Grief: Looking at the World Through a Camera Lens

My publisher suggested adding photos to my soon-to-be-published book about grief, and I jumped at the chance. I’d recently read David Ebright’s YA novel Reckless Endeavor, and was impressed by how much veracity just a couple of photos gave his story, so I was glad of the opportunity to do the same for my book. The only problem is, I have almost no photos of me and my life mate. We simply did not take photos — not of the places we lived, and not of each other. It’s not that we weren’t visually inclined, it’s that we lived in the moment. If you take a photo of the moment, the shoot becomes the moment and you lose the moment itself.

A couple of years before he died, I was gifted with a digital camera, and I took hundreds of photos of trees, animal tracksa cattle drive, some yaks in a nearby field, wildflowers (well, weeds) along the lane where I walked. It helped me get through what I thought were the worst years of my life, the years of his dying. Oddly, during all that time, I only took one photo of him, and that was by accident. We always wanted to see the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, but since the road leading to the canyon was gravel, it was too hard on our old cars. We promised each other that if we ever had the use of a rental car, we would take the trip. That August, I rented a car so I could visit my brother, and when I returned, I suggested we finally go see the north rim of the canyon. He didn’t want to make the trip since he was so sick, but at the last moment, he agreed to come with me. It’s a good memory. Just him and me and the ground that fell away just beyond our feet. I had my camera, and since I knew I’d never be back, I snapped a few photos, and he ended up being in one of those pictures. It still makes me cry, that photo. He’s standing with his back to me, staring at  . . . eternity, perhaps. Did he know he had just a few more months to live? I sure didn’t, or perhaps I was simply refusing to face the truth.

The year after he died (which actually was the worst year of my life), I took thousands of photos. The world had turned black and white, and it was only through the lens of a camera that I could see color and life. I roamed the neighborhood and the nearby desert, looking for visual treasures.

And then suddenly, a few months ago, I stopped carrying my camera around. Apparently, despite my continued sadness, I’m back in the moment, living life at full strength rather than diluted through the lens of the camera. I didn’t even realize how far I’d come until I started hunting photos for my book and realized I’d stopped taking pictures.

(I did manage to scrounge a few photos for the book, though not as many as my publisher wanted. And we’ll be using the only photo of the two of us for the back cover even if it is fifteen years old.)

The Symphony of a Life Gone By

It is impossible to freeze a single moment of music — what you get is a chord that means little by itself. It only gains meaning by what went before it and what comes after, by existing as part of a whole.

Ever since the death of my life mate, I’ve been haunted by images of him at various stages of his life — when I first met him, when we were in the fullness of our relationship, and then at the end, when there was nothing left but a body depleted of life. Which of these moments was him? Were any of them him? Or, like music, were each a single meaningless chord in the symphony of his life?

This might seem a foolish reflection, but it is one that echoes now that his life has been silenced. When a person is alive, the person you know is the culmination of a life, with everything — every note and chord of his existence — leading up to that very moment and foreshadowing the song of his future. When the person is gone from this earth, there is no more culmination. The man I knew at the end — the man who had spent his last breath — is gone, burned into a pile of ashes and crushed bone. The man I knew at the beginning, the radiant man with half of his life still ahead of him is also gone, burned by the fires of living and dying. So which is the real person? How do you remember a life — a man — when all you have are bits of the whole?

We were not picture takers, and I have but a single photo of him. Although it looked exactly like him when it was taken fifteen years ago, it doesn’t look at all like him at the end of his life. For months after his death, I refused to look at the photo, afraid that the image of him in my mind would be supplanted by the image of the photo. Recently I decided it doesn’t matter if the image in my head is not of him. No image is “him.” He is gone, his moments forever broken into meaningless chords. I know I cannot hold the whole of him in my mind — it took 63 years of living to play his entire repertoire, parts of which I never heard.

And so, I look at the photo, this single chord of his life, and remember the symphony of a life gone by.

Multi-Asking

Ever since my life mate died, my mind has churned with unaswerable questions.

Is he warm? Fed? Does he have plenty of cold liquids to drink? Is he sleeping well? Does he still exist somewhere as himself or has his energy been reabsorbed into the universe? Is he glad he’s dead? He brought so much to my life, but what did I bring to his? Why can’t I see him again? Why can’t I talk with him? Will we meet again, or is death truly the end? Was it fate that we met? Fate that he died? I’ve been finding comfort in the thought that he is at peace, but what if he isn’t? What if he’s feeling as split apart as I am?

Will he recognize me if we ever meet again? Will he be proud of what I become? He helped make me the woman I am today, but what’s it all for? Where am I going? And why? It does seem as if my life is a quest for truth, for understanding, but what’s the point? I suppose the journey is the point, but still, at the end of a quest story, the hero returns with the magic elixir. She has a purpose for what she’s gone through. Do I have a fate, a purpose? But what about him? What was his purpose? I try to make sense of his death, but how do you make sense of something senseless?

How do I find meaning, or at least a reason to continue living? Do I need a mate in order for my life to have meaning?

Can a person drown in tears? Yesterday someone told me that life on earth was an illusion and so my mate still exists. But if life is an illusion, why couldn’t it be a happy figment? A joyful one? What’s the point of pain? Of loss? Of suffering? Why did he have to suffer? Why do I? Do I have the courage to grow old alone? The courage to be old alone when the time comes?

Why do we cling so much to life? In the eternal scheme of things, does it matter how long or short a life is? Does it matter that he only had sixty-three years? Does it matter that he was alive? What is the truth of life and death? If he’s in a better place, why aren’t I there? If life is a gift, why was it taken from him?

Is there anything universally important? Love, perhaps, but not everyone loves or is loved. Creativity? But not everyone is creative. Truth? But what is truth? Is the human mind, with its finiteness, capable of understanding the truth? If nothing is universally important, does anything matter? Maybe it’s better to let life flow, to try to accept what comes, but isn’t the point of being human to try to make a difference? To try to change what is?

Supposedly, you can have a relationship with someone after they are dead, but it’s all in the mind, in memory. What’s the difference between that and fantasy? And how much of life is lived in the mind? All of it? All except the present? But even the present is lived in the mind since the mind (or rather the brain) takes the waves of nothingness and transform them into somethingness. So what is reality? The intersection of all minds?

I know there are no answers, I am simply . . . multi-asking.

Going Along for the Ride

Life takes odd twists and turns. It seemed to me, when my life-mate — my soul mate — was dying of inoperable kidney cancer, that our lives would never change. He’d been sick for so many years, dying cell by cell, that it felt as if we were locked in a horror show of endless, predictable misery. Last year at this time, his disintegration suddenly speeded up, and he started dying organ by organ. And then he was gone.

I’ve made no secret of my grief, of the pain his “goneness” has caused me, but through it all, I’ve been getting on with my life, trying to open myself to new experiences, trying to hope for . . . what? That is the kicker. How do you know what to hope for if you can’t even imagine where you are headed?

A couple days ago I sat in a restaurant, one thousand miles from our home, celebrating my birthday with new friends and acquaintances I’d met through a grief support group. Though all nine of us are trying to deal with the devastating loss of a loved one, we talked and laughed and had a good time. It showed me that there is life after death — we lived despite our loved ones’ deaths. And it showed me something else. That for all of life’s seeming predictability, it can still surprise. A year ago, when my life mate was a couple of weeks from death, there is no way I could ever have envisioned that restaurant scene.

Back then, I knew I’d have to leave our home, to find a temporary haven where I could deal with my grief, but I had no clear idea of where I wanted to go, and somehow I found myself in the desert. And, since I’d been a virtual hermit for years, I could never have guessed that I would make so many friends. Nor had I celebrated my birthday in . . . well, never mind how many years it’s been. And yet, there I was, with new friends in a time and place I couldn’t have even imagined a year ago.

So where am I going? How will I get there? Who will I be? Who will I be with?  There is no way of knowing. I’ll just have to go along for the ride and hope that everything works out when I get there. Wherever “there” is.

Grief Update — Throwing a Tantrum

I haven’t blogged about grief recently. Actually, I haven’t blogged about anything for a while. I’m in a transitional stage — not sure what I’m feeling, not sure what direction I want to go with this blog, not sure what I want to do with the rest of my life. I’ve been purposely thinking of other things than the death of my soul mate, though grief does geyser up without my volition now and again, especially on Saturdays, the day of the week he died. Even if I’m not consciously aware of that day, still, nine and a half months later, something in me acknowledges the date, and sadness grabs hold of me.

Except not this Saturday. This Saturday (yesterday), I wanted to throw myself on the ground and beat the floor in a full-fledged tantrum. I’ve never thrown a tantrum in my life, but if I’d been someplace where no one could hear me, I would have made an exception. I wanted desperately to talk to him. His death was the most significant aspect of our lives since the day we met, and he’s not here for us to compare notes. I want know how he’s doing. I want to know what he’s doing. Is he doing anything, feeling anything? Or is he drifting on a sea of light, like a newborn star?

It seems impossible that he’s gone, and the simple truth is that I don’t want him to be dead. Sure, I can handle it. Sure, I can deal with living the rest of my life alone. Sure, I can do whatever I need to do. But I don’t want to. I want him. I want to see him. I want to see his smile. I want . . . I want . . . I want . . . All those wants erupted Saturday night, hence the desire to throw a tantrum.

I’ve never heard of tantrum as a phase of grief, but I’ve never heard of most of the stages I’ve gone through. My grief cycle does not at all resemble the stages defined by Kubler Ross. Hers is a simplistic view of grief when in fact grief is a cyclical emotional and physical quagmire. The frequency of my grief eruptions has diminished, and so has the worst of my pain, but the hole his death created in my life remains. I try filling the emptiness with physical activity, talking to people, reading, writing, even eating, but nothing fills the want.

How can someone who was so much a part of my life be gone? Even if he is waiting for me on the other side of eternity, he’s still gone from this life. And I don’t want him to be. I want . . . I want . . . I want . . .

Clear the area. I feel a tantrum coming on.

Letting It Be

My previous post chronicled my thought processes as I watched the video “Let It Be” that is making the rounds. As I said in that bloggery, At first I thought that perhaps this was the answer to my confusion over the death of my mate of thirty-four years. Just go on with my life and let it be. Forget my grief. Forget the pain of losing him. Forget trying to make sense of it all. Just . . . let it be.

When I first wrote that a few days ago, something in me let loose, and though I claimed I did not want to let it be (whatever it is) I haven’t been the same since. At least not exactly the same. I still had my usual Saturday upsurge of grief (preceded by a late night — I don’t seem to be able to go to sleep until after 1:40 am on Friday night, the time of his death) but I felt sad rather than soul-broken. I’ve even had a few moments when I could actually feel glimmers of life.

I can’t forget my grief or the pain of losing him, though both are slowly diminishing. And I can’t stop trying to make sense of my life. That’s who I am and always will be — a truth seeker. But I can let go of trying to make sense of his life.

It has haunted me all these months — the dual vision of the young radiant man he was when we met and the skin-covered skeleton he’d become. Were all those years of illness worth living? He was often in pain and wanted to be done with life, yet he kept striving to live until the very end. I remember those last years, months, days, and I still cry for him and his doomed efforts. But he doesn’t need those tears. His ordeal only lives in my memory. And that is what I am letting be. It is not for me to make sense of his life or his death. It is not for me to keep suffering for him now that he is gone.

A fortune cookie I read the other day said, “Cleaning up the past will always clear up the future.” Much of my grief has been about cleaning up the past — coming to terms with small every day betrayals, with dreams that never came true, with leftover worries. I have cleaned up the past, gradually worked through those conundrums. What is left is the habit of dwelling on the past, and that I can let be. It does neither of us any good.

Will it clear up the future for me? Perhaps. At the very least, it will help me face the future. Whatever that might be.

Grief: All Things Considered . . .

Another Saturday gone, thirty-three of them since my life mate died. Saturday — his death day — always makes me sad. Even if I’m not consciously aware of the day, my body still reacts, as if it’s been marking the passing weeks. For some reason grief hit me hard this past Saturday. Perhaps it was the lovely weather we’ve been having, weather he will never enjoy. Perhaps it was the homesickness for him that has been growing in me again. Perhaps it was just time for another bout of tears to relieve the growing tension of dealing with his absence. Grief doesn’t need a reason, though. Grief has an agenda of its own and comes when it wishes.

I’ve been mostly doing okay, moving on with my life — walking in the desert, writing, blogging and doing various internet activities, making friends both online and offline — but nothing, not even my hard-won acceptance changes the fact that he is dead. At times I still have trouble understanding his sheer goneness. My mind doesn’t seem to be able to make that leap, though I am getting used to his not being around. I don’t like it, but I am getting used to it. Maybe that’s the best I will ever be able to do.

Someone asked me the other day how I was doing. “I’m doing okay all things considered,” I responded. His witty and wise response: “Then don’t consider all things.”

I’ve been taking his advice, and trying not to consider all things — trying to consider just enough to get through the day, especially on Saturday.

I don’t expect much of myself on Saturdays. Often, I spend the afternoon and evening watching movies my life mate taped for us. It makes me feel as if we are together, if only for a few brief delusional minutes. I try not to consider that he’ll never watch his tapes again. I try not to consider the long lonely years stretching before me. I try not to consider that I’ll never see his smile again, or hear his laugh. I concentrate on the movies, and so Saturday passes.

By Sunday, I usually regain a modicum of equanimity, but Saturday always comes around again.

My Topsy-Turvy Writing Life

NaNoWriMo is good practice for me, this writing without stopping to think.

I’ve always been a slow writer, but I can also see that the way I wrote and the reason I wrote created the slowness. I used to write at night when all was quiet, then the next morning I would read the work to my mate. The piece had to be cohesive, well written, and most of all entertaining because that is why I wrote — to entertain us. That way of writing taught me to pull someone immediately into a scene, to make characters come alive in a few words, to add a hook or reward on almost every page.

I had my reward in his smile. Whenever I saw his lips curve in a secret little smile, I knew I’d hit the scene perfectly.

He and his smile are gone from my life. I’ve had to find a different way of writing and a different reason. For now, meeting the challenge of NaNoWriMo is reason enough. The very nature of the challenge is helping me find a new way to write. Instead of searching for the perfect word, I write any word that comes to mind, trusting that during the rewrites I will find the right one. If no word comes to mind, I leave a blank space and continue with my train of thought.

I also have no need to write a coherent story from beginning to end for there is no one to follow along as I write. I jot down whatever scene is foremost in my mind. I also write in the morning since it’s quietest here then. Also, by writing in the morning, I can come at the task in an oblique way before excuses begin to get in the way.

Some of what I’ve written will need little revision. Other bits read more like notes for a novel than a fleshed out scene and will need to be completely revised. Other parts are redundant and will need to be junked. But I am keeping up with my word count (probably because I am leaving out the hard bits, like descriptions and sensory details), and that is an important achievement.

I’m getting into the rhythm of this topsy-turvy life. From being one of a couple to being alone. From living near the mountains to living near the desert. From writing at night to writing in the morning. From writing beginning to end to writing whatever scene catches my attention.

I’m still writing the same type of book, though — a non-literary literary novel. The way I understand it, a literary novel is a story that addresses the major themes of life, and the way it is written — the choice of words, the sentence structure, the imagery — is more important than what is written. I fail in the second part — I strive for a simple, easy to read style that doesn’t detract from the story — but I do address major themes, especially in this work. Life. Death. Love. Grief. Relationships. The meaning of life. All while telling a good story. At least, that’s the plan.

I’m hoping someday you’ll be able to tell me if I succeeded.

One Woman’s Grief

The American Psychiatric Association has labeled grief that lasts more than a few weeks a mental disorder. I wrote about this in my last blog post, “Grief Is Not a Medical Disorder,” but I can’t stop thinking about it. The problem with grief is not the pain, though sometimes the agony is so unbearable it takes one’s breath away, but the reason for the pain: a very dear person, a part of your life, is gone and will never return. When one is depressed for no reason, then perhaps the misery can be classified as a mental disorder. But if there is a reason for the pain, if there is a direct cause for the depression, then it is not a disorder. It is life.

Grief varies, of course. Everyone grieves in a different way, and everyone feels each subsequent death in a different way. The loss of an aged aunt you barely knew is different from the loss of a beloved mate. In the first case, prolonged grief could be a sign of depression, but in the second case, prolonged grief is a way of coping.

When I lost my mate, I was in such pain I thought my heart would burst. I couldn’t breath, couldn’t focus, couldn’t see how I could ever get through the day let alone the rest of my life. I was also still in shock from witnessing his horrific death.

I did get through those first days, though how I don’t know — the pain escalated by the minute. Then I found out about a local bereavement support group. I am a private person, one who keeps her emotions to herself, but I went to the group meeting anyway hoping someone could tell me how to deal with the pain. No one could, of course, but I did meet people who had survived a similar loss, and that taught me survival was possible. One of the problems with grief is how it isolates you, and the group made me feel less isolated. And that was a comfort.

I had no intention of writing much about grief on this blog. I posted a few articles mentioning my pain, and found that not only did the articles help me, they gave comfort and support to others who were going through the same thing. So I continue to write about grief. Perhaps someday the private me will look around and be aghast at all I have made public, but for now it’s my way of coping.

The point of this bloggery is that the pain of grief made me reach out and let others into my world. If I had been treated for depression during this time, I wouldn’t have connected with others. I would have remained isolated, and the effects of intense grief would have last much longer than they did. Everyone has the right to grieve the way they want, of course, but feeling the pain was the only way I could do it, both for me and for my mate. He deserved to have someone grieve that he died, to have someone feel the imbalance of the world without him in it. And that is not a mental disorder.

Grief is Not a Medical Disorder

According to the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders released by the American Psychiatric Association, grief is considered a medical disorder, and should be treated as major depression. There used to be a bereavement exclusion in the description of major depression, but they have taken that away, and now more than a few days of pain is considered a crisis. There can be “a few days of acute upset and then a much longer period of the longing, the tearfulness. But typically sleep, appetite, energy, concentration come back to normal more quickly than that.”

In whose world is grieving a medical condition that needs to be treated? Not my world. In my world, grief is one of the bookends of a relationship. Love. Grief. If grief is a medical condition, then watch out. One day love is going to be considered a treatable disease.

Perhaps emotional pain is not necessary. Perhaps people can survive quite nicely without going through the pain of grief — perhaps avoiding grief won’t cause the future problems people say it will — but the truth is, grief is a life experience, an incredibly deep and painful and raw experience that changes the way you think about yourself and the world. Grief helps you process the amputation of having a child or a mate torn from your life, let’s you experience the loss in a visceral way, makes it real. In past eras, grief was acceptable, in fact, was even encouraged. In today’s world, grief needs to be hidden so that it doesn’t offend people’s sensibilities, so that it doesn’t bring the spector of bad luck into people’s lives. Drugs can hide your grief, of course, but that’s all it can do.

I didn’t grieve excessively when my mother or my brother died, but when my mate died? I was devastated. (Still am, but at the moment I am going through a hiatus, a time of peace.) It wasn’t only the death of him. It was the death of our future, our dreams, our hopes, our lifestyle, our shared life, our private jokes. It was the death of my companion, my love, my friend, my confidante, my fellow traveler on life’s journey. No drug is going to make any of those deaths acceptable.

“He” died. “We” died. But “I” didn’t. Grief made me realize that. Surviving grief has taught me that I can survive anything. No drug could ever give me that.

I know a woman who mourned the loss of her mother for two years. Actually, she wasn’t mourning the loss of the mother so much as the loss of the emotional support and attachment the mother never gave her and now never would. She emerged from this period a strong, vital, wise woman. No drug could ever give her that.

In a strange way, grief is a gift. Easy? No. Painful? Yes. But . . . If you let yourself feel it, let it become a part of you, it will take you where you need to go. And no drug can ever give you that.

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