The Shoulder Season of Grief

I had a rough time around the publication of my new book, Grief: The Great Yearning, due partly to the fact that the story of me and my life mate/soul mate has been told and is now contained between the covers of a book, and partly to the realization once and for all that he is never coming back. I already knew that of course, knew it from the moment he died, and I came to that same realization dozens of times afterward, but this time I reached rock bottom of acceptance, and it took. Surprisingly, the last couple of days have been good ones. My emotional state evened out, and I felt light. It wasn’t just that my grief took a hiatus, but also that my anger had dissipated. I’ve been angry for so long, since way before he died, that it became my default state. Because of that, I didn’t even realize I’ve been angry.

For many years, we sustained loss after loss — his health, our business, security — and finally, his life. So many reasons to be angry. I haven’t been furious or enraged, just a quiet anger that went soul deep. So, why did the anger leave me, even if only temporarily? I don’t know. Perhaps because the realization he is never coming back brought the knowledge that the past really is the past. Or perhaps this is simply the latest stage of my grief, a letting go. Or perhaps it’s because spring is almost here.

Whatever the reason, I no longer fear the third year of grief. I expect to experience grief upsurges, but for the most part, I think I’ll be entering the shoulder season of grief.

In the travel business, the time between the high season and the low season is called the shoulder season. I’m coming up on the two-year anniversary of his death. I will probably have some unbearably sad days as the date approaches, but after the anniversary, I could be entering a time of not-grief but not non-grief, either, a bit of a shoulder between the wildness of my early grief and the road to the rest of my life.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, but I feel a quickening of interest. If I let myself, I still panic at the thought of growing old alone, of being old alone, of dying (although the idea of being dead doesn’t bother me, dying does — it can be a terrible thing) but I still have many good years left. I actually might accomplish something. Or not. I’m not sure if I want to “do” or if I want simply to “be”. I do have a new philosophy, though — the platinum rule. If the golden rule is to treat others the way you would want them to treat you, then the platinum rule is to treat yourself the way you would want others to treat you. So, I intend to be kind to myself, to be patient with my deficiencies, to be proud of my accomplishments. And I intend to encourage myself to be bold and adventurous.

Sounds like a good beginning to my shoulder season of grief.

Grief: Love or Codependency?

Heavy winds today reminded me of a walk I took thirty-five years ago. (Weird, huh? Hadn’t thought about that day in a very long time.) It was a lovely spring evening, or rather, it would have been if it weren’t for the winds. But I was too restless to stay inside. This was about six months after I met the man I would spend the next few decades with, and like a homing pigeon, I headed for his store even though I knew he wouldn’t be there. I wanted to feel connected to him, even if in such a minor way.

When you fall in love, such bits of silliness are expected and excused. Apparently, they are understandable in the context of new love. But when you spend a lifetime with someone, and you still have that connection, people start looking askance, thinking that perhaps you’re codependent. And when he dies, leaving you feeling as if half of you died, too, then the pointing figures become more . . . pointed.

A few days ago I posted my latest chapter of the collaborative novel Rubicon Ranch that I’m writing with eight other authors. In my chapter, I wrote:

Tears welled up in her eyes as she remembered her husband when they first met. His hazel eyes had blazed with golden lights as he smiled at her, and young fool that she’d been, she’d been dazzled. They had a great life, or so it had seemed. She’d felt safe with him as they traveled the world over. And free. What need had she of a house, a car, kids when she had him?

Well, now she had nothing but debts. And doubts. Had Alexander ever loved her as she loved him?

Today I had a bizarre little exchange with a total stranger. He wrote: “This excerpt suggests your ‘young’ lady may benefit from CODA; this is like AA for Co-dependency; a peer support group[P2P] that provides support for individuals struggling to devise[and adhere to] a recovery plan[WRAP].”

I responded: “Maybe she simply loved her husband. Not all people who are deeply connected to another human being have codependency issues. Her surviving her spouse’s suspicious death confuses the matter, makes her wonder what was real. Perfectly normal behavior under the circumstances. Grief skews one’s perceptions.”

His response: “Kinda my point! How do we define for ourselves what is real love, or a symptom of dependency? …define for ourselves who is grieving; who is stuck in this codependency conundrum?”

There is no codependency conundrum here. Just because two human beings are depending on each other for love and support, it does not make them a therapist’s subject. And even if only one of the parties is in love, as might be the case in my story’s scenario, it still doesn’t make the one who loves codependent. Unrequited love is still love.

It’s very simple. Love means wanting what is best for the other. You help each other grow. You never expect the other to fix your individual problems, though you often take each other’s advice. You don’t cling, demand, or base your relationship on unrealistic expectations. Together you provided a safe environment where each can be yourself. And you support each other any way you can. No matter how connected you feel or how bereft you are when your mate dies, if the relationship helped make you grow, made you a better person, it is not codependency no matter how it appears to outsiders.

Admittedly, this exchange was about a character in a book, but I’ve had similar conversations with people about my grief, as if grieving for a life mate/soul mate is somehow . . . sick. As if it makes me un-well-adjusted. The truth is, I am very well adjusted, so much so that I’ve been willing to make my grief public in an effort to spread the word that it is okay to grieve.

And it is okay. Don’t let anyone blow off your grief.

Passing the Test of Grief

I am still freaked out by the imminent publication of my book, Grief: The Great Yearning. Still crying intermittently. I knew I was due for a grief upsurge since I’ve been careful to turn my mind to other things the past month or so, and grief can only be denied for so long, but this upsurge is different. It feels like the end of something — perhaps the end of a subliminal belief that his dying was a test. It could still be a test, but the reward for accomplishing this particular task of dealing with the fallout from the death of my life mate/soul mate is not our getting back together, at least not in this lifetime. And maybe not in the next. Maybe the only reward is in what I become because of his death and my grief.

When we met, I still believed in a cosmic plan, and I had the feeling that he was a higher being come to help me on my quest to the truth. But now? I no longer believe there is a universal truth, and I don’t think he’s waiting for me, though I try to pretend that he is. It’s better than believing that he is gone forever.

And perhaps he does still exist in some form. What do I know? One thing I have learned from my grief is that a human life is a spectrum. You don’t notice it so much when you are both alive, because you are both in the moment, both always the people you have become. But when one of you dies, his becoming ceases, and you see his life as a whole. The person he was when you met is every bit as alive in memory as the person he was the minute before he died. The youthful man, the middle-aged one, the healthy one, the sick one are all merely spaces on the spectrum of his life. It’s possible the spectrum of a human life is the same sort of spectrum as light — beginning long before the visible part appears and ending long after the visible part disappears. Of course, the non-visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum aren’t light but sound and radiation and other invisible waves, so whatever exists outside of the visible human spectrum might be something completely different from we can ever imagine.

It’s this sort of speculation that gives rise to the feeling that my grief has been test — a game, perhaps — something that is not quite real. If I keep philosophizing about death and what comes after, then I don’t have to deal with the reality that for the rest of my life, I will have to survive without the one person who knew me, who listened, who helped, who cared about every aspect of my being.

It seems as every step of this journey is worse than the last, and this next part, where I truly understand that he is gone and that I truly am alone is going to be the hardest. It takes my breath away to think of it, and leaves me teary.

Maybe grief was just the pop quiz. Maybe the real test is what I do with the rest of my life.

Grief Means Never Having to Say I’m Sorry

I found myself crying yesterday morning. Nothing major, just a few tears and a desperate plea for forgiveness from my life mate/soul mate. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I wailed, as if I had done something to make him leave me and now I’m left to suffer the consequences. I did nothing, of course, and he didn’t leave me — he died. But somewhere in the depths of my being, I cannot process his death. I witnessed his last days, weeks, hours. I was there for his last breath. I saw the nurses clean him, wrap him in a white blanket shroud. Accompanied the gurney out to the hearse (a black SUV, actually). Watched the SUV drive away. Picked up his ashes several days later. There is no doubt in my mind he is dead. And yet . . . and yet . . .

I mentioned in my post a couple of days ago that there is an element of blank when it comes to death, a non-comprehension of what it means for him to be so very gone from this earth. I must have assumed that his death would feel as if he’s in another room, or out running errands, or some such. But it doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels like there’s a massive void where once he lived in my mind, my heart.

Last night, when I got the final proof of my grief book, I starting sobbing because the reality of his death really struck home. As I wrote to a bereft friend, “I haven’t cried this long for many weeks, but now I can’t stop crying. All of a sudden it is too damn real. He never is coming back, is he? It really is over. I feel as if I have been playing at grief these past months, and now playtime is finished, and real life begins. I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.”

I knew he wasn’t coming back. I accepted that he was dead from the moment he died. But there’s been something unreal about my grief. I am not an emotional person. I’m very staid and down-to-earth, but his death rocketed me out of myself into another persona, and last night I felt as if I’m settling back into my old self. And he is dead for real.

How many times can one man die? When it comes to grief, apparently there are more deaths than one, and we grieve for every single one of them. Knowing that Grief: The Great Yearning is finished, knowing that our story has been told and that it even has an ending, has brought the truth home to me on a deeper level than ever before. No more waiting for him to call to tell me I can come home. No more hoping to meet him for a mountain rendezvous or a swim in a north country lake. There’s just me, now, and the memories that haunt me.

And I am so very sorry that he is gone.

The Final Resting Place for My Grief

I’ve been working on my new book Grief: The Great Yearning for the past couple of months, trying to get it as perfect as possible for publication, though I doubt anyone will notice if there are any typos. So, far, no one has been able to read it without weeping, and tears would mask any imperfections.

The text has been ready for over a month, but for some reason, the printer kept smearing the back cover copy. This sort of delay drove me nuts with my other books, but I’ve been patient with this one. I know it’s important to get it published, and yet I’m ambivalent. Do I really want all those raw emotions let loose on the world? Forever after, I will be a grieving woman. Even if I find happiness in some unimaginable future, my grief will still be there in my words, as desperate and real and profound as the day I felt them.

Today I received the final proof, and it is perfect. (Well, perfect except for the typo or two I have since found, but I am NOT going to worry about those.)

I’m sitting here weeping as I write this. I don’t know why the publication of this book makes the death of my life mate/soul mate final, but it does. His death and my grief are no longer my personal affair, but something real, something books are made of. He has no funeral plot, no memorial, no epitaph engraved for all eternity. Or rather, he didn’t have those things. Now he does — this book is his epitaph, his memorial, the final resting place for my grief.

It’s as if the past thirty-six years, and especially the past twenty-three months culminated in this one moment tonight when I held the book in my hands. Where did it all go? Where did he go? Where did my love go? How can our shared life, begun with such hope and radiance, have ended already?

I know now there are worse deaths than his, and there are worse fates than mine, but still, this wasn’t the way things were supposed to end. We always took care of ourselves, didn’t make stupid or foolish decisions, didn’t act rashly. We were kind to each other, looked out for each other, respected each other. We shared as much as is possible for two people to share. And this is how it ended: between the covers of a 166 page book.

It will still be a few days before Grief: The Great Yearning appears on Amazon in print and Kindle, and a few more days before it shows up on B&N, Apple, and the various other ebook sources, but my part is finished. And suddenly, I don’t want to let go.

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.

Grief Update — Twenty-Three Months

Twenty-three months ago my life mate/soul mate died. There are times when his goneness from my life is as fresh as the day he died, and other times, like today, I can take it in stride. Of course, I’m dealing with a bad cold right now, and I need to keep my focus firmly on myself since grief depresses the immune system, so I’m not allowing myself to think of his being dead, and I’m not allowing myself to think of all the lonely years ahead.

Whether I take my new life in stride, or whether I dissolve into tears, it still comes down to the same thing — that he is dead. The world seemed to dim the day he died, and in all these months, the brightness never returned. I don’t know if it ever will.

People keep telling me not to live in the past, yet at the same time, they tell me that he lives in my memory. Seems contradictory, doesn’t it? My memory is the past. (Or is the past my memory?) And anyway, it’s impossible to live in the past. It’s . . . passed. Even if I could go to the past, where would I go? So much of our time together was unhappy. How could it have been otherwise with his ill heath? Even thoughts of our incredible meeting almost thirty-six years ago bring me sadness. I remember how intelligent and vibrant, wise and radiant he was, and then I remember his end where he was so drugged he could barely string two words together. But I loved him at the beginning and I loved him at the end and I still love him today.

They tell me love doesn’t die, and apparently that is true, but what does one do with a love that has no end? It’s like live wire with no grounding. Some day, I imagine, I will find a grounding, perhaps in my writing.

Today, for the first time in a long while, I felt the joy of writing. (And I had the concentration for it, something that has been missing for the past few years, not just since his death, but during the hellacious two years that preceded it.) I’m collaborating with other Second Wind Publishing authors on Rubicon Ranch, and today I had to write my chapter. My character is easy to write — she is struggling to survive the death of her husband, and somehow death keeps finding her. Art imitating life? Or just my finding it impossible to imagine being anyone else but a woman struggling to survive the loss of her mate?

The struggle for survival and autonomy still forms my days. Even when I don’t think of him, I know he is absent. Even when I don’t consciously yearn for him, something deep inside me reaches out for him. We were deeply connected for a very long time, and twenty-three months doesn’t even begin to lessen that bond.

Feeling Small

When you have a long-term relationship with someone, you are involved with something that is both you and bigger-than-you. By definition, love and a deep connection to another makes you bigger than you are, expanding your self beyond the barrier of your skin. After he dies, your grief is so enormous that it, too, expands beyond your self, filling some of the empty space he left behind.

And then one day, your grief shrinks into the confines of your body, and all you are left with is you and the unfilled empty space around you, and you begin to feel very small. Doing something to fill in that empty space doesn’t really help because you can’t replace something you were, such as being part of a couple or feeling grief, with something you do, such as volunteer work.

That’s where I am right now — feeling small — as if I am wearing clothes way too big for me. I miss being part of something that expands beyond my self, miss feeling as if I am part of something important.

I still have importance, of course. I am important in my 95-year-old father’s life — he needs someone to stay with him so he can continue to maintain his independence. I am important in my siblings’ lives since my being here with my father gives them peace of mind. I’m important to those who find comfort in my words. I am important to those I do volunteer work for. And yet . . . and yet . . .

My whole life has been a search for meaning, and somehow the importance of the quest is eluding me. I hope life has meaning — I’d hate for my mate’s death to be the end of what he was — but I no longer have any great desire to find out what that meaning is. If there is meaning, it’s there whether I search for it or not.

I sound as if I’m feeling sorry for myself, don’t I? But I’m not, or at least, not very. One day, this shrunken me will feel normal, and I might even forget that once I was more than I am. But until then . . . I’m just me, and right now that doesn’t feel like it’s enough.

Is Irritation & Frustration a New Stage of Grief?

I’ve been blogging about my grief for almost two years, and I’ve run out of things to say. Right now I have no great insights to share, no deep emotions to purge, no angst to get out of my system. I’m just going through the motions of having a life, hoping that someday something will spark a new enthusiasm, and there’s not much to say about that. It’s just a matter of waiting to see what happens.

A couple of days ago someone told me that pain at the death of my life mate/soul mate still showed through my writing, but the truth is, I’m going through a hiatus. I’m not feeling much of anything except irritation and frustration. Do these signify a new stage of grief? Perhaps I’m nearing the end of this time of great emotions and have descended into the pit of trivial feelings. But this irritation and frustration don’t seem trivial. They loom large, coloring everything I do.

I’m irritated at having to deal with the all the foolishness of life — the eating, sleeping, grooming. I’m irritated that after all these months of grieving, I’ve gained no great insights, no great growth. I’m irritated that despite all the changes in my circumstances, life seems so much the same as usual, just infinitely sadder and lonelier. I’m irritated that he’s still dead. I mean, come on — a joke is a joke. It’s past time for him to stop playing dead so we can get on with our lives. I’m frustrated that so much seems beyond my reach — understanding, enthusiasm, wonder. And I’m frustrated at all that is within my reach — loneliness, aloneness, pointlessness. I’m both irritated and frustrated that the world still feels alien with him dead. I’m both irritated and frustrated that he hasn’t bothered to call to let me know how he’s doing. I’m frustrated that I still want to talk with him and irritated that I can’t. I’m frustrated that I’m alone and irritated that I have no one to share my life. I’m frustrated that I don’t seem to be able to get a grip on my life, and I’m irritated with my lack of motivation to even try.

I still think there could come a time when everything works out for me. (My dead life mate/soul mate was a bit of a seer, and during his last days, he told me everything would come together for me, though foolishly I never asked him what he meant.) And I’m irritated and frustrated that it hasn’t yet happened.

I keep telling myself that I’m not yet where I need to be for everything to work out, and maybe that’s true, but it doesn’t keep me from being irritated and frustrated.

Grief: Overflowing Into the Empty Places

During all these months of posting blogs about my grief journey, I never understood their emotional impact on others. To me, writing the posts was all about finding words to explain how I felt so that perhaps those who had never experienced the loss of a soul mate could understand a little of what their bereft friends and family are feeling. But even more than that, it was about finding a measure of peace.

Grief is a difficult journey, and it’s made even more difficult when you lose a life mate/soul mate because the one person you need to turn to for support is the one who is gone. It’s also why, for some people, grief grows during the second and perhaps even the third year — the further you get away from your mate and your shared life, the more you need to talk to him about your bewilderment at his being so very gone from your life. You want to talk with him about the changes you’ve made in your life, to discuss ways of continuing to live without him, to share bits of your journey and show your growth. But he is not here to respond, and never will be again.

I’ve used this blog as a way of crying out to cyberspace, flinging my words to the electronic winds, sharing all those thoughts I can no longer share with him. And oddly (to me, anyway since it was never my intention) my grief somehow ends up overflowing into the empty spaces between the words, just as my sadness overflows into the empty spaces of my life. This emotional overflow is even odder when you consider that often when I write the posts, I am not feeling particularly bereft.

Yesterday I noticed that one of my grief blogs was getting an upsurge of views, and out of curiosity, I scanned the article to see what had caught people’s attention. Unexpectedly, the emotion of my words slipped through my usual editorial block and slammed into me. I started weeping. I don’t know how all that emotion ended up in a few hundred squiggles on a webpage (because, after all, letters are simply squiggles with no intrinsic meaning except that which we give them), but the sorrow is undeniable.

I’ve never been able to read my grief book all the way through. I had to edit in bits and pieces, and to depend on others to copyedit the book for me. All that angst just waiting between the covers of a book! I don’t quite know what to make of it. I don’t know why it was so important to me to show people that grieving is okay and even necessary, don’t know how so much of myself ended up in the book, don’t know where I got the courage to be publicly vulnerable. And yet, there it is, or rather, it there it will be in a couple of weeks when the book is finally released.

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