Life is often a matter of habit. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Actually, the whole quote is “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” But this is an article about habits, not excellence.
Most of our lives are repetitive. We do the same things in the same way, eat the same foods, go to the same restaurants, see the same people, watch the same shows. It’s easy to create a habit. If we do the same thing — good or bad — often enough, the synaptic pathways in our brains get rutted, and it’s almost impossible to completely eradicate the ruts if we want to change our habits.
Recently It was easy for me to fall into the habit of playing computer solitaire for hours on end, but now it’s almost impossible to break the habit, though I did it once, so I can do it again. (After the death of my life mate/soul mate, I mindlessly played game after game just to get through another minute, another hour of grief. A couple of years ago I broke the habit of playing games, but in a fit of restlessness a few months ago, I started in again, and now I have to rebreak myself of the habit.) The secret is to do what I need to do on the computer and then get off. Oddly, some habits are easy to break. I’m in the habit of writing a blog every day, and I keep doing it because I know if I skip a day, I’ll skip another and another, until I lose the habit of writing habitually and will only post sporadically.
Sometimes a change of circumstances, such as a move, forces us to change our habits. When people tell me they have a hard time getting used to a new town, I suggest they go to the same place or do the same thing everyday to help themselves get acclimated. One woman who took this advice went to the same coffee shop every day, another took a walk ever day. And gradually, new comfortable ruts were built into their brains.
One of the collateral problems with grief is the instant loss of habits. In my case, we (my life mate/soul mate and I) had done most things together for decades — watched the same movies, ate the same foods, ran errands, watered the hundred or so trees we planted. As he got sicker, we put one foot in front of the other and kept on going the best we could out of habit. His death catapulted me out of the habits of my life. I still had the ruts of togetherness in my brain without someone to be together with. I also had to move from our home where we’d lived for decades to come look after my now 96-year-old father, so I didn’t even have the habits of living in the same house.
I felt as if the ground had been yanked from beneath me. When I tried to put one foot in front of the other, I became disoriented, as if I were falling into nothingness. I felt like such a baby, since all I could do was crawl in my alien world of no mate, no habits, nothing to connect me to the past but painful memories.
During the ensuing years of grief (in approximately two weeks, it will be three and a half years since he died) people who have been through the same sorrow have told me that grief makes a change around the four-year anniversary. That’s when many people find some sort of renewal, such as a new commitment to life.
I call this four-year mark the half-life of grief. Our cells are continuously dying and being renewed. If it takes seven years for all the cells in one’s body to be renewed, then by four years, less than half our cells will bear the imprint of our mates. And so our physical grief fades. (By physical grief, I mean the physical pain and symptoms of grief as opposed to the emotional pain.) At the same time, the ruts from the habits of our old life have evened out, and we have developed new patterns of living, new habits, new ruts. And as we repeatedly do new things alone, we become persons who can survive — and even thrive — without our mates because in the end, despite love and grief, learning and yearning, life is a matter of habit.
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.