Friend of My Soul

I learned a new word today. Anam Cara. (I guess that’s really two words, isn’t it?) It’s Celtic. Anam means “soul” and cara means “friend.”

Soul friend.

I call my deceased life mate a soul mate, though I don’t necessarily believe we truly were soul mates.

Some people believe soul mates are separate halves of the same soul, split aparts. To these believers, you are only whole when you’ve met and connected with your other half, your soul mate. Although we were deeply connected, I do not believe we shared a single soul, nor did I ever believe it. Oddly, when I first met him, I entertained the idea that he was perhaps a “teacher.” You know the saying — when the student is ready, a teacher will appear. Well, I was ready, and Broken hearthe appeared. Even odder, when he was dying, long after I’d forgotten this romantic notion, he told me, “I won’t always be here to teach you.” I bristled at that, of course, because it sounded so paternalistic. It wasn’t until after his death when I told a friend of his words, that she reminded me of my youthful idea. The reminder sort of freaked me out, to be honest. Was I correct in that he came here to teach me, to help me gain whatever knowledge I could through his help? I do know that he had taken me as far as he could on my journey, and so . . . what? He went back whence he came and left me on my own? It’s because of this notion that I don’t necessarily believe we will be reunited when I die. I have the strangest feeling that he has gone beyond where I will be at my end, gone to a much higher plane. (What makes this whole idea so bizarre is that I’m not even sure I believe we retain some form of consciousness after this life. I do believe we are eternal, since energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but what form that energy takes, I cannot even begin to guess.)

This idea of his coming to be my teacher certainly is not the personification of “split aparts.” It’s closer to the concept of soul mates in reincarnation, where we supposedly meet the same people life after life. These constant companions, enemies, allies who share our repeated lives are our soul mates. Again, this is not apropos because I don’t believe in reincarnation. Although many people like the idea of reincarnation, I don’t. I think it makes us just a bit too complacent about accepting the unfairness of life. If someone has bad fortune or ill health, somehow it is his or her fault because of karmic debt. If a person has good fortune, that is also because of karma paying off a debt.

Some people define soul mate as “the one and only,” the person you share everything with including ideas and temperament, a person for whom you have a deep and abiding affinity. Perhaps this defined my relationship with my life mate, but somehow it doesn’t go deep enough. Seems sort of paltry, actually, as a description of our relationship. We didn’t particularly bring each other happiness, we didn’t always want the connection, but we were connected on a level neither of us ever understood. Perhaps we couldn’t understand because we never had a name for our connection.

John O’Donohue, Celtic Mystic, and author of the book “Anam Cara, a Book of Celtic Wisdom,” wrote: In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam ċara.  It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life.  With the anam ċara you could share your innermost self, your mind, and your heart.  This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging.  When you had an anam ċara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category.  You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.”  The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul.  There is no cage for the soul.  The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other.  This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship.

In everyone’s life, there is great need for an anam ċara, a soul friend.  In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension.  The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are.  Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious.  Where you are understood, you are at home.  Understanding nourishes belonging.  When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether we were soul mates or anam cara or something else beyond life and reason. All I know is that while we were together, he was my teacher, my guide, my companion, my business partner, my friend. Most of all, he was my home.

Now he is gone. Has been gone for almost four years. And I still feel homeless.

***

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.

What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas?

Christmas is a hard time of year for those who are grieving. Not only does the festivity of the season remind the bereft of all they have lost, but it’s a time for getting together with loved ones, and the goneness of that one special person seems even more unfathomable when you are alone or alone in a crowd.

Grief makes everyone uneasy. It’s a reminder how vulnerable we really are. How, despite our beliefs, we know so very little of life and death. Even well-meaning people stumble around the bereft, suddenly clumsy in the face of grief, and this unnatural behavior makes the griever feel even more alone. Some people give looks of speculation, as if you are diseased and they’re wondering if they should step away so they don’t catch your illness. Or else they give you wrinkled-forehead looks of sympathy that make you feel even worse.

Shortly after the death of my life mate/soul mate, I noticed how uncomfortable people were around me, and how they wanted to say the right thing but didn’t know what the right thing was, so I offered suggestions in What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving. I can see there might be a special concern about saying the right thing at Christmas, but the truth is, there is no right thing. Nothing you can ever say will bring the bereft what they most need: life to make sense once more. (That might not be what we most want, but it is what we most need.)

If you know the person huggingly well, the best thing is a hug. If you knew the deceased, share a story. “I remember how Bob loved (or hated) Christmas.” Don’t assume that by ignoring the dead you are making things easier for the bereft. We remember, and it’s nice to know that others remember, too. One thing to never say is, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. You can’t. Even if you had a similar loss, everyone’s grief is different, every person is different, and by telling them you know how they feel, you are diminishing the truth of their grief. Also, don’t pressure them to tell you how they feel. Grief encompasses so many different emotions, it’s almost impossible to know how one feels. All you know is that you are in pain.

It seems such an emotional minefield, doesn’t it? But, whether you are family, good friends, or casual aquaintances, there is something you can say, something that is so common and almost rote that no one stops to analyze the words. And still these words manage to convey exactly what you want to say. (In fact, leaving off these words may make the person even worse since they will know how uncomfortable you are with their grief.)

So, what do you say to someone who is grieving at Christmas?

You say, “Merry Christmas.”

***

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.

Codependency or Interdependency?

Several months ago when I was steeped in grief, I found comfort in the thought that my deceased life mate — my soul mate — was at peace, but then it occurred to me that maybe he wasn’t, that if there was some sort of life after death perhaps he felt as split apart as I did. According to one minister I talked to, my mate could be having problems depending on how codependent he was. Whatever that means. I thought a relationship was about being dependent on each other, and we were. At least until our last year together when we began untwinning our lives so we could go our separate ways — he to death, me to continued life. That’s also why my grief shocked me so much—I thought we had untwinned even before he died.

Shortly after that conversation with the minister, a woman who should have known better accused me of being codependent because I was having such a hard time learning to live without my life mate. (The truth is, I knew how to live without him because I was doing it. What I was having a hard time with was wanting to live without him. Life, of course, doesn’t care what we want, and I continued on to where now I am – mostly “healed.” ) But still, there was that C word again.

I can see that people would have questions about codependency considering how bereft I was without him and how lost I felt, but when he was alive, we were never obsessed with each other, though we were connected in so many ways. We were friends, life mates, and business partners. We always wanted what was best for the other. We helped each other grow. We never expected the other to fix our individual problems, though we often took each other’s advice. We didn’t cling, demand, or base our relationship on unrealistic expectations. Together we provided a safe environment where each of us could be ourselves. And we supported each other any way we could. Yes, we were dependent on each other, but isn’t that what life is all about?

Long-term illness, however, does skew a relationship. Over the years, our world kept getting smaller and smaller, trapping us in a terrible situation where neither his nor my needs were being met. To that extent, perhaps, we were codependent, staying together when others might not have, but what is wrong with that? Still, I’ve felt foolish at times admitting my need for him. In this world that prizes independence so much, it seemed immature and self-indulgent.

But, as one commenter on my Grief is NOT Self-Indulgent post said, “There is nothing foolish in dependence. The foolishness lies in the notion that we are not co-dependant on each other. We are a co-dependant vulnerable species who waste a whole lot of time and cause ourselves much suffering by pretending we are not. There are many reasons why we perpetuate this denial but just as we are dependant on the earth for our physical health so are we dependant on each other for our emotional health.

“Personally I feel there is a strong connection between people not understanding grief and those same people not understanding just how precious and vital their relationships are. Every day I see people not recognizing the value of each other. It often amazes me how much we deny our dependence on each other . . .  we don’t even like the word dependant. Perhaps that is why grief is so hard to witness for then our dependence is there in the open smacking us in the face.” (She developed this idea into a blog post The Illusion of Independence at Leesis Ponders.)

Well, I no longer have to worry about whether we were codependent or interdependent. I am independent now. His death freed me, but for what? I still have to figure that out.

Putting a H.A.L.T. to Grief

It’s been eighteen months since my life mate — my soul mate — died of inoperable kidney cancer, and I’m still chugging along. I do okay most days, but still there are times when the thought that he is gone takes away my breath. His death was so final, his absence absolute. He never responds when I talk to him, never sits down to watch a movie with me, never seems to care when I get angry at him for rejecting me. (I know it’s not his fault, but still, death is the ultimate rejection.)

During this past year and a half, I’ve learned a lot about grief. I learned the importance of facing the pain head-on, accepting it as part of the process, and waiting for it to diminish, which mine has — significantly. I’ve learned how to find peace in the sorrow (or perhaps despite the sorrow). I’ve learned that grief cannot be hurried, that months or even years might pass before we bereft find ourselves again. And most of all, I’ve learned the secret of H.A.L.T.

People who make major life changes, such as alcoholics who give up drinking, smokers who give up cigarettes, diabetics who make diet and exercise changes are often urged to watch themselves so they don’t get Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. That’s what I mean by H.A.L.T. Did you think I actually meant putting an end to grief? You should know by now I’m letting grief wear itself out, whenever or however that might be.

Hunger, anger, loneliness, and exhaustion make us vulnerable, which makes it easy to backslide into old behavior patterns.  I recently noticed that grief often surges when I am tired, so I’ve been trying to steer clear of these vulnerabilites, but the trouble is that all of those states are effects of grief, so exhaustion and loneliness and anger causes grief and grief causes exhaustion, loneliness and anger. A sad cycle. But now that I’m aware of it, I can try to be more careful. Although I’m willing to let grief take its course, I have no intention of letting grief rule the rest of my life. I intend to be as bold and as adventurous as possible, a wildly inappropriate woman who just likes to have fun. But not quite yet. I still have some sadnesses to deal with.

A Great Love Story

I’m working on my grief book, typing up my grief journal entries. I thought this would be a book about grief, but it seems more like a love story, which is so very ironic. Soon after I met my life mate — my soul mate — I quit my job to write. I wanted to tell the story of a great love that transcended time and physical bonds, told with wisdom and beauty. I sat down to write, and  . . . nothing. Back then, I thought all one had to do to write was to sit down, pen in hand, and let the words flow. Well the words didn’t flow. So I put off my dream of being a writer and went about the business of living. Years later, while going about the business of dying (his dying) I started writing again just to get out of my head, to get a respite from my life. I eventually learned how to write, but I always wrote slowly . . . until I started a grief journal and posthumous letters to my mate. Those flowed. And now it turns out that this grief book could be that love story I always wanted to tell. Life sure plays games with us!

Several people have told me they envied me my great love, but I’ve hesitated to tell the truth: it didn’t feel like love. We never had much of a romance. After a few brief years of hope and happiness, our love was sublimated by the constraints of his growing ill-health. It seemed that our cosmic love devolved into the prosaic things of life: cooking meals, doing errands, struggling to keep our retail business alive. And then it devolved further into simply surviving. Getting through the days as best as we could. We thought we’d stopped loving each other. We thought we were ready for the coming separation — he to death, me to life alone.

His hospice nurse, who got to know us both very well, told me she didn’t think he and I knew how much we loved each other. And apparently that was true. That mystifies me — how could we not  have known? We always knew we had a deep connection, though we never understood it and at times we both railed against it in our struggle to maintain our own identities, but we took that connection for granted. And what is that connection if not love?

In my foolish youth, I thought I’d still be able to feel his presence when he was dead, but I only feel his absence, and maybe that’s enough to remind me that love is not all hearts and flowers and passion. It is not what you feel. It is what you do. It is being there for each other. And, until the very end, we always were.

I Am a Thirteen-Month Grief Survivor

Yesterday at my grief support group we were asked to complete the sentence, “After he died, I was surprised that . . .” Everything that happened in the thirteen months since the death of my life mate — my soul mate — has surprised me. No, not surprised me. Shocked me.

I was shocked that the end came so quickly. He’d been sick such a very long time, his health fading slowly, that his dying became our way of life. When he was finally diagnosed with inoperable kidney cancer, we were told he had three to six months to live. He had only three weeks. And those weeks seemed to evaporate in just a few hours.

After he died, I was shocked by the very presence of grief. My brother died four and a half years ago, and my mother died a year later. I handled both deaths well, so I thought I could cope with the death of my mate. I didn’t know, had no way of knowing, that one didn’t grieve the same for every loss. I didn’t know, had no way of knowing, that there was a physical component to the death of a long time mate, that it would feel like an amputation.

After he died, I was shocked by the depth and breadth of my feelings. During the last year of his life, and especially the last six months, he’d begun withdrawing from the world and from me. This withdrawal, this lessening of a need to be with others is a natural part of dying, and my response to his withdrawal was just as natural — an increased determination to live. He might be dying but I wasn’t, and I had to untangle our lives, find a way to survive his dying and his death. I thought I had successfully completed this task, but his death rocked me to the core of my being.

After his death, I was shocked by his sheer goneness. Because I’d spent so much time alone that last year, I thought life without him would feel much the same, but it isn’t like he is in another room or another city or another country – it’s like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I still have no words to describe the finality, the undoableness, the vacuum of death. He was part of my life for thirty-four years. We breathed the same air. We were connected by our thoughts, our shared experiences, the zillion words we’d spoken to each other. And then he was gone from this earth. Erased. Deleted. I still can’t wrap my mind around that.

After his death, I was shocked that I felt so shattered. So broken. And I am shocked that I still feel that way at times. I am shocked that no matter how strong you are, how well you are healing, grief can slam into you at any time, especially after a good day when you’re not expecting it, and the pain feels as raw as it was at the beginning.

After his death, I was shocked by the scope of grief. You grieve for the one who died and you grieve for yourself because you have to live without him. You grieve for all the things you did and the things you didn’t do. You grieve for what went wrong in your shared life and what went right. You grieve for the past and you grieve for the lost future. You grieve for all the hopes and dreams and possibilities that died with him. It’s amazing that anyone can survive all that pain, but we do, and that shocks me, too.

After his death, I was shocked by how complicated human emotions can be. You can feel sad and unsad at the same time. You can be determined to live, yet not care if you live or die. You can know in your depths he’s gone, but still listen for him, still yearn for him, still worry about him.

Mostly I’m shocked that I am still the same person I was before he died. Such emotional trauma should have changed me, made me stronger and wiser perhaps, yet I’m still just me. Sadder, but still recognizably me. Well, there is one change. I’ve always been a worrier, but now I try not to fret about the future, try not to wonder how I’m going to cope with growing old alone. After his death, I am no longer shocked that life can remain the same year after year. Nor am I shocked that it can change in an instant.

Grief: The Great Yearning

Now that my grief for my lost soul mate is evolving away from a focus on all I’ve lost and the accompanying pain, I can see the process more clearly. Perhaps for some people the stages of grief — denial, guilt, anger, depression, acceptance — hold true, but for me and for most of the bereft I have met on this journey, those stages have little meaning. For most of us, anger and even guilt are more like quickly passing moods than lingering phases. Some of us get depressed, but most of us don’t. We’re just get damn sad, which is not the same thing as depression. I’ve been in that dark pit and I know what it’s like. This sorrow, no matter how intense, is not depression. And acceptance is not the end — in itself acceptance brings no peace. What does bring peace is feeling the grief and letting it evolve into something we can live with because the loss — the yearning — will always be a part of us. Getting to that point can take years, depending on the depth of the relationship.

Grief is an incredibly complex state that constantly changes and constantly brings changes. The underlying emotion of grief is yearning, not guilt or anger. Even after we’ve put our shattered psyches back together as best as we can, even after we’ve come to an acceptance of our new situation, the yearning to see our loved one last time can be overwhelmingly painful at times. The yearning (such a mild word for the ache or craving or hunger that tears at us) is often manageable, other times it shoots through us like a geyser bursting out of calm waters. Even decades after losing a spouse, or so I’ve been told, we bereft still feel the loss, still yearn for our mates.

A friend who lost her life mate four months after I lost mine, told me how much she hates people telling her to “move on”. She’s not like me, spouting her pain into cyberspace for all to see. If you didn’t know she’d experienced such a soul-shattering loss, you’d never be able to guess it — she’s keeping her grief to herself lest it burden others. She’s taking care of her family. She’s accepting the responsibility for an aging parent. She made the holidays special for those around her. She’s writing. She’s even going out and having fun, or at least as much as is possible considering her situation. In fact, she’s doing all that she ever did, and doing it well. Yet people tell her to move on with her life. What else is there to move on to? Her grief in no way debilitates her. It’s simply a part of her life, this ache to see her mate one more time.

Searching is another major component of grief that is ignored in the “stages” concept. We bereft search for our mates in crowds. We cry out for them, especially at the beginning. We search for them in our dreams. Of course we know we won’t find them. This isn’t a mental aberration, and it certainly isn’t denial. It’s simply a way of coping with the unthinkable. How can our loved ones be gone so completely? It’s the goneness that confuses us, pains us. It destroys everything we always accepted about the world. (Of course we knew all lives end in death, but we didn’t KNOW it.) As the search for our lost one diminishes, we begin searching for ourselves, for our place in this new, unthinkable world.

It would be so much easier to deal with grief if we had a list of stages to go through and to check off as we experience them, but that simply isn’t the case.

So we yearn, and we search, and we go on living.

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