Several years ago, I made the difficult decision to leave my work at hospice as the coordinator of the children’s grief and loss program to go back into private practice and pursue some of my own life-long dreams. It was not a decision I made lightly.
My days were spent counseling and supporting families and their children who were dealing with life’s cruelest and most crushing blow–the death of a loved one. I listened as families shared their stories of crossing things off their bucket lists while time graciously offered them the opportunity.
The work changed my life but after several years of companioning grieving children and their families, I got to thinking: What are my own dreams? What if the end of my own life is approaching faster than I know?
For months and months I pondered, “What would I do?”
What I came up with is that I would go back into private practice and pursue my dream to be a… Read more
Who knew the topic of curtains would generate so much discussion?
I loved reading all your comments! Thank you for taking the time to stop on by.
Susan pointed out that curtains are an indication of a true commitment to a home. So I guess my interest in dressing our windows means we are ready to take things to the proverbial “next step” with this house we built. I’ll keep you posted on how the relationship progresses. Tomorrow, I am going to buy fabric for curtains in the dining room. The house, me and The Bird are going to take things slowly. One room at a time. We don’t want to smother each other. :-)
Today I’d like to offer a tip about the grieving process.
This time of the year, people often start to experience some twinges of emotion. If you venture into a Hallmark store or a local mall, all indications are you’re already behind on your Christmas shopping. All we need is the echo of The Salvation Army bells accompanied by their red, metal kettles to set off the mad holiday dash at this point.
Often though, the fall of the leaves and frost on the pumpkins draws the pain of loss up to the surface. Clients will say, “Steph, I’ve been feeling pretty good. I don’t know why I’m regressing not progressing.”
Here’s what I tell them.
The change of seasons is a trigger for feelings of loss. Oh, and any new feelings of grief are NOT a regression it is all progression. Remember, grieving is not a linear process. It is dynamic.
When the weather changes, so too, do our emotions. Memories of traditions with family or friends who have died from years past can wax nostalgia. It’s normal as a result to feel cranky, distracted, even unmotivated.
The good news?
This period of sadness will pass. Journaling, exercising, even a good cry can help. If the sadness persists and interferes with every day routines, consider seeking help. Grief counseling can be very effective. Trust me…I know.
Do you find any shift in your mood this time of the year?
See you Friday for somethin’ funny. Here’s a preview of this week’s post. Bianca is the star.
A few weeks ago, I got a call from a gentleman looking to start therapy. In the last twelve months he buried his wife and father.
“I’m really surprised. I thought by now I’d be feeling much better. Some days I feel like I’m actually getting worse.”
Don’t fall for this!
In my line of work as a grief and loss therapist, I hear this expectation on a pretty regular basis. It is a myth that after the first year, those grieving the loss of a loved one will feel like they’ve turned a magical corner. If I could find the culprit who started this vicious rumor, I’d give it a good smack on what we Italians like to call the culo.
Grieving is not a linear process. It is dynamic-it changes over a lifetime. People often say, “You’ll have good days and bad days.” I like to break it down even further. How you feel will change from moment to moment.
You are normal…it’s all normal
Most of the time, what people who are grieving need is some education about the process. This is what my client needed. He needed to know he wasn’t “losing his mind” because he cried more now than he did a year ago. He needed to know that his recent bout with sleeplessness could be attributed to this anniversary and a continued need to mourn. Once he discovered what he was feeling, thinking, and doing was all normal his anxiety reduced and he began to sleep more easily.
Tuesdays tip: Grief is dynamic.
While it would be wonderful to think after a year life returns to “normal” that’s simply a myth. The second year is often harder than the first because the reality begins to set in. The good news is, however, that over time, we do begin to find a new normal and the pain and sorrow do subside but when that actually begins to happen is very individual.
Know someone who might benefit from this Tuesday’s tip? Please pass it on!
What have been your experiences? Following the death of a loved one, when did you notice you began to have more peaceful moments than sorrowful ones?
See you Friday for something much lighter. :-)
Suggested reading: How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies by Therese Rando, Ph.D.
Happy Sunday, Everyone!
This week’s Sacred Sunday I am encoring a piece I wrote last year about my Dad in honor of his birthday. It’s Part I of what I’m calling The Daddy Diaries.
Spit shined, dusted off and anxious to take center stage again, please give a warm, Sacred Sunday welcome to, “Don’t Look With Your Dawba.”
“Don’t Look With Yaw Dawba”
Two weekends ago The Bird and I flew to Florida to see my Dad for his 95th birthday.
During our time in the sunshine state, we did all the sorts of “geezer” things you’d normally do with a 95 year old, including playing a tense game of Bingo at the Country Club.
Let me say this about Bingo-it’s seductive. The swagger with which it carries itself, in tandem with the promise of providing a fun-filled evening, could probably cause even the likes of a Mother Theresa to buckle at the knees. DO NOT fall for this trickery. Bingo is a sporting event that in a hot second can turn ugly. I’ll give Bingo points for brains-shacking up in innocuous locations, preying on the vulnerable in church halls, cruise ships and the occasional country club. (Ok, not exactly the vulnerable, I’ll admit).
Six years ago, on an early March evening, three weeks after my mother passed away, my father asked me if I wanted to go with him to Bingo.
Prior to my mother’s death, on visits down to Florida to see my parents, it was customary for all of us to go to the club to play Bingo on Thursday nights. The thought of going back to a familiar place without my mother made my stomach twist and my eyes swim in tears. Not wanting to alarm my Dad with the intensity of my sorrow though, I smiled and said, “Sure, Daddy.”
That evening, as my Dad pulled open the door to the club and we climbed the stairs to the main dining room, I swallowed hard. The smell of the dinner buffet laid out against the far wall sucker-punched me. The odor waiving off the warming trays was reminiscent of the odor of the rehab center my Mom stayed in after she recovered from brain surgery three months earlier. I nearly threw up.
My blind sighted run-in with this olfactory foe is called a STUG-a term coined by Dr. Therese Rando, psychologist, thanatologist and grief expert as a subsequent, temporary, upsurge of grief. Dr. Rando further defines STUGs as “brief periods of intense grief which occur when a catalyst reminds one of the absence of the loved one or resurrects memories of the death, the loved one, or feelings about the loss.”
Refocusing my attention on my Dad quelled my nausea as we gathered our Bingo packets, daubers and other Bingo accouterments.
The truth is at the time, he was lost and so was I.
“B-5….0-65…I -19…” the Bingo announcer called out. With a New England bravado that would make even a Tom Brady cower in the corner, this woman’s affect was more like a schoolmarm than a rabble-rousing cruise ship director. (Where’s Julie from The Love Boat when you need her?)
About half way into the evening, she took a break from calling numbers, passed the microphone on to her partner and began to walk her beat. Wandering from table to table, she policed the strategies of those stupid enough to come out to play.
When people are grieving the simple task of focusing on nine different Bingo cards simultaneously, can feel like the equivalent of solving the quadratic equation. My head scratches synchronized with the number calling, clued her in I was having trouble.
As she meandered around the room, she spotted me.
“Honey,” she hollered across the room in her thick Boston accent, “Don’t look with yaw dawbuh.”
My face flushed and I coiled my head and neck into my sweater as far as I could without compromising my ability to breathe. I was the youngest person in the room by at least three decades. I felt like a kindergartner who couldn’t even recognize something as elementary as her primary colors.
But when the banquet manager entered the dining room from behind the swinging double doors of the kitchen, what happened next paled in comparison to my unsolicited lesson in how to play Bingo.
My Dad waved down the manager as if he was stranded on the side of the road fatally injured. The quiet hush in the room was pierced by my father. “Gosh damn it-it’s freezing in here. Turn on the heat or something. Good, gosh damn it. It’s always so damn cold in here.”
“SSSSShhhhhh!” The crowd shouted as if to say, “Have you no respect for the game?” To an outside observer, it might appear my father had not been schooled properly on the etiquette of Bingo but the truth is he’s indulgent. Ever heard of the book When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple?
The road of embarrassment
Note: If you haven’t ever been to a serious game of Bingo here’s a head’s up: They generally don’t play straight Bingo. They play things called The Wedding Cake, Five Around and B’s and O’s and quite frankly it takes a trained eye to keep track of 9 cards at a time in goofy patterns.
The combination of being singled out by the cranky Bingo volunteer, my Dad’s outbursts and the odor off of the buffet had me eyeing the exits.
The embers of a grief stricken meltdown burned just above the surface-a meltdown not for public consumption.
Many of those in attendance that evening knew full well my mother’s body was barely cold. In the past I knew the crowd could be unforgiving, but that night, I was either particularly sensitive from deeply mourning the death of my mother or the crowd was particularly insensitive. In retrospect it was probably a little of both.
My husband to the rescue
The game finally ended and when we returned safely home, I found a spot to crawl into and I called The Bird. Wrapped inside primal sobs, I said something I’m sure was incoherent that went something like:
“That…*sniff*…*sniff*…*sniff*…was HORRIBLE *sniff*…*sob*…*hyperventilate*…His wife just died and *sniff*…those …(blow nose)…people were meaaan!”
Bingo that night traumatized me but those early months following my mother’s death just about anything could bring on a nuclear, emotional meltdown.
Even though that March evening, Bingo was brutal, I managed to move through those first weeks of mourning and this past visit to my Dad’s, I didn’t allow my former Bingo encounter to shackle me to the house.
This time there seemed to be a palpable shift in the mood of the room. The crowd’s overall tone was markedly less adversarial to which I attributed the canning of the caustic Boston Bingo volunteer and the therapeutic value of time passing.
While I could take or leave Bingo-being the youngin’ that I am, I went that night in early March almost seven years ago not only for my Dad but also for my Mom who would not have wanted my Dad to go alone.
And in the middle of “B-14….0-75″ a few weeks ago, sacredness surrounded us. Being with The Bird, my brother and my Dad felt holy.
Footprints on our souls
Moments like this leave footprints on our souls if we take the time to recognize them. Ron Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, speaks eloquently about seeing the eternal in the ordinary in his book, The Shattered Lantern.
For me, this was a reminder that with a simple shift in perspective sacredness comes into focus. Rather than ruminate on how my heart shrivels up in pain whenever we enter the club, especially to play Bingo, I revel in the hallowness of this time between me and my Daddy.
Suggested Reading: The Shattered Lantern by Ron Rolheiser
Seven years ago, when my Mom passed away, I stood at her bedside with my Dad, brothers and twin sister, both heartbroken and relieved. The relief came from knowing she would no longer suffer the depravity of cancer. Her last breath released her from its vicious vice.
The heartbreak, well, that’s obvious I’m sure.
Regardless of how old we are when our parents die, (I was thirty-seven years old) I’m here to tell you it hurts. It can hurt- a whole lot…for a long time.
Sadly, our grief as adult children mourning the loss of our Moms and Dads is often disenfranchised.
It seems “natural” for our parents to die when they are elderly- true. Somehow though, natural is considered (by many) as directly proportionate to how long an appropriate mourning period prolongs, or worse, if it’s appropriate at all.
My own father is 95 3/4 years old. Trust me when I tell you, I will mourn his loss for as long as I-that’s I-need to-and it won’t be the standard expected three days I assure you. He is my Dad, (sometimes I still call him Daddy-we’re Italian what can I tell ya) his presence in this world is the bedrock upon which my sense of safety rests (as was my Mom’s).
In my practice and in my work at hospice, I’ve seen many adult children struggle. They have friends and co-workers, etc who remark, “Oh your Mom/Dad lived a good long life. God bless ‘em.”
These same well-intentioned people go on to shrug their shoulders, pat you on the back and move on AND often expect you to do the same in a very short time.
Parental loss for adult children is disenfranchised grief at it’s finest.
Lois Akner, in her book “How to Survive the Loss of a Parent: A Guide for Adults” (William Morrow and Co.), speaks on this idea of disenfranchised grief for adult children whose parents die.
“If you lose a child or a husband, there’s an enormous amount of support. But if you lose a parent, you get two weeks to grieve and then you’re expected to be back to yourself.”
There are many factors that influence the grief and mourning process. One of the most important is the relationship the bereft shared with the deceased. If they were close, then the grieving period will be longer. I’ll be writing a post about each factor in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
Dressing my Mom for the funeral director to take her was a gift. Along with my brother we dressed her and kissed her. It was our last tender act as her caregivers.
Notwithstanding the tender side of her death, her dying catapulted me to a place overgrown with unfamiliarity and shrouded by a pervasive dark fog of sheer uncertainty.
What scared me was the sudden realization that everything as I knew it had now changed. This is the theme of my memoir but a few months ago I came across a quote that articulated with precision how I felt that cold, February night. (I’d give credit if I knew to whom it went but I don’t).
There are times in a life
when we come to a trapeze moment….
It’s that moment in time
when what we’ve known
will no longer hold us-
and what awaits us
has not yet appeared.
Losing a loved one, at any age, most certainly can find us suspended in a “trapeze” moment.
Death leaves us with a loss of our former assumptive world. Often people go on spiritual quests, seeking for a way to make sense out of the world again-to restore a sense of safety & security that the death left shattered.
This takes time and in her book, The Five Ways We Grieve, author Susan Berger talks about the five different types of grievers. Indeed, some of us are seekers. (I am a pure seeker).
So, my dear friends who know the pain of losing parents, rest reassured your grief is legitimate. It might very well lead to a trapeze moment and if so, you’re in good company according to me and Susan Berger.
Have you lost a parent? I’d love to hear your experiences.
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Suggested Resources on this topic:
How to Survive the Loss of a Parent: A Guide for Adults, by Lois Akner
I’ve been busy this week writing away on my memoir, Doris, Sophia and Me: A Memoir About A Mom Who Didn’t Live Long Enough and A Daughter Who Was Never Born.
A few months back, I ran into an old friend who told me she too, was doing some writing. We stood outside our local Shop ‘N Bag and chattered, inching ourselves out of the way of the sliding glass doors to the entrance of the store. Men with loosened ties and women with cranky kids in sweaty soccer uniforms jockeyed around our carts making their way inside.
We hugged, chatted and made the futile attempt to catch each other up on our lives in the few free minutes we had to spare while hungry family members waited for us to come home.
“So, what kind of writing are you doing?” I asked.
“Eh, some freelance work, you know.” She fumbled around in her pocketbook. “I’m also working on a novel, loosely based on characters you might recognize. So, how ’bout you? What are you working on?”
“A memoir.” I scooted out of the way of a woman pushing a cart with a screaming kid.
“Oh, man, I couldn’t do that. I think I’d go crazy if I had to relive some of the comings and goings of my life. Way too painful to revisit. There’s no way.”
As we fired spirited, bulleted updates at each other, not always waiting for the other to finish, we lamented the hungry stomachs at home. Parting company, we double checked to be sure we had the other’s current cell phone numbers, bear hugged, waved good-bye and wandered off to our respective isles.
This week, while I wrote more of my memoir, my girlfriend’s words, “Too painful,” rang true. This piece I’m sharing today was painful to write and I’d be a first-class liar, if I said I didn’t at one point ask myself, “So, why exactly AM I writing this?”
My answer to that question never wavered. I write because I’m pretty certain, that sharing my story will help others out there who are struggling.
Call it Catholic guilt, Italian guilt, what- have- you, but I feel an obligation to pass on what wisdom I’ve garnered from this wacky thing we call Life. Of course, there is always the cathartic, personal benefit of putting our own stories down on the page. So let’s call my motivation-part altruistic, part self-care.
Although, when I get to stories like this one, I wish I wasn’t such a do-gooder or at least a guilt ridden, Italian/Irish, Catholic.
It’s Dark In Here (From My Memoir)
One evening I overheard my husband, speaking to a seasoned Italian contractor, he deeply respects, who speaks endearing broken English.
“He’s my paisano, Steph,” my husband would say.
Mr. Madono asked, as he always does, “How’s-a-your father-a-doin’?”
Later that night, my husband shared with me something Mr. Madono said, that I tucked away in my heart for safekeeping.
“You-a-know, Vinny, there comes a time when a son becomes a father and-a, a-father becomes a son.”
I know now the same can be said for a daughter and a mother.
For my Mom and me, our seismic shift came in January 2003, in Florida, when even in long-sleeves and jackets you still felt a chill.
Transplants from the suburbs of Philadelphia, my parents now called the sunshine state home.
In November 2002, my Mom was diagnosed with a two-inch malignant brain tumor, a metastasis from lung cancer she supposedly was freed of five years prior (she never smoked a cigarette, ever). It robbed her of most of her hearing and the ability to stand without the support of a walker or wheelchair.
The day before my thirty-sixth birthday, only six days after her diagnosis, my Mom had surgery; post-op treatment included six weeks of radiation, which affected no therapeutic change unless you consider a burned, bald scalp therapeutic.
Born to both an Irish mother and father, my Mom came from hearty stock. She made applesauce every fall from the apples she and my aunt picked at our local orchard and taught us about the birds and the bees using words like penis and vagina. On winter Sunday afternoons, she curled up in the crushed orange velvet recliner in her bedroom and soaked in the sunny spot by the sliding glass door. After reciting her daily rosary, she wandered off into the worlds that lived inside the stack of books resting on her glass-top table.
She tolerated injury like a soldier wounded on the battlefield but the beast of cancer-peddled pain that made her moan.
To keep track of the medications necessary to make her waking moments tolerable, I drew up a spreadsheet our family initialed after administering. The only drawback was that the drugs caused severe constipation- as in prunes are useless-don’t bother with the Metamucil.
At the time, we didn’t know she was terminal. The doctors don’t always tell you that. They speak in hushed euphemisms that guard against the dreaded d-word.
That January afternoon the house was busy. My brother, Bobby, with the garden hose in one hand and his cell phone in the other, watered my Mom’s orchids and took care of some business from what had now become his virtual office. My Dad baked a fresh batch of Italian rolls and before he hollered, “Guys, I’m leaving for four-thirty Mass,” he put a pot of homemade tomato gravy on the stove to simmer.
“Steph,” my Mom moaned from the back of the house. “Steph,” she hollered again.
Popping in a load of laundry, I smacked down the washer lid with one hand and slammed the dryer door shut with my foot. I raced out of the laundry room and shuffled down the tiled hallway in my pink slippers, to the back of the house.
I rounded the corner into her bedroom and waved to get her attention.” Mom, I’m sorry I was in the laundry room. What’s wrong?”
“Steph, it hurts. It hurts.”
There she sat in the bathroom, wringing her hands and wiping her forehead, dressed in the grey velour leisure suit I bought on one of my routine date nights at the Walmart across the street from the Tandum Rehabilitation Center she “rehabbed” in.
Following her operation that November, the doctor gave my Mom the option to rehab at Tandum or recuperate at home. She chose rehab, which was my first clue she would never be herself again. The month she took up residence at what I affectionately nicknamed, “Tandy,” we passed time playing cards and reading. I’d wait until dinner arrived, fix her decaf coffee and then go out for an hour or so to get some respite in a world where cancer and its co-stars, panic, fear and sadness didn’t hog up center stage. The Walmart across the street offered some semblance of normal and like a junky in need of a fix, I didn’t discriminate how I got the antidote I craved.
“Welcome to Wal-mart.” The elderly greeter offered me a cart. I took it and smiled. I needed something to lean on.
The isles blinked and twinkled with holiday decorations and the sounds of the season blasted the square space, ignorant of the stranglehold cancer had around my heart. I strolled up and down looking at everything and seeing nothing. After about an hour, I bought a few things I thought would make my Mom smile and convince both of us that everything was going to be ok.
Back in the bathroom, I sat on the tub platform and faced my Mom. “C’mon Mom. Just relax and take some deep breaths.”
She furrowed her brow.
I held up my index finger and signaled her to wait a second. I went to grab the composition notebook off her nightstand that we used when she couldn’t quite make out what we said.
As her faced contorted, I panicked.
“How in the hell did I get here? What in the hell is going on?”
My Mom looked to me for help-for answers. I didn’t have any.
The pen levitated off the page as I scribbled, “Breath nice and slowly, Mommy. Take nice, long deep breathes.”
I imagined this is what it must be like to potty train a kid. Hang out in a bathroom, and at a cotton-candy, sing-song pitch, repeat ad nauseam, a clothesline of absurd encouraging idioms to help your child achieve the developmental milestone of going to the potty like a big girl or boy. After suffering from eight years of unexplained infertility, the idea of potty training even seemed appealing to me but the appeal never included my Mom.
She was supposed to be my cheerleader.
I knew a side effect from the pain medication was constipation but the look on my Mom’s face cried epic.
“Mom, I’ll be right back, I’m going to get the phone to call the nurse.”
We hired a home health agency to help us with the transition from rehab to life at home. Three weeks passed since we contracted with them and up to this point we managed to limit calls for help to office hours.
“First give this, then give that. Make sure your Mom drinks enough liquids.” I must have interrupted the nurse while she was filing her nails with her feet propped up.
“Yes, I gave her the Colace. Yes, I made her drink 16 oz of water.” I turned my back to my Mom. “Look, she is hysterical, and to be honest, so am I.”
“Steffi, oh, Steffi. Oh, oh.” My Mom grabbed the grey knit hat that now shrouded her bald scalp, the one she wore when I was a kid when we built snowmen and sled down the snow-covered hills in our neighborhood.
The nurse overheard my Mom and I got the impression she put her nail file down. “Stephanie, I think it might be best to try a suppository. I can hear how much pain she is in.”
Her suggestion ushered in a seminal role-reversal that I was about as prepared for as piloting The Concorde and that scared me just as much.
I scrambled over to the medicine cabinet and fumbled for the pack of suppositories. “How am I supposed to do that?” not asking so much about the mechanics.
“Well, your Mom can do it herself. It should help speed things up.”
An hour or more passed since my Mom first called me. I offered some sort of thanks to the nurse, tossed the phone down on the rainbow pile of frayed towels on the countertop, unwrapped the suppository and walked over to my Mom.
“Mom, the nurse said to try this.”
She stood up but lost her footing and fell backward. “I can’t do it! I can’t do it!”
“It’s ok, Mommy. It’s ok.”
“Help me, Steffi, help me.”
I wanted to grab her-pull her toward me-shake her and scream in her face. “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME? I NEED YOU. I NEED YOU TO BE OK. I…NEED…YOU…TO… BE…OK.”
Instead, I shoved my hysteria into time-out and reached for the surgical gloves under her vanity sink.
“Ok, Mommy. Relax, it’s ok. It’s ok. Lean on my shoulders.”
As I began, she screamed. “No gloves, no gloves. They hurt me. They hurt me.”
Tears pooled in my eyes. The lump in my throat I fought back for weeks bulged. I swallowed – my feeble weapon against emotional vomit.
I tore off the gloves.
As she whimpered, her breath warmed my ponytail.
Suggested Reading: The Middle Place, by Kelly Corrigan
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