Grief as a Subversive Act

From the beginning of my grief, people urged me to move on, to drop the mantle of grief, to look to the future rather than the past (without their realizing that grief is about the future as much as or even more than the past), but I went my own way. The power of my grief shocked me, and I couldn’t help writing and blogging about it in an effort to understand what was going on with me. (Most novels I’ve read did not touch on the truth of grief, and when they did, the grieving character was portrayed as unstable or half crazy, and I knew I wasn’t crazy. Which is why I wrote Unfinished — I wanted to show a character dealing with grief and all that goes along with it.)

Despite my being long past the wilds of grief, I still occasionally blog about that awful and awe-full state, though sometimes I am a bit embarrassed to do so — I don’t want people to think I am grief mongering for the sake of collecting sympathy. And I especially don’t want people to think that I am still crying myself to sleep at night, because I am not.

I simply don’t want grief to go unrecognized for what it is. Our society has a tendency to cover wild emotions with platitudes and false cheer, and I believe it is important to tell the truth (my truth). I certainly don’t want to participate in the great cover-up, hiding grief from the non-bereft to keep them from being uncomfortable at having to face unpalatable truths.

Death is more a part of life than we acknowledge. Grief is possibly more important than even we grievers can know.

Stephen Jenkinson, a Harvard-trained theologian and the subject of the documentary Griefwalker wrote:

Here’s the revolution: What if grief is a skill, in the same way that love is a skill, something that must be learned and cultivated and taught? What if grief is the natural order of things, a way of loving life anyway? Grief and the love of life are twins, natural human skills that can be learned first by being on the receiving end and feeling worthy of them, later by practicing them when you run short of understanding. In a time like ours, grieving is a subversive act.

Grief is more than that a skill or an emotion, of course. The problem with grief is that it is so physical — affecting hormones, brain chemistry, equilibrium, sleep and eating patterns, and so much more — that it is almost impossible to prepare for it or to even get a handle on it. (Adding in the emotional, spiritual, and mental aspects along with the incredible stress of it all makes grief unbelievably complicated, especially when it comes to the death of a soul mate or a child.)

Still, Jenkinson makes a good point about the necessity of grief. And being the quietly rebellious person that I am, I especially like thinking that by writing about grief, I am not grief or fear mongering, but am participating in a subversive act.


See also: What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas? And if by chance you know someone who is grieving, either of my books about grief — Grief: The Great Yearning or the novel Unfinished would make a nice gift.

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.


11 Responses to “Grief as a Subversive Act”

  1. Trev Brown Says:

    Hi Pat. Enjoying your daily blogs! You’re right about the cover-up aspect, It seems to me that the understandable (as I see it) tendency for people to shy away from the perceived wild emotions of the bereaved is compounded by the nonsense spouted in the so called self-help guides, which drip in platitudes and jargon.

    May I be so bold and ask you something: have you ever undertaken the exercise of writing say a 1000 / 2000 word article for magazine publication; that could explain the truth of grief in a palatable way to both those who are dealing with it and those who are onlookers? I’ve said to you before I think you are the only person I have ever come across who seems able to write about grief in a constructive, clear way, and cuts through all the fluffy generalisations to the heart of the matter. Just a thought! Warm regards as ever, Trev (UK)

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      An article would be a good idea. I had been approached a couple of times about writing an article, but they wanted something new that I had never written before, and everything I know about grief has already been published on this blog. But I should be able to write an article that someone will want to publish!

      • Trev Brown Says:

        I was thinking of something new too – a distillation of the strange process of grief. Not the day-to-day experience, but the extraordinary range of feelings and thoughts it seems to conjure up, and the three-steps forward, two-steps back process of adjusting to a new reality. You are (I think) now more in the position of looking back at your loss. I hope you don’t mind me mentioning a comment in a private email you sent me, but you expressed the feeling that there comes a moment when grief is like a drink spilt on a table, going everywhere but in thin measure. I still reflect on the truth of your illustration on my own account. I for one would love to read your concise overview of experiencing loss of a loved one, and am sure that there are many publications in the USA/UK that would be suitable forb such an article. It would be good publicity for the book too! Regards, Trev.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          I don’t even remember the spilled drink comment. Do you still have the email? Sometimes I’m wiser than I think I am.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          I found the comment. Interesting that I had forgotten it. “It gets easier . . . and not. I figured out that the emptiness/yearning/grief/pain isn’t as deep for me anymore, but it is wider. (Like a spilled glass of water.) It makes it both easier at times, and yet just as pervasive.”

  2. paulakaye Says:

    I just get so pissed off that people cannot understand grief without going through it themselves. I don’t want to hear another person to tell me to move on. That is why I am still crying at night and hiding my grief. I loved your book. It should be required reading for EVERYONE!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      It makes me furious too. They are so complacent in their couplehood, as if it could never happen to them. As if it was something we did. As if we could “replace” what we had. Yes, we develop new lives, but there is always that void where what should have been isn’t. It makes me furious when divorced folk say they have it harder because the ex is still around to give them trouble. Huh? We’d give anything for them to still be around. How dare they tell us to move on? No matter what happens. No matter if we find some semblance of happiness, they are still dead. And we’re supposed to move on as if nothing happened? What kind of insanity is that?

      Oops. I didn’t realize I still had that kind of anger in me. It used to gripe me so much that we were the ones dealing with the most excruciating event of our lives, and yet we had to be so cognizant of their feelings. What the hell is wrong with people? Well, I do know — they can’t imagine it. I still think of some of the movies I saw where the old generally Italian or Sicilian woman went berserk and flung herself on the casket, screaming. There was always a note of censure, as if we were to believe the woman was nuts. The rest of the time they portrayed the widow as unfeelingly stoic, as if she were too strong to cry. What poppycock. Grief is visceral, not just emotional. You can’t control your body and your lizard brain. And the body knows what is going on (separate from what you know) and it is doing its own grieving.

      To me the miracle is that any of us find any sort of peace considering what our bodies, minds, souls, friends, and relatives do to us when we’ve lost the one person who made life worth living.

      It’s funny in a sad sort of way, that when one is in love, one is allowed to say the person made life worth living, but once they are gone, you are supposed to just ignore that fact. Ignore all the songs about two becoming one as if they were just rhetoric. Ignore that we are alone in a coupled world not through choice.

      And while I am on a rant, I despise the cute stories of elderly couples who have been married a gazillion years and their self-righteous advice about how to stay together. I want to scream at them: “The reason you’re still together is that one of you didn’t die.” There is truly a smugness to long-married people that gets to me.

      I still remember my mother once saying in a snide tone about an aunt whose longstanding boyfriend died, “She grieved more than I would for your father.” Well, my mother never had to grieve for my father. But she did grieve the loss of her son (my brother), and it killed her exactly a year later. I wonder if she ever regretted her remark about my aunt?

      (Laughing to myself) I really am on a tear, aren’t I?

  3. Rhea Says:

    I am currently reading your book. My husband passed away Oct. 20, 2017. We knew about lung cancer for three weeks prior and the reason we knew was because of unbearable pain. As I am reading I am finding so many parallels in your story and mine that I feel you must have been here for the last year or so. I even live in Colorado. At 6-1/2 weeks without him my pain and all other emotions are still so raw. I don’t know how you were able to move as early as you did. I simply do not have any energy to do much of anything. I so appreciate your book for telling it like it is. It lets me know also that I am not crazy; I am mourning the loss of my great love. Our society is so scared of real emotions, of death, and of honesty that I want to scream about it all. I am not sure how I am going to live without my soulmate but I know that it has to come from honesty… not hiding away my feelings.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I am so sorry about your husband. You’re so new to this grief thing that you must be feeling so very terrible, and I’m sorry about that, too, but I’m glad you’re reading my book. It doesn’t really help (because how can anything help when you’ve been left behind to live without your soul mate) but I hope it brings you comfort knowing that what you are feeling is normal, that others have felt it, too. As for my moving —
      the moving part was easy — I used my anger at his being gone to fuel myself for the work. When the anger dissipated, I collapsed until the next bout of anger, and then I was able to push myself to do more packing. The hard part was clearing out his stuff. I cried non-stop for twenty hours. The absolute worst day of my life, even worse than the day he died. At least when he died, I could be relieved he wasn’t in pain any more. I still have boxes of his things I haven’t been able to get rid of, and maybe never will be able to. (Haven’t been able to get rid of his ashes yet, either. “Throwing him away” is more than I can bear even seven years later.)

      People act as grieving is crazy, but the way I have come to feel is that not grieving is crazy. How can the loss of our great love not affect us traumatically? Are we supposed to go gently into the rest of our lives as if it doesn’t matter? It matters immensely. I am always awed when people share their grief with me. It’s such a spiritual thing, balanced on the edge of eternity, as if part of us has been pulled into death with them. And so very painful. I hope as you go through these next ghastly years, you will read my grief archive posts and the comments to help you on your way. And feel free to stop by whenever you need to talk. I do listen. And I do understand. And I am so very sorry.

  4. Bonne Says:

    Hello Pat.

    I just stumbled upon your website. Wow, another fellow grief!! In 2012 my loving mother Gail Landow passed away from the effects of 6 weeks of chemo and the diagnosis of AML. My sister and I were able to be with her almost every day during those 6 weeks, although now we have not spoken in 5 years. 5 months after her passing, my husband Bruce, whom I was separated from at the time, died on his dirt bike in a remote part of Colorado, Cortez actually.

    It had been 5 years, I do not cry myself to sleep. but still looking for this new life, new normal, that seems so elusive. Our daughter is now 17 and about to embark on college, I so wish I could share this time with our lost loved ones. People do not know how to talk about your beloveds that have passed. This world is so backwards when it comes to honoring the love they brought. I am a whole human, spiritual being, but will always be broken and lost. This is what makes me beautiful.

    Thanks for your writings. I am looking forward to exploring your stories, I am sure they will help me on my way, as I too want to help others. Funny note, I called the local nonprofit grief center, and they told me that I no longer qualify for help because it is past the 3 year mark. Now, that is really bad.

    Thanks again.

    In Love and blessings.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I got kicked out of my grief group — they said it was because I wasn’t grieving enough, but it was really because I new more than the moderator. He’d taken a single class about grief and wanted to shovel everyone into the five stages of grief scenario, and he didn’t believe me when I told him grief was more complicated than that. Still, grief groups are important. Is there a hospice center in the area that has a grief support group? They might let you in.

      The milestones of life, like your daughter going off to college, always bring upsurges of grief because of the reminder of those who are no longer with us to experience those milestones.I love your comment that your being a whole human spiritual being but will always be broken and lost, and that’s what makes you beautiful. It reminds me of the Japanese technique of Kintsugi, where they mend broken pottery with gold, making the pieces unique and even more beautiful.

      The milestones of life, like your daughter going off to college, always bring upsurges of grief because of the reminder of those who are no longer with us to experience those milestones. Please do keep reading my grief archives, and pay attention to the comments. There is a lot of wisdom from people who have been where you are.

      Wishing you peace and blessings.

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