Grieving Makes Way For Grace
By Doreen Cox
The journey through grief, for me, began long before my mother died. Choosing to be a caregiver meant that life as I knew it would be completely changed. I stepped full-time into my Care Bear role at age 59 when my mother’s dementia took a stronger hold on her brain, causing her to mix up her meds. Making the choice to leave a full-time job as group counselor at an alternative school for expelled high school students was not an easy choice for me to make, especially for financial and health benefit reasons. I enjoyed my work. Yet, it seems as if there had always been invisible threads of connection between my mother and me, beyond our roles as mother and daughter. My heart especially yet, also, the inability for her to afford nursing home care made the decision for me. During the first year of mother-sitting, I came to visualize us as having always been joined by one of those leash-like contraptions that some mothers use to keep their toddlers from wandering away. Ours was just heart-felt and invisible!
There were moments when anger, frustration, and depression came on me because I had let go my job and thus, my financial security, benefits and even a piece of my identity. My freedom to come and go went out the window along with the habit of getting a good night’s sleep. The weight of grief, however, came from the settling in of dementia into my mother’s brain. Although it was difficult at first for my independent mother to hand over the reins of her life to me, the dance of dementia in her brain was such that she eventually lost the memory of being a nurse, a mother, a sister, and an adult. Within a year of her death, my mother had no inkling of death or grief or loss because, within the mind of a child, each day was always fresh and new.
For my sisters and me, however, our dances with the journey of grief had become a daily affair. The experience through grief was made tolerable for me because the grief process had long been an interest of mine. I had read a lot of books. Previously, I had been involved in support group environments where people could talk openly about their situations, losses and emotions. Throughout my Care Bear experience, friends and family checked in with me daily so I always felt supported. When my mother was napping, Wii Fitness bowling and tennis helped me burn off the fires of anger and frustration. The despair, helplessness and hopelessness of depression took a back seat during those moments in which I tuned out from grief and into healthy distractions like jigsaw puzzles, funny movies, reading or journaling. When my mother was awake and we were dealing with the obstinate responses of her brain and the tired, frustrated responses of my brain, I began to practice a simple, inexpensive exercise. This exercise required of me only one thing, that I be willing to practice.
There is no easy way to make it through the dance known as grief. Distractions might work for a while yet, because we are human, we will face grief head-on at some time and for various reasons. In those moments when anger, frustration, sadness and despair hit me the hardest, I began to practice the art of breathing through the tidal wave of emotions that threatened to pull me under. There were moments in which it felt as if I were having a heart attack. I even took my blood pressure a few times to see if a stroke was imminent. At first, I wanted some quick fix to escape the pressure yet the strongest emotions came when I was trying to cope with some dementia-related, out-of-the-blue behavior of my mother’s. I could not turn away, take five or do anything that would leave my mother in an unsafe situation. Breathing through the heaviness of emotion was a hands-free, non-interruptive practice. Yes, I also muttered a lot at first. Here is what I now know. For me, continuing to breathe through the tightness, the heaviness, eventually brought me to the sense of calm that I needed in order to get things done. This practice was akin to a prayer. A focus on breathing through anger, sadness and despair invited prayerful thoughts into my mind. With practice, I came to experience a sense of a peace that passed all of my understanding. Every night when I had gotten my mother to sleep, I called someone, usually a sister, and talked out my day.
Because of our wonderful Hospice care staff, our mother was able to pass from this world while at home. During that last week of her life, there were moments when, looking at my sleeping mother, my breath would become still and a powerful wave of loving emotion would well up within me. At such moments, it seemed as if I might die or, at least, disappear if I stayed caught up in this emotion’s strength for too long. Religions have their ways of explaining love, using words that evoke or awaken one to an experience of God’s love. For me, it seemed as if there were instances near the end of my Care Bear journey in which Love simply gathered me in its strong, gentle arms and, for a moment, took me some place beyond the strongest emotions of grief. Always, afterwards, there was a sense of graciousness and freshness in place of the heaviness in my heart. Grace sat within my spirit after the heavy emotions of grief had had their release. Breathing through instead of resisting those emotions brought peace to me.
When my mother died, a sense of this peace stayed with me even as I mourned the loss of her physical presence in my life. We had been mother and daughter, friends and, at the end, I played the role of mother while her brain saw herself as my daughter. I had lived out of state for a number of years and was the daughter who had written our mother many letters. One day while going through my mother’s files not long after she had died, I found her cache of saved letters and cards. Sitting and reading them while tears of anguish flowed, the sadness at no longer having her physical presence in my life became overwhelming. Continuing to breathe through the sadness, I finally had to get up and move around, doing various chores in order to burn up that overwhelming energy. When I sat back down, I was able to read the rest of the letters, still crying yet without the heaviness of despair. Sweet memories sat with me instead. As was my healthy habit, I called a sister.
There is no set formula that I have stumbled upon that might have helped me be able to immediately step out of those Care Bear and mother-sitting roles, pick up the missing pieces of my life and get the pieces all glued back together again in some kind of satisfied way. The words in my journal turned into a book, Adventures in Mother-Sitting. Writing and editing was cathartic for me and created a concentrated focus for the next year of my life. There are still those moments in which grief grabs my attention and breathing through again takes me to a peaceful shore named grace. My sisters and other family and friends and I continue to offer emotional support to each other. I still have a connection with our Hospice chaplain and other staff who offered support to my family.
It has been two years now since my mother, my cheerleader in life, has died. Something in my 63 year old spirit seems to be waking up. Though there is no clear direction yet for my life, I find that I am tuning more into social networking venues that relate to caregivers and grief issues. It feels timely now for me to make contact with local agencies and volunteer in some way. I do see a part-time job in my future, one that keeps me in contact with others versus one that is behind a desk. More will be revealed on that front. Other people that I cared about have since died. As my own deep level of grief has waned, it has become easier for me to offer more direct emotional support to others who are experiencing loss in their lives. Grief, as we know, is a journey to be shared. I no longer wait for grief to visit me out of the blue. Each day, I take some moments to sit and breathe through the sweet sadness of grief then sit quietly and reverently for a while with grace.
**Thanks Doreen for submitting such a beautiful story. Please share your comments in the box below.
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