Nine things I’ve learned about grief

I’m still sliding down the slope. Some days I don’t even try to get a handhold of something, anything, with which to pull myself back up and into my life.

I started this blog with the intention of writing more, and regularly. My last post was over a week ago. That’s not very regular. Part of the problem is that I wanted this blog to chronicle mid-life—what’s important to me at this stage in life, what I enjoy doing, what challenges I face. And I pledged to write whatever was on my mind in the morning when I awoke. Many days now, and still, my thoughts are filled with my deceased parents in the morning, and I just don’t want to keep burdening you with that.

But the loss of parents is a part of many individuals’ mid-life, so I am going to write about where I stand today.

We visited our grandchildren in St. Louis twice this month. The first week from the 12th to the 20th, we went to celebrate their birthdays. The second week from the 29th to November 3, to help out with the children while our daughter-in-laws’ mother had emergency surgery and was in ICU with an initial uncertain diagnosis. She is doing fine now.

But what I’ve noticed with out of town trips this year is that I am fine, and even happy, while I am away, but when I return the grief hits me like a lead blanket. It pulls me down.

One day, in the week between the two trips, I felt like I had burst through the gray cloud of grief that hovers above me, never too far away. I took  that as a good sign.

I am afraid of heading into the next three months, with the holidays and the anniversaries of events. The last dinner we had with my parents was last year at Thanksgiving. Mom was diagnosed with cancer on December 2. Dad went to the ER on December 4. We moved Dad to the nursing home and later, Mom to the assisted living apartment. Mom went to the hospital on Christmas day. Mom died on January 12th. We buried Mom and celebrated Dad’s 80th birthday on January 18th. Dad died on the 26th. So many significant dates in the next few months.

Does the day of the year carry a marker in our brains that makes anniversaries happy or difficult? Or is it that our planet is spinning back through a place in the universe where events occurred and energies still linger? That’s a little cosmic for me, I know. But the fact that we have circled the sun and returned to this space has not escaped me.

I’ll leave you with nine things I’ve learned about grief so far:

1. Initially, grief is violent, painful, and inescapable, hitting you like a tsunami. All you can do is cling to a rooted support hoping to surface when the waters pass.

2. Grief leaves a silence and emptiness behind after the initial wave passes through, giving you time to look around at the destruction but not the energy to deal with it.

3. Grief fills up your senses and leaves a taste in your mouth.

4. Grief is demanding of your attention, coming in waves.

5. Grief surprises you when you least expect it and causes spontaneous tears at a restaurant or an anxiety attack while visiting a hospital.

6. Grief has far-reaching effects making you view your mortality, question your purpose, and fear the next time it strikes in perhaps a bigger way.

7. Grief may be permanent. It changes your heart and leaves a hole in your life that you learn to live around.

8. I think, with time, grief can help you focus on what’s important here and now.

9. Grief is your friend. It never allows you to forget those you’ve loved and lost.

Adrift — an exercise in association

One thing led to another. I was walking Arthur this morning, allowing my mind to wander, when I noticed someone’s spent irises in a garden. They had not pruned theirs back or cut them down.

I wonder if I should trim my irises down, I thought. I’ve done that in the past. The long slender leaves are browning at the tips, and some are bowing down at the waist.

I know you can, and should, trim them when you transplant them, but I think you have to do that within a certain time frame of the blooming.

I should look it up online.

It would be a lot easier to leave them as they are like this person has done. I have irises in the the front landscaping, the St. Francis garden, and the Angel garden. I should see how the irises I planted last year that J. gave me from his garden are doing.

I wonder if the new owners of Mom and Dad’s house will keep the irises that J. planted beside the patio last fall. Maybe they’ll turn the whole swatch of ground beside the patio into a little garden. Or maybe they’ll cut the irises down or take them out and replant grass.

I should drive by and see.

I could take Arthur and park my car down the street and just stroll around the block. It’s not like I would be stalking anybody; I’m just curious how things look at the house.

I just want to be close to the house again.

I can never go back again.

And once more I am in a small boat in a dark sea, moving away from the homeland that contains the comfort of my parents, the guidance of their wisdom, the memories of happy years, and any future with them.

I am adrift. The spinning of the earth and the pull of moon move me yet further and further away into the dark.

Then I notice a light shining. And I realize I am not alone in my little boat. It is bigger than I thought.  My sisters and brother are here with me. They have a lantern that glows in the night.

The light shines as we move away and the distant shore to which we will never return fades into the darkness behind us.

There is more light now. It’s Mark. He holds a bright light in the front of the boat showing the way, showing a way.

And then I hear laughter.

My boat is quite large, I see, as it fills with the light my children and grandchildren shine who are still here with me.

And we travel on together.

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With suitcase in tow

In the short and cold days of January I drive to Hospice where spots of packed down and slippery snow coat the parking lot. I pull my loaded overnight case with wheels out of the trunk and settle my tote bag on top. It contains my iPad, a book to read, Werther’s original candy, some Dove chocolates, and important papers that include the Healthcare Power of Attorney documents for both my Mom and my Dad that I have been informed I need to have with me always. The tote bag also holds a small purse that I am never ever without. It contains my cell phone and a small notebook I created with all the information that I need at my fingertips including phone numbers, social security numbers, doctors numbers, medicine lists, insurance card numbers, and other pertinent information.

I turn around, pulling my bag through an inch or two of snow, and move towards the door with care not to slip and fall. The man with the silver hair in the enclosed golf cart pulls up beside me and offers me a ride. Although I accepted one the last time, today I decide it is just as easy to keep walking than to lug my suitcase into the cart and back out again for such a short distance.

I sign in at the Hospice front desk and make my way down the halls to my mom’s room with my suitcase in tow. My sister K. has packed her things back in her bag and is getting ready to go home. The air mattress she brought, after we determined the chair that pulled out into a hard bed was beyond hope even with the addition of a foam pad, is leaned on its end against the wall in the corner behind the recliner. K. was right that it fits on the floor between the two chairs in the room, but just barely.

I remove my wet boots and place them behind the door where they will make a small puddle that I will clean up later. Mom is awake and we all talk for a few minutes while I remove my hat and coat and get my slippers out of my suitcase. K. and I keep our spirits up for Mom and our tone has an element of celebration to it. We are all here together chatting. We are family and we need each other.

K. goes over the highlights of her 24 hours with Mom and hands me the stenographer’s notebook with green lined pages that we keep a running journal in. She puts her coat on and leaves, pulling her overnight bag behind her.

Mom dozes off.

I settle into the recliner and read K.’s notes from yesterday:

Lunch: 1/4 C of tea

3 small pieces of turkey

3 small bites of sweet potatoes

1 sip of milk

3 oz of vanilla milkshake

1/2 roll

Supper: 3 spoons of chicken and noodle soup with crackers

10:00 p.m. We had to wake her up for her meds. She was very groggy. We used applesauce to make it easier for her to swallow.

4:30 a.m. Mom woke up and went to the bathroom alone. She was in pain when she got back to bed. We got an I.V. for the pain.

8:30 a.m. Breakfast. Very groggy—couldn’t focus on eating. She took 1 bite of eggs by herself. I gave her a few sips of tea. I gave her one small bite of eggs, a tiny bite of bacon, and tiny bite of toast. I put the tray to the side—

*Meds are being given with vanilla pudding now (or apple sauce).

*She can have more pain medicine at 2:10

*Ask about the IV. How does it affect grogginess?

I try to rest with my feet elevated. If tonight goes like the previous ones, I will be up a lot helping Mom to the bathroom and trekking down the hall and through the sprawling building to the snack area where I can warm up Mom’s heating pads that seem to bring her comfort.

I go through the routine of watching Mom not eat, and recording it, watching the clock and asking for her medicines on time even if she is sleeping through it. We have learned from experience that we don’t want to delay the meds. I have a few short conversations with Mom when she rouses, primarily about the minutiae of her daily life here.

“I have busy days here,” she tells me from her hospital bed from which she only rises to use the bathroom.

I do the best I can to keep her comfortable and anticipate her needs. I sleep when I can. I talk to the doctor and nurses when they come and tell me again that Mom is on a steady decline. They don’t tell me anything I can’t see for myself.

I keep detailed notes for my sisters all the while.

Sometime before noon my sister comes to replace me. I have returned the air mattress, that I wrestled into place on the floor last night, back to its spot against the wall behind the chair. I have returned my things to my bags. I pull on my hat, coat, and boots; kiss Mom good-bye and leave with my suitcase in tow.

~~

Five months later I watch for my sister K. to arrive for an overnight visit. I’ll show her how I arranged Mom and Dad’s china in the cabinet, and the display I created with Dad’s flag and army badges and metals. I’ll show her the shadow box where I arranged my share of Mom’s costume jewelry pins that Dad always gave her. I’ll show her the scrapbooks I’ve finished and the photos I’ve still to scan.

She arrives, parks her car, pulls out her overnight bag and enters our house, suitcase in tow.

We are family.

We need each other.

Lives contained in a cedar chest

I feel my past slipping away like a landslide, the topsoil steadily moving down behind me like a carpet pulling everything with it into the deep dark void. Unstoppable. Taking the houses, the trees, and me.

Who took the Adams’ Bible?” my aunt wants to know. “There was a big ruckus over that Bible. It landed in the hands of an alienated family member.  Aunt Flo finally got it back and your mother got it from her.

I scanned all the black and white photos in Dad’s leather album from his time in the army in Germany, transcribing all the little handwritten notes on the backs.

Me standing at attention. Shaner messed this up. He didn’t tell me I was shadowed.

This is my equipment that we had to carry most of the time. I took it Sunday when we had inspection.

We had a demonstration yesterday and here is a shot taken right after the air force dropped some napalm on the target before the tanks and big guns moved in. It was some show.

Me sewing up a pair of shorts. The general is coming to inspect. (It didn’t do any good. We failed.)

Mom’s framed wedding portrait with a telegram from my grandfather to my dad in Germany.

Congratulations. It’s a little girl. Arrived at 9:30. Everything okay.

I scanned all the photos of Mom and my sister in the back of Dad’s army album that I never realized were there.

She’s got her eyes open a little bit more here. Isn’t she the cutest thing you ever saw?

This is where I give her a bath. Right by the stove. I turn the burners on so it will be nice and warm for her.

Mom and Dad’s memories, recorded on film, sent across the ocean, returned home, arranged in a photo album, held in place with black photo corners.

Envelopes of color photos from the trip to D.C., my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, Mom and Dad’s 50th anniversary. Grandchildren.

I’ll keep the things they saved from their parents. Photos, marriage licenses, death certificates. A hand-written diary from Mom’s grandfather and his farming days.

I’ll put it all in the cedar chest with their high school graduation photos and yearbooks; with the outfit Mom wore in the photo with her great-grandson just two years ago, and Dad’s captain’s hats from his pontoon days at the cottage at the lake.

Little mementos. Articles of genealogical interest. Sentimental items.

I’ll store them all away, for what purpose I do not know. Small fragments of a past that is no more.

23-08 - sewing short - not in album

Healing the Heart – Caring again

“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.” ~Earl Grollman
(from Guideposts Through Grief, a Hospice of Dayton publication).

I am slowly clawing my way up out of the abyss that began on December 2 with the words form my brother-in-law, “Your sister called from the ER. She wanted me to tell you because she can’t tell you herself. The CT scan showed that your mother has cancer throughout her abdomen.”

Someday maybe I’ll share some of the details that haunt my mind and spring up unannounced of the the ER trips, hospital stays, Hospice stay, bedside death vigils. But for now, I am trying to heal my heart and reclaim my life.

And you, my dear blog readers and blogging friends are a good strong root I can grasp on my climb. I hope to be visiting all of your blogs soon and spend a little time with each of you to catch up.

Life nudges me forward—a visit with grandchildren, practical matters of our parents’ personal property to sort and a house to prepare for sale, a son’s marriage proposal, a daughter’s oral surgery, a trip to plan. Life goes on.

Never have I waited for Spring with more hope. The past few days the weather carries that first touch of warmth and the birdsong is of spring. I can sense it in the air. Crocus and daffodil bulbs are sprouting.

Thank you for all the kind words and support throughout. They have been a comfort to me.

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Reunion in heaven

It’s possible my dad could not bear to be here without my mom. Or perhaps she could not bear to be, where ever she is, without him.

Dad went on Hospice crisis care Thursday afternoon and quietly departed this life at 3:23 a.m. Saturday with my sister at his side.

After surviving the Great Depression as a child; serving in the army in Germany for two years during the Korean War; fathering and raising five children to adulthood; caring for a disabled daughter for 51 years; providing employment for others through a small business for many years; remaining a loving and faithful spouse for 59 years; participating as a faithful follower of Christ his entire life; surviving prostate cancer for more than 10 years; and enduring the ravages of Alzheimer’s on his cognitive and physical abilities for over five years; Jerry A. Smith is finally at rest. He was an intelligent, responsible, hard-working, loyal, and loving son, brother, husband, father, and grandfather. May he rest in peace.

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Ten things I’ve learned since December

1. Being with Dad, even though he can’t walk, can’t talk, and may not always know who I am,  is now a comfort instead of a grief.

2. We do what we have to do and priorities get clear in a crisis.

3. Moving Dad to a nursing home was not as terrible as I had expected and always dreaded.

4. Everything is relative.

5. I have an unlimited and unstoppable capacity to hope, like my mother.

6. No matter how much we may want someone to live, death will not wait.

7. Grief comes in unannounced and overwhelming waves.

8. Grief has a taste and odor and prickly needles and fills up your senses, and creates nausea, and is so much more than mere sadness.

9. Words of comfort are, in fact, comforting.

10. You can watch your mother expel her last breath, touch her cold hands in a funeral parlor, and sit beside her closed coffin at her grave, and have none of it seem real.

A beautiful place to rest – Spring Grove Cemetery

“If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”
  Khalil Gibran ~ On Death

Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati is one of the largest nonprofit cemeteries in the United States.

It is a National Historic Landmark with graves of both revolutionary war and civil war soldiers.

“When the hours of Day are numbered,
And the voices of the Night
Wake the better soul, that slumbered,
To a holy, calm delight. . .”  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – Footsteps of Angels

Spring Grove is a beautiful cemetery and is famous for its lawn plan, unconventional at the time of its creation, but now a model for many other cemeteries.

The designer, Strauch, “believed in developing the landscape to harmonize with nature. He re-routed roads to follow the natural shapes of Spring Grove’s hills and valleys.

He built lakes, islands, footbridges, protected woodland areas,

and brought hundreds of trees and plants from other parts of the world,” (Spring Grove Cemetery).

“Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy! ”  John Keats ~  Ode to a Nightingale

The varied landscaping transports you from what might be a mysterious Louisiana swampland

to a stately Georgian plantation.

“Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.” Emily Dickenson

Gravemarkers range from the elaborate—

buildings made of marble and stone,

this one boasting flying buttresses—

to the simple.

“Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so . . .”  John Donne

“I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.”   W. B. Yeats ~ An Irish Airman Foresees his Death

“Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.”  Christina Rossetti ~ Remember

Where are you now?

~ * ~

It’s been two years today since you breathed your last,
And a handful of days beyond
when last I saw your smile.

It seems like only yesterday.
It seems like forever.

I don’t know where you are.

Then was then.
Now is now.
And a great gulf lies between.

Have you seen how far we’ve come?

So many things you taught me.
I think I knew.

So much brightness you shone.
I had no idea.

Where are you now?

Letting the soul leave

Someone must open a window so the soul can leave.

I saw a commercial on television the other day showing the outside of a house at night with a light shining from an upstairs window and a feeble older voice saying, “Open a window so the soul can leave.” Then there was a voice-over about nurses and nursing care. At the end of the commercial you see a figure move to the window and gently close it. A different, younger and stronger voice says, “Not tonight.”

For at least another night, with the help of the nurse, life has won and death has been defeated.

It made me think of my sister Annie, and the evening not so very long ago when death won.


Did your soul leave while your little body remained, not seeing, not responding, not moving save for burdened breaths?

Or was your soul watching later with you and I, alone in the room, your visible pulse fluttering through your neck,  slowing to one, two, three strong heartbeats, stopping? Was your soul there with me then?

Was your soul watching as we each said good-bye to your still body, leaving the room one by one, save for Mom who stayed with the nurse, gently bathing your body one last time? Did you hover about?

Did you sneak out the door when they came with the gurney? Or did you stay to watch, everyone huddled behind closed doors while they zipped your body into a bag?

Did you watch as they unzipped the bag for me to check details, reassuring Mom that you lied on your stomach with your legs slightly bent, your ankles crossed, your right leg over your left?

Was your soul looking for a way out? Were you waiting to leave?

Did you fly out the door when they rolled the gurney away, your body zipped up tight, David and J.D. accompanying it to the hearse like an honor guard? Did you fly away when the door opened, or did  your soul stay to watch?

Did you stay and linger with us a while as we went through the motions in the days that followed of things needing to be done?

Was your soul waiting in your empty room when I returned to it, time and again,  still feeling your presence there?

How long did your soul stay? Did it quietly slip away later, after we’d dropped our vigil?

When did your soul leave?

It’s gone.

Diane Louise Smith "Annie" May 17, 1958 - August 16, 2009