Gifts in the Pain
My wife Susan died unexpectedly in April 1991, the Sunday after Easter. I could never have imagined beforehand how transformative an experience that would be. Nothing was true anymore but the truths of her death and my continued existence.
I was shaken to my foundations, forced to decide what I would keep of myself and what I would throw away. Every aspect of my life was subject to review, from my occupation to my spiritual beliefs, from my choice of friends to my choice of doctors.
Although some friends were very supportive, for about a year I also attended a weekly grief support group. I needed to spend time with people who knew how uncontrollable and consuming grief could be, who wouldn’t ply me with explanations, consolation and helpful advice.
‘Love is Listening’
One of the guidelines of our group began with the words, “We recognize that love is listening.” I wanted to be listened to, and to hear other people’s stories as well.
Social niceties seemed pointless, and I gradually discarded some people from my life. I just could not bear the thought of having to relate to someone with whom I wasn’t deeply bonded.
I let my voicemail answer the telephone, so I didn’t have to speak to anyone, and I sometimes erased messages without even listening to them first. An acquaintance left a delicious tuna salad on my doorstep—because I made believe there was no one home when she knocked. Though I appreciated her gift, I’m ashamed to say that I never thanked her or even spoke to her again.
Thoughts of My Death
I could move from sobbing to a sense of peace to sobbing again in a matter of minutes. Sometimes I was terrified of pain, but more often of numbness. Occasionally, I hoped that a truck would accidentally run me over and kill me.
For months afterwards, the shock of her death would unexpectedly hit me over the head. Sometimes I would get mad at myself for this “backward slide”. I have since learned that nothing was wrong with my progress, only with my useless attempts to analyze it.
I began writing the day Susan died: keeping a journal, writing poetry, trying to document and express my grief and my transformation. It was the first time I’d done any writing in many years.
The Gift of Poetry
Sometimes poetry was the only way to give words to the overwhelming emotions I struggled with. In finding that I could express my feelings creatively, I discovered a whole side of myself that had been lying dormant. Writing gave me a new sense of strength and wholeness.
Now when I look back, reading my poetry and journals, I can see how far I have come and remember what I went through. Doing that from time to time seems to have a healing quality of its own.
I wanted to read about others’ experience but found little published material that interested me. I understood my grief from the inside. Reading was difficult anyway; I couldn’t concentrate on long texts anyway, and I got bored after the first few pages. I yearned for honest experience and validation rather than guidance.
Writing About Grief
My book, Voices of the Grieving Heart is a collection of poetry that shares the pain and gifts that can come during grief. It grew out of my desire to publish something for people who felt the same way I did.
Originally, I viewed it as a project for my own healing and for the benefit of those who would read it. I soon learned that for many contributors, sending me their work was an important part of their healing as well.
I received some very moving letters and emails from people who opened up to me as if we had known each other for years. Several contributors told me that I was the first to read the poems they had submitted to me, but that they knew this book would be a good place for them. The contributors are from every walk of life.
The Gift of Pain
In order to give words to an experience so personal and powerful as grief, we have to make ourselves very vulnerable. I believe that is where the healing begins—in being willing to open up and feel the sadness, the joy, the agonizing pain, the numbness, guilt, the losses and gains, all of it.
Trust your heart. Take the time. Grief is an open wound that only festers when we ignore it. The miracle is that in opening to our pain, we can become more whole than when we started.
In Susan’s death I found the gift of my own life. In my grief, I found a greater ability to love. May you also find the gifts that lie hidden in your pain; and may you find the courage to live your new life as fully as you can.
Check out Mike Bernhardt’s book, Voices of the Grieving Heart: https://mikebernhardt.net/order