Eve of Seven Years of Grief

1:40 AM tonight marks the seventh anniversary of when my life mate/soul mate died. If it is true that our bodies are renewed every seven years, then this anniversary is another death — the death of whatever remains of him in me. When two people live together for an extended period of time, in our case thirty-four years, you not only exchange ideas and energy, you also exchange atoms and molecules, and DNA via benign viruses, so for all these years I carried a bit of him with me. And now he is truly gone. (I still have his cremains, haven’t decided yet what to do with them, but that is another story.)

A month ago, I entered a spate of grief so profound, I felt almost the same as I did at the beginning, as if parts of me were being amputated. Could that be when the last iota of him in me died? As romantic as the notion is, I have a hunch the upsurge of grief was simply that — an upsurge. Generally the month leading up to the anniversary is much worse than the anniversary itself, and I expected the past month to be a horror of pain. During that grief upsurge though, I wrote him a letter, and also printed out a photo of him to hang on my wall. (My photos are all packed away in a storage unit, and since I cannot drive because of my arm, they are not available to me.) Because of this renewed connection, as ephemeral though it might be, or maybe just because after all it’s been seven years since he died, the past month has not been a horror of grief, but rather a time of relative tranquility.

I still don’t understand life, death, grief. Don’t understand why some people are allowed to live out their lives with a special person, and others are fated to go into old age alone. It used to bother me, this unknowing, and sometimes it still does, but generally I try to live in the moment, to take from the day what I can and leave the immortal questions for another time.

I do know I will always be grateful he shared his life with me, even though memory of that life is fading behind newer memories of my life alone. And I know I will always miss him. We shared a special bond, not like a long married couple, not even like soul mates, though that is how I describe our relationship — more like cosmic twins. For most of our life together, I thought the bond was so strong it would pull me into death when he went, and I resented his having five years more of life than I would. As it turns out, something in me did die that day but other things were born, such as a determination to live, and I have now lived two years longer than he did. I resent the extra years on his behalf, though I hope he is beyond caring.

I don’t know where the next seven years will lead me — no one knows what the future will bring, of course. Will it end with me sitting at my computer telling you about the 14th anniversary of his death? By then, I will be elderly. No, I don’t want to even think about that. I’m still afraid of growing old alone, still afraid of being old alone. But today, living in the moment, there is no fear, just a sense that . . . I don’t know . . . maybe that my life is unrolling as it must.

There probably won’t be room for tears tomorrow. I have pre-op doctor and lab appointments that will take up much of the day. (As of now, the surgery to have the external fixator removed from my arm is scheduled for April 4th.) And I am packing one handed for a move to a nicer room and a nicer neighborhood.

Changes.

So much has changed in the past seven years. For a long time, I lamented that his death and my grief did not change me, but looking back, I no longer know who that woman was who clung so firmly to life when all she loved was swept away.

One thing has not changed — a great yearning to see him one more time. To see his smile that so often warmed me. To see the light in his eyes when something interested him.

And one other thing has not changed — disbelief. I can’t believe he’s been gone so many years. Can’t believe I survived.

And yet, changed,/ unchanged, here I am.

***

(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.

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Vulnerability and Upsurges of Grief

Lately I have been experiencing an upsurge of grief so strong it feels as if Jeff died a short time ago and is just out of reach. If I could only stretch my arm a bit farther. . . and farther . . .

But no matter how far I reach, he is gone. In one month it will be seven years. Always the weeks leading up to an anniversary are hard, but this year is much harder. I even had to resort to writing Jeff a letter last night, which is something I haven’t done in years. The letter writing helped enough that I will probably repeat the exercise until I get through this difficult time.

Because of this blog, I have been in touch with many people who have lost their mates, and I discovered that a common occurrence was a huge upsurge of grief at 18 months just when we thought we were over the worst of it. My current upsurge makes me wonder if there is a significance to the seventh anniversary. It’s been said that because of the constant changing of cells in our bodies, every seven years we have undergone a complete changeover. After the loss of a life mate/soul mate, it takes 3 to 4 years to find a renewal of life. I call that time the half-life of grief because half the physical connection is gone. Does this mean that at seven years, any remaining iota of his physical presence in my life and body is now gone and hence this grief upsurge?

This morning while texting with a friend, I mentioned my upcoming anniversary. She thought my grief had less to do with the number seven and more to do with increased vulnerability because of my poor shattered arm and my needing “a soft place to lean.” (She also thinks I should be documenting what I’m going through for a possible future book that might help others who are dealing with a similar situation, but this blog is all the documentation I will need.)

She could be right about my needing a soft place to lean. Ever since my fall, I had been feeling a bit of an upsurge in grief, both for my arm and for my now long-gone shared life, but it wasn’t until I lost my occupational therapist (the one person I had to lean on) to bureaucracy that I began this downward slide into profound grief. But also, coincidentally, that is when I began the downward slide to the anniversary.

Whatever the truth of the matter, this current upsurge surprised me because I thought I left such deep sorrow in the past. You’d think after all these years of learning about grief firsthand, there would be no more surprises left for me, but grief does what it wants.

People tell me to get over it, to move on, not to be sad, and in recent years I have been doing all those things, even went on a great adventure. But now, suddenly, I am in a place of “not doing.” I have to be very careful with the fixator attached to my arm. Because the pins go through skin and muscle and all the way through bone, the insertion points are prone to infection, and it is a full-time job keeping them clean. I want to hurry up with my hand exercises, to try to quickly get back as much range of finger motion as I can, but too much stress and stretch aggravates those puncture wounds. So here I sit, isolated, alone with my hand-me-down Nook filled with books, and my computer. (Though the poor Nook is threatening to quit on me, and my aged computer is struggling to keep up with today’s technology.)

I don’t feel quite so sick or so lost in the post anesthetic fog as I did the first couple of months after the fall, and I only take pain pills now to help control the pain so I can sleep. I hope that one day soon I can go back to writing. I try to put myself in a happy place, and it seems as if it’s been years since I’ve been happy, it was only a few months ago. Last October. Writing. Finishing my dance novel.

When I started working on my grieving woman book, I couldn’t help feeling sad for that poor woman and all she went through, so it did not bring me much happiness. But now that my normal state is sadness, writing might offset some of the sorrow. It does amuse me, though, thinking that this grief upsurge, so reminiscent of the early months, puts me in the proper frame of mind to write about a brand-new widow. Also amusing, though in a more ironic way, I can’t figure out how to end that woman’s story, just as I can’t figure out how to end mine.

Luckily, I have a treat in store for me today — I am going grocery shopping! A friend who comes to town occasionally to help with her aging mother makes time to help me with errands, and today is the day! I will revel in the company, the laughter, the largess spread out all around me, and be grateful for this chink in my isolation.

And tonight, if tears flow once again, I will write Jeff another letter, thank him for letting me share his life, and tell him how glad I am that at least one of us is spared any further pain and sorrow.

But dammit, I miss him.

Apparently, I always will.

heart

***

(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.

Lonely in a Crowd

I spent most of the past three days alone, and I made an interesting discovery. It’s not being alone that makes me feel alone and lonely. It’s being with too many other people that makes me feel alone and lonely. Every grief upsurge I’ve had recently has come after spending too much time with people who don’t enrich my life. (I don’t mean you, of course!) So often when I am with others, I sit and listen. I can’t contribute anything to the conversation because they talk about things that have nothing to do with me or my life, nothing to do with anything but their own insular and insight-less agendas. So I sit. And listen. And slowly disappear.

ReadingA friend invited me to have Thanksgiving dinner with  her five-generation family, which was very nice, and I was invited to dinner and a movie Friday evening, but the rest of the time, I was alone. (Didn’t even have to see or hear my strange roommate because he’s gone for the week.) Yesterday I did nothing but read. Just lolled around with a book in one hand and fruit in the other, which made it a doubly fruitful day. Today was a repeat of yesterday, though I added a hike in the desert to round out my solitary festivities.

And I never once disappeared. Never had a single pang of loneliness.

As it turns out, this isn’t such a great discovery, this realization that other people make me feel lonely, because there’s not much I can do about it. Obviously, I can’t spend my life alone. (People need people. Isn’t that the general thrust of life, love, and happiness?) I suppose I could make an effort to talk more when I am in a crowd, maybe even try to steer the conversation to make it more about me, but if I had anything to contribute, I would already be commenting. The sad truth is, I have nothing to say. (Which is why I so seldom blog any more. No insights, no interesting observations, no emotional highs or lows to ponder makes for mighty boring reading.) Admittedly, most people have no problem talking when they have nothing to say, but I have never quite mastered the art of talking to no purpose. Pointless conversation seems . . . pointless.

Anyway, this is not the week to worry about such things. My belly dance class will be performing a couple of numbers in a dance program at the local college this coming weekend. I’ll be with people most of the time — dance classes in the morning, rehearsals in the afternoon or performances in the evening, so I’ll set this conundrum aside for another time and simply enjoy being part of this special event.

***

(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.”)

A Downsurge of Grief

I’ve just passed through an upsurge of grief (though it was really more of a downsurge — I’ve been in a funk the past few weeks). I hadn’t realized I was experiencing an episode of grief — it just felt as if it were sorrow as usual — until this morning when I noticed the grief had seeped away leaving behind a strange feeling of optimism. (Strange because there is no reason for it — nothing has changed, no issues have been resolved, and a blank future still lies ahead of me.)

Why that particular upsurge? I’m not really sure — grief needs no reason. I have a hunch, though, it had to do with the odd anniversaries of grief I’d just passed through. First there was the anniversary of the worst day of my life, then there was the anniversary of leaving our home. I’d barely noticed these days during my second and third years of grief, so I never expected to even remember them this far into my journey, but apparently my body did. (It remembers even when I don’t.)

Or perhaps the grief upsurge could have been instigated by the recent loss of a couple of friends. (Lost not to death but to differences of lifestyle and opinion.) Any loss seems to bring on an upsurge of sorrow, reminding me of that most grievous loss — the death of my life mate/soul mate.

Or maybe I’m just making a big thing out of no thing. Maybe I’m blaming the normal vicissitudes of my life on grief, when in fact this is the new me, though I hope not. I hate to think that I’ll always be so emotionally frail, given to tears over the least little upset. At least with grief, there is always the possibility of someday being able to reclaim my equilibrium and once again take life as it comes.

Though come to think of it — are tears really so bad? They relieve stress and help wash away the hormones that build up because of that stress. (Remember Holly Hunter in Broadcast News? Peppy little thing, always on the go, always thinking, always two steps ahead of everyone, then when she’s alone, she breaks into tears for a few minutes. I never understood that part of her character . . . until now.)

Maybe I should worry more if the tears dry up forever.

***

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.

Upsurges in Sadness Are Like Shortness of Breath After Exercise

I’m fine. Truly I am. For all of you who have expressed concern over my current upsurge in grief, I just want to tell you there is nothing to worry about. Upsurges in sadness do not in any way affect my life or my dealings with other people. They are just there, a fact of my life like shortness of breath after exercise. If I didn’t write about my feelings, no one would know about my times of sadness. There is so much bad advice given to people about grief, such as acceptable durations and ways of grieving, that I want to provide a counterpoint, and I wouldn’t do much good if I kept silent about what I happened to be feeling at any given moment.

Many people have told me that after the death of their husband, they never found happiness until they married again. People have told me that even after they got married, they still experienced upsurges in grief, sometimes years afterward. People tell me they never got over grief at the loss of a life mate, it just got different. The death of a cousin or even a brother doesn’t affect us the same way as the loss of a child or a soul mate, so the severity of the loss has to be taken into affect before you start wondering if someone is grieving inappropriately. Some people do fall in a pit of depression and cannot get out without help, but I am not one of them. Nor am I ruining my health by riding out the sadness. That’s what tears are for — to release the stress. Walking, exercising, and blogging also relieve the stress of trying to create a new life for myself out of the embers of the old one.

For me, an upsurge in grief usually comes right before or right after a new level of acceptance or a greater understanding. This latest upsurge began on Independence Day. It’s a day for families to get together, to have fun, to do whatever it is that families do when they get together, and I was alone. I understood that this could be the way holidays will be for the rest of my life, and I found it difficult dealing with the unwelcome understanding. Also, while walking in the desert recently, I’ve had several revelations that are helping me with my search to find a new focus for my life, and such forward motions bring on an upsurge of sadness because they take me further away from the past I shared with my deceased life mate/soul mate.

And anyway, even though I am no longer a child in the world of grief, I’ve not yet achieved full growth, either. Therapists who have studied grief and grievers admit that it takes three to five years to find your way back to life, and I am just past two years. I still have a long way to go. Besides, what’s a few tears among friends?

The truth is, though, I am more exhausted than sad. I’m tired of living in an alien world, tired of having to figure out where to go from here, tired of not feeling like me, but mostly, I’m tired of his being dead. Whether I continue to be sad or find happiness, whether I continue floundering of find new focus, he will still be dead. And absolutely nothing I do or say or feel will ever change that.

Facing My Dreads

Yesterday was Saturday, typically a sadder day for me, but today I felt strong enough to face some of my fears. Or at least my dreads. Facebook has been threatening to switch me over to their new timeline format and today I decided to run toward my dread so I could get it out of my head. I wasn’t sure what photo I wanted to feature. I’d planned to use photos of my books, but since I used them for my page, I didn’t want to confuse the issue by using the same image for my profile. I’d played around with word art once, so I decided to use that. Spent a couple of hours getting it just right. So now I have timeline. And I have overcome one dread.

Then I decided to go after the big one. Watching a movie.

My life mate and I used to watch movies together — all kinds, from westerns to serial killer movies to comedy to romance. He taped hundreds of movies for us, and they’ve been packed away since his death two years ago. I just could not bring myself to watch the movies, especially the romantic ones because I knew how much it would hurt.

Flush with the success of overcoming the dreaded timeline, however, I decided to watch Notting Hill. I’d pulled it out of storage to view on the one-year anniversary of his death, planning to celebrate his life, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even put it away. The tape has been sitting on the shelf, waiting for me to watch for a year and two weeks. And it is again sitting on the shelf.

I put the tape in the VCR, watched for about forty-five minutes, and then came the gusher. Not just tears but sobs and gasps for breath and a yearning to see him one more time that clawed at me with a ferocity I haven’t felt in months.

I know two years isn’t that long, but I never imagined I would still have such upsurges of grief. Mostly I can handle being alone, though I do have times of gargantuan loneliness. I even have times now, such as when I’m focused on completing a task, where my missing him gets pushed into the background. And sometimes I can even look forward to the future. But the one thing I can never seem to get a grip on is the thought of his being dead. I have come full circle to a realization of how necessary it was for him to die. He was in such pain and could no longer function that continued life would have been torture. But even so, I hate knowing that he will never eat another meal. Never read another book. Never plant another tree. Never watch another movie.

I do still have the ability to watch movies, and someday I will finish watching this one.

Just not today.

Counting Down to the Second Anniversary of Grief

I’ve been on a grief hiatus for a few months — no major upsurges of grief — but yesterday, for no apparent reason, I started crying, and I’ve been crying on and off ever since. I’ve been trying not to think of the upcoming two-year anniversary of my life mate/soul mate’s death, trying to look ahead to the future, trying to find something to be passionate about (or at least something to hang my life on). Despite the exhaustion of attempting to put a good face on the seemingly bleak future, I thought I’d been doing well.

And then came the tears.

It still surprises me that the body remembers even when the conscious mind doesn’t. I’d forgotten that yesterday was the two-year anniversary of the last time we talked, the last time we were together in our home, the last time we touched. But something deep inside, something beneath thought, remembered. And grieved.

Two years ago yesterday, the hospice nurse expressed concern for us. I hadn’t slept in I don’t how many days, and neither had he. Some people, as they near death, suffer from what is called terminal restlessness. In his case, the rapidly growing tumors, his impossibly fast heart rate, the morphine, and various other factors made it impossible for him to be still. He wanted/needed to be on his feet, moving, always moving. And since he was too weak to be left alone, I would pace with him.

That last morning at home, the nurse suggested that he go to the hospice care center for a five-day respite, and he and I agreed. He knew I needed sleep (though ironically, I got very little sleep those days) and I thought they would adjust his dosages to give him the most alertness and the least pain. But they never tried. They dosed him with tranquilizers to keep him in bed, and he never had another moment of consciousness.

Those days were exactly two years ago. And I remember them as clearly as if they were happening now. I watched him die. I was there at the end. As agonizing as that was, I know there are worse things. I might not have been there when he took his last breath. I might not have witnessed the very moment he left my life. I might not have been able to say good-bye. Unlike many bereft, I don’t have to deal with those regrets.

For a long time I regretted taking him to the hospice care center — I felt as if I’d deprived him of one more day at home, one more day of lucidity, but in the end, I suppose there was no other choice. He’d stopped being able to swallow, the morphine made him disoriented, and the tranquilizers they prescribed to stop the terminal restlessness made him delusional. I’m glad he doesn’t have to deal with his body any more, but oh, I so wish I could see him once more, or talk to him on the phone, or go back to his store where we spent so much time when we were young and new.

I hope death feels better from the other side than it does from this side, because the only thing that brings me peace is the belief that he is no longer suffering. It’s strange to think that the very moment his suffering ended, mine began. I never expected to grieve. He’d been sick for so very long that his death came as a relief, but when the truth hit me, it hit with the force of a cyclone. And two years later, I am still whirling from the pain.

There is Something Totally Bizarre About Grief

Sometimes grief strikes me as being totally bizarre. For example, the eighteen-month mark is particularly difficult, sometimes even more so than the one-year anniversary. I do not know why, I just know that it is because so many of us bereft experience the same thing. In my case, for a couple weeks around the eighteen-month mark, I felt as I had during the first months after my life mate/soul mate died. Somehow, someway, it seemed as if he just died. And maybe in a way, he had. Grief is a journey of starts and stops, retracing steps, standing still to catch your breath, and then being pushed into the future again. Each step forward in grief’s journey is a step further away from our loved one, a step further away from the last time we talked, or hugged, or smiled at each other. Now, all we have left of them are our memories, and as each memory fades, a bit more of our loved ones die.

But such incremental deaths do not explain the upsurge of grief at eighteen months. (Here’s an ironic twist — I googled “Why is there an upsurge of grief at eighteen months? And the top three links that came up were links to this blog.) Oddly this upsurge is not a conscious one. I knew the date, of course, but I had no expectation of feeling any different at eighteen months than I had at seventeen months, so once again, grief took me by surprise. But the upsurge happens even if you lose track of time.

I received this email from a bereft friend today: I woke up crying at 6 this morning and didn’t stop until after noon. This reminds me of those months right after he died. I haven’t had such severe morning cries for a long time. I guess I might be heading into that upsurge a little earlier than expected.

I emailed her back, saying she was right on time since this was her eighteenth month.

Her response: Good grief. Time is losing meaning for me. I’ve been thinking my 18th month starts in February. I guess I’ve been subconsciously trying to avoid it.

See? Even when you get the date wrong, your body knows. There really is something totally bizarre about grief.

The Five Major Challenges We Face During the Second Year of Grief

The challenges we face during the first year after the death of a life mate/soul mate (or any other significant person), are too great to enumerate. It’s all we can do to cope with the seemingly endless chores of laying our beloved to rest while dealing with the emotional shock, the physical pain, the psychological affront. Sometimes the first anniversary of his death is one of peace when we realize that we managed to survive the worst year of our life, but then we wake up to the second year and find a whole other set of challenges to meet.

These seem to be the five major challenges to face during the second year of grief:

1. Trying to understand where he went. We can understand that he is out of our lives (even though we don’t like it), but we cannot understand his total goneness from this earth. No matter what we do, how we feel, or what we believe, it doesn’t change the fact that he is dead. And there is nothing we can do about it.

2. Living without him — we can do it, we’ve proved that during the past months, but we still have a problem figuring out why we would want to.

3. Dealing with continued grief bursts. Though we do okay most of the time, and though we fulfill our daily responsibilities quite capably, upsurges of grief still hit us, sometimes right on schedule (such as my sadder Saturdays), and sometimes for no reason at all. Sometimes they last for days (such as the upsurge of grief most of us felt this New Year’s Eve) and sometimes they last for mere minutes. But always, just when we think we can handle it, grief returns and we feel as if he just died.

4. Finding something to look forward to rather than simply existing. The second years seems to be a limbo, a time of waiting though we don’t seem to be waiting for anything. We’re just . . . waiting.

5. Handling the yearning. So many people who try to explain grief get it wrong. It’s not about going through five or seven or ten stages of grief. It’s about yearning for one more smile, one more word, one more hug from the person who was everything to us. The first year of yearning was hard, but somehow many of us had the strange idea that this was some sort of test and that after we passed the test, he’d pop back into our lives and we’d go on as before. Well, now we know this is no test. It’s the real thing. And there is nothing protecting us from that great clawing yearning.

Making a list is easy. Meeting the challenges of the second year of grief is hard, but maybe we succeed simply by living, by dealing with each day as it comes.

***

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.

Grieving the End of This Year

I’ve been doing well, continuing on with my life after the death of my life mate/soul mate, and then suddenly, here I am, awash in tears again. I had no idea why this would be so, until I found out that so many others in my grief age group — those whose mates died in 2010 — are also going through an upsurge of grief. And now I know what triggered the tears, though I don’t know why.

The body/mind/soul remembers dates, anniversaries, emotional occasions long after the conscious mind has forgotten, which is why I know when Saturday (the day of his death) is coming around again — I can feel the sadness creeping up on me the day before. He died late Friday night or early Saturday morning depending on how you look at it, and my body seems to look at it both ways. But this upsurge in sadness has nothing to do with Friday or Saturday, or even with Christmas.

For those in my grief age group, this was our second Christmas without our loved ones. It was harder this year for some of us than our first Christmas without, perhaps because the truth is settling into our souls, and we know there will never be another Christmas with them no matter how much we yearn for it. (For this very reason, the second year of grief is sometimes harder than the first. The physical and psychical pain isn’t as great, but the emotional shock that protected us has worn off and the truth that they are never coming back has taken root along with a great clawing yearning to see them one more time.)

We’ve survived most of our firsts — the first birthday without, the first summer, the first Halloween, the first Thanksgiving, the first anniversary of their death — and now one more first is almost upon us. We are coming to the end of the first full calendar year without them.

Why would this ending be an occasion for an upsurge of grief? I don’t know. It’s particularly strange for me since I don’t see anything special about a new year — it’s such an arbitrary date — but apparently my internal datekeeper has made a note of it. And now I am grieving the end of this year, this first full calendar year without him.