The Kindness of Strangers

Grief — or it could be self-pity — always seems to catch me unaware. I’ve been having good days recently, feeling that the universe is smiling on me, so today’s brief bout of tears was especially unexpected.

I’ve been doing a few small chores for my father’s estate — getting an electrician to fix the chirping smoke alarm on the 15-foot-high ceiling, clearing out a few more of my father’s things, scheduling an estimate for the carpet and tile cleaning. I was fine during all that, fine even when I closed out my father’s account, but on the drive back to the house from the bank, I could barely see the road for the tears.

heavenAlthough my father’s death didn’t devastate me like the death of Jeff, my life mate/soul mate, it has had its traumatic moments. It’s difficult — and bewildering — to dismantle a person’s life, even a person who owned as few personal things as my father did. The person is gone, but their “effects” linger long afterward. Someone has to dispose of them, and since I am in the house, that chore has devolved upon me. (I suppose I could have left it for someone else to do, but during the past few years, I was the one most immediately involved in his life, so that in addition to propinquity makes me the logical person for the job.)

Closing out his bank account shouldn’t have been any more difficult than the rest of the tasks, but it was, perhaps because it means one less connection to my life here and ultimately to my past. Or maybe because the people at the bank were so nice to me. Since I was an equal signatory with my father on the account, they thought the money should go to me instead of my father’s estate. When I explained that legally the money didn’t belong to me, they made sure I had copies of the paperwork and urged me to keep them for my protection.

So few people have paid attention to me during these months my father has been gone, including those who told me they would owe me forever for taking care of him, it’s like I died with him. I’m not the only one who lost a father, of course, but most of my siblings’ lives will not be changed appreciably by his death — they still have their husbands and wives, still have their homes, still have . . . whatever it is that they have. But my life is in upheaval once more because of death.

The neighbors, who loved my father, have been snubbing me for the past three months because although I told them he died and made sure they could say goodbye as he left the house for the last time, I somehow neglected to tell them when the funeral was. It just never even occurred to me. His obituary was in the local paper and even though they knew where to find me, they never asked. Never stopped by to see how I was doing, either. Never expressed an interest in what was going to happen to me. And yet, devastated as I was by the rapid turn of events surrounding his death and my renewed grief for Jeff, somehow I was supposed to put them foremost in my mind. Oh, my.

No wonder the kindness of strangers brought me to tears.

Tomorrow, I will be back to my determined optimism, will be back to feeling maybe the universe is unfolding as it should be, will be back to believing wonder and joy await me, but tonight I will honor my dead with a few more tears laced, perhaps, with a touch of self-pity.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fireand 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.

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.

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

The worst day of my life was not the day my life mate/soul mate died. That particular day was sadly inevitable, 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.

The worst day of my life came fifty-five days later, exactly two years ago. 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 would not have undertaken the task so early in my grief, but I had to leave the house where we’d lived for two decades and go stay with my 95-year-old father, who could no longer live alone.

I knew what to do with most things because my mate had rallied enough to tell me, but still, a few items blindsided me, such as photos and business cards from his store To Your Health (where we met). Every single item he owned was emotionally laden, both with his feelings and mine. The day was like a protracted memorial service, a remembrance of his life, a eulogy for “us”.

How do you dismantle someone’s life? How do you dismantle a shared life? With care and tears, apparently. I cried the entire day, huge tears dripping unchecked. I have never felt such soul-wrenching agony. I’ll never be able to do anything else for him, so the work and my pain was my final gift to him. I was glad I could do that one last service, but I sure don’t want to ever go through anything like that again.

The only good thing about living the worst day of your life is that every day afterward, no matter how bad, will be better than that day.

I’m not particularly sad today — the sadness came yesterday. Despite it being Saturday, my sadder day, and a day of sporadic tears, I woke with a smile. I’d dreamt we were cleaning out the house (which is odd considering that I did not remember until afterward that today was the anniversary of when I went through his effects). In the midst of the usual chaotic dream images, there was one short clear moment. We were sitting side-by-side. He smiled at me, kissed me gently, and I rested my head on his shoulder.

This was the first time in almost two years that I’d dreamt about him. It was lovely seeing him again, if only in my dreams.

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