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Mary (on the left), Diane, and the bears

Mary (on the left), Diane, and the bears

My dear friend and writer bud Diane lost her husband this summer. They were soul mates finding each other after several starter marriages went bust. Two amazing people each in their own right who found sweetness and LIFE and spent  20 years side-by-side. They rode his Harley, got tattoos, water skied, and made a home for children and grandchildren. Then cancer came along and the last couple of years were tough. We (the Chats) joined Diane and Wally’s family and friends at his memorial service and witnessed a man who was and is so loved. Then Mary, another of our writer buds, offered to make Diane and her family teddy bears out of pieces of Wally’s clothing.

Diane lined up Harley, Corona, and Marine Corp tee shirts alongside a rugby shirt, a few Hawaiian prints, and even some plaid golf shorts and asked the kids and grandkids to chose whichever item of clothing they were drawn to, the one connected with a memory. Then, Mary got to work.

See, Mary makes bears.
Bears and puppy dogs and other critters.
She makes them so you’ll have something from your loved one to hold.
This isn’t all Mary does–she makes sanitary pads for young girls in Africa who will miss school because there aren’t disposable feminine products available, or they can’t afford them anyway. She makes quilts for sick babies. She’s that kind of gal.

Here’s Wally’s Hawaiian print  on a bear with a navy blue bow.

Here’s Wally’s rugby shirt turned puppy dog for a grandson–with a collar piece to boot.

Here’s another dog sporting plaid from Wally’s golf shorts.

She has seven more to make. Each adult child and each grandchild will have a bear or a dog to remember their dad/paps by. They get to hold a piece of him. They will no doubt be comforted in the days and years to come–all because Mary offered to make a bear.

Mary is like that–thoughtful, empathic, generous.

Perhaps you’ve lost someone you love.

Perhaps you’ve held onto articles of clothing, a favorite jacket or vest, something that links you to your loved one. Most likely your keepsakes, like so many of mine, are stored in chests, in the back of closets and boxes we keep under the bed.
Why not take these beloved items and do something with them?
Turn your missing into something tangible you get to touch.

Diane stood, amazed, when she saw her bears. The exhaustion lifted from her brow and  the sorrow in her eyes gave way to light. It was as if she were giving a piece of Wally to the family they both so love. The plaid, the  Hawaiian blue palm trees, the rugby blue and red are all parts of what made Wally who he is and how he will be cherished.

When we take our loss and so something with it–write a poem, tell a story, wear their dog tags as a necklace,  make a bear–we make something new in us. They live on in this transformation, “reincarnation,” if you will.

We take our sorrow and turn it into something that offers comfort and connection.

Wally is now a bear–and a dog–and  he’ll be tucked in at night, taken on vacation and get to play tea party with his granddaughters, and if you ask me, that’s exactly where he’d like to be.

If you’d like a bear, shoot me an email at writecarolodell@gmail.com and I’ll get you in touch with Mary

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In Marianne Williamson’s book, Divine Compensation, the author talks about a time when she lost a large sum of money because she didn’t properly market a presentation that meant a great deal to her. Crying in her father’s arms she told him that she’d lost $10,000, and she muttered how she was ever going to recover financially or reputation wise from this catastrophe. He just smiled and told her to say, “It’s okay. I can absorb the loss.” That got me thinking about a different kind of loss. The loss we endure when a loved one dies.

It hurts. It sends us reeling with pain, regret, guilt, and plain ole’ missing someone so dear to us. Sometimes the death of our loved one seems so unfair. The death of a child is beyond my ability to even comprehend. We lose loved ones in car accidents, too soon to cancer, and sadly, to suicide. Such losses seem truly unbearable. How do we even begin to absorb a tremendous loss?

First, there’s no right–or wrong–way to grieve.
It just is. I’m not about to give a lesson on grieving. It’s personal. It’s primal. And all I can say is that your body and spirit probably know how you need to do it–and it might take longer than you think, and it will probably take you to some pretty dark nights of the soul.

What is clean pain?
Clean pain, according to the Association of Contextual Behavioral Science, is when we accept pain. We don’t try to make it more–or less–than it is. We acknowledge it. We let it take us. We know that we will be in pain for a time. But we also expect the pain to subside. We don’t add to it–by fighting it, by denying it, by blaming or demanding or asking “Why me” a thousand times. We choose not to dwell on it, growing more and more anxious, creating scenarios that may never happen. We simply know that we are of this earth and that there will inevitably be times of physical and/or emotional pain. In other words…we absorb it. Let it in but see our souls as a sieve. The excess pain that cannot be taken in will be sifted and allowed to leave.

It’s easier to have clean pain when death is expected. I grieved my mother’s diminishing life and her forthcoming death long before it got here. She was 92. She had Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and heart disease. I did not wrestle with the fact that it was her time to go. I tried to make her last months comfortable and meaningful. I stood as they wheeled my mother out of our home. I had spent the last three weeks by her side assisting her as she passed over. It was grueling. It was not easy by any means. But it was right. I stood in the driveway and watched them lift the gurney into the Hearst. I watched as the taillights left my view. I bundled her sheets and walked to the garbage. Then I walked down to the river. I cried and I breathed. My last parent was gone. Not only did I grieve her. I grieved the shutting of this door. The next few months felt as if I had been charred in a great fire. I felt antsy and useless. I floundered and waited for hope, for life, for meaning to return.

As far as clean or dirty pain. My mother’s passing was clean. And since that time I’ve lost others I love. It’s not always a clean pain, but at least I am aware that that is what I choose. Not to fight with death. To absorb the loss. My heart and mind is boggled at times. I can’t fall into the quagmire of the whys. There is no why that will make sense to a hurting, grieving, all encompassing loss.

But I do know that the more I allow, the more I absorb the losses that come my way, and the more that I (to quote Byron Katie) “love what is,” the more at peace I am.

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What to say at a Memorial Service.

If you typed these words into your search then you are seeking help to find your words–words that capture all you feel for a loved one, a loved one who is no longer with you. I hope this helps.

Forget dates and facts–where he/she born, died, went to school, what job he or she had doesn’t need to be said–include it in a program if you feel it needs to be said.

Tell a story or a mosaic or small tales. One person can combine several stories in their talk or you can invite several speakers to capture various times of that person’s life. Some like to tell a story from childhood, another from young adulthood, another from their parenting years, etc., slowly building a whole life. Others just tell one really good story that sums up the person in such a way that you leave knowing this soul in such a hilarious/brave/tender way that you’ll always carry them with you.

Gather stories from their childhood, a story about one of their struggles, a time they messed up (keeping it vulnerable and real touches hearts much more than acts of valor) tell about a funny or scary time. Before you talk make a list of their personality traits–good and oh so human: generous, stubborn, easy going or tends to jump to conclusions–then find a story that illustrates these traits.

Paint the whole picture. It’s okay that they weren’t perfect. No one is. It’s okay that we remember them as they were–flawed, sometimes heroic other times less so. It’s okay to say what you’ll miss–their crazy-loud sneezes, the way they always squeezed your shoulder when they knew you were having a bad day. Go for examples–not just abstract words (they were kind, sweet, silly-show it instead).

Let people remember.
Use photographs or songs.
Hold up an object they loved–something that reflects them in a unique way.

Laugh.
And cry.
It’s okay, even good to run the gambit of emotions.

Let people walk away feeling they learned something about this person–something they might not have known before. Refer to the things they loved–their favorite songs or poem or movie line you can quite, that they loved gas station coffee, always wore the same old ratty house shoes to go grocery shopping, loved sunflowers and grape popsicles and sang Queen in the car. Make them real.

And end reminding those who have gathered that this person who is now no longer physically with us will forever be remembered–and the more we tell their stories, the more we laugh at their antics, allow them to continue to be a part of our lives because they lived, really lived, warts and all, makes our lives better.

Let your last words be words that leave the audience grateful for having known this person–and grateful that life is indeed fragile, unpredictable, surprising and complex–and that every day is a rare and fleeting gift.

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Forget Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. They’re merely a jumping off point. Grief isn’t linear. Grief is multi-layered and doubles back on itself. Grief is raw. For many, it’s the closest a person comes to unhinging–to a break with reality. Getting through grief isn’t easy and isn’t predictable. Getting through grief is different for each one of us, but the more we share, the more we reach out, the more we help each other.

Suicide. Murder. Car accidents. Cancer. A sudden heart attack…or the long and winding road of Alzheimer’s. Grief doesn’t start at the point our loved one breathes his or her last breath. Grief is about loss, and loss can start months or even years before death takes the ones we love.

Grief is biological. Animals grieve. Watch this YouTube video where an elephant herd has found the bones of their matriarch. They form a circle around the bones, pick up her bones and hold them in their trunk, feeling each crevice with their trunk. This collective sorrow is healing–and even elephants know they need to grieve.

And yet some of us don’t show grief.

We don’t cry at funerals.

We don’t sentimentalize those who have gone before us.

We show no emotions–does that mean we’re heartless?

Showing and feeling grief are two different things. Some of us don’t share our emotions with many others, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel them.

Emotions don’t go away simply because we squash them down and cover them up–they ooze out the sides of our life. We overreact to a traffic jam. We drink too much. Sleep too little.

Others get lost in grief. The sorrow, regret, and sometimes guilt swarm around us and threaten to steal all joy and purpose. Years go by–and we’re stuck. We can’t move on. We have no desire to. It’s as if time has stopped and we got off and the train sped away leaving us back then–back there.

So how do you get through grief–how do you feel it when you need to and then allow it to pass–before it destroys your life?

No simple answer to that one. I won’t pretend to know.

Sometimes we have to force ourselves to get back into life. Join a group and make ourselves show up.

For some of us anti-depressants seem to help. For others, a therapist. We need to talk it out.

For others, we have to allow ourselves to wallow for a while–until we get sick of our own juices.

No one way.

How to be there for someone else who is grieving?

No “you should be better by now,” or ‘I’m worried about you.” That doesn’t help.

Be willing to sit quietly beside them. Show up at the same time each day, or each week.

Listen. Offer distractions. If you have to, get in their face and fight for them. If they reject you, keep coming back.

One of the most tender betrayals of grief and how very long it can take and how different it is for everyone–and that we have no right to judge someone else’s loss–is the movie, “Reign Over Me.” It’s about a man who lost his wife and children in the 9/11 tragedies. It’s one of the more honest conversations about grief–one that I think might help.

What those who are experiencing grief need is to believe in hope again–some small sliver of hope.

And you might just be the hope they’re looking for.

~Carol O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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Being a full-time caregiver for several years and going the “last mile”has taught me a thing or two. I allowed (not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually) my mom to pass in our home and that has changed me. At the time, when I was in the thick of caregiving 24/7 and having to get up and play “prison guard” to my mom who had Parkinson’s (thank God because it slowed her down) and Alzheimer’s (which revved her up) and heart disease (just to throw another kink in the game plan), I spent most nights hitting my bed only occasionally as if it were a trampoline. In those grueling, full of worry, can’t make it better no matter what I do, nights and days I wondered at times if I would survive. I did, and I’m profoundly grateful for this life-changing, push me to the bitter edge experience. This gal learned a thing or two.

  • I learned not to be afraid of disease. Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s I’ve seen what they can dish out, and it’s not pretty. They’re bad, don’t get me wrong, but I know the terrain and I find we’re most afraid of the unknown. I hope to figure out how to deal with whatever grenades life throws me.
  • I want to grab life with gusto. No guarantees in this world. So spend your money, take the trips, laugh with friends. Love big and hard and take risks–the good kind. Do it now. Arbor day, Chinese New Year’s–life’s for celebrating in big and little ways.
  • Stand up for myself–and for those I love. Caregiving comes with a zilliion big and little decisions. It’s easy to be bullied by the medical community, by other family members, by the “shoulds” in your head. I learned to stand up and stand behind my own decisions. It’s easier to blame others, and it takes a big girl (or a big guy) to have the guts to stick to my own convictions.
  • Love what is.Pain comes from the fight to make things a certain way, when we can’t let go of what was and walk across the bridge to what is. I thought my mom was back in my life in such a big way so we could “fix’ our relationship–work through our hurts and misplaced expectations. Wrong. I learned to love her, to love me, to love us–as is.
  • Laugh–or scream–but do something to release those runaway rollercoaster emotions. It’s time to stop holding it all in. Sorrow, guilt, frustration, resentment–it’s all there for a reason. They’re clues to help us know what’s going on in our heads and our hearts. But they’re toxic if they’re stuffed down and not allowed to breathe.
  • Do something I’m proud of. It’s time to leave the world a better place than I found it. I want to be known for something. For making a difference. I want some small sliver of the world changed for the better–because of me. I’ll let you know what sliver grabs my heartstrings next.
  • To stop caring what others think. Get a nose piercing, cut my hair down to the nubs, paint my front door purple and my mailbox lime green, dance under the stars, speak up and speak out when I see an injustice–that’s how I want to live now. That’s how I want to be remembered. Conformity sucks. In the words of Nelson Mandela (I believe he quoted it from Marianne Williamson), “Why are you trying to fit in–when you born to stand out?”
  • Nature heals. Nothing brought me more comfort than the sparkle of light on water, a bird’s wings whirring overhead, a breeze lifting my hair and reminding me to stop for a moment and take it all in. When sorrow slams into my chest I hope to remember to fall into the earth and ask it to take from me what I cannot bear alone.
  • To tell our stories. I wrote every day I cared for my mom. I wrote to stay alive. I wrote to figure out life. I wrote to remember our journey. Those journals became my book, Mothering Mother, but I wasn’t writing to get a book deal. I was writing to capture moments, to pick them up like a prism and look at each facet.
  • When death comes, I hope to dance my way to the next realm, not fight it. I hope I’ll have a bit of a heads up and let go of this world with a dash of grace. I hope I’ll take Chief  Sitting Bull’s words and shout to the universe, “It’s a good day to die!”

That’s what I’ve learned. Oh, I can still be shallow, petty, and mean-spirited at times. I still lose my way–but not for long. Caregiving has changed me. For the better.

~Carol O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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Like many adult children and sandwich geneartion-ers whose parents don’t want to leave their home, I had to practically force my mom to sell and move in with me. It’s not that I wanted to evict my mother from her own home, it’s because I knew that she was no longer safe. Caregivers everywhere face this difficult decision–but it also means we have to deal with all the stuff–when history collides with clutter.

My mom had Parkinson’s and heart disease–and I was starting to question whether she had some form of dementia. I worried about her falling, her not eating, forgetting to take her meds, getting locked out of the house…and as my mom’s only child and primary caregiver, I knew I had created a community of support and relied on extended family, friends, church members and community resources all that we could.

It was no longer enough. My mom needed continuity, and I was the only one who was willing and able to step up.

My mom agreed–at first. But the day we were to sign the papers and sell her home, she had a panic attack. She thought it was a heart attack and we rushed to the hospital. I had my doubts, but knew we should get it checked out. Then her avoidance tactics escalated. She wanted to back out of the deal. I had to be the strong one. I called the real estate office, arranged for the Durable Power of Attorney papers to be delivered to the hosptial, and signed the papers in the waiting room.

They gave us three days to finish moving out. I pulled up to my mother’s house–the place I had lived from age 12-18–and began the arduous job of packing and sorting. I was alone–me and thousand memories.

Part of me knew this was the beginning of the end. My dad had passed a decade before. My mom was 89 and I knew at best, we had a few years left–and her health issues would only escalate in time.

It’s tough–to deal with saved/recycled aluminum foil and a two dozen pie pans as well as treasured family photos, important documents, and childhood toys. Part of me was angry for being saddled with such a monumental job–why hadn’t she dealt with all this crap before now? But then I thought of my own house and my own stuff–guess I’d better get busy.

Every room, a memory. Every room, a million decisions.

I grieved and bungled my way through the next three days vascillating between overwhelming exhaustion and tender recollections. It felt good to be alone, to feel everything, no matter how hard it was.

I gave myself permission to make mistakes–to keep too much–to throw away the wrong thing.

Who could get this right?

Finally, the house was clear–the movers would come the next day–and mounds of trash sat at the end of the driveway.

I walked the land. I remembered the school bus dropping me off each day and my cat, Charlie, greeting me, the daffodils that popped up every February around the giant oak tree–bright yellow against the bleak sky. I followed the trail down to Daddy’s garage, picked up a stone and placed it in my pocket.

I took photograps and said goodbye to every tree. I saw myself at 14 on the roof sunbathing, walking to the car with a nosegay on my wrist on my way to prom and later kissing my date goodnight under the porch light.  I saw Daddy, could hear the high-pitched squeal of power tools, smell the sweetness of sawdust, and see my own toddlers looking for Easter eggs in the backyard. This house held me, nurtured me, gave me a place to grow up, and now gives me a place to remember.

I sat in my car knowing I’d never be able to come back–driving by just isn’t the same. What would come with my mom–caring for her in my final years–was not something to I could face–not yet.

It was all I could do to turn the key and back away.

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available in hardback or on Kindle

www.caroldodell.com

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I have a dear friend who has lost 2 sisters to breast cancer and another sister is recovering from the same disease. Cancer has not only ravaged the bodies of the women she loves, it’s left her entire family in fear. She says that most days she ping-pongs between greif and worry. She was their sister, their caregiver. She watched them struggle, and yet she couldn’t save them. 

For well over a decade she has lived in a medical vortex–spending her precious time in oncologist’s offices, hospitals, and participating in studies to try to help scientists gain insight into how to prevent these types of cancers from sprouting in additional family members.

Caregiving a sister is so hard–letting go of someone who has known you your whole life and then having to go on livie as best you can–without them.

She has been consumed by cancer–in every way. She and her daughters are in a cancer study and she knows more medical jargon than JAMA (Journal of American Medical Academy). In the midst of trying to be a mom and enjoy watching her own daughters blossom and go through the rites of passage–learning to drive, prom, boyfriends, college–her joy is tinged with the unsaid words: who’s next?

She fights to live a full life and capture every celebration that comes her way, but there are times when grief rolls in. It can’t be stopped, denied, or ignored. It is relentless and all consuming. But she can’t crawl into a ball like she’d want to, she says. Her daughters and her sister’s daughters need her. My friend has learned a sobering lesson–she values her family. She values today. It’s all she has.

I have no answers. I think we have no choice but to face what comes our way–even when we don’t want to. We can only avoid it for so long. I don’t know why some  people have to face things so overwhelming that it just doesn’t seem right. But I do know what all we can do is to ride the swells of life’s joys and we then plung with the sorrows. To be human is to experience both–and yet not let either extreme consume us. Life is both and all that is in between.

To be loved gives you strength.

To love gives you courage.

Lao Tzu, Chinese Philosopher

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