Grief is a Sneaky Beast

lefsemakingThis Christmas marked the one year anniversary of Mom’s death. My first thought was to take a trip. I didn’t want to be at home and relive last Christmas. I had forgotten we were hosting my in-laws, so my urge to run away from Christmas at home was thwarted. However, I was happy to be able to enjoy the holiday with family around.

I recognize now how my instinct to run from problems has changed over the past decade. I couldn’t run away from the call to step in and help my parents–but I did have minor tussles with myself when things got really tough. Caregiving changed me in many ways and I have to admit this one was a change for the better.

I learned to live in the moment and focus on what is in front of me. My mother-in-law used this Christmas to pass the baton on my husband’s family tradition of making lefse for the Swedish dinner. It’s a three day process. The first day you make the dough, the second day you make the lefse … and the final day is all about eating. It was a wonderful new tradition to absorb into our holiday.

On Christmas Day, I knew I had 5 sets of eyes on me. My husband reassured everyone that I would not want to talk about mom or the event. We actually had a lovely Christmas and I only reflected fondly on my memories of both my parents who weren’t with me. I was happy to have moved through the holiday surrounded by family and know every year will get a little easier.

I was surprised to find myself in tears two days after Christmas when I walked into a Valentine display. I will never see a box of Russell Stover’s and not think of my mom. I’m still shocked at how quickly the sadness descends to remind me of my loss. However, I’m now more mindful to quickly fill that void with all blessings that currently surround me. Enriched. 

A Beautiful Farewell

walkingcaissonThe funeral went off beautifully. There were lots of possible last-minute issues but the icy roads, rain and cool temperatures failed to impede us. Wonderfully, the rain stopped so we could walk behind my Dad’s caisson to his gravesite.

My Dad requested a “life celebration” and I worked to imagine I was witnessing one of the many military ceremonies held in his honor that I attended over my Dad’s career — which helped me be proud instead of sad. The picture I included was taken by my nephew as we walked to the burial site.

Telling my Mom that we would have half the burial service inside the chapel if it was cold outside was acceptable to her. My brother brought her to the service and we worked to keep things simple and calm. We were expecting more than 100 guests and had asked that the medical team at Assisted Living provide her with something that would help her experience the day but minimize her anxiety. Unfortunately, she knew there was an extra pill in her cup, and refused to take it.

As we are sitting in the pew and she takes in the flowers and photograph of my Dad, she turns to me and says “I can’t understand why I can’t stop crying. I don’t want to cry in front of all these people.” My brother had the pill she refused to take in his pocket. I suggested that she take it because it would help her enjoy the day and minimize the tears. She told me to go get that pill. She was able to take it before the ceremony started and immediately seemed to gather her strength.

My Mom did brilliantly. She was able to speak to most of the guests and managed through the entire reception. We had moments when she would ask where Dad was, but those that attended and surrounded us only responded with loving smiles on their faces. Celebrated. 

The Table is Smaller, But my Heart is Bigger

thanksgivingThis is our first Thanksgiving without my Dad. Both parents have traditionally joined us for Thanksgiving. Last year my Mom was having difficultly with the change of scenery. I gave her my scrapbook to look through which helped keep her busy and brought calm to her disposition.

When we were discussing the pick-up time for today and writing it on my Mom’s calendar, she says “Your Father and I were really looking forward to coming to your house for Thanksgiving this year.” My heart skipped a beat.

The past few years have been quite a journey for our family. I’m thankful for all that my parents have taught me in my childhood and as an adult. While I will miss the presence of my Dad at the table, the personal changes I’ve undergone will be with me for a lifetime and have improved my life tremendously. Blessed. 

The Cruelity of Dementia

dejavuI have watched as my parents have gotten the same bad bit of news over and over again. It’s like a sinister twist on deja vu.

When we started to get them diagnosed, we were hopeful that the third meeting with the medical team assembled would make a difference. Then, I watched during a 3-hour meeting when my parents got the results of their cognitive mental testing and finally realized that no matter how many times; who the information came from; or how much data was behind it, my parents were unable to receive that they had symptoms of dementia. The conversations were painful to witness.

Some of this was due to their dementia, and some of it I think was due to their united front. Their behavior seemed more like co-dependency, but together, they had managed longer independently than they would have had they been alone. I likened them at one point to a gang of two.

And now there is just one. My Mom is having a very hard time remembering, accepting and dealing with the loss of her husband of 60 years. For the first week, she would call and ask if her husband was still in the hospital or if it were true that he had passed away. I remember the burst of grief I felt when the Chaplain told me and am sad that my Mom has to experience this repeatedly. Angered.

The Value of the Open Casket

open casketI was surprised by the open casket. While I have been to other funeral’s, I have not been involved in the funeral planning — I won’t complain about being a newbie to this task at 49 years of age.

When I shared my expectation of our visit with my brother, had we been in better humor, he would have just given me a look and added “dope”. It’s funny how much of  our banter hasn’t really changed over the decades.

We both commented that we’d never choose an open casket, but a few days later, I’m happy I had the experience. My Dad looked stately and peaceful. He was in his “dress blues” which is akin to a military tuxedo. I typed up the obituary he wrote in the event of his death, and in it, he shared that “Duty, Honor, Country” are the words he felt fit his entire career as an engineer in the U.S. Army.

While my Dad had dementia and some days he was a little less put together, he still resembled his former self, just a little tuned-out.  My Dad’s appearance changed drastically over the last two months of his life. He lost nearly 50 pounds and his tongue and throat started to swell.

The last time I got to see him in his open casket, I got to revisit the father, the soldier, the man he should be remembered as. Moved. 

Grief is Exhausting

flagdrappedMy Dad died a week ago. While he suffered from dementia, the time that a doctor first found a lesion on his tongue, to a diagnosis and his death was 4 weeks.

I’ve been mourning my Dad’s loss for several years as his short-term memory vanished and being able to have a conversation got more difficult. The loss of the car, the end to his racquetball and the changing dynamics of his independent life muted his humor. The sudden end due to cancer was a shock.

We have been mired implementing his burial plans and communicating the details and information about his death to our extended family, friends and his vast array of former colleagues. I cried so much the first two days, I was starting to worry about myself and wondered if my glum was preventing my children to feel like they could grieve. By Day 4 I could discuss that my Dad died without breaking into tears and each day has been getting better – until today.

They say it’s normal to feel the roller coaster of grief as you process your loss. We were asked to return to the funeral home to identify my Dad. My one brother stayed in town and is helping manage through the details.

When we arrived we are told we will be escorted to the parlor, I’m confused. I thought we were going to the basement cellar where they would roll out body in one of the morgue like storage units you see on TV and confirm that is our father. I even brought a sweater on this 85 degree day for fear I would get cold.

My Dad is laid out in an open casket in his “dress blues” with an American flag over the casket. He looks peaceful and I find myself rushing to touch him one more time. Loved.

Good Morning and Good-Bye

goodbyeWhen I arrive to visit my Dad in the morning, he is breathing very heavy, short breaths. He seems more comatose than asleep. The nurse comes in and gives him some morphine. I ask her what his breathing like this means and she says it typically signifies pain. She tells me the Doctor will be in soon.

They decide to move my Dad to morphine more frequently. His breathing is not slowing down. He now has a temperature. I read their booklet and believe my Dad is in his final hours. I ask the doctor to give me some guidance on a window of time. She tells me based on how fast my Dad’s condition has declined since yesterday, she would guess hours to days.

My siblings and Mom are all driving to the facility so I send out a text telling them what I just was told.

I’m asked to leave the room so they can bathe my Dad and I go sit by the fireplace in the family meeting room. I ask them to let me know when I can rejoin my Dad. Within 20 minutes the Doctor rounds the corner with the Chaplain.

I know what’s coming. When the Chaplain asks me for my name, I can barely get it out. It takes the Chaplain three tries to understand my name is Kay.

He tells me my Dad is gone and I double over in grief. I’m surprise at how hard it hit me. I am happy he did not suffer long, but know that I will miss him terribly.  Even with his dementia and tethered tongue, he was kind and always interested in how the kids, my husband and I were doing.

I sit by my Dad’s bedside until the rest of my family arrives. Grief-Stricken.

Learning to Cry

teardropAfter I had the “icky discussion” with the doctor, I take my Dad home and I tell him we will do all we can to help him feel better. I wrestle with the dichotomy of treating a man with dementia, which will never improve with how to manage through cancer that has made the parts of his life he was enjoying painful. Within a short span of time, he went from slurring to not eating, drinking or even trying to talk.

The past few days have rendered me numb. My husband helped me recognize that my go-to emotion is the lack of any emotion. I turn into a robot and move through my day like a zombie. I have so many questions, of which most are meaningless to ask now. I need to accept, recognize and address my grief. I find myself crying in bouts now.

At church yesterday, our minister happened to speak about lamenting. She did a lesson with the children and asked them about how they express frustration, sadness and anger and they agreed that “crying” was the most popular choice. Somehow, we have learned that crying is an inappropriate response and I know that I learned to quash it from my range of emotions.

While I thought crying was a weakness, I am finding that it is helping me comprehend and shed the sadness and grief as well as my anger and frustration. Dehydrated. 

Tears of Frustration vs Tears of Grief

so many candlesLast year at this time, my brothers were in town to take my parent’s car keys.  My parents doctor wrote to the DMV regarding their cognitive issues and their licenses were revoked. My parents continued to drive. They really didn’t remember that their licenses were revoked.

I saw my parents say and do so many things that were outside the realm of normal behavior, that I would sometimes end up in tears — however, these were tears of frustration. I was at a loss about how to help my parent’s who were obviously failing, but did not recognize it.

Yesterday was my birthday. For the first time, my parent’s did not mention it. My mom no longer manages the calendar which was her guidebook for the past year. I have been telling myself that my parents are gone — however visiting with them now is pleasant compared to just six months ago. We still have a connection and familiarity and often spend our time chatting about the puzzle they are working on or what we need to go buy at the grocery store. Now they will ask for and easily accept my help.

The fact that they don’t know it’s my birthday reminds me how much of my parent’s I’ve already lost. Dementia is a cruel disease that afflicts us all. Aged.