Two Years and Two Months of Grief

I never expected to feel so sad two years and two months after the death of my life mate/soul mate, and I never expected to still be so easily brought to tears. But then, I never expected most of what I’ve experienced with grief, especially since I tend to be more contemplative and stoic than emotional. As I’ve learned, though, grief might manifest as emotion, but it is so much more than that — it’s a restructuring of the world as we know it, a reconfiguring of reality. And that takes a lot of energy, both mental and physical. And it takes time. A person who was a major part of our life is gone, ripping a hole in our reality, and our brains are struggling to patch the hole (or at least to figure a way around it), which causes an incredible amount of stress.

Part of that restructuring is a new consciousness of death. We all know we are going to die, but after the death of someone we are profoundly connected with, we KNOW deep within our psyches. This knowledge makes life on Earth seem at once more significant and less vital (or do I mean more vital and less significant?), which is why so many of us bereft struggle for meaning. Some of us will eventually settle back into every day life, but for the rest of us, life will always seem a bit off, as if a part of us knows we are aliens in an alien land.

Mostly, I’m doing okay. If we were to meet, you’d have no idea of my ongoing sadness. I don’t try to hide it, it’s just that the sadness has become such a part of me that it doesn’t impede my living. I can smile and laugh and chat as if everything were fine, and it is, for that moment. But when I am alone and not focused on a task, sorrow percolates to the surface. Sometimes our life together seems very far away, as if it were only a dream born of loneliness, but this ongoing sadness reminds me of the truth — I once was with someone I loved deeply, and now I’m not.

I never feel his presence, but his absence hovers beside me as if it were a living thing. When I make a salad, I am aware that he is not washing the vegetables for me. When I am at the grocery store, I am aware that he is not helping pick out what we need. When I am exercising, I am aware he is not in the room. When I need someone to talk to, I am aware he cannot respond. When I watch one of his many video tapes, I am aware he is not sitting next to me. Every time I use something of ours, even something as inconsequential as a spoon, I am aware that he has no need of the article.

I don’t purposely think of such things. In fact, the awareness is not a thought. It’s just that everything I do and everything I own echoes with his absence. Maybe someday even the echo will die away and all I’ll have of our shared life are fading memories. But no matter how I feel or what I forget, I’ll always be grateful that an extraordinary man shared his life with me.

***

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.

Putting a H.A.L.T. to Grief

It’s been eighteen months since my life mate — my soul mate — died of inoperable kidney cancer, and I’m still chugging along. I do okay most days, but still there are times when the thought that he is gone takes away my breath. His death was so final, his absence absolute. He never responds when I talk to him, never sits down to watch a movie with me, never seems to care when I get angry at him for rejecting me. (I know it’s not his fault, but still, death is the ultimate rejection.)

During this past year and a half, I’ve learned a lot about grief. I learned the importance of facing the pain head-on, accepting it as part of the process, and waiting for it to diminish, which mine has — significantly. I’ve learned how to find peace in the sorrow (or perhaps despite the sorrow). I’ve learned that grief cannot be hurried, that months or even years might pass before we bereft find ourselves again. And most of all, I’ve learned the secret of H.A.L.T.

People who make major life changes, such as alcoholics who give up drinking, smokers who give up cigarettes, diabetics who make diet and exercise changes are often urged to watch themselves so they don’t get Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. That’s what I mean by H.A.L.T. Did you think I actually meant putting an end to grief? You should know by now I’m letting grief wear itself out, whenever or however that might be.

Hunger, anger, loneliness, and exhaustion make us vulnerable, which makes it easy to backslide into old behavior patterns.  I recently noticed that grief often surges when I am tired, so I’ve been trying to steer clear of these vulnerabilites, but the trouble is that all of those states are effects of grief, so exhaustion and loneliness and anger causes grief and grief causes exhaustion, loneliness and anger. A sad cycle. But now that I’m aware of it, I can try to be more careful. Although I’m willing to let grief take its course, I have no intention of letting grief rule the rest of my life. I intend to be as bold and as adventurous as possible, a wildly inappropriate woman who just likes to have fun. But not quite yet. I still have some sadnesses to deal with.

Letter to a Grieving Friend

Hello, my friend.

I understand what you said about the continuity of attachment even after death. At the beginning of my grief, I held to the thought that I was sparing my life mate — my soul mate — from ever having to grieve for me since he died first, then it occured to me that if, in fact, we continue to live somewhere beyond this earth, maybe he is feeling as lost as I am, as disconnected, and as lonely. That took away the last bit of comfort I had. My other thought was that even if something of us survives, I will never see him again. When he and I met all those years ago, I had the strange notion that he was some sort of exalted being come to help me find truth and reality (when the student is ready, the teacher will appear, they say). I’m not sure why I thought I was so special, but the time when we met was steeped in mysticism for me. I sometime wonder if perhaps my grief is so difficult because our separation is truly forever, that by the time I die, he will have taken his rightful place somewhere high up in the pantheon of radiance, and I’ll still be muddling along without him. Such strange thoughts that beset us bereft!

I’m beginning to realize that in some way my grief might always be a part of my life. It’s too immense, this thing called death. Too hard to deal with the reality of it. Oftentimes when people mention how the loss of their mate helped them become the person they were meant to be, it makes me cringe, as if the loved one was an adjunct to their life, not a life in itself. But we all deal with life and death the best we can. My grief has two parts: my missing him and his being missing from this world. Both feelings will be with me forever. And through it all, grief really is molding me into what I will become. I thought I’d have arrived at that place of becoming by now, but it’s still a long way away.

Supposedly, people who deal best with the hole in their lives are those who continue to have a connection to the person, such as still talking to them or writing to them. What is the difference between that and a fantasy? Either way, the person has no physical being (except, in the case of the dead, as dust in the ground or pulverized bone — cremains as the funeral business so cutely calls them). But perhaps that attachment even after death is what makes the difference.

I’ve decided that a life of fun and/or adventure is the only thing that will make the coming years tolerable, yet I have no idea how to have fun. Don’t even know what fun is, except perhaps doing new things or learning new things.

I feel as if I am disappearing, though. So many friends, even friends I made after his death, have disappeared from my life, and I worry that I will disappear, too. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. I’ve been looking at photos of me as a child, and I am no longer that person, can’t even remember what I was thinking or feeling when the photos were taken (can’t even remember having my picture taken) so that youthful “me” has disappeared. Maybe when today’s me disappears, I’ll be not simply old and decrepit, but different somehow, and able to handle the challenges that the future will bring.

I hold to the idea that maybe someday you and I will have a grand adventure together.

Your sister in sorrow,
Pat

I Am a Thirteen-Month Grief Survivor

Yesterday at my grief support group we were asked to complete the sentence, “After he died, I was surprised that . . .” Everything that happened in the thirteen months since the death of my life mate — my soul mate — has surprised me. No, not surprised me. Shocked me.

I was shocked that the end came so quickly. He’d been sick such a very long time, his health fading slowly, that his dying became our way of life. When he was finally diagnosed with inoperable kidney cancer, we were told he had three to six months to live. He had only three weeks. And those weeks seemed to evaporate in just a few hours.

After he died, I was shocked by the very presence of grief. My brother died four and a half years ago, and my mother died a year later. I handled both deaths well, so I thought I could cope with the death of my mate. I didn’t know, had no way of knowing, that one didn’t grieve the same for every loss. I didn’t know, had no way of knowing, that there was a physical component to the death of a long time mate, that it would feel like an amputation.

After he died, I was shocked by the depth and breadth of my feelings. During the last year of his life, and especially the last six months, he’d begun withdrawing from the world and from me. This withdrawal, this lessening of a need to be with others is a natural part of dying, and my response to his withdrawal was just as natural — an increased determination to live. He might be dying but I wasn’t, and I had to untangle our lives, find a way to survive his dying and his death. I thought I had successfully completed this task, but his death rocked me to the core of my being.

After his death, I was shocked by his sheer goneness. Because I’d spent so much time alone that last year, I thought life without him would feel much the same, but it isn’t like he is in another room or another city or another country — it’s like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I still have no words to describe the finality, the undoableness, the vacuum of death. He was part of my life for thirty-four years. We breathed the same air. We were connected by our thoughts, our shared experiences, the zillion words we’d spoken to each other. And then he was gone from this earth. Erased. Deleted. I still can’t wrap my mind around that.

After his death, I was shocked that I felt so shattered. So broken. And I am shocked that I still feel that way at times. I am shocked that no matter how strong you are, how well you are healing, grief can slam into you at any time, especially after a good day when you’re not expecting it, and the pain feels as raw as it was at the beginning.

After his death, I was shocked by the scope of grief. You grieve for the one who died and you grieve for yourself because you have to live without him. You grieve for all the things you did and the things you didn’t do. You grieve for what went wrong in your shared life and what went right. You grieve for the past and you grieve for the lost future. You grieve for all the hopes and dreams and possibilities that died with him. It’s amazing that anyone can survive all that pain, but we do, and that shocks me, too.

After his death, I was shocked by how complicated human emotions can be. You can feel sad and unsad at the same time. You can be determined to live, yet not care if you live or die. You can know in your depths he’s gone, but still listen for him, still yearn for him, still worry about him.

Mostly I’m shocked that I am still the same person I was before he died. Such emotional trauma should have changed me, made me stronger and wiser perhaps, yet I’m still just me. Sadder, but still recognizably me. Well, there is one change. I’ve always been a worrier, but now I try not to fret about the future, try not to wonder how I’m going to cope with growing old alone. After his death, I am no longer shocked that life can remain the same year after year. Nor am I shocked that it can change in an instant.

Grief: Blindsided by Lilacs

Who knew I would find lilacs in this desert community?

My life mate — my soul mate — loved lilacs. We once saw a house with lilacs lining the long driveway, and he wanted to live there, but we couldn’t afford such luxury. Shortly after we moved to the house where we were to spend the rest of his life, we dug up the lilacs that blocked a gate and replanted them around the perimeter of the yard. When we moved to that house, it was like living in an aquarium — there was absolutely no privacy. By the time he died, it was such a lush environment, it was like living in a terrarium — and there was total privacy. And the gate was once again blocked with lilacs. Apparently, we’d left just enough rootstock that the bushes grew back.

We planted all sorts of bushes and trees in addition to those lilacs, and the thrill of watching our seedlings grow to adulthood was another thing we shared in a twinned life that was all about sharing. It should have been hard leaving the place, but I was in such grief over his death that one more loss didn’t really make much difference to my sorrow.

I still don’t miss the place, or not that much. A place is just a place. I am homesick, but homesick for him. He was home. I miss him. I miss our life together. If he were to call and tell me he was waiting for me, I’d go to him wherever he was — mountains or desert, city or country, there I would be. But he’s never going to call. For months after I came here to the desert to try to figure out what comes next, I’d listen for the phone, hoping he would call and tell me that he was well and I could come home. That feeling is finally fading, but the loss of that feeling just makes me sadder — he is gone and I have to deal with the vicissitudes of life by myself.

I have minor upsurges of grief a couple of times a day, but I try to be upbeat. I have a new book published. I am getting new clothes, trying to reinvent myself from the outside in. I have made new friends (mostly people who have lost their mates. It’s amazing how quickly you can get to know someone when you cry together). I’ve been handling myself well.

And then . . .

Today, strolling around the neighborhood (it was too windy to walk in the desert), I happened to smell lilacs, and instantly, I was back in full-fledged grief mode. People keep telling me one never gets over grief, you just learn to live with it, and that appears to be true. Grief seems to lurk in dark places, ready to gush forth when one is least expecting it. And I was not expecting it today. How could I have known I would encounter lilacs growing in this desert community?

Grief Update: A Yearning as Deep as the Black Canyon

I haven’t been writing much about grief lately. Partly I’ve been trying to keep an upbeat attitude so I can focus on promoting my new book, Light Bringer, which was published on the anniversary of my soul mate’s death, and partly I haven’t wanted to admit how much his being gone still hurts. It seems a bit pathetic since there are so many earthshaking and earthquaking events happening in the world today, and it has been more than a year since he died (a year and fifteen days to be exact). I am doing okay, but I still feel his absence from the earth, still miss him, still yearn for one more word or one more smile.

Fridays and Saturdays are particularly hard. He died at 1:40 am on a Friday night (which made the actually date a Saturday) and my body can’t decide which day is the right time to mourn, so my upsurge of grief spans both days. I say my body can’t decide, because there is an element of physicality to grief, especially when it comes to the death of someone who shared more than three decades of your life. You feel his absence in your cells, in your marrow, in your blood. I can sometimes feel (or imagine I feel) his vibes still surrounding the things he used, the things we shared. I find myself stupidly hugging a dish before I use it, remembering him eating off that plate.

Most of our stuff is packed away because of my temporary living arrangements. Yesterday, I felt a moment of panic when I realized that eventually I would unpack and begin using our household goods, and I would feel his energy permeating them. Usage will dissipate that energy, but for now, it’s still there. Perhaps when I need those items, the psychic remnants of him will bring me comfort, the way using a few of our things bring me comfort now, but it could just as easily set off a whole new strata of pain.

But I won’t — can’t — think of that. It still takes almost everything I have just to get through the days, to concentrate on this day. I can live today. What is one day without him when we had so many? I am most at peace when I forget that he is dead, when somewhere in the far reaches of my mind I feel that he is back in the house we shared, waiting for me. It’s not that I can’t live without him. I can. It’s that the world is such an alien place now that he is gone. I still remember how right the world felt when I met him. I had no expectations of having any more of him than that first relationship of customer (me) and storeowner (him), but back then, just knowing a person such as he existed made the world a more radiant place. When he died, he took the radiance with him.

It’s sort of odd, but I can’t identify that specific quality of radiance he brought to my life. He was sick for so very long, we gradually untwinned our lives, he to dying, me to aloneness. And yet, that connection, that depth, that radiance remained until the end. In his last weeks we even found a renewed closeness, a renewed commitment, but before that, we endured months, maybe years of unhappiness.

And, childishly, I am still unhappy. I want what I cannot have. I try to find in myself the radiance (the center? the heart? the home? — whatever it was that he gave me). I will need that to keep me going through the coming decades, and I fear I am not enough. At times, I think I have depths enough to plumb, other times those depths seem an illusion, an opaqueness that masks my shallows.

But what isn’t shallow is how much I miss him. That yearning is as deep as the Black Canyon.

Grief and Remembrance

The problem with grief is that while the subject of the grief stays gone, grief comes again and again, sometimes when one is least expecting it. I’d been doing well handling my grief after the death of the man with whom I spent thirty-four years of my life, yet these past couple of days grief has come to revisit me, and my sorrow is as great as it was a year ago.

I mentioned before about the terrible anniversaries of my grief. I lived through the first anniversary of the day pain struck him with such force that he took to bed for the rest of his life. I lived through the first anniversary of the day we got the diagnosis: inoperable kidney cancer. I lived through the first anniversary of the day we signed up for hospice, of the day we signed the DNR (the do not resuscitate order).

I had a hiatus of a couple of weeks where I was mostly at peace, then yesterday I was so overcome with grief that I wanted to scream out in anguish. I couldn’t figure out what hit me or why, but as it happens, the body remembers even when the mind doesn’t, and my body remembered that yesterday was the first anniversary of the last time we hugged, the last time we kissed.

And today . . . today is the first anniversary of the last time we talked. The last time he spoke to me. The last time he knew who I was. Today is also the anniversary of the day we took him to the hospice care center to live out the remaining few days of his life.

I’d been looking forward to the anniversary of his death, supposing that after a year of grieving I would be mostly finished with the pain, that he would have receded from my thoughts. It was a realistic expectation — my focus on him has been diminishing, so much so that sometimes it feels as if our life together was a story I told myself long ago — but as always, grief has its own agenda.

The past year seems to have disappeared. I know I lived it, know what I accomplished (and what I didn’t) yet the cliché is true — it passed in the blink of an eye. If I turn my head quickly, perhaps I will see him. He feels that close. If the world could turn back for just a second, I could catch him. Hang on to him. Never let him go.

But he is gone. And all the tears I shed this year will never bring him back.

Today was my grief support group day. I’d stopped going for a while. At the time, I wasn’t in the same place as the other bereft, and I was afraid I was doing them a disservice by my dissociation. After a few weeks, I did go back to be there for a friend, and today she and the group were there for me. Since I hadn’t had a memorial service for my mate, the facilitator asked me to say a eulogy, to make sense of his life, but I couldn’t make sense of it — I don’t understand the point of his having had to suffer so much. I could make sense of his life as pertains to me, though. I talked about how he accompanied and mentored me on my journey — my quest for truth and meaning — how he went with me as far as he could. Oddly, we’d used up our relationship, not in a bad way, but in a good way. We’d talked for hours on end, day after day, year after year. We read books and discussed them, studied films, researched various topics and shared information, tried to see the big picture and connect all the disparate parts of life.

I want so much to talk with him once more, to have one of those electric conversations where ideas were zinging back and forth, but the truth is, we said everything that was important. I have not come up with a single question for him this past year that he had not already answered. (Except for what he wants done with his ashes, but even that is an answer. If he cared, he would have told me.)

The last thing he ever said to me was, “Remember everything I told you.”

And I do remember.

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