grief, the whole point was just to say how I felt so others would know that what they are feeling isn’t abnormal even though it feels dreadfully abnormal. I never asked for advice. I never wanted advice. I simply laid out my feelings. And yet I got advice. I tried to be kind and understanding, realizing that the advice-givers felt helpless and wanted to do something to ease my pain, but the truth is, advice does more damage than good. As with my grieving friend, so often the only way we bereft have of staving off advice is to hide our grief, and that is not healthy for anyone.

So, what can you do to help when someone you knows loses a spouse or a child to death?

1. Do something tangible. Offer to clean the house, take care of the kids, take the bereft to lunch, go grocery shopping. Almost as useless as advice is the typical, “Call me if you need help.” How is a person who is totally devastated by grief supposed to find the energy to call? You call. Don’t leave it up to them. And don’t leave it open ended with a “Let me know what I can do.” Be specific. “I’m going to the grocery store. Do you need anything? Milk? Coffee?” or “You’ve had a lot of people tramping through your house. Can I help clean up?” The best thing anyone did for me was clean the house before I moved. I will never forget that, will appreciate it as long as I live.

2. Let the person talk. Don’t try to make it better. Don’t offer advice. Simply listen. A woman I knew casually invited me to lunch, and she asked questions about him, let me talk, listened. It made me feel less alone, less of a pariah.

3. After the first month, the thing that helped me most was sharing stories with other bereft. (In the beginning, the whole thing was so overwhelming, I couldn’t deal with anyone else’s pain; I couldn’t even deal with my own.) As depressing as it was to find out that people still had occasional grief upsurges after ten years or that they never stopped missing their loved one, it helped knowing that others had gone through the same thing I was experiencing, and it helped knowing what I was up against. But if you haven’t suffered a similar loss, please do not talk about the death of your 100-year-old grandmother, or your dog, or your cousin. Even though these losses are important to you, they don’t offer any comfort to someone who has just lost the love of her life, especially if he died at a relatively young age.

4. Always, a shoulder to cry on and a comforting hug are welcome, and are worth a million times more than advice. Even better, cry with us. A few days after my life mate/soul mate died, I stopped by the grocery store where he and I shopped. The clerk asked where he was, and when I told her, she hugged me and cried with me. Not enough tears had been shed for him — no amount of tears will ever be enough—so those tears gave me comfort. His life — and death — shouldn’t pass lightly. No one’s should.

Writing a Book I Didn’t Know I Was Writing

In Style: Writing as the Discovery of Outlook, Richard M Eastman says: “You don’t begin to write with a complete message or experience already imagined, which is then to be wrapped in language as a means of sending it to your readers. Writing isn’t so much communication as creation. In a real sense, you don’t have an outlook on anything without first having written on it. This outlook comes into being through the dozens of tests, choices, and unexpected chances which turn up as you write on some engaging topic; and most writers agree that the final creation isn’t anything you could have precisely anticipated when you first set pen to paper.”

Eastman’s discovery of outlook holds true for my fiction.  I know the story when I begin, I know the ending, and I know a few important scenes, which should mean that I know the whole story, but I don’t. I am not the same, my outlook is not the same, when I finish writing the story as when I began, so the story is not exactly as I intended. The creation process itself creates the change in outlook. Writing is all about the choices we make, and continue to make, all through the creating, editing, proofing. Sometimes I find that I’ve written a book I didn’t know I was writing. A Spark of Heavenly Fire was supposed to be the story of women who could barely cope during times of prosperity when everyone else was doing just fine, but they came alive and dazzled during dark times when everyone else could barely cope. That story is still there in A Spark of Heavenly Fire, but the overriding story is the story of love in all its guises: self-less love, self-love, friendship, romantic love, parental love, obsession.  This theme of love came about through the various elemental choices I made during the course of the book, and it makes novel strong, much stronger than it would have been if it remained simply the story of women who come alive in times of hardship.

And Eastman’s discovery of outlook especially holds true for my non-fiction. I wrote a book about grief, a book I didn’t know I was writing. After the death of my life mate/soul mate twenty-one months ago, I found solace in writing about his death and my grief, in blogging about it, in writing letters to him. And now, some of those writings have coalesced into a book that people have called “exquisite,” “profound,” “raw and real.” I wrote to help me come to terms with the soulquake I experienced after he died and with my continued grief. But what the book ends up being is a great love story, the story of a love that transcends time and physical bonds. He might be dead, my love for him is still strong.

I know what you’re going to ask, but no, the book isn’t published yet, but it should be released in March 2012. I’m putting the finishing touches on the book now, adding the few photos I have to further illustrate our life, and then it heads back to my publisher so they can add a cover and get it published.

One unintended benefit of getting the book published is that afterward, this blog will not be quite so schizophrenic. Part of the time I write about writing, the rest of the time I write about grief. The book will pull both parts of this blog together, and it will become a cohesive whole. I wonder if the book will do the same for me, help pull me together somehow, bridging two very different parts of my life — the part where I once shared a life,  and the part where I’m left alone to pick up the pieces of that shattered life.

Grief Takes as Long as It Takes

I’ve been thinking about writing a book about grief, combining my grief blogs, the letters I’ve written to my dead mate, the journal I kept those first few months after he died, and the various bits of information about dealing with grief I’ve collected during the past nine months. Now I’m wondering if anyone will want to read such a depressing book.

This morning, for the first time, I read some of those letters I wrote, and I couldn’t believe the raw pain. The writing chronicles my journey, and perhaps people will see beyond the pain to the insights and the struggle to find meaning after such a soulquake, yet jeez! It’s so damn sad. On the other hand, people might find comfort knowing they are not the only ones going through such trauma. On the other other hand, I might want to bury my head in the sand before I get halfway through putting the book together. On the other other other hand, it could be cathartic.

I did notice something interesting, though. The letters I first read this morning were the ones I wrote four or five months ago. Since those were so agonizing to read, I was afraid of looking at the first ones, but I held my breath and jumped in. Oddly, those first letters are more chatty than angst-ridden, like I was writing to someone who was only going to be gone for a short time. I remember the pain hitting me right after his death, which it did, but apparently it kept on growing until by the end of the first month (when I naively thought I’d be over it) I was so desperate, I went to a grief support group hoping someone could tell me how to survive. They couldn’t tell me, of course. They could only show me by their progress that it is possible to survive.

Good thing I don’t have to make a decision about the book for another three months. Or even longer. I don’t want to write it before the first year of grief is up because I don’t want to skew my healing, and besides, I’m hoping that after a year I’ll be more hopeful, wiser, stronger. Seems to me I’ve been saying that very thing for months. First, it was the end of the first month that was supposed to bring me hope, wisdom, strength. Then I thought I’d have achieved those things by the third month, then the sixth, the seventh, the ninth. Maybe twenty-four or thirty-six months is more realistic. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately?) grief takes as long as it takes.