September 30th

I had an aunt who was born on New Year’s Day. One day, my mother and I were talking about her birthday and my mother commented that she thought it was sad that my aunt’s birthday always got a bit lost in all the holiday hoopla.  I replied that I thought it would be neat to be a New Year’s baby.  My mother looked at me strangely and said, “You kind of were.”

“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked.

“Do the math,” she replied.

I was born on September 30, 1959.  Apparently, my conception was the result of my parents’ private party to ring in the new year.  Knowing this seems like too much information.

My birthday is pretty special to me.  It is the one day of the year that I give myself license to let things be all about me.  For people who see birthdays as a reminder that they are aging, I can see how it can be tempting to forget the whole thing.  I psyche myself out of the birthday/aging correlation by scrambling my thinking.  I’m celebrating my 30th anniversary of turning 29 this year. Anyway, I don’t really think birthdays are about marking the number of years in my life.  They are about celebrating the unique (all right, weird) conglomeration of attributes, accomplishments, and activities that makes up the wonder that is me.  After all, when we celebrate George Washington’s birthday, we aren’t celebrating how old he is.  We are celebrating his existence and contribution.  I may not be the founder of a nation, but I am the founder of my life.  I’m pretty proud of that life.

Last year, my birthday was marked by disorientation and distraction.  Coming a few short weeks after my mother’s death, I was still oversaturated with emotion.  I was just starting to learn to live in a new world without my mother.  I had not really even begun to craft a life that did not include being with her, caring for her, and being mothered by her.  I was definitely living gingerly on the fringes of a life, trying to avoid the cracks in the landscape that fractured my old existence during her long illness.  I had not begun to repair those cracks.  I had not yet patched over the cracks so I could transverse them in the journey of my own life.  I was just trying to stay away from the edges so I did not fall into them.

For the first time in my life, I dreaded my birthday last year.  I was sure it was going to be a difficult reminder of the other person who was around when I was born 58 years earlier.  Instead, it turned out to be a pretty good day.  Max made it his mission to indulge me.  Even though he always does what he can to make me happy, he made a concerted effort to kick it up a notch on my first birthday after my mother died.  He took me to Disney Springs.  We shopped and walked and enjoyed a beautiful day.  As we wandered around, a beautiful pair of earrings caught my eye in a store window. Max bought them for me, as a spontaneous birthday surprise.  “Spontaneous” and “surprise” are not words that typically describe Max, but he was trying everything he could think of to delight me.  We had dinner at one of the restaurants specializing in comfort food.  We didn’t forget my mother, certainly, but I have to say that the plan for the day was to distract myself from my grief.  The plan was pretty successful, all in all.

My strategy of distraction didn’t end with my birthday.  For months after my mother’s death, I seemed to be engaging in an endless stream of activity.  I joined clubs, volunteered, published a book, began seeing friends regularly, and kept myself busy, busy, busy.  Part of my busy-ness stemmed from a genuine desire to expand my life, but I’m sure that a lot of my motivation came from my need to fill the space in my heart that my mother left when she passed.  It wasn’t necessarily intentional, but I know I was trying to not feel the ugly disorder of my grief.

My super-sized activity schedule was not necessarily satisfying at first.  I was happy to fill my time with something other than sadness, but I didn’t feel particularly connected to the activities.  I went through the motions and ticked off the time without grief.  I felt pretty triumphant that I kept functioning and wasn’t falling apart.  Some of the new endeavors felt successful and others did not.  I purposely tried not to make any commitments beyond a few weeks because I felt so alien to everything I was doing and nothing felt momentum-producing.  Everything was just something to do to occupy my brain for the moment.

At some point in the months that followed, I noticed that all the activities began to feel more cohesive.  They were starting to feel like a part of my life, rather than some life I was just visiting to escape from reality.  At some point, activity matured into meaning.  I had built a bigger life without even realizing I was doing it. I was still sad, of course, but I could allow myself to feel sad without worrying that I was going to sink into a dark place from which I would not be able to recover.  I felt less bereft of a mother and much more aware that I still had a mother living in me and encouraging me from Heaven to grow towards my joy.

I don’t know how it happened.  I can’t describe the process or technique of learning to live with grief and joy simultaneously.  I am pretty certain I have not yet mastered the skill completely, but I know that I feel calmer and more peaceful. My busyness did turn out to be an instrument of healing, although I was not the one using the instrument.  God used my distraction to lead me to where I needed to be. It seems that the distractions I employed to deal with my disorientation primed some part of my personal mechanics to ignite my brain, open my heart, and send my soul searching for a more sumptuous sense of spirituality.  All that disconnection and hollowness in my busyness of last year has ripened into a richer, fuller, life.

If my birthday last year was marked by distraction, I think the watchword this year is engagement.  I’m reveling in all the new activities and situations I’ve experienced over the past year.  I’m celebrating the journey of life instead of being afraid of it.  I’m also doing something I’ve always wanted to do for my birthday this year.  Max and I are going on a bus tour to New England.  I’ve always wanted to go see that part of the country and peep at the autumn leaves.

So I think I’ve turned a corner in my grief.  Well, maybe not anything as sharp and definitive as a corner…. But I have definitely made a “slight right turn,” as the GPS calls it when you are approaching a gentle fork in the road and need to veer one way or another.  I do believe I am veering right.  And I think my mother is happy about it.

What will you be celebrating on your next birthday?  What life achievements, personal progress, or happy events will you remember with joy?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Have a joyful day!

Terri/Dorry 🙂

REMEMBER: You can order your copy of Changing My Mind: Reinventing Myself In Retirement by visiting: https://secure.mybookorders.com/orderpage/2076

Good Grief

It has now been a year since my mother died. I’ve tried to be healthy in my mourning.  I’ve seen a bereavement counselor a few times.  I’ve tried to focus on the wonderful gift that my mother was. In general, I’ve done very well.  I’ve been sad, but functional.  I’ve been mournful, but also hopeful.  I feel that I honor and celebrate my mother every day by the way I live my life.  Still, there is a facet of my grief has been stubborn and uncooperative.  It holds on relentlessly.  On the other hand, the grief isn’t nearly as sharp or as devastating as I thought it would be.

During the months of my mother’s illness, part of my daily terror had to do with how I could possibly withstand the shattering blow that I would doubtlessly experience when she died.  I was so sad and in so much pain while she was still alive, I couldn’t see how I would be able to handle her death.  I read the hospice information about anticipatory grief.  I think I might have been the poster child for the condition.  The research said that many people traveling with a loved one during a long illness do experience the grief of loss long before the final ending.  They may experience the exact same grief cycle as most people do when a loved one actually dies.  I absolutely understood that and I knew I was experiencing it.  The bitch of the matter, though, is that experiencing anticipatory grief in no way guarantees that the mourner will be any less shattered when the death does occur. I dreaded and resented having to experience the rawness of grief in duplicate.

When it finally happened, I found that my grief, though profound and prominent, did not feel as raw and septic as I feared it would. I think there are many reasons for that.

At first, I thought the reason that my mom’s death did not devastate me more was because of the long road we traveled together during her illness.  I started grieving long before she left me alone in this world.  After her stroke, her decline was so treacherous and unforgiving, I lost her step by step and piece by piece. As her brain gradually crumbled in the last year of her life, my heart crumbled along with it.  By the time she died, my heart wasn’t shattered because there was nothing left of it to shatter.

It was also hard not to feel some relief that my mother was finally whole and healthy and happy again in God’s dwelling place.  The foundation of my life is a belief system that encourages me to rejoice that my mother is living more abundantly in Heaven and is waiting there for me to join her.  I do find some joy in that notion.  That belief does take some of the pain out of the grief now, but it still does not prevent me from missing my mom every day in this life.

I think I also came to understand, in my mother’s last days, that I wasn’t losing everything I thought I was losing.  A blog reader once left a comment that said, during the end of life, everything burns away except love.  This was absolutely my experience.  In my mother’s illness, there were many times when she would look past me or away from me as if I wasn’t there. There were also occasions, though, when she would look into my eyes with such intensity and meaning that I could feel her loving me to my very soul.  That love, maybe the biggest and best part of her, will never die.  She loved me with a love that I can never lose.

I am sure that all of these reasons played a part in my milder mourning experience.  There is something else, though.  I had a model for grieving.  My mother gave me that.

When my father died, everyone worried about my mother.  She was always an emotional person who loved extravagantly.  She felt with the people she loved.  She rejoiced easily and cried easily.  People sometimes took that heart on her sleeve as a mark of fragility.  Not so.  When my father died, she did everything she could to mourn in a healthy way.  She cherished her memories of my father. She continued doing activities they enjoyed together.  She helped herself and her children heal by loving us and letting us love her.   She joined an online support group for widows and widowers.  She kept working at a job she enjoyed with people who uplifted her.  She mourned him deeply and permanently. I don’t think there was a Thanksgiving after his death when my mother didn’t cry when we gave thanks for the people we loved who were no longer with us. Still, in the midst of that mourning, there was a renaissance.  My mother moved towards a life of her own crafting. She set her own priorities.  She pursued her own interests. She indulged her gift for happiness. She set out on a path of continual learning and grew in every way.  She reveled in her independence.   She turned her grief into something good.

In my mourning for my mother, I think I have been experiencing my own renaissance- almost without even realizing it.  Without thinking too much about it, I find that my experience with my mother’s end of life journey has prompted me to nurture my own life.  I’ve identified several attributes in my own personality that may be holding me back from experiencing as much joy as possible in life.  Almost unconsciously, I’ve been examining those personal barriers and experimenting with strategies for knocking them out of my way.

Good grief may be the last gift my mom gave me.

What have you learned through the process of grieving a loved one?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com. 

Have a blessed day!

Terri/Dorry 🙂

 

The Stealthfulness Of Grief

Nobody tells you how sneaky grief is. 

For the first five months or so after my mom’s stroke, I rode the emotional roller coaster all the time.  It was understandable.  So much was happening and changing on an hourly basis.  Of course my emotional reactions fluctuated. 

After about five months, my mother’s condition plateaued.  She was not improving, but neither was she undergoing stressful medical procedures.  I got her settled in the nursing facility.  I resolved the financial side of things.  I sold her mobile home. Once her status quo seemed to be pretty stable, I thought I might be able to begin to stabilize myself and start learning to cope with my own feelings. 

For the most part, I thought I was doing pretty well.  I was figuring out how to accept the new reality. I was even starting to carve out a “mini life” for myself.  I was regularly spending some time without being engulfed in my mother’s condition and care.  None of it was easy.  I certainly can’t say I was truly “okay,” but I felt I was gradually repairing my shattered psyche.  Both my mother and I seem to be living in the now with a little more good grace and good cheer.  Our relationship is certainly not what it was in the pre-stroke days, but we are starting to find our footing in our new one.  We both seem to be recognizing each other again and are acting more like ourselves.  Things are far from “okay,” but, for right now, they are better than I can expect.  So there is every reason for me to put on my big girl panties and get on with life.   

Still, every now and again, I am just floored by sadness.  There isn’t even necessarily a reason or a trigger I can identify.  I’m fine…  and then I’m not.   

The other day, I was walking up to the door of the nursing facility.  I was carrying my purse, a case containing a portable DVD player that I bring to show my mom home movies, and a milkshake.  I don’t quite know how it happened, but I tripped on a warped place in the pavement. I might have been trying a new technique for long-jumping, except that I think you are supposed to land on your butt when long jumping, not forward onto your face.   It was as if I really believed I was Tinker Bell and had sprouted wings.  News flash- I had not.  

Luckily, I didn’t really hurt myself.  As I lay on the sidewalk, stunned, all I could think about was the milkshake that was now spilled all over the cement and the DVD player that might have been much more disabled by the fall than I was.  For some reason, that milkshake spill just demoralized me beyond almost anything I’ve experienced in life.  I felt so defeated that I kind of just wanted to lie there and hope the world would end.  It was a weird sensation of knowing that I was reacting beyond all rational thought but not caring.   

I knew the reaction wasn’t really about the milkshake.  It wasn’t about the DVD player (which, remarkably, was unharmed by its flight).  It wasn’t even about the fall.  It was the same old grief and stress that I thought I was conquering.  The reaction was about the fact that my mother is so compromised and I can’t fix it.  I thought I was coming to terms with that reality, but the sadness came crashing back out of nowhere.   

A very nice gardener guy helped me to my feet.  I stared at the mess I had left in my wake.  The gardener guy asked if I was all right and I said, “yes, but the milkshake is all over the ground and it is ruined.  Besides, there will be bees and people might slip on it.”  The gardener guy looked at me strangely and mumbled some sort of embarrassed response.  Still a little in shock, I made my way into the facility and into my mother’s room, where I greeted her sans milkshake.  I burst into tears when I saw her, apologizing profusely for the lack of ice cream.  I think I kind of alarmed her.  She kept telling me to go home but I wouldn’t.  I didn’t want the fall to win.   

When I did leave the nursing home, still feeling unspeakably sad, I noticed the milkshake mess was mysteriously gone.  I am sure that my nice gardener guy cleaned it up for me.  Thank you, nice gardener guy.   

I read somewhere that sometimes you don’t have to get over things; you just have to get through them.  Maybe the “getting through them” isn’t always by a straight path. 

Has grief ever “snuck up” on you?  How do you cope?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Have a thoughtful day!

Terri 🙂