Grief Work

Grief work after the death of a spouse or anyone who makes your life worth living encompasses many tasks, from the simple task of getting out of bed in the morning to the complicated tasks of arranging for funeral services and dealing with financial matters.

As time goes on, the tasks of grief seem to increase, especially the emotional, mental, and spiritual tasks. We need to work through the pain, adjust to the absence of our loved one, find ways and reasons to continue living despite the absence, realize we each have our own path in life, remember them with joy not just sadness. (These might not be tasks so much as the natural progression of grief, but they all fall under the category of “grief work.”)

There are the horrendous tasks of dealing with the loved one’s effects, clearing out the things they no longer have any use for. Sometimes this particular bit of grief work can take years. Although I disposed of most of my life mate/soul mate’s things, I still have items I cannot get rid of, either because he asked me to keep them or because getting rid of them is still unthinkable after Untitledmore than three years. For example, I can’t get rid of his keys, eyeglasses, and wallet. Something in me balks at that, as if he still has use of such things. Especially ridiculous are his car keys. I donated his car to hospice, but kept a set of keys. I just can’t get rid of them.

And then there are the self-imposed tasks, the ways each of us find to honor the end of our shared life. For me, this self-imposed task is watching movies. Think it’s easy? No way!

Long ago, when we realized that we were renting the same movies over and over again because we couldn’t find anything better, he started taping movies for us. Started out with movies for us to watch together, and then expanded into movies he liked but I didn’t. As he got sicker and more housebound, he occupied his time by taping TV movies and television shows by hand so he could cut out the commercials.

There were more than a thousand tapes, some of them with a full six hours of movies or shows. Many of these tapes I had never watched, but during the past two-and-a-half years, I have been watching these tapes, sorting out the ones I have no interest in, keeping the ones that I like or that remind me of special occasions. I started with the tapes he made at the end, the ones I had never seen, and they were painful to watch — so many of them dealt with people who were dying or people who had to find a new way of living after the death of a spouse. It’s almost as if he were leaving me a message telling me to get on with my life.

Even more painful is when I reached the tapes that we always watched together. As I watch each of them, I am aware that the last time I saw the movie, he was by my side. I remember the things we said, the looks we gave each other, the connection we felt. These once-loved movies now seem dull and bland as if a vital spark is missing. And it is missing. He is missing.

I’ve almost worked my way through all the tapes, and I have a hunch that this particular self-imposed task is prolonging my grief since they connect me to the past and at the same time make me aware that the past is gone forever.

Despite all this grief work, there are two things I will never be able to deal with. I will always hate that he is dead. And I will always miss him.

***

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.

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500 Days of Grief

It’s been 500 days since the death of my life mate, my soul mate. It’s sounds pathetic, doesn’t it, to still be counting the days as if I’ve been crying endlessly for more than a year? But grief isn’t always about mourning. A great part of grief is trying to make sense of the senseless, trying to comprehend something the human mind is not geared to understand. Trying to find a way to continue despite the noncomprehension.

The agony and angst of the first months have passed, and I do still cry at times, but the tears come and go quite quickly. (The sadness, however, always remains.) I’m going through a waiting stage right now, letting everything I have experienced settle into my being. Other stages of grief are waiting for me, such as finding a new focus or finding the bedrock on which to rebuild my life. Even if those don’t seem like stages of grief, even if they aren’t accompanied by tears and tantrums, they are still part of the grieving process, still part of learning how to be whole again.

Most of us have grieved the death of a loved one, some of us have grieved many losses, but the loss of someone with whom you have spent every day for decades is especially hard to deal with. Every minute of every day after such a death, that person is absent from your life, and somewhere inside, you continue to search for him or her. I think of him way too much, trying to hold on to him, though I know I can’t do anything to keep him with me. He’s already gone. I yearn to talk with him once more, hear his voice, see his smile, and part of me cannot understand why he isn’t here, cannot make sense of his absence. Cannot understand forever.

People assure me I will see him again in an afterlife, but that is scant comfort. This is the life I have now. This is all I know. And this is the life I have to deal with. If it were just about my missing him, I could deal with that, but I feel sad that his life was cut short. That his dreams never came true and now they never will. Perhaps he is happily ensconced in a new life of radiance, but his death dimmed the light in this world. And this is what I cannot understand. He is gone. And I am still here.

I am filling my days, trying to make each one matter. I’ve been taking trips and making excursions, most recently to a fair (where I did not eat deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried butter, or chocolate covered bacon, though such delicacies were offered). When my mate and I were together, whatever we did was part of our life, and each day, each event flowed into the seamless whole. Now that I am alone, events such as the fair seem like punctuation marks in my ongoing life rather than part of the text. Perhaps one day, when I’ve lived long enough, done enough, my life will feel like a seamless whole again.

Until then, I’ll continue to count the days of grief.

The Ferris Wheel of Life

Relationships, especially between long-term couples, change continuously, but we seldom notice those changes in the whirr and whirl of everyday life. Even our images of each other change to accommodate the passing years. We are always “us.”

A day or two after my life mate died, I couldn’t visualize him, so I looked at the only photo I have of us, and I wept because I did not recognize him. Fifteen years ago, when that photo was taken, it was an exact likeness of him, but during the years of illness, he lost the fullness in his face, first becoming distinguished looking, then gaunt. I have an idea/image of him in my mind, perhaps a composite of him through the years, perhaps what he actually looked like near the end, and that single photo I have of him does not resemble the person I knew. One more thing to mourn.

That is the problem with grief, there is always one more thing to mourn.

It’s not just our internal images of a person that changes to accommodate the vagaries of age; our internal image of the relationship itself changes to accommodate the vagaries of life. Most of the transformation of a relationship from youthful and passionate to aged and (perhaps) wise and companionable goes unnoticed. We are always who we are. We are always in the present.

The big events of life — starting a business or losing one, having children or losing them — we celebrate or grieve as the case may be, but other things disappear without acknowledgement. We used to walk together, ride bikes, play tennis, kick a soccer ball, but such activities were supplanted with other, more sedentary activities as his health deteriorated. But still, there we were, on the great Ferris wheel of our relationship — always current, always us. And then he died.

When one of a couple dies, the Ferris wheel of your shared life comes to a halt. Those who have not experienced the loss of a long-time mate think that the Ferris wheel continues with the survivor, but that isn’t true. It looms there, empty. The continually evolving, revolving living relationship is dead. All you have is what has already happened, and now you can see every transformation throughout all the years. You don’t simply mourn the man he was at the end, you also mourn the man you met and the men he became during the subsequent years. And you grieve for all those little things that passed unnoticed during the course of your relationship. They didn’t matter while you were together because you were together, but now they add to the overwhelming whole of grief.

Gradually, the survivor climbs aboard another Ferris wheel of her own, but the original one still haunts. If I live long enough, my grief will fade and perhaps disappear in the whirr and whirl of everyday life, but for now, newly recalled memories keep seeping into my life, and they have to be processed, mourned, dealt with. Sometimes these are minor issues, sometimes major. And all a surprise. How could so much have happened during those quiet years?

One recurring theme in our lives was vitamins and other food supplements. We met at his health food store. The first time we connected physically was when he handed me a bottle of vitamin A and our touch lingered. The first time our gazes locked was over his checkout counter. The supplement regimen he created for me changed as new research came out, but always, there were the supplements, a symbol of how much he cared for me. Now all that loss has to be dealt with somehow.

And that is just one aspect of our shared life. There were almost 34 years worth of good things and bad. 408 months. 1756 weeks. 12,296 days. When he was alive, all those days blended together, but now each exists separately, a thing in itself. A thing to be mourned. No wonder grief is such a major undertaking.

I Am an Eight-Month Grief Survivor

When you love someone deeply, their well-being is as important to you as your own, but what do you do with that feeling when your someone is gone? Eight months ago, my life mate died, and now he has no need for stories to amuse or outrage him, no need for tasty meals to tempt his appetite, no need for comfort or caring or kindness, and yet my habit of thinking of him remains. Eventually, I imagine, the habit will wear itself out, but for now I still find myself thinking of ways to make his life a bit easier or a bit more enjoyable.

After eight months, I am still in . . . not shock, exactly, but a state of non-comprehension. I can’t comprehend his death, his sheer goneness. I can’t comprehend his life, though perhaps that is not for me to bother about. Most of all, I can’t comprehend my sorrow. I never saw much reason for grief. Someone died, you moved on. Period. I thought I was too stoic, too practical to mourn, and yet, here I am, still grieving for someone who has no need for my sorrow.

Despite my continued grief, I am moving on. My sporadic tears do not stop me from accomplishing the goals I set myself, such as NaNoWriMo and daily walks. My sorrow doesn’t keep me from taking care of myself — or mostly taking care of myself. (I don’t always eat right, and I don’t always sleep well.) Moving on, as I have learned, is not about abandoning one’s grief, but moving on despite the grief.

Grief is much gentler on me now, and I can sidestep it by turning my mind to other things, but I don’t always want to. I have not yet reached the point where thoughts of him bring me only happiness, and I need to remember him. If tears and pain are still part of that remembrance, so be it.

We shared our lives, our thoughts, our words — we talked about everything, often from morning to night — yet even before he died, we started going separate ways, he toward his death, me toward continued life. I often wonder what he would think of my grief, but just as his life is not for me to try to comprehend, my grief does not belong to him. It is mine alone.

And so the months pass, eight now. Soon it will be a year. Sometimes it feels as if he died only days ago, and I expect him to call and tell me I can come home — I’ve proven that I can live without him, so I don’t have to continue to do so. Sometimes it feels as if he’s been gone forever, that our life together wasn’t real, perhaps something I conjured up out of the depths of my loneliness. Sometimes my grief doesn’t even feel real, and I worry that I’ve created it out of a misguided need for self-importance. Such are the ways of grief, this strange and magical thinking. This could be magical thinking, too, but it seems to me that having survived eight months of grief, I can survive anything.

Spontaneous Stupidity or Vision Quest?

There are so many stages to grief one gets dizzy trying to keep up with the changes. I’ve tried to embrace my grief during the past seven months, giving in to the emotion of each stage, but the stage I’m in now is one I will not tolerate — self-pity. Lucky for me, this new manifestation of grief shows up right in time for NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo (National Novel Writing Month and National Blog Posting Month, though considering the international aspects of both challenges, they should be called InNoWriMo and InBloPoMo). The nano challenge is to write 50,000 words during November. The nablo challenge is to post a bloggery every day during November, and I signed up for both of them. Yikes. At least I’ll keep myself so busy that I will have no time to feel sorry for myself.

The nano site says: “Writing a novel in a month is both exhilarating and stupid, and we would all do well to invite a little more spontaneous stupidity into our lives.” By doing both NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo I’m inviting more than just a little spontaneous stupidity into my life, but I’m looking forward to it.  I’m a very slow writer, so I’ll probably end up writing stream of consciousness, which is a cheat since it’s not exactly writing a novel, but I’m doing this more as a vision quest than a writing exercise. Grief digs deep into one’s psyche, dislodging buried feelings and thoughts — sort of like digging for fossils in a tar pit. I’m hoping that by forcing myself to write an insane number of words the loosened bits will surface, bringing me enlightenment. Or wisdom. Or . . . just about anything other than self-pity.

Nancy A. Niles, author of the upcoming thriller Vendetta, posted an article on the Second Wind Publishing Blog mentioning the three things necessary to maintain good mental health:

  • Challenges, or facing fears
  • Attitude
  • Support system

Well, this month I have the challenges, I have the attitude, and I’m privileged to have a wonderful online support system — people who will help keep me motivated.

I’ll let you know what happens. To be honest, you couldn’t stop me. There’s that small matter of having to fill thirty blog posts during the next thirty days . . .

Many Shades of Grief

When you lose someone significant in your life, someone whose very being has helped define you in some way, grief can be overwhelming. So many stages and shades of grief bombard you that at times you think you are going crazy — but except for the very extremes of grief — mummifying yourself so you don’t feel anything for years on end or saving pills so you can end your life — chances are what you are feeling is normal.

Many people who try to deal with the loss completely on their own have no idea if what they are feeling is normal. When you lose your husband, your daughter also loses her father, your sister-in-law loses her brother, your neighbor loses his friend. At first, you grieve together, but one by one everyone else puts aside their grief until you are the only one left crying. And they begin to hint that you need therapy. They got over their pain, why can’t you? After all, you all lost the same man. But you didn’t have the same relationship, so you won’t experience the same shades of grief.

I was in such pain after losing my life mate that I decided to go to a grief support group, hoping they could tell me how to survive the agony. I was afraid, at first, that I would be overwhelmed by everyone else’s pain; instead, I found a group of people who knew what I was going through, who listened to my sad story and who, because of their own survival let me know that I would survive. And that was comforting. I also learned that the only way to survive the pain is to go through the process of grieving.

It’s the hardest thing I have ever done, embracing grief.

Grief takes you to the ends of your limits. It makes you question everything you thought you knew about life, about yourself, about death. It can make you scream at the heavens, make you cry until you think you’re drowning in your own tears, make you want not to live. All this is accompanied by a host of physical symptoms, such as dizziness, tightness in the chest, restlessness, irritability, inability to focus or organize, inability to eat or sleep (or to eat and sleep too much). And when you think you’ve cried all your tears, finished with your panic attacks, come to accept that he isn’t coming back, grief returns, but this time it comes in a different shade, perhaps not so black as in the beginning, but still dark.

Right now I’m going through a time of pearl gray days scattered with storm-cloud gray moments. Though I’ve done the work of grief in my own way, I have had one great benefit that many people don’t have — that grief support group. Because of their support, because I know someone is paying to attention, I have felt free to embrace my grief fully without worrying that I’m crazy or that I need therapy. Because of them, I know I am coping well, I know my grief is normal, I know I am completely sane. I just haven’t finished with my grieving yet, and it’s possible that I may never be completely finished. And that too is normal.

I Am a Six-Month Grief Survivor

Six months ago my life mate — my soul mate — died of kidney cancer, and my life changed forever. I survived the first excruciating weeks, and now I am learning to live with his absence and finding ways of going on by myself, but it’s lonely. So few people know how to act around the bereft, and they end up offering us maxims that bring no comfort because the adages are simply not true.

People tell us that time heals. Time does not heal. We heal. Grief helps us heal. Time does nothing. Time doesn’t even pass — we pass through time like persons passing through an endless desert.

People tell us that we’ll get over our loss, but when you have suffered a soul-quaking loss, you never totally get over it. Nor do you want to. Getting over it seems like a betrayal, a negation of the life you shared. The best you can do is eventually accept the person’s absence as a part of your life.

People tell us to on with life. They don’t understand that this is our life. Grief is how we get on with it.

Grief is not the problem. The problem is that our loved one died. Grief is the way we deal with that loss, the way we process it, the way we heal the wound of amputation. By experiencing the pain, by allowing ourselves to feel the loss, we honor our loved one and our relationship, and gradually we move through the pain to . . . to what? I’m not sure what lies on the other side of grief. I’ve passed the worst of the pain but not yet arrived at a new way of living.

During these past six months, I’ve been inundated with information about how to deal with grief. I purposely refrained from reading the material, which is strange for me — I’ve always been one who researches everything — but I didn’t want to know the accepted way to grieve. I wanted to experience my own grief without the current fad getting in the way. It used to be that grief was a regimented experience — one wore black and mourned for a year. More recently, the “stages of grief’ became the accepted way of grieving, though now there are various new ways of thinking about grief. The truth is, grief is personal, and except for the extremes of not allowing oneself to feel anything and trying to find ways of dying so you can join your loved one, however you grieve, that is the right way to grieve.

Grief makes even friends and family uncomfortable, so eventually the bereft learn to hide what they feel. They stop talking about their loved one, but they never forget.

I will never forget.

He will always live in my memory.