Grieving for the Dead

The conventional wisdom is that we grieve for ourselves, not the person who died, but as with any other idea most people have about grief, it is only partly true. When it comes to a soul mate, we often grieve for him as much as we grieve for ourselves. During our shared time, we cared as much about him, his well-being, his happiness as we did about our own, and that caring does not stop with death.

Many people still feel their soul mate’s presence, sometimes in a beneficial way, as a blessing or as a helping hand, but others feel their mate’s unhappiness. One woman, whose husband spend his last months connected to gastric tubes and other painful devices, continued to feel his anger long after he died. He’d been furious with her for agreeing to procedures that prolonged his suffering, and she was ridden with guilt because of it. (Though what other decisions about his care could she have made? He could not talk, and the doctors assured her he would get better if they performed those operations.) For more than a year after his death, she could still feel waves of anger directed at her. Perhaps the anger was a symptom of her guilt, but perhaps part of him still harbored those feelings. We hope our loved ones are at peace, but what if they’re not?

One of the great agonies of losing one’s soul mate is not knowing where he is, how he is, if he is. I found comfort in believing that my life mate/soul mate wasn’t suffering any more, that he, at least, wasn’t having to deal with the pain of our disconnect, but then one day it struck me that I didn’t know that for sure. Since I had no sense of his continued presence in my life, I had no conception of what he might be experiencing. What if he were feeling just as lost and lonely and bereft as I was?

I had to put such thoughts out of my head because I truly could not bear to think of him in pain. I was still grieving for all the suffering to which he’d been subject during his final days, weeks, months, still grieving for his hopes that never came to fruition, still grieving for the dreams that died with him. Perhaps it was silly of me to grieve for him, since it’s entirely possible he wasn’t grieving for himself, but still, those thoughts were there, complicating my grief.

It’s been a few days more than three years since he died, and sometime during those grief-filled months, I began to disconnect from him, to understand that whatever relationship we had, however much we shared, no matter how much it felt as if we were cosmic twins, we were still two separate people on two separate journeys. This is an important realization and a necessary step to mental health and eventual happiness, but the habit of thinking of him is still strong, and I wonder where he is, how he is, if he is.

I hope he is happy, fulfilled, challenged, radiant. I wish those things for myself, and I can wish no less for 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.” All Bertram’s books are published by Second Wind Publishing. Connect with Pat on Google+

Grief and the Double Standard of Love

It seems as if our whole culture revolves around and reveres couplehood. Most songs, novels, movies, are either about people looking for someone, finding someone, losing someone, or getting a second chance at love. A large percentage of non-fiction books are written to help people find a mate or help them stay mated. Hundreds of websites are devoted to matching people with their true love or a reasonable facsimile. Many holidays are geared toward love — Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, kissing your love at midnight on New Year’s day.

Clichés about love abound, mostly because they are true (or feel true). When you meet the right person, your life suddenly make sense. Whatever has been missing now is found. Love fulfills you. Love makes the world go round. All you need is him/her. Love is all that matters. Two hearts beating as one. Soul mates. Everlasting love.

It’s so inbred in us, this need for true love, that few people question it. In movies (and maybe even life) when someone has an affair and ends their marriage to be with the new love, all they ever feel the need to say is, “I fell in love,” and that explains everything.

But . . .

When you lose your one true love to death, all of a sudden you are supposed to be able to slough it off as if love didn’t matter, and go on with your life. Everyone else is celebrating their love, but you are supposed to accept that yours is over and you are supposed to have a good attitude so you inconvenience others as little as possible.

This double standard is hard to deal with. Not only do we bereft have to contend with the effects of suddenly being deprived of love, companionship, fulfillment, not only do we have to contend with being alone in a coupled world, we have to deal with our culture’s belief that love is all important. Other people can continue to have the benefits of a living love, but somehow we bereft are supposed to be able to make do with memories.

My life mate/soul mate and I didn’t have an easy life, in large part because of his illness and other setbacks beyond our control, but like most couples, we hoped for a payoff sometime in our golden years, and his death killed our hopes.

I’m finally to the point where seeing couples doesn’t bother me, but for many months, just the sight of two people, middle-aged or older, holding hands brought me to tears. I realize some people never find anyone to love, but others have been married for forty, fifty, even sixty years. I try not to compare, try to accept my situation, but the truth is he was my home, and now I am homeless. When I was with him, I had a sense of belonging, but now I belong nowhere, especially not in this coupled world.

What is the Point of Being Me?

I walked in the desert today, talking to my deceased life mate/soul mate. (Or maybe I was talking to myself. I’m still not sure to whom I think I’m talking when I’m out there, but it does help me to talk aloud at times — I don’t feel quite so alone.) I was trying to understand my latest upsurge in grief. It doesn’t seem to be tied into an anniversary or a holiday, though it did start on the 4th. Nor does it seem to have resulted from any new or renewed experience. Anyway, there I was, walking, talking aloud, feeling sorry for myself, and I heard myself say, “I’m not much good to anyone, so what is the point of being me?” I stopped in my tracks, arrested by the simple question. What is the point of being me?

For the past two years, ever since his death, I’ve been haunted by the hard questions: Who are we? Why are here? Is this all there is? Where did our loved ones go? Will we see them again? What is the meaning of life, and probably most haunting of all, what is the meaning of death? In all this time, I have never asked: What is the point of being me.

It seems such a simple question, doesn’t it? But here is the truth of it:

Billions of years ago, the universe was born. Through untold eons it learned how to create various life forms, and finally, it created a semblance of a human being. A million years later, our present species came into being, and many thousands of years after that, I was born. I learned to walk and talk, and as I grew, I learned how to communicate ideas rather than just simple needs and wants. Later, I learned how to read, and because of that one skill, I learned way more than I ever could by merely observing. Along the way I learned about love and finally, during the past six years, I learned about dying through watching loved ones struggle with the end of their lives. (I won’t really know about dying until I have the experience, but it does seem as if I have been steeped in death for too many years.)

Here I am today, the culmination of billions of years of learning — a unique individual. So, what is the point of being me?

I’m not sure why the question has caught my imagination, but I’ve found myself smiling at odd moments today. It seems as if finding the right question is as important as finding the right answer, and this appears to be the right question. The meaning of life and especially death is too immense for my mind to grasp, and anyway, finding the answer can’t really help me figure out how I am supposed to live the rest of my life alone or what I am supposed to be doing. Yet suddenly, there it was, my guide to the future — a simple question, specific to me, that no one else can answer.

What is the point of being me?

Falling into Grief

I wonder how much of grief is hormonal. I often think of the young women who have their lives mapped out, want to accomplish so much, are on the fast track to success and then . . . whap. They meet the love of their life, and all of a sudden, their lives, their plans, their dreams all change. Those sex/nesting/procreating hormones are so powerful, they can derail your life, make you see things in a different light, make you do things you would never do. Women who never wanted kids start dreaming of cradling sweet-smelling bundles, look for houses in neighborhoods with good schools, invest in SUVs. People call this maturity, but basically, it’s just hormones and preprogrammed DNA kicking in. After all, in terms of genetics and evolution, we are just DNA machines, and everything works together to make sure we do our duty.

Grief does the same thing. It makes us see things in a different light, makes us want things we’d never thought about, derails all our plans, makes us do and feel things we never thought possible. Changes us. People think grief is a choice, but it isn’t — it’s something that’s thrust on us. There is no way we can choose to feel things we never imagined possible. I thought grief was a quiet melancholy, a sweet nostalgia, a pervasive sadness. Grief, for me was none of those things. (Well, that’s not strictly true — it’s how I felt when my brother and my mother died, but did not at all resemble how I felt after my life mate/soul mate died.)

A friend of mine wrote me: I have done therapy for 40 years. I have worked with people who have lost kids, spouses, parents, dogs everyone and every kind of pet. I had NO clue what it was really like in spite of losing my best friends and parents. I think a therapist who counsels someone in grief should have gone through a loss like you and I have before she/he tries to help someone. God knows there are enough of us out here who REALLY know grief. NOW I am one of them. (I hope she doesn’t mind I passed this on, but it is too important to keep to myself.)

Before people fall in love, they haven’t a clue of its true power, and then it washes over them in a life-changing moment. Before you fall into grief, you haven’t a clue of its true power,  but it too washes over you in a life-changing moment, and all but drowns you. Even though I’ve experienced so much of what grief does to a person, I still can’t believe its power. The way grief reflects falling in love as in a very dark mirror, there has to be a hormonal component. I know stress releases hormones, as does shock. Adrenaline courses through your body, and there are changes in brain chemistry that produce hormones. Your immune system goes on hold.

Do our bodies know we are no longer mated and ratchet back the DNA machine? I do know there is some effect on the limbic system. The lizard brain, which has been slumbering peacefully beneath our consciousness, wakes up and screams, “What?? I could die?? Say it isn’t so!” That’s a bit fanciful, so many of us feel it deep inside, the hurt of an animal who suddenly realizes there is an end. (As if there isn’t enough to contend with when if comes to grief.)

I don’t suppose it really matters what causes the physiological changes of grief — hormones, stress, agony, lizard brains. The primary cause is what matters. Someone we were deeply connected to died, and we fell into grief.

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