Posts Tagged ‘death and dying’

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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Imagine a battlefield. People are wounded. Some are screaming in pain. Others are close to death. It’s easy to freak-out, but as a caregiver in the midst of your own war zone, you can’t afford to panic. You are the triage nurse. You have to float above the scene and figure out how to not only care for one, but manage many. This doesn’t mean you don’t care, that you don’t wish you could stop right there and cry or scream or freeze and go numb. You can’t. Not now. Not yet.

You may not recognize that you’re living in a state of panic (or drama) because it’s been so long that it’s your new norm. You do what’s right in front of you. The person who screams the loudest, demands the most gets your attention first. The one who needs an MRI, a refill on meds, is in the hospital can pull all your thoughts and energy toward them. The problem is, someone else, the person who is quiet, who is suffering emotionally, who isn’t “in your face” may be the one who is in the most danger. Being in a sandwich generation is common, and it’s so, so hard to choose between your child and an aging parent–and every day, every situation is slightly different.

Maybe it’s your marriage that’s taking the brunt of all your caregiving. Maybe it’s your child or grandchild who needs your guidance. Or maybe it’s you and your health who has stepped aside too many times, who doesn’t want to bring attention to the fact that you’re cramming painkillers (think about that word for a moment) because your back is in spasms. Ignoring and/or denying what’s right in front of you is easy when you tell yourself you don’t have time to do it all, but there are things you’ll never get back (your years with your child, your health can’t always recover).

If you’ve ever watched a great medical show you know how the scene plays out–the one who is in charge–who makes the tough decisions is why in the end everyone gets cared for. They slice through the noise, through the fights, the family members pitching fits, and they zero in one what has to get done first. It’s their ability to detach that makes them so effective.

There’s nothing like a cool head in a chaotic situation.

Here’s a short caregiving triage checklist:

  • Recognize the situation
  • Prioritize what needs to get done/who needs your initial attention
  • Make a plan
  • Get others to help
  • Recognize that you won’t catch everything and accept that
  • Don’t get sucked into one person’s drama
  • Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable
  • Remember that sometimes all you can offer is connection–holding hands, a comforting word
  • When it’s over, assess and process–it’s important that you do feel, you do acknowledge what you and others have gone through

It may sound cold–when it’s your mother, your partner, your child, but it’s not. Everyone will feel safer and calmer when you’re not in caregiver freak-out mode. We don’t always have the luxury of falling apart right on the spot, but it’s important to step away–into your closet, in the privacy of your car–and feel what you’re going through. To feel your losses, your fears, to find someone you can confide in, and to let go and let it all out. Choose those moments and take them. Holding it together all the time is beyond exhausting and all those emotions (worry, guilt, resentment, fear) will leak out in the most inappropriate ways–so when the initial full-blown crisis begins to subside a bit, step out and give yourself permission to feel. 



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I finished my blog, “How to Live and Die Well” and while I meant every word, my sarcastic side was reeling.  Admit it, most of us will leave this earth kicking and screaming ( at least on the inside). We don’t want to eat our veggies as much as we’d prefer to dive into a bag of Lays, and aren’t there some days when you want to embrace your inner grump and blast the world? So here’s my comedy version–and on some/most  days–it’s a tad closer to the truth.

How to Live a Horrible Life:

  • Indulge my every whim–even when I’m repeating an already disastrous scenario that didn’t exactly work out the first time.
  • Refuse to forgive–especially myself.
  • Hold on to, nurse, and even embellish grudges, past hurts, and assumed wrongs.
  • Accuse others of stealing from you, talking about you, disliking you (which they probably do by this point) because that further endears you to folks.
  • Watch lots of television.
  • Buy a scooter. Walking is for sissies.
  • Try and force things to happen. It’s exhausting and not trusting, but it’s based on believing that I’m actually in control–of anything and everything.
  • Keep that inner monologue of self-doubt and self-loathing going 24/7.
  • –while simultaneously blaming anybody and everybody else for my crappy life.
  • Get too little sleep, indulge in too many processed foods/sweets, and take a pill, any pill, all the pills I can find–for everything from a hangnail to hemorrhoids.
  • Never do anything that’s not for my own direct benefit.
  • Give up, give in, and then complain about how nothing ever works out for me.
  • Never say thank you.
How to Die a Horrible Death: 
  • Repeat the above steps for the next 40/50 years.
  • Get more demanding and grumpy with each passing year.
  • Threaten that “I’m going to die soon, so please just do this one thing for me,” to get people to cater to your every whim.
  • Go to a doctor for every little thing and take all the meds and all the free med handouts they give me.
  • Read lots of articles about horrible diseases and become convinced I have them all.
  • Push people out of the way with my cart and mumble “Move it, I’m old!” (my mother used to do this)
  • Become incontinent as soon as possible…
  • because we all know that our family members just LOVE changing adult diapers.
  • Insist others feed you and then let the food dribble out on your chin and down your shirt–your family will be sure to love that one, too.
  • Become so cantankerous that even the grim reaper doesn’t want to spend time with you.
  • Refuse to “go to the light.”
  • Fake your death scene–clutch your chest and gasp for air–just to get people all crying and worked up. Then yell, “Surprise!” (Facetious, I know, but don’t you want to try it now?)
Yeah, I’m having a bit of fun, but this list just might help keep me motivated.
I’m working on my Oscar-worthy death scene now….
Have some to add? Send ’em my way and I’ll add them to the post.
In the meantime, happy living!
Carol D. O’Dell

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I’ve been wanting to do this for a while–write to the future me–about how to live and die. I witnessed my 92-year-old mother as she died and I am profoundly grateful for that experience. I learned so much from those last years together–and that when it’s my time to go, I want to go out easy with a grateful heart. I even want to be a little  jazzed about whatever comes next. If that’s to happen, it must start now. You can’t get bold in those last moments if it’s not a part of who you are all along.

There’s a great site for just such a letter. It’s www.FutureMe.org.

It’s a place to write yourself letters–letters of encouragement, advice, or just to capture where you are today so that the future you and remember, really remember. I go there often–leave myself little notes–remember to laugh out loud at least once a day–to take a risk–to ask forgiveness. You can email it to yourself at any future date.

So here’s mine–about how I want to face those last hours on this earth. I’m hoping that I will have to email myself this same letter again and again–that I’ll have a bit of time to taste the sweetness this world has to offer.

But who knows? So I better get busy…

Dear FutureMe,

I have no idea when your day will come, but when it does–be brave. Meet the next big adventure with a smile and a “let’s see what’s next” kind of attitude.

In the meantime, tell people you love them, be grateful. Laugh. Give. For-give. Embrace whatever comes down your path–where ever you live, whoever you’re with, whatever it is that you do–give it your whole heart.

All I know is life is full of change. Switchbacks, surprises, knock your breath out and catch your breath moments–gather them all.

You’re going to lose people you love, and nothing can stop the hurt that’s to come. Try to let all the bitter disappointments, rejections, losses, and sorrows to pass through you. We have to let go and as hard or impossible as it might seem, that’s what life asks of us. Glean their truths without holding onto bitterness or cynicism.

Learn. Grow. Never settle. Forget this “I’m old” crap. Not everyone sits in a recliner and gives up, so hang out with those who inspire you. Be bold! Do the unexpected. Learn to fly a plane at 80, volunteer at a free clinic in Ethiopia, paint some kick-ass graffiti or climb the Eiffel tower–whatever grabs your heart and won’t let go.

Trust that what you want–wants you.

Leave this world a better place than you found it.

And when the time comes–be at peace–whether you’re  garden dirt (which is a lovely thought, to help flowers and trees grow) or star-dust in a distant galaxy, or fishing by a lazy river with Daddy–trust that whatever is next, is exactly as it should be–and that for me is the definition of Heaven.

When the time comes for you to go, this is what I want you to do:

Take a deep breath. Remember being on a boat. You’re coming back from a day trip–Mexico or the South of France–and you’re on top. You’re a little pink with sunburn, a little buzzed on rum punch, and the wind on your skin feels oh so good. Phillip is beside you and he’s holding your hand. He feels strong and warm and you lean on him. The sun is setting but it’s so bright that you close your eyes. All you can feel is the hum of the boat, the rhythmic bounce of waves, the occasional salt spray that cools your face.

This day, this life, was everything you ever wanted. You are full. You are exhausted and spent–in the best of ways. You think of all those you love–and you know without even opening your eyes that they’re surrounding you–those who are still on this earth and those beyond. You feel their love. They’re here to celebrate you.

And all you can feel is deep, sweet rest and the boat and the wind–taking you home.

Love big. Laugh bigger.

Life is oh so sweet.


On a boat, off the coast of Cassis, France

Carol D. O’Dell



Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle and in hardback on Amazon

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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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There came a time when I knew my mother was dying. It wasn’t necessarily a physical symptom, it was a gut feeling. I was scared–even frantic. How do I do this? If you’re a caregiver it’s likely that you will eventually face the last turn in road. Your loved one will entering the dying process and as death draws near you may call or be recommended for hospice.

I felt sad, cornered, overwhelmed, grieving, angry, panicked, even numb, and if I’m really honest–almost relieved. I was not only losing my mother, I was losing a part of me.

How do you know when the end is near?

Do you wait for a doctor or nurse to tell you?

Do you check into the hospital?

Who do you call–what do you next?

All I know is that I had been caring for my mother for a number of years. I was the one who fixed her meals, bathed, her, listened to each breath, monitored everything from her moods to her medicine.

When no one else knew–I knew.

I asked the doctor if we were ready for hospice. He hedged. A few weeks later, I insisted.

Hospice came in and although my mother qualified they didn’t think that death was imminent. Still, something in me knew it wouldn’t be too much longer.

Mother rallied–I felt duped–then she plunged again. In less than six weeks from the time I made that call my mother took that last turn. For three weeks or so, she lingered. She forgot how to eat–and I let her. By that I mean that I chose not to insert a feeding tube. That’s a highly personal family decision, but it was the right one for us. It wasn’t an easy decision by no means–and I knew I’d be the one to witness every breath, every moment. And I took on that role willingly.

I received one of the greatest gifts of my life in those quiet, grueling weeks. My mother taught me how to die. She gave me front row seat–something not many of us in our modern society gets the privilege of witnessing. But I ask, how else will we learn?

How do you know when the end is near?

It’s instinctual, guttural, spiritual, biological–but you’re also subconsciously weighing every piece of information you’ve gathered–as spouse, daughter, son, or friend. You’ve been there all along and even if you’re not medical, you know when a shift has occurred. You’re picking up on cues you’re not even aware of.

Trust that you may know before anyone else knows–and you might not be able to explain why.

In the end I was fully present. Scary–yes. But the frantic fear was gone. It was tough beyond words, but it was also good–necessary–and for me, holy.

Few of us have another way out of caregiving, especially for our elders. We all must die.

Knowing the end is near is a rare gift–one I’m profoundly grateful for.

Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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