Lilacs For Remembrance

Long before Ophelia begged Laertes, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember,” mourners would throw rosemary into graves as a symbol of remembrance.

Rosemary doesn’t mean much to me. It’s not an herb I like, nor is it a plant that has any association for me, though there is a humongous rosemary bush outside my father’s house that was once a potted rosemary Christmas tree. (Until I saw the bush and heard the story of its origin, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a rosemary Christmas tree.)

LilacsTo me, lilacs are for remembrance. I grew up in a large family with a scraggly yard. Except for occasionally mowing the lawn, no one bothered much with keeping the yard nice, though when I was in second grade, I was allowed to grow a small garden. (“Grow” is a misnomer. I planted sweet Williams, and one or two flowers even came up despite my massive neglect.) Surprisingly, a lilac bush thrived in a corner of that unkempt yard. Though no one ever took care of it, never even watered it, it managed to bring forth gorgeous and gorgeous-smelling blossoms every spring. Truly a miraculous plant.

Many years later, my now deceased life mate and I transplanted an unruly lilac bush that blocked a gate. We ended up with dozens of plants, enough to surround the whole property. Apparently there were plenty of live roots left because eventually the original bush grew to be as large as it was before we’d massacred it. Western Colorado is often visited by late frosts, so we didn’t always have lilac blossoms, but the spring before he died, the entire place was wreathed by luscious blooms, a luxury he once could only dream of.

A year after he died, I was Blindsided by Lilacs. I’d come to a desert community to look after my aged father. The vegetation was completely different from anything I was familiar with, so there were no scent memories. Then one April day, when I was walking down the street, the smell of lilacs wafted toward me from an empty lot. Instantly, I was back in full grief mode, unable to stop crying for days. Today, I felt sad and needed to feel close to him, so when I passed that still empty lot, I went to inhale the blossoms and think of him.

I’d never put flowers by his photo, not wanting it to seem like a shrine, but today I picked a sprig of lilac and brought it back for him.

Sitting here now, I can smell that lovely fragrance, and I remember.

***

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.

Everything Happens for the Best?

A couple of days ago I wrote about an item I lost. Although the item lost was relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of life and death, it reminded me of a loss that was important — the loss of Jeff, my life mate/soul mate — and I was swept by a huge upsurge of grief. This was just a few days before the fourth anniversary of his death, so everything that happened that day took on a greater meaning than it might otherwise have done.

ripplesAlthough I can never replace him, I was able to make a replacement for the lost item. The replacement wasn’t as ornate or as perfect as the first one, but as it turns out, it actually worked better for my purpose. So perhaps it was best that I lost the item.

My father is fond of saying, “Everything happens for the best,” which has always made my teeth grate because I don’t believe that things really do happen for the best. In books, everything does happen for the best, whether good or bad. That is the point of writing — to make sense of senseless happenings. There has to be a lesson to be gleaned from the story events — perhaps character growth or a fitting resolution. If the story events happened without reason, the way things happen in life, readers would throw the book across the room and never pick up another one.

Oddly enough, our brains do that same work for us. When a tragedy has passed and we have come to terms with it, when we have found a way to live despite the pain life dishes out, we often look back and think, “Everything did happen for the best,” though the truth is that we made the best of what happened. But what if my father is right? What if things do happen for the best? What if it was best that Jeff died, best for both of us? (Well, it was best — he couldn’t have continued to live with such pain and debility, but was it best he got sick?) I don’t know the answer, of course, since I am not privy to the inner workings of the universe, but the whole lost item/replaced item lesson seemed a bit pointed considering the nearness to the anniversary.

Maybe the universe really is unfolding as it should (assuming the universe is made up of shoulds rather than coulds). Once a very long time ago, I believed Jeff was a being of light — a cosmic teacher — come to accompany me on my journey to truth. (He really was radiant when I first met him, long before ill health became a way of life, which made the conceit seem reasonable.) At the end of his life, he used to give me all sorts of unwanted advice, and when I would bristle, he’d say, “I won’t always be here to teach you.” Obviously, I don’t know the truth of why he was here or why he left, but maybe he had taken me as far as he could and went back whence he came. (This idea seems a bit far fetched when I remember the pain he went through. What makes the idea even more bizarre is that I’m not sure how much of our consciousness survives. Maybe we simply become subsumed back into the whole.)

In the end, it doesn’t matter if everything happens for the best or not. Things happen, and we deal with them the best we can. There’s not much else we can do.

***

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.

The Return of the Sad Saturday

My life mate/soul mate died on a Saturday, and for a couple of years, I had an upsurge of grief every Saturday even when I didn’t realize what day it was. (Somehow my body remembered.) It’s been a long time since I’ve had a grief upsurge and an even longer time since I’ve had a sad Saturday, but today I am tearful. I seldom dream about him, but early this morning I dreamt that someone we both knew had died. As we looked at the empty bed, he said, “It’s strange that she died right after I invited her to live with us.” I responded, “Maybe that’s what allowed her to die. Maybe the point of life is death.”

I woke then, and remembered that he was dead, and it made me sad. I haven’t been thinking about him much lately. I’ve been keeping myself busy, trying to build strength and rebuild my life, but this morning, my whole house-of-cards life came tumbling down.

I just now returned from a ramble in the desert, so the sadness has dissipated a bit, but all the pieces of my life are still in a heap at my feet. As the next few days progress, I’ll pick up the pieces one by one, and maybe this time the structure I build will have more permanence. Or not. No matter how good an attitude I have, no matter how much I become immersed in life-affirming activities, he is still dead and there isn’t anything I can do about it. I just have to continue on, realizing that my life has worth. I have worth.

At the beginning of my grief, I could not fathom ever being happy again, which was okay since somehow I didn’t think I had the right to be happy, but I no longer think that way. If our positions were reversed, I wouldn’t want him to spend his life mourning for me.

Still, it’s only natural to feel sad and to miss the person who meant more than anyone else, so I’ll remember him with sadness today, remember what he meant to me, remember his courage and his smile.

Tomorrow will be soon enough to go about the business of rebuilding my life and finding whatever happiness I can.

***

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.

Everything Happens For the Best — Oh, Yeah?

Twice today I was told, “Everything happens for the best.” Everything? Is it best when a child dies? When an earthquake hits? When people lose their home and end up on the street? In books, everything does happen for the best, whether good or bad. That is the point of writing — to make sense of senseless happenings. There has to be a lesson to be gleaned from the story events — perhaps character growth or a fitting resolution. If the story events happened without reason, the way things happen in life, readers would throw the book across the room and never pick up another one.

Venice Beach PierOddly enough, our brains do that same work for us. When a tragedy has passed and we have come to terms with it, when we have found a way to live despite the pain life dishes out, we often look back and think, “Everything did happen for the best.”

Sometimes now I feel that the death of my life mate/sould mate and my ensuing grief all happened for the best. If he hadn’t died, our lives would have remained on the same treadmill of pain (him) and despair (me). His death set me free — free from his illness, free from the financial constraints that his illness caused, and even free from the chains of such a deep love.

He almost died twenty years ago, and so every day I made a point of recognizing and appreciating his continued existence in my life. Because I knew our time together would be cut short (and it was, just not as short as that earlier brush with death would have indicated), whenever there was a choice of doing something with him or by myself or even with another person, I always chose him. And so, gradually the chains of love were forged. Now if there is an opportunity to do something, being with him is not an option, which has opened my life to many new possibilities.

But was his death really for the best or is my brain simply doing what it can to make sense of everything that happened in the past two decades, and especially the past few years? His death ended our pain and set us both free, but what would have happened if he could have gone into intermission? Would I have ended up in the same place even if the tragedy hadn’t occurred? It’s impossible to tell, but I do know not everything happens for the best. We make the best of what happens. It’s called life.

***

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.

Grief: Losing Your Grip

There are so many facets and phases to profound grief that even now — three and a half years after the death of my life mate/soul mate — I am still bewildered by some of the symptoms I experienced.

I always assumed “losing your grip” was merely a euphemism for losing your ability to deal with life, but shortly after the onset of grief, I lost my grip. My real grip, not my euphemistic grip. (Well, I lost both, but the second went with the territory.)

I dropped silverware, glasses, cups, plates — just about everything slipped through my fingers. I didn’t particularly notice it at first — I have been known to drop things — but after I moved to a house with hard tile floors, the loss of my grip became explosively apparent. My first night here, I dropped a glass, and it shattered on the hard floor. It sounded like a shot, scaring both me and my 96-year-old father. When the same thing happened a few days later — a mug this time — I realized I had to be careful or I’d give him (and me!) a heart attack. For over a year, I had to make sure of my grip before I lifted something so that it wouldn’t slip from my fingers. My grip gradually tightened, and after two years, I noticed I no longer had to pay attention to how I held something — I was automatically getting a grip.

Obviously, the phrase “lost my grip,” meaning losing your ability to handle a situation, had to come from somewhere, and I have a hunch that it came from the very thing I experienced.

I spent the past couple of hours researching this subject but never found a clinical reason for losing my grip. The weak hands didn’t come from any sort of illness. Not lupus, carpal tunnel syndrome, multiple sclerosis or any of the other 57 medical conditions where people can lose their grip. Nor was it an effect of aging or poor muscle control since the loss of grip came on so rapidly and gradually disappeared without any change of circumstances except the onset and gradual waning of grief.

It’s possible low blood sugar caused the loss of grip in the beginning because I wasn’t eating much, but as the year progressed, I ate more normally and the symptom persisted. Or maybe losing one’s grip is a symptom of emotional shock (rather than physical shock). Or maybe it represented a general enervation from from all the stress. The loss of a mate ranks as one of the most stressful conditions a person can suffer, which is why the death rate for those in the first year of profound grief is so high. Or it could be a physical manifestation of the metaphoric state — grief certainly makes you feel as if you’re losing your grip. In my case, It also seemed to be a reflection of my ability to connect, as if when I lost the connection with him, I lost the ability to connect with anything.

Well, now that I’m nearing what I call the half-life of grief, I’ve regained both my grip (my ability to grasp things) and my grip (my ability to handle life). I’ve also regained my ability to connect — with things and people.

And so grief continues to wane.

***

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.

Happy New Month’s Eve!

champagneWhen I looked at the day on my cell phone today and noticed it was the 31st, my first thought was, “New Years Eve, already?” It felt good thinking that this year was over, and that a new one would begin in just a few hours, and then the truth sunk in — this year would not be over for another eleven months.

This has not been a good year so far — not the worst by a very wide margin, but not good, either. It began inexplicably with tears, and grief has been with me most of the month. (In less than two months, it will be three years since the death of my life mate/soul mate, and that anniversary looms large on my emotional horizon.)

It’s not just the grief upsurge that has made this a hard month — there have been too many disappointments and setbacks for such a new year. Friendships have ended, a project with other authors has come to an ignoble conclusion, new hopes have not been realized, blog and book ratings have fallen. There have been some good things. For example, I was notified that Grief: The Great Yearning came in second place for a book award, but any pleasure in that recognition was destroyed when I got a follow-up email telling me I’d been demoted to third place. (I’m still reeling from that one. I’ve never heard of anyone being demoted before.)

I need a new start, and I’m going to make one. In a way, every day is the eve of a new year, but today is also the eve of a new month, which seems an auspicious time to begin. So, Happy New Month’s Eve! Wishing you a great new start and much happiness during the coming month.

***

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+

In Memory of My Mother

021 copyMy mother died  five years ago today, almost exactly a year after my brother. (This is the last photo of the two of them together.) To understand the sly humor rather than the pathos behind that sentence, I’ll have to tell you a bit about my mother. She spoke with perfect diction, in unstilted, unaccented English, and she loved words and word games, especially the kind of game where you take a word or phrase and find as many smaller words as possible. For example: in “almost exactly,” you can find most, call, cell, yell, exact, alas, and so on (Me? I hate that game, perhaps because I could never win when I played with her.).

It came as a shock to me when I realized as an adult that my mother was a first generation American who grew up speaking a language other than English. I always knew that, of course, but as a child you accept your mother for who she is without seeing her in the broader context of life. We often think of first generation Americans as people who have a rough time speaking English (or who speak rough English), but neither she nor any of her siblings had a hint of that other language in their voices.

She raised her family with a respect for language. No slang at our house. No “ain’t” or “we got no” or any other example of language slippage. My parents were strict, and we children seldom talked back,  but there was one thing we all argued about with Mother: “almost exactly.” She claimed “exactly” had no degrees. A thing was either exact or almost. The rest of us knew the truth: there is a world of difference between almost and exact. (My brother who is gone was the one who argued most vociferously with her, but of course, he argued vociferously with everyone. He was a bull of a boy and then a man, but never a bully, just strong and adamant about his beliefs.)

Though occasionally I use “almost exactly” in speech, I try not to use it in my writing. It’s one thing to use such a construction when talking and something else entirely to commit it to the permanency of writing, and I don’t want to meet her on a cloud in some afterlife and have her start in on that old argument with me again.

On the other hand, it might be nice.

***

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+

Grief: The Great Yearning

I never  set out to write a book about grief,  but I was so lost, so lonely, so sick with grief and bewildered by all I was experiencing, that the only way I could try to make sense of it was to put my feelings into words. Whether I was writing letters to my deceased life mate/soul mate or simply pouring out my feelings in a blog or a journal, writing helped me feel close to him, as if, once again, I was talking things over with him. The only problem was, I only heard my side of the story. He never told me how he felt about his dying and our separation. Did he feel as broken as I did? Did he feel amputated? Or was he simply glad to be shucked of his body, and perhaps even of me?

I wrote this letter to him exactly two years ago. It shows some of the collateral effects of grief, such as the questioning, the yearning, the struggle to come to terms with death and dying. Although I am going through a time of relative peace, what I wrote back then still holds true today.

Excerpt from Grief: The Great Yearning:

Dear J,

For the first time since you died, I almost forgot to advance your permanent calendar. I’m surprised I’ve remembered to do it all these months. I thought it would be a remembrance, but I don’t need anything to remind me of you — everything I see, say, do reminds me of you.

I’ve decided the only way to fill the hole you left in my life, to make sense of your absence, is to fill it with activities I would not have done if you were alive. There are not enough events in the whole world to fill the void, but I need to try, otherwise I’ll never manage to get through the next decades. I hope I don’t become one of those people who hold on to their pain because it’s all they have to make them feel alive, but it is all I have to connect to you. Well, I have memories and some of your things, but that’s not enough.

Would your death be easier to accept if you’d been happy? Is your unhappiness a reason for me to accept your death? What makes this so confusing is that your long dying, the accumulating weakness and pain made you unhappy, so how can I use that as a rationale for being okay with your dying?

I’m like a child, wanting to scream, “It’s unfair!” And it is, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re dead.

Did I hold your hand when you died? I think I just stood there as you took your last breath, but I don’t remember. I don’t remember much of the last couple of years. It’s like I was in suspended animation, just waiting for you to die. What a terrible thing to say, but it was a terrible time to have lived through. But you didn’t live through it, did you? Well, you did live it, you just didn’t survive it.

I wonder if subconsciously I knew all this pain was waiting for me, and that’s why I closed myself off from the reality of your dying. I don’t like this, J. I don’t like it at all.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy 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+

Click here to find out more about Grief: The Great Yearning

Meeting the Challenges of the Third 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 in our lives who connects us to the world), 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 that are our constant companions. 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.

The five main challenges we face during the second year after the death of a life mate/soul mate are:

1. Trying to understand where he went.
2. Living without him
3. Dealing with continued grief bursts.
4. Finding something to look forward to rather than simply existing.
5. Handling the yearning.

There are other challenges, of course, some unique to each individual, but all the challenges are dealt with the same way: by continuing to feel the pain when it erupts rather than turning away from it to satisfy the concerns of those who don’t understand; by taking care of ourselves even when we don’t see the point; by trying new things.

In other words, we meet the challenges of the second year by living. It sounds simple, but nothing about grief for a life mate/soul mate is simple. By living, we begin to move away from our pain, but we also move away from the person we loved more than any other. For some bereft, this feels like a betrayal of their love — how can you continue to live when life on this earth is denied him? For others, it seems like a betrayal of themselves — how can you become the person you need to be without betraying the person you once were?

The third year of grief seems to be a year of transition with only one new challenge — beginning to rebuild our lives. (We still have upsurges of sadness, still miss our loved one, still yearn for him, but these feelings are not as prominent as they once were.) Most of us no longer feel that continued life is a betrayal of our love because we understand that we had no choice in the matter, either in his death or in our continued life. Nor do we feel we are betraying the person we once were — we are no longer that person, though we have not yet developed into the person we are to become. Most of us are still trying to figure out who that person is and what that person wants and needs.

Many of us third-year bereft are caught in circumstances beyond our control — we are taking care of aged parents, new mothers, grandchildren. Although this transition between our old coupled life and our new life alone seems to be a time of stasis, we are still rebuilding our lives day by day, becoming who we need to be. We are also beginning to look beyond this transitional stage to what will come after, which is a sign of life and hope for the future even if we are not yet feeling hopeful.

By now, some bereft are ready to be in a new relationship, and they too seem to be in a transitional stage — not yet in a relationship but looking for possible partners. In other words, dating. I can’t even begin to go into the challenges such bereft face; it seems an impossible task, to go from where they are to where they want to be.

A few people jump into a relationship too soon, and then have the added grief of an aborted love affair. Some find that while they want emotional intimacy, the would-be partner only wants physical intimacy. Complicating the typical adult dating woes of ex-wives, grown children, incompatible schedules, is the date’s incomprehension of the bereft’s grief. Too often, he doesn’t want to hear about the deceased, which leaves the bereft dangling in an emotional limbo, because how can you have a meaningful relationship with someone who denies that which once gave your life meaning?

Others in this third year of grief are not looking for a new relationship, though they wouldn’t turn love down if it came their way.

Whatever the challenges we bereft have to deal with in this third year of grief, we will meet them as we did all the other challenges we have faced: with courage, perseverance, and strength.

No Life in My Life

I am heading toward the two-and-a-half-year anniversary of the death of my life mate/soul mate/best friend. The breath-stealing pain that I endured for many months has dissipated, so much so that I have a hard time believing I ever went through such agony. The all-encompassing loneliness that followed the pain has also dissipated, and I am comfortable with the idea of growing old alone (or if not comfortable, at least tolerant of the possibility).

I’ve even gotten over the horrendous feeling of always waiting. Not waiting for something. Simply waiting. Nothing has changed, of course, except my attitude. I am training myself to be in the present, to be me, to believe that nothing is important but what is right here, right now. It’s working — I am more at peace than I have been in a long time.

But . . . there is no life in my life, no spring in my step, no spark in my spirit.

I’m not a sentimental person. I seldom kept keepsakes and I never chronicled my life with photos, but now I do both to prove to myself that yes, I am alive, and yes, I am doing something with my years. It feels as if I have done nothing but stagnate the past two years, and yet I have that scrapbook of paper memories showing me the truth:

Since October of 2010, when I started keeping the scrapbook, I have spent time on both USA coasts, hiked in the desert and on sandy beaches, climbed lighthouses and rocky knolls, ridden an amphibious vehicle and the world’s largest traveling Ferris wheel, fed ducks and sea gulls, walked along rivers and around lakes, visited ghost towns and overgrown cities, trekked the length of four piers on four different beaches, gone to art exhibits and historical museums, attended fairs and festivals, learned to shoot guns and amazing photographs. I’ve traveled alone and with friends on planes, trains, and automobiles. And I have tasted hundreds of different foods, some delicious, some that can barely be considered edible.

So why do I feel as if there is no life in my life? Do I need to be in love to sparkle with vitality? I hope not. I hate the thought that my well-being rests in someone else’s hands. The truth is probably more prosaic — although I am not actively mourning, I am still grieving, still disconnected from the world. After the death of the one person who connects you to the world, it takes years to find a different way of connecting. All of these experiences I have mentioned are ways to keep me busy while the real work of reconnecting to the world is going on deep inside.

Besides, the experiences were good ones.

        

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