The Three-Year Anniversary of the Worst Day of My Life

Today is the three-year anniversary of the worst day of my life.

Oddly, the worst day wasn’t the day of Jeff’s death. (Jeff was my life mate/soul mate, a man with whom I’d spent almost thirty-four years of my life. Normally I don’t use his name when I write about my grief, but I need the comfort of seeing his name today.) The day of his death was a sadly inevitable day, one I had actually looked forward to. He’d been sick for so long and in such pain, that I was glad he finally let go and drifted away. I might have cried then. I might have been numb. I don’t really remember. All I know is that I sat there with him until almost dawn when the funeral services people came for his body.

I don’t remember when grief first washed over me, either, but I do remember the anguish building for days on end until I was nothing but a screaming bundle of raw pain. (You’d think that grief would start out strong and then weaken, but it doesn’t. It swells and continues to swell until it reaches some sort of breaking point, which gives you a brief moment of peace until it begins to swell again.)

We bereft are told not to make any major changes that first year since we aren’t always thinking clearly — we just want to escape the pain — but I had to leave our home to come take care of my then 93-year-old father. I put off sorting out Jeff’s things as long as possible since I could not bear the thought of clearing out what was left of his life, but I finally steeled myself to do the job.

I knew what to do with most things because toward the end he had rallied enough to tell me, but still, there were a few items that blindsided me, such as photos and business cards from his first store (where we met). Every single item he owned was emotionally laden, both with his feelings and mine, and I cried the entire time, huge tears dripping unchecked, soaking my collar.

How do you dismantle someone’s life? How do you dismantle a shared life? With care and tears, apparently.

Just thinking about it now makes me weep. If I could have waited a year or two, the task might not have been so traumatic, but the truth is, dismantling someone’s life is always filled with sorrow no matter how long you wait. I kept a lot of his things — things he asked me to save and things I couldn’t bear to get rid of such as his music tapes, games we played, a sweater he wore when we first met — and the thought of getting rid of those things still brings me pain.

I did manage to clear out some of those saved “effects” during that first year when I’d get angry at him for leaving me. (Silly, isn’t it? It wasn’t his choice, but I was still angry. Sometimes I still am.)

It’s amazing to me that I survived that day. It’s amazing to me that I’ve survived three years and 55 days of grief. It’s amazing to me that any of us do.

***

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 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.

I Am a Seven-Month Grief Survivor

Grief is so encompassing that for months my thoughts focused entirely on my dead mate — my soul mate — reinforcing my idea that falling in love and experiencing grief are the bookends of a shared life. When we were together, he was so often by my side as we ran errands, fixed meals, watched movies, talked for hours on end, that I didn’t need to focus on him — he was there. And then he wasn’t.

In the movie The Butcher’s Wife, Demi Moore talks about searching for her split apart. Very romantic this idea of finding your split apart, but what happens when your split apart is split apart from you once more? I can tell you — it releases such a storm of emotion that you feel as if you will never find yourself again, that you will be forever swept away in the tsunami/hurricane/soulquake that is new grief.

I’ve weathered seven months of grief, from the first global storm to the more isolated mists that beset me now. I’m settling back into myself, letting go of the incredible tension that grief brings. We bereft are so focused on our lost one, so tensed against hurtful memories and mementoes, that it can bring on a host of physical problems, including Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

I am lucky. I’ve been able to release this tension through walks, through tears, and — at the beginning — through screaming. I have not passed all the landmarks of grief — some people experience their worst pain at eight months, others need two years just to regain their equilibrium, and of course, there are all those firsts that are yet to come: the first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, first anniversary of his death — but perhaps the worst of the storms have passed. Or I could be fooling myself. This sad but not terribly painful stage I am going through could be just a hiatus, the eye of a storm, and the forces of grief are gathering themselves for a new onslaught. These months of grief survival, however, have taught me that I will be able to endure whatever comes.

I thought I’d be different after going through such storms of grief, (shouldn’t I be?) but I feel as if I am still myself, or rather, I feel as if I am myself again. I am sadder, of course, and that sadness will probably always shadow any future happiness, which is as it should be. One can never unknow such trauma. It will always be part of me.

He will always be part of me.

In many ways, he gave me life. He made me feel that life was worth living because he was in it. I have to learn to feel that life is worth living because I am in it, and that will be a long time coming. I am still at the stage where I don’t care if I live. NO, I am not suicidal. I am not stockpiling pills or thinking suicidal thoughts. This not caring is perhaps one of the longest-lived stages of grief, one that we bereft only talk about to each other — or our counselors — because it is so often misunderstood by those who have not been in a similar situation. One thing that keeps me going is curiosity about where life will take me now that he is not here for me to love.

Where does that love go when it is no longer needed? I don’t know. I do know that you love someone, their well-being is as important to you as your own, and then suddenly that someone is gone, leaving behind those unfulfilled feelings of wanting to help. Of caring. Of empathy. I still think of him almost all the time, still wish I could put my arms around him and make him well. When I hear a noise, sometimes I think it is he, and my first inclination is to go to him. When I hear or see something that would amuse or outrage him, sometimes I get up to go tell him. But these thoughts and actions are not as painful as they once were.

I have survived seven months of grief. I will continue to survive.

I Am a Five-Month Grief Survivor

Five months ago, my life mate died . . . and I am surviving. I had not expected to grieve much — he had suffered a long time, and his death was hard-won — but still, those first endless weeks were difficult. The delineation between “us together” and “me alone” was so abrupt, so stark, so uncompromising that I had a hard time fathoming it. I finally went to a grief support group to find out how one survives such pain. I never did find out, but I discovered that one can survive the trauma, which helped, as did talking about my experience and listening to what others had to say. Grief is so isolating that it’s nice not to feel alone.

What helped most of all, though, was simply living. During the past five months, I have read dozens of books, walked hundreds of miles, written thousands of words, taken I-don’t-know-how-many photos, met many people both online and offline. All of those experiences have helped create memories, memories of a life without him, and those memories have softened the threshold between “us together” and “me alone.” I still have times of great sadness, still have that falling-elevator feeling when I remember I will never see him again, still miss him (probably always will), but for the most part I am doing okay.

I’ve abandoned my mental crutches — I no longer write a letter to him every day, don’t talk to him very often, don’t feel a need to scream. I am thinking more of the future, which signifies hope and getting on with my life, but such thoughts also bring moments of panic when I think of having to grow old alone. Mostly, I try to live in the moment and take each day as it comes.

One big trauma this past month was when I finally accepted in my depths that I will never see him again in this life. I knew that from the beginning, of course, but knowing it, feeling it, and accepting it are completely different things. People talk about acceptance as if it’s a peaceful thing, yet it at the time it felt as if I were losing him all over again. But that passed as everything does.

One big advancement this past month happened just this morning — for the first time since his death, I smiled when I thought of him. He would be glad — he’d have hated being the cause of so much pain.

He was a good man. I’m glad he shared his life with me.

I Am a Two-Month Grief Survivor

I have now survived two months without my life mate — not easily and not well, but I have managed to get through all those days, hours, minutes. The absolute worst day, though, was last Thursday. You would think it would have been the day he died, but that was a sadly inevitable day, one I actually had looked forward to. He’d been sick for so long and in such pain, that I was glad he finally let go and drifted away. After he died, I kissed him goodbye then went to get the nurse, who confirmed that he was gone. She called the funeral home, and I sat there in the room with him for two hours until they finally came for him. (They came in an SUV, not a hearse. And they used a red plush coverlet, not a body bag.) I might have cried. I might have been numb. I don’t really remember. All I know is that I sat there with him until almost dawn. I couldn’t even see his face — they had cleaned him and wrapped him in a blanket — so I just sat there, thinking nothing.

But last Thursday I spent all day cleaning out his closet and drawers, and going through boxes of his “effects.” He had planned to do it himself, but right before he could get started, he was stricken with debilitating pain that lasted to the end of his life, and so he left it for me to do. I did know what to do with most things because he had rallied enough to tell me, but still, there were a few items that blindsided me, such as photos and business cards from his first store (where we met). Every single item he owned was emotionally laden, both with his feelings and mine, and I cried the entire time, huge tears dripping unchecked, soaking my collar.

How do you dismantle someone’s life? How do you dismantle a shared life? With care and tears, apparently.

A couple of days later I started cleaning out my office (I have to leave the place we lived for the past two decades, as if losing him isn’t trauma enough). I didn’t expect any great emotional upheaval — it was my stuff after all — but still it turned out to be an emotional day, though nowhere near as catastrophic as Thursday. This is the first move as an adult I will make alone. It will be the first move I ever made with no real hopes, no lightheartedness. I’m going to a place to write and to heal, not to settle down for good. And my mate will not be there.

Part of me is glad to be getting away from this house, this area — our life here started our with such hope and ended in such despair. Part of me feels as if I’m running away from the pain of losing him, but I have a hunch the pain will always be with me. At least I will never again have the agony of clearing out his things. Oh, wait! I’ve sent several boxes of his stuff to be stored, the things I cannot yet get rid of. Eventually I will have to dispose of the things I can’t use, but perhaps I can wait until it won’t be such a traumatic event. I never want to live through another day like last Thursday. I’m surprised I lived through it this time.

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