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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.

~Carol

On a boat, off the coast of Cassis, France

Carol D. O’Dell

www.caroldodell.com 

 

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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I opened my front door Thanksgiving morning and called “Here kitty, kitty, kitty.”

My 14-year-old cat, FatBoy had been missing 18 hours. I was up late in the night looking for him. He never went far, hanging around our shady front porch, but most eating (thus his name) and sleeping in various windows, beds, and closet corners throughout the house. No answer. No meow. I was in full worry mode. I’m no stranger to death. I know that losing  a pet isn’t like losing a parent or spouse, or child but nothing in me wanted to go through this again. Not today. Not Thanksgiving.

My husband and I took our bikes and began to ride around the neighborhood calling him.

And then I saw him.

My husband threw down his bike and got to FatBoy before I did. His hands went to his heart. He ran half way to me, turned and back to FatBoy, then back to me–not knowing what to do.

And then he held his arms open and I folded into his chest and cried.

We’ve been through so much together. He held me when my adoptive Daddy died, the big teddy-bear hero who gave me a home and made the world right again. I held him when his brother-in-law died in a head-on car crash. Bill swerved the car and spared the life of his wife and daughter. My husband identified the body. I held him at four in the morning when he returned from the morgue and collapsed in my arms. He held me when my mother died after years of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, when exhaustion gave way to release gave way to void. He sat beside me on a sailboat as we helped to scatter a dear friend’s ashes into the sea, feeling our own mortality. We’ve stood side-by-side as we witnessed the death of friends, family, and yes, our beloved pets and remembered their lives in that bitter-sweet time of letting go. I can barely grasp what it would be like to lose him. I can’t even let myself glimpse into that sorrow.

Who would hold me?  Who would I hold?

I’ve learned a thing or two about death. I’ve learned to not stop the pain, the tears. I’ve learned to accept the love, the support.

I stayed with FatBoy while Phillip went back and got a blanket. He was in a garden behind a small white picket fence. I call this particular neighbor’s house the Thomas Kincaid house. His paintings are warm cottages with trees and shade, and dappled sunlight. It was quiet, a little cool. I could sit with him. Be with him. I wasn’t afraid or nervous. It was just him and me.

My husband dug a hole in the backyard and we decided to bury FatBoy under my Buddha statue. I bought the laughing buddha for my birthday last May–did I somehow know? I laid my sweet, chubby, always there for me kitty into the earth and sprinkled the first handful of cool, moist dirt on top. I wanted to do this.I was fully alert and present. It wasn’t like Daddy’s funeral. I was 23, so young, so scared. I turned away when they lowered him into the ground. Today, I don’t need to turn away.

It felt right–for him to die in a garden and be buried in a garden. In the spring he’ll be surrounded by cannas and irises and calla lillies. There’s a windchime in a Live Oak nearby.

Our youngest daughter joined us. She hugged me–full body. We held  on to each other, neither of us in a hurry to let go. Our middle daughter arrived for the day’s festivities. She’s the director of a massage therapy school and could charge for her hugs, they’re so good.  I felt my muscles give way, and then her husband–a former wrestler with a wide chest and strong biceps curl around the two of us. My friend, Laura arrived and ran to me. She has four cats, and we cried and cried.

I’m tired of holding it all in. Tired of trying to be strong. Tired of keeping it all together. Each person, their arms, shoulders, necks and kisses comforted me. I allowed each of them to minister to me, feed me, be my strength.

We all pulled the meal together, sat down at the table and took hands. And I realized that it was good day for a death–I was surrounded by people I loved and who loved me.

The love that surrounds a death is healing. It’s comes in time. You’re ready when you’re ready, when life has brought you here. It will come.

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Do more people die around the holidays? Yes, sadly they do–at least hospice numbers reflect a rise in deaths during the holiday season.

Some factors are obvious–flu, depression, car accidents to name a few. It’s hard on families–to have a loved one on the brink of death during what’s supposed to be a joyous time of year. Caregivers are torn between exhaustion and sometimes feel a tinge of relief after a long bout with cancer or heart disease. It’s hard to face the holidays while you’re grieving–and grieving starts long before your loved one dies.

A dear friend of mine worries if her dad will make it through this Christmas. Everything seems bitter-sweet. Her mom died near the holidays as well, and she misses her each year when she’s decorating the tree–something they used to do together. “I try to enjoy the season, but it’s hard. Hospice is coming three times a week–and we all know it won’t be long now.”

Perhaps the hardest thing to face is a new death. Recently, I met a woman at a care conference who just lost her son to AIDS. It’s only been two weeks, and she looked completely depleted–physically and emotionally. She says she doesn’t want a tree–she couldn’t stand to look at one. I told her I understood. It’s okay to “skip Christmas.”

Grief may get notched up a bit during the holidays. It may be that someone you love died during this time of year (even long ago) and your body has a “muscle memory” of that time in your life. You may not have verbalized it, but then it hits you-and it all makes sense.

Maybe it’s that you’re supposed to be happy that makes it so impossible to muster any joy or sentiment. Nobody wants to be told they have to decorate cookies or deck the halls. That’s not a should. Trust that if it’s a really rough time in your life that it won’t always be. It’s just for now. Be where you are. The only way I know through grief is to take one moment at a time. Even breathing or thinking can be so difficult at times.

Do what feels good. If you like driving around looking at lights, or going to see a performance of the Nutcracker, or sitting in front of a fire cracking nuts–do only what brings you a sense of peace. That’s the essence of this season. Don’t get caught up in the busy-ness, just do what’s easy.

“Treat yourself like you would your best friend,” I said to a friend who’s having a tough time. She’s one of the kindest, most giving, patient people I know. Too bad we don’t always extend that generosity to ourselves. I asked her what her best friend would tell her to do–she said, “She’d make me hot tea and tell me I can go put on my jammies.” Good advice–we should listen to ourselves once in a while.

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My mom had Parkinson’s, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s–and she lived with my family (husband, daughters and me), and I was her full-time caregiver. I remember when I realized my mom was dying., literally dying–and that she would pass away in our home. I wanted to give her a home passing, but I felt sucked into death with her. The atmosphere of our home was somber. I was sleep deprived, zombified, and barreling toward depression. As crazy as it sounds, I told my husband I wanted a puppy.

Yes, I know dogs are work. I know puppies are even ten times more work. Why would a caregiver want something else to take care of? Because I needed to surround myself with new life. I needed a roly poly furry baby body to hold. I needed puppy’s breath (which to me smells like coffee, an aroma I adore) and tiny wimpers. I needed to surround myself with life as we faced the end of my mother’s days.

It wasn’t that I had read or considered studies about stress and the healing powers of pet therapy. It was pure instinct.

I’m often asked for hints to help caregivers and I know it might sound lame, but I deeply believe that the answer, at least part of it, lies in nature. We’re surrounded by this lush world of variety, color, texture, sights, smells, and sounds. The earth is our food–for our bodies and our souls.

My greatest comfort during my most stressful caregiving times was to go outside, stand by the river behind our house, wander in and out of the trees, pick wildflowers (commonly known as weeds), and feel the ground beneath me and the wind brush past me. Nothing brought me back to a place of calm than to simply step outside, take a few minutes, and breathe.

My husband and I went for a bike ride just minutes after I said I needed a puppy, that all of us needed a puppy. We’d only be gone ten minutes–a jaunt around the neighborhood…and there was a sign near the front of our community. “Free puppies.”

Not kidding. There it was. I took it as a sign (ha!) and we turned into the driveway.  It was a wide, flat yard with a doghouse, a trailer for a boat and a few spread out trees. And there was my puppy. A six-week old Alaskan Malamute/German shepherd mix curled in a C under the boat trailer. She was fat, sweet, and I knew she was to be mine.

We came home from that ten minute bike ride with Kismet. That’s her name. It’s means fate.

Our daughter’s eyes lit up, and even my mom, lost in muddled memories so long ago, connected. We were smitten. Kismet made us all laugh, play, and  cuddle. It was exactly what we needed. New life. Hope. Proof that life goes on.

Yes, it  took energy and time to train her, and we all pitched in. And yes, puppies do get up in the middle of night–but hey, I was already up with my mom anyway. She had sundowning and many of her nights resembled a late night brawl in a lively Irish pub. My mom yelled, ate handfuls out fo the frig or pantry, tried to escape, wrecked her room–it was wild. At least I could calm her, get her in bed, and hold my pudgy puppy for a few minutes and take in that musky, earthy puppy breath that only lasts for a few months.

Maybe this sounds like too much work, and don’t think you have to commit to a pet in order to feel joy and connection. 

Simple ways to surround yourself with new life:

  • Get flowers at the grocery store each week. Start collecting African violets–get some feed solution,  and set yourself up a window of violets in pinks, lavenders, deep purples and blues. If one dies, toss it!
  • Get some stick-on bird feeders that attach to your windows. They’re so cool and you can get them at a local bird or pet store, hardware or even WalMart. You can get hummingbird feeders or songbird feeders. It’s amazing to stand in your kitchen washing dishes and see a hummingbird hover right in front of you.
  • Buy bird feeder and put up a bird bath in your garden. Who cares if the squirrels eat it, too. Squirrels are fun to watch as well. I had a little guy with a bent tail visit me outside my home office window for years–every morning at 10am. I rushed to get in there to see the little guy and I enjoyed their antics–he apparently had a thing for a girl squirrel who was the equivalent to the prom queen because every male squirrel fawned over her. It’s better than watching the soaps!
  • Get binoculars and sit on the porch with your care buddy and bird watch together.
  • Stop by your local animal shelter–or even the pet store. On your way home from errands, stop and pet some kitties and puppies at the local shelter. They need love and will be better pets for their adoptive family if they get touched and talked to every day. You don’t have to “own” a pet to enjoy them.
  • Go to the zoo, local butterfly garden, or nature preserve. Caregiving can include field trips! Even if your loved one can’t walk far, many places have wheelchairs or can drive you in a golf cart. And who says you need to go through the whole place? Pick one animal you love, let your care buddy pick one animal they love, and only go there. Even thirty minutes is worth it–and with senior discounts, it’s a reasonable price and will change your whole day.

Kismet is now 7 years old–and what I had no way of knowing is that she would give us another gift. The last few months of my mom’s life was excruciating and poignant. Alzheimer’s took her ability to eat, to chew, to swallow, and her death was slow but I’m grateful to have this experience. On the year anniversary of my mom’s passing, Rupert, Kismet’s son was born.

Life trumps death.

He is the most adorable dog–sweet, funny, goofy and he came right on time. Just when we all needed another infusion of life.

I hope you find life–in the midst of caregiving–in the midst of sorrow and stress. Go with your gut and find something that quickens your heart. Life. It’s all around you.

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