It Takes Courage to Grieve

People have often mentioned how courageous I’ve been by writing about my grief, but the truth is, for the most part, it didn’t take any courage. At the beginning, I was in such incredible pain and bewildered by all I was feeling, that I tried to make sense of all the emotions and physical symptoms the only way I knew how — by writing.

There were two times, though, where it did take courage. The first time was when my grief continued far beyond what I had expected, and I was afraid people would think I was weak or self-pitying or self-indulgent, unable to move beyond the tragedy. I am moving, but at my own pace.

The truth is, when you lose your mate, you lose not only the person who meant more to you than any other, the person who connected you to the world, you also lose your best friend, your confidante, your support, your sense of self, your hopes and dreams, your shared world, your faith in a universe that makes sense. The changes are so vast and so sudden, it can take years to process them all.

I’d been honest about everything I’d been feeling, so I continued telling the truth about my grief even when I thought it made me seem pathetic. No one wants to show a weak side to the world, but someone has to explain how grief works, to show the ramifications of a certain type of loss. We are steeped in a culture of couplehood. Many songs and movies extol the joys of meeting the one person who makes life worth living, yet when you lose that person, you are expected to continue as if it didn’t matter. Well, it does matter. And it matters more when you lose that person to death. It’s almost impossible to fathom the absence of a person who once breathed the same air you did, who was there through every crisis and triumph, and who now is simply . . . gone. (Well, if I’m going to tell the truth, then I should tell the truth. It’s not almost impossible. It’s totally impossible.)

I’m past worrying about how people see me and my grief, so I’m back to not needing courage to write about how I am doing. I’m just continuing to chronicle the journey of a woman who is trying to rebuild her life after an immeasurable loss, both the steps forward into hope and the steps backward into sorrow and tears.

The second time I needed courage was when I published Grief: The Great Yearning, the story of my first year of grief. It’s one thing to write about grief in the backwaters of the blogosphere, and a completely different thing to put my grief out there for the whole world to read. Well, the whole world isn’t reading the book, so that’s not an issue, but more importantly, those who do read my story find they are reading their own story. Although grief is unique to each person, the pain and angst and bitter losses are the same. And so is the way we make this unwanted and terrible journey . . . one step at a time.

And that takes courage.

***

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+

The Doors of Grief

Years before my life mate/soul mate died, I wrote a character who grieved for her dead husband. It astonishes me that I got any of the effects of grief right since at the time, I hadn’t a clue what the loss of a mate really did to you, how it turned you inside out and upside down and left you reeling with shock and disbelief, regrets and sorrow. A Spark of Heavenly Fire begins:

Kate Cummings counted backward from one hundred, though she knew it wouldn’t help her sleep. Dead people didn’t slumber, and she hadn’t felt alive for a long time. Not since before Joe’s funeral, anyway.

Three. Two. One. She raised her head, squinted at the illuminated face of the alarm clock, and flopped back against the pillow. Five-fifteen. Six hours of thrashing around in bed. She blinked away the sting in her eyes. All she wanted was one good night’s sleep. Was that too much to ask?

One hundred. Ninety-nine. Ninety-six. . . . A sound startled her awake. A siren’s scream, fading now. She checked the time. Five-thirty. Even if she could doze off again, she’d have to rise in less than an hour. Not worth the effort.

She hauled herself upright and groped for her eyeglasses. After sitting on the edge of the bed for a moment, gathering her strength, she dressed and wandered through the house. She hesitated by the closed door of the second bedroom where her husband had lived during the last years of his protracted illness, touched the knob with her fingertips. Yanked her hand away.

This is ridiculous. Joe’s been gone for thirteen months.

Taking a deep breath, she grasped the knob, but could not force herself to turn it. She rested her forehead on the door for a minute, wondering if she’d ever be able to face the ghosts of sorrow and regret locked inside, then squared her shoulders and headed for the front closet to grab a coat and hat.

***

Later, she explains to a new friend:

“About two weeks after the funeral, I decided to clean Joe’s room. I didn’t feel up to sorting out his things, but I thought I should dust and vacuum in there. I cracked opened the door, as if expecting Joe, or at least his spirit, to inhabit the room. I stepped inside, but seconds later I scrambled out again and slammed the door.

“Memories of all the shameful, petty, inconsiderate things I had done over the years haunted the room, and I couldn’t bear to face my own mean spirit. Too many times I snapped at him or purposely waited a few minutes before going to see what he wanted when he called out. Other times I felt so angry at the way life had treated us, I stomped around the house, slamming doors and kicking furniture. Usually, though, I pounded my pillow, or cried. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I cried, wishing I had a normal life with healthy children to take care of instead of an uncommunicative and disabled man. Sometimes I even hated him for what he had become, as if he chose to get sick. Can you believe that?”

She didn’t pause for a response, but hurried on, wanting to get it all out.

“Worst of all, I realized I was not a strong woman who had shouldered her burden with courage, but a weak woman who lacked generosity of spirit.”

***

doorI didn’t have a real door to close — I had to leave our home and come look after my aged father — but there are plenty of doors in my head that I slammed shut. It’s only now, after thirty-four months that I’m able to open them a crack, peek at the ghosts of my ungenerous and petty moments, and understand.

For the most part, I handled the stress of his dying well, but there were times I resented him, even hated him, though now I know it wasn’t he I resented or hated, but his dying. Everything that irked me — his skinniness, his rocking when he stood talking to me (he was so weak, it was the only way he could keep his balance), his inability to carry on a conversation, and his testiness — were all facets of “dying man” not the man himself. To a certain extent, he died long before his last breath. He never blamed me for my resentment because he too hated what he had become. He once admitted he didn’t even recognize himself anymore.

Death does appalling things to people, not just to those who are dying, but to those who have to continue living. Whatever our problems, those last terrible months, we had a chance to reconnect for a few weeks before he died, and I got to say good-bye to the man I love, not just the shadow of that man he had become.

And that is what I will remember — not all the petty secrets I’m gradually bringing out from behind closed doors, but our sweet good-bye.

***

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+

Portraying Grief Correctly

So often writers get grief over the loss of a spouse wrong, perhaps because unless you have been there, you cannot know the global effect grief has. There are so many mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, even geographical changes thrown at you that it’s almost impossible to understand what is happening.

Grief that has matured, meaning grief that is no longer new and raw, is easier to portray, but even that is often done wrong, since the characters seem to have no yearnings. And grief is so much about yearnings.

One movie that portrayed long time grief well was The Last Dance with Maureen O’Hara and Eric Stolz. O’Hara teared up when she thought of her husband, she treasured the records she had bought of the songs they had danced to (calling them her “memories”), but most of all, she yearned for one last dance from him. And that yearning made her grief real. We who have lost our mates eventually come to terms with going on alone, but we all have yearnings for one last kiss, one last hug, one last smile, one last word. Such simple things, but being deprived of them underscores our loss.

Another example of grief done right occurred in the old television show Golden Girls, of all places. In that particular episode, Blanche dreams that her husband, dead for nine years, comes home. This is a recurring dream, but instead of bringing her sadness as always, this time the dream brings her peace because in the dream, she got to hug him one last time.

Even though I am doing well two years and four months after the death of my life mate/soul mate, I still yearn for one last smile from him, one last hug, one last visit with him at his store where we met. It seems impossible these yearnings will go unfulfilled for the rest of my life. Like Maureen O’Hara’s character, though, I have my “memories” but in my case they are not shared songs but movies he taped. I’ve been going through his movies, weeding out the ones I will never watch again, and each movie I am keeping makes me remember a conversation we had about the movie, a particular time we watched them, a feeling I once had when he watched the movie with me.

Many of the movies he taped toward the end of his life, like The Last Dance, are about people going on alone after the death of a mate. It almost seems as if he is/was trying to help me find my way through the horror to a new peace. Some of these movies, again like The Last Dance, he edited to take out the parts he didn’t like. So not only do I have movies he taped, I have versions no one else in the entire world has. For example, he edited out all the flashbacks in The Last Dance, so I never see Maureen O’Hara’s young husband. I only know him through her love, her tears, her feelings about the possessions she is getting rid of in preparation for her own death, and in the stories she tells Eric Stolz and his family. This makes for a stronger story, keeping it all in the present, and it makes the relationship between O’Hara and Stolz more compelling.

But more than that, it makes it my story, a story about a woman yearning for one last moment with the man she loved.

Review of Grief: The Great Yearning

What a wonderful author Pat is. I found Grief: The Great Yearning so well written and it shows you, as the reader, the full extent of grief at losing a loved one.

I totally recommend you read this author’s books. She has a way with words and knows how to capture her reader right from the start.

Grief: The Great Yearning is an emotional ride and I promise you, you will need a hankie when reading, but I am so glad I have read it and I wish Pat every success with this book.
– review written by Sylvia Kerslake

***

Excerpt from Grief: The Great Yearning

Day 39, Grief Journal

I detest this roller coaster of emotions, though it’s not a roller coaster since there are no ups, only downs. It’s more of a side-to-side shimmy.

I woke this morning in tears. I am still depressed. Still feel way too much mental and physical pain. Still scream for him.

Someone suggested that I concentrate on the enrichment he brought to my life and less on my loss. It’s too soon for that, though — even good memories bring about a spate of grief. I hate feeling so maimed. I hate feeling that there is no one just for me any more. I hate feeling so damn alone.

At the grief group yesterday a woman said she wished her divorced daughter would find someone to grow old with. As if that’s all that was necessary — to find someone. I did have someone to grow old with, and now I don’t. Even if I come out of this okay, he will still be dead, so how is that okay? Damn it! This is not the way our lives were supposed to be!

I’ve been reading old Reader’s Digests, and boy, are those enough to scare a person half to death — stories of awful diseases, dreadful problems of aging, terrible accidents, all the horrors the world has to offer. And from now on, whatever happens to me, I’ll have to deal with it alone.

We always tried to be safe, to be healthy, and still, he got sick. A mutual acquaintance said to me, “How could he have let himself get sick like that?” What??!! As if he chose to get cancer. Sheesh. A woman at the grief group mentioned that this county has a higher than normal rate of cancer. Could that have been a factor? Even if it is, it doesn’t change anything.

I hope he didn’t suffer too much at the very end.

I miss him. I miss working with him, talking with him, watching movies with him, laughing with him. I miss our shared hopes for a better future. It’s a good thing I have so much to do — getting my car ready for the trip, getting ready for the yard sale—otherwise I’d just sit around feeling even sorrier for myself.

I have to steel myself to go on. I will not molder for the rest of my life. If I’m going to be here on Earth, I want to live, laugh, love. But not yet. I’m not ready to let go of my grief. It’s all I have left of him.

***

Grief: The Great Yearning is available from Amazon (both print and kindle), Second Wind Publishing (at a $2.00 discount!), and Smashwords (download the first 20% free in any ebook format).

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