Category Archives: grief

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I am having a lovely holiday season thus far.  The first one that I am truly savoring in a long time.  But I am writing today about some  who are not singing such a happy tune.

At this time of year, it seems the whole world is merry and bright.  Or at least that is what we often assume.  One particular television channel has continuous holiday programming this time of year.  We can count on the fact  that while there may be some sadness or tears within the movie, the ending is always  a happy one.  The themes revolve around finding the Christmas joy, gathering with family, and celebrating the season.  And did you notice there is nearly always continuous snow, but everyone still gets out and about?  They seem to have blue skies and sunshine along with all the snow. Few become snowed in and the power rarely goes out. And if it does, there are always plenty of candles and blankets at hand.  If someone gets stranded, it’s in a lovely small town, with a beautiful inn that just happens to have  vacancies with a warm and loving innkeeper that makes them feel right at home!

However, I recall those not too distant years when I was not really feeling the holiday spirit.   Many caregivers simply view this time as one full of more “shoulds” to add to their already heavy list of tasks.  With their overloaded schedule, added expectations of decorating, gift buying, baking and finding joy are almost too much to bear.   The  holiday chaos  that energizes some, comes close to pushing others over the edge.  In addition, some caregivers have  recently lost their loved ones, and this time of year is a reminder of that empty chair, the lost voice, the warm hugs that are no longer there.

Caregivers, I understand.  You are not alone.  There are thousands out there who feel just as lost and tired as you.  I have been there.  I experienced  many  holidays feeling overwhelmed  with all the usual holiday tasks, plus  trying to do my best at the office, be a good wife and mom, as well as working hard to create some holiday spirit and joy for my mother for  whom I cared.  As I look back, those holidays are a bit of a blur.  So,   I give you permission to skip the decorations, forget the tree, and heck, it’s OK with me if you need to say “Bah Humbug” this year. Don’t go shopping, or bake cookies, just try to find time for a nap.

Last year, I spent the holidays struggling to find my way in the new world of NOT being an active caregiver, while grieving the recent loss of my mother.  I felt a sense of relief that my burden was lessened and I had more time to carry out my holiday tasks, but I also felt guilty about that.    In some ways, I was relieved.  I was relieved that her suffering was over. I was relieved to no longer watch her slow decline and her frustration with such.  I was relieved to be able to travel to be with my grandchildren without worrying about her care – who was with her? Were they following my instructions?  Would she fall while I was away?  My worrying had been on overload for many years and it was quite strange to experience this new normal.  But I also missed her as we carried out family holiday traditions of which she had been such an integral part.   Not only did I still feel the numbness that comes after losing a loved one, my heart was very sad that she was not with us.  It has taken a while for me to clear my head.  It has been nearly a year since I last wrote a blog post. I just couldn’t do it.   I needed time to heal and to find my bearings.

This year, while I miss her, I find that I am savoring the holiday tasks.  For the first time since I left my job in order to devote more time to caregiving, I have the time to simply savor the season.   I’m not as rushed, nor as weary.    But I am still sensitive to the  challenges caregivers face.  As I listened to the sermon in church on Sunday, I immediately related the topic to caregiving.  While I would hope that everyone can experience  a joy this time of year, that is deeper and more meaningful than a brightly decorated tree or   stockings hung on a mantle, for some that deep, sacred joy may be overshadowed by tasks and exhaustion.   (Yes, I believe in that church stuff.  If you don’t, stick with me anyway,  as there is still a valid point to be made.)

The sermon was about Mary.  Mary was going through a challenging time. She had been broad sided with some shocking news that would change her life in unfathomable ways.  And let’s remember she was just a young girl.  Not only did she have to process this new situation, she was going to have to explain it to her parents and to her fiance.  Would they believe her?  Would her fiance, Joseph, leave her?  What about the community – would she be shunned, ostracized, or worse? Imagine the gossip!  But apparently her family listened to her,  Joseph listened to her, ( yes, with a little insight from an Angel) and so did her cousin Elizabeth. They listened to her story, they accepted what she had to tell them and they didn’t simply assume she had done something wrong.  Well, maybe they did for a minute… but after listening, they began to understand.

This is a gift  we could offer an exhausted, joyless caregiver – the gift of listening, and not assuming.   In many years of working with caregivers one of the things I learned is that sometimes all a caregiver really needs is to be able to talk about the situation. Caregivers spend a lot of time worrying about the emotions of the person for whom they are caring but  often keep their own emotions locked inside.   They are dealing with an exhausting task and we know that sometimes even those we love immensely can get on our very last nerve!   Offer a caregiver the gift of allowing them to vent!

I urge you to do what is called ” active listening”.  This means you not only hear the words they say, but you seek to understand the meaning behind the words. And you make sure you understand before you offer advice.  Maybe you do have some helpful advice to give, but first allow the person time to express their feelings, worries  and their frustrations.   Take time to try to understand their perspective and give them the gift of a time of “release” of  those emotions and frustrations.

For those who are grieving or who have recently transitioned to no longer being a caregiver, some will take longer than others to transition from being an on duty, always-on-high-alert caregiver, to their new normal.  We should not assume they are over it and ready to enjoy their new-found freedom.  For a while, it may be challenging  to find a new purpose.   Some may be struggling with guilt for feeling relieved, as I did, or feeling  they did not do enough, or that they should have done something differently.

I recently had a new thought on guilt.  I think that in some ways guilt is an “active” emotion.  We can actively explore what we might have done wrong, what we could have or should have done differently.  It gives us something to “do” with our minds.  When the reality may be that we simply did our best and now all we have is sadness.  Many of us don’t like to feel or sit with “sad” so guilt moves in to fill the void.  Maybe we can hear beneath those feelings of guilt, recognize their sadness and let them know that sad is ok.  By feeling  or acknoledging their sad,  they can more readily move on from that sadness.  I like to say you need to sit with it for a while.  Running from it, trying to mask it, may delay the healing process. But as you listen, refrain from offering advice immediately.  Let them take the lead in asking for advice. As they feel heard and understood and become comfortable with feeling the sadness, they may take the initiative to then ask you for advice.

For some, revisiting memories or thinking of that missing person during holiday festivities is too much to bear.  I know of someone who is experiencing that this holiday season.  It is hard for me to understand because I personally love revisiting memories, it is comforting for me.  But for him, this first holiday season after his loss, it is too soon and too painful.  But I can  listen to his silence and be with him in that silence – letting him know that I hear him and he is not alone.

There are other gifts we can give.  Make a meal and drop it by.  You might offer to run an errand or to stay with the person for whom they are caring for a bit so they can run errands.  But a listening ear is unique and much-needed.  I believe this gift will be welcomed with a grateful heart.

It would be my personal hope that all frazzled caregivers would experience the deep joy this season represents – the joy of unsurpassed love, forgiveness and promise from our Father in Heaven.  Some may have known that joy, but it is buried beneath their current sorrow.  Some may choose to never pursue that source of joy.  But whether or not that is the case, this holiday season, I just want you to know, I hear you.

 

 

 

 

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Memories…and Grief

In her book Blue Nights, author Joan Didion says that memories are not comforting. She expresses her resentment concerning comments from well-meaning friends who say they hope her memories bring her comfort.  She says no – they do not. They simply remind her of what she no longer has.    Of course, she is writing this as she grieves her daughter’s death.  And in that context, she is correct.,

I, too, am grieving. So, I recently read Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, written about the year after her husband’s sudden death. Then I dove in to Blue Nights.  Next, I will most likely revisit C. S. Lewis’s, A Grief Observed. That’s one of the things one does when grieving – you read about grieving. And those things written about grieving are often written by those who are grieving.

Back to the subject of memories.  Memories are important to me.  I was the recipient of many family heirlooms over the years which hold special memories for me.  I feel blessed to have had a large family including wonderful grandparents and many aunts and uncles with whom I was close.   My special possessions include:  Aunt Maxine’s uncomfortable arm chair; Granny Thomas’s sofa which I have had recovered three times (and the last time it had to practically be rebuilt – but I spent the money to rebuild it because it was so sentimental to me); Uncle Carl and Aunt Dorothy’s photo albums and WWII memorabilia (they had no children.);a quilt from my Aunt Bea; the dresser that was my father’s when he was young man; and my sweatshirt  and hat from Girl’s State my junior year in high school.   And, of course, I have boxes of my children’s photos under the guest room bed; their preschool drawings carefully folded in a large manila envelope; baby clothes wrapped in tissue paper and stored in a trunk – you get my point.  In addition, for more than a decade, I worked for the Alzheimer’s Association and my work revolved around the premise that memories are precious and the loss of memories a tragedy.

Nevertheless, I understand Joan’s point. You see in these weeks after my mother’s death I find myself waking at 3:00 a.m. thinking of that last week of her life. I go over every detail of the week and the days just after.  I recall the phone call informing me of the incident that began the final trajectory of her life.  I remember the recognition in her eyes when I told her she was very ill and we were not going to be able to make her better.  I go over the last few days when she did not awaken and we sat by her side listening to her breathing and wondering when she would breathe her last. And I recall the service: who attended; who did not; the flowers; leaving her for the last time.  And part of me wants to NOT recall those details – at least not every single morning at 3:00 a.m.

I find myself recalling a particular Christmas sometime in the late 80’s and a quick conversation with my mother.  I remember it was just past noon and I was playing with our recent purchase, a video camera.  I was filming the beautifully set holiday dining table and the kids playing with their new toys. My mother was in my kitchen assisting with preparations for Christmas dinner. She reminded me it was about time to mash the potatoes and I tersely commented that the potatoes could wait!  And I feel sad and ashamed that I answered my mother in such a hateful manner.  I haven’t reviewed the video- I didn’t dig it out of the box it is stored in and play it again.  The memory simply popped in to my head the other day  – a video in my mind – along with my profound regret at having spoken to her in such a way, over a simple comment about mashing potatoes.

After I go over the last days of her life at 3:00 a.m., I move on to the last few years.  I recall moving Mother from her home to assisted living.  I recall my agony even though my siblings and I discussed the options at great length and realized it was the correct decision. I also recall how much my mother missed that home and her church and her neighbors.  I recall every illness, every fall, each trip to the E.R., and every hospital stay.  I recall every milestone that marked her increasing frailty.

I have to dig deep and really force myself to recall the good times. Memories like Mother’s first trip to New York City with my sister and me.  I recall her delight in buying a hot dog on the street, her excitement when she purchased a Christmas sweater at Saks Fifth Avenue, the expression on her face as she watched a Broadway musical.   I remember her joy at having special alone time with her grandchildren when she kept them while we were out of town. She loved telling of their exploits while Grandma was in charge.

The mind is a strange and wondrous thing – but it is a muddled mess when one is grieving.  Didion says when a parent dies something deep inside us is dislodged. She also says it is normal to feel raw, fragile and unstable.

In these weeks since my mother’s death, so many things are difficult. I have a hard time in social situations – I have to force cheerfulness and conversation.   Sleep is difficult – I wake frequently and have strange dreams.   Chores are looming and I can’t seem to summon the energy to get them done.  Thus, it seems logical that it would also be difficult to recall the good times, and to focus on the happy memories, during this raw, fragile and slightly unstable time.  I so hope Joan found comfort in her memories as time passed.  I, for one, am glad I have them, like a gift, waiting to open them when the time is right, when my emotions are not so tender, when my heart is not so sore.