A Swing Away From Caregiving

A warm breeze travels through the canyons, carrying the scent of lavender as it brushes my cheek.  My bare toes touch the deck’s surface sending the canopied swing into motion.

Taking a four-hour airplane ride, an hour-long bus ride and a three-hour car trip, I finally arrive in this magical place.  I feel my heart rate slow, my breath deepens and my shoulders relax as I watch the flight of blue jays and woodpeckers.

I laugh at the quail racing across the acorn-littered forest floor, and note the different appearance of the squirrels here in Atascadero, California.  Two-thousand miles from my home, I am sitting next to my sister Cindy on her swing, discussing the sewing projects that have prompted my travel.

Cindy’s invitation offers more than the sharing of her talent for sewing.  It offers me a much-needed retreat from my caregiving duties of our mother and all those I minister to who are journeying through grief and life’s losses.  Cindy is sharing her summer vacation with me, enjoying time away from lesson plans and the bureaucratic nightmare of teaching elementary school.    

We pour a glass of California grown chardonnay, toasting to our new rhythm of life for the next week, and our freedom from responsibilities.

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At the same time we clink glasses, my cell phone rings.  Looking at the caller ID, I see MOM.

Believing that she wouldn’t call me so soon, I answer, hoping that she is okay.

She asks about my flight, the weather, and I find myself getting angry about her interrupting my time away.  I know she had wanted to come along, although her traveling days are over.

And then she says, “I didn’t want to tell you, but I fell.” 

Twenty minutes later I have all the details and the response to my question, “How are you doing now?”  Again our mother defies the odds, ending up with a small scrape on her knee after falling on concrete.  The paramedics came to help her up, advising her to go to the hospital and she refused, telling me, “I’ll call the doctor in the morning if I’m in a lot of pain.” 

Hanging up, I realize all the important lessons I have learned over the years as a caregiver:

–  Even when we think we are the only ones who can do the job, the reality is – we are replaceable.  Even when a preferred caregiver is unavailable, there is usually someone else willing and able to take our place.

–  Outcomes are random and impersonal, worrying about leaving or taking a day off doesn’t change what will or will not happen.

–  Without time away, you will become less effective and efficient as a caregiver and resentment will set in.

–  Sometimes we aren’t needed as much as we think – those we take care of can and often do find solutions to their problems without our input.

–  Setting boundaries cannot be overstated – caregivers’ personal needs matter, and without boundaries those we care for can become dependent on us despite being capable themselves.

I would love to hear from you – What lessons have you learned from being a caregiver?  How is it you take care of yourself while caregiving?    

Posted in Caregivers, caregiving, Caregiving Confessions, family, Grief, Healing, self-care, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Lesson Learned From Someone Else’s Loss

The voice inside my head starts talking loudly every time I drive to the gym.  It says things like, “I hate exercising inside on such a nice day.  What’s the point when all it seems to do is make me hungry afterwards?  Am I helping my sore back or making it worse?”

Once there, I reluctantly get on the stationary bike and start pedaling, an episode of the Property Brothers on HGTV easing any pain with distraction.  My routine deviates little – machines, Elliptical, bike, and through it all racing to get finished.

Bounding down the stairs, forging ahead to the last hurdle of my dreaded workout, I almost barrel into a woman standing by a wheelchair.

The balding man she is helping has a brace on his right leg.  His left side looks paralyzed, a four-pronged cane helps him to stand, moving toward the weight machine.  What seems like an excruciating amount of time goes by as he stands up from the wheelchair and pivots to the bench.  

I try not to watch as I move to the next machine in the circuit, but distance cannot block out the moaning.  Reaching with his one functional arm, the bar is pulled down, drawn back up – each time his face grimaces and he gasps in pain.

The face of the woman with him is too tired to respond.  I know she wears the mask of a care-giver and I think about the silent pain she bears.  I look away, not only to honor their privacy, but because I am ashamed.

I have lost a lot of things in my lifetime, but sometimes it takes a kick in the head to see what I DO have.  I have never lost the use of my body (other than a six-week period to rehab a torn calf muscle) and now that seems trivial as I watch this stranger.

Acknowledging the life lesson in front of my face, I exercise with a renewed sense of purpose.

Why do I now go to the gym and workout?

BECAUSE I CAN.

My imperfect body with its aches and pains is still capable.

So, I now workout for all those who CAN’T and I do it without complaining!   

What about YOU?  Do you exercise and if so, do you see it as a blessing or a curse?  I’d love to hear your comments!

 

 

 

Posted in behavior, Caregivers, Disabilities, Grief, Inspiration, Lessons from others, Life's Losses, My story, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Back To My Grief As I Drive On

I have just dropped my husband Jeff off at the Harley Davidson dealer so that he could free our Road King from its inactive winter storage.  Traveling back home in the right lane of a two-lane road, the red light makes me stop at the busy intersection.

I hear a crunching sound, sense something bad is happening and then I see the street sign on my left break apart and fall directly on the concrete median.  The face of a man behind the steering wheel of the car is the next thing I see.  The side of his car is inches from ours – swerving after he sends the post flying and continuing to slam into parked cars in the lanes next to ours.

The red lights and siren of the police car are immediate – the timing and place of another helper not requiring me to call 911.

I look over at the car to my left fully aware that they are the luckiest people for narrowly escaping a light pole falling on their car.  I roll down my window and say, “WOW, are you okay?  It seems today is our lucky day!”  We are all fine and as the light turns green we continue towards our destinations, being moved by the rush-hour traffic behind us.

My heartbeat is rapid and all I can do is pray that no one was hurt and that the police were able to stop a bad situation from getting worse.  I pull off to a quiet side street to steady myself with deep breathing, driving with a renewed sense of caution when I continue.

But no matter what I do, the scene plays out over and over in my mind.

I remember new details as time goes on, and more questions go unanswered.

Once the shock of the moment subsides,  blessings are revealed…

I can’t help but think that this experience has similarities to my grief journey.  The day my husband Chris died was an ordinary day, as we performed usual tasks like work and parenting; then life as we knew it came crashing down just like that light post.

Chris was dead, without warning from an accident at work, and I was left feeling like a parked car being slammed by a crazy driver.  Seeing his lifeless body, gathering information and notifying loved ones, the scene before me played out for days and months, over and over again.

I wasn’t able to sort through all the emotions and questions that day, so as more time went on more was revealed, taken in and expressed.

Like knowing that I needed to turn off the busy street to just take a breath after my experience the other day, when Chris died I needed to learn self-care in a whole new way.  I needed to find healing techniques for my body, mind and spirit so that I could move beyond my loss and drive into my “new normal.”

I also learned which people I could rely on, those willing to listen to my truth and those not afraid of my pain.  They became my 911 responders as I mourned my husband, and their timing was perfect.

After the loss of a significant person in your life, nothing looks the same.  Shock blurs your vision; your mind can only process small bits of information at a time, and your heart pounds feeling ready to break.

But, with the gift of time (often longer than you expect) and after doing your “grief work,” if you look for them, you will find blessings.  You just might see that people, places and things all came together to support you in your darkest hour.

Be bold, take a deep breath and drive on…

Posted in Grief, grieving, growth, Healing, My story, The Gifts of Grief | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Some People Don’t Get It, But Television Might

Last Thursday night, I am hunkered down on the couch watching my favorite show, the ABC television medical drama series, Grey’s Anatomy.  I find myself thumbing through tweets during the commercials.  One of them strikes me that said, “This is the ODDEST Greys I’ve ever seen.  WHAT?  All over the place.  WEIRD…”

The voice in my head booms back in an annoyed tone saying, “YEP, you are right, it is all over the place and weird.  That’s what GRIEF is – obviously you don’t get it!”  Even though this may be an unfair judgment of my Twitter friend, I can’t help but think, “Have you ever loved someone who has died suddenly and traumatically?  What is your experience watching a friend or loved one grieve?” 

I am the first to criticize media’s portrayal of death and those grieving afterwards.  You can read my post here related to the popular television series, Downton Abbey, and what I consider their inaccurate representation of what the character Lady Mary Crawley went through after the death of her husband, Matthew.

But I feel Grey’s Anatomy captured some of the normal emotions and reactions to loss among all those affected by the sudden death of one of its main characters, Dr. Derek Shepherd, also known as “McDreamy” and the husband of the show’s leading character, Dr. Meredith Grey.  Watch it here and see what you think.

Grey’s Anatomy – How to Save a Life

These are the things I think they got right:  First, the things that mirrored my experience as a young widow:

  • The walking zombie-like state that Meredith is in when she announces the news to her co-workers and friends.
  • The feeling of not really being present even though you are in a crowded room (funeral guests in her home).
  • The replaying of life events and memories in your mind as you process your new reality (the scenes from all the years of their love story).
  • The way in which her instincts as a professional doctor took over in the midst of crisis, even when the wife wanted to scream and shout.
  • Time not being the same as it was before and the want to slow the world down.
  • The need to run from the pain because it is too much to take in all at once.
  • Meredith sees Derek in her dreams and hears him speak, which brings her comfort.

Their portrayal of what happens to those around the widow, as a result of the loss felt by other family members, friends and co-workers is true to life:

  • Meredith’s friends’ struggle not knowing what to do to help her.
  • Conversations are sparked in other people’s lives because of Meredith’s situation (Dr. Bailey’s discussion with her husband about life-sustaining measures and their discussion about what they want if they are in an accident).
  • Bursts of anger come out at inappropriate times, as a result of pent-up frustration and raw emotions.
  • Dr. Amelia Shepherd’s denial of her feelings about her brother’s death which culminates in her obtaining drugs and contemplating relapse.
  • The recognition that everyone is grieving in their own way and that they can support each other in their recovery.
  • Dr. Webber’s proposal to the woman he loves because he is reminded after Derek’s death, that life is too short to postpone the things you want to do.

Thank you to the Grey’s Anatomy writers who got it right, and who brought up the taboo subject of death, loss and bereavement.  Maybe by watching this episode, it will educate those who “don’t get it” until it is their turn to experience loss and the grief that comes with it.

DON’T BE SHY – LET ME KNOW WHAT YOU THINK?

Posted in Bereavement, death, Grief, grieving, Loss of a spouse, Relationships, Widowhood | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Story Ends With a Four-Letter Word, Does Yours?

HOPE.  It’s the word that draws me in, the one that makes me click the Twitter link on National Grief and Hope Convention.  I have attended presentations on loss and grief locally and investigated options throughout the country, but there always is something missing – now this title speaks to me personally.

As a nurse, caregiver and widow, I know firsthand that without hope, losses are devastating to our body, mind and spirit.  I also know that each one of our stories is unique and that those who hang on to even a shred of hope, come out of the darkness stronger.

I gather information about the convention in Indianapolis and learn that high-profile speakers will share their stories of loss and their road back to life.  I find followers on Twitter who will be in attendance and look forward to meeting them in person.

Ten years ago I met Suzanne, a young widow whose husband died suddenly while on a business trip.  Our pastor brought us together, since I was widowed fifteen years before.  We have been friends ever since, and Suzanne is the person I ask to join me on my trip to Indianapolis.  

I find it difficult to articulate all the emotions bubbling up during the weekend as we meet parents who have lost children, spouses now alone and those who have lost multiple family members or friends.

Tears flow freely, crying is audible and yet through all the pain laughter is heard, new friendships made and stories of survival and hope shared.

As I listen to each speaker – Sybrina Fulton, Dr. Bernice King and Tanya Brown, I am surprised that their stories are not political nor focused on the well-known publicized details.  Rather, they share the personal details of their journey through the darkness and the ways in which they found the light and decided to live despite their losses.

If I take one thing away from their messages, it is that when a loss occurs, grief arrives.  It doesn’t care what you do, who you know, where you work, what your skin color is or the amount of money in your wallet.

Grief demands the same attention from all of us, challenging each of us to look it squarely in the eye.  If we don’t do the hard work that grief requires, it can destroy even the strongest among us and leave us a skeleton devoid of spirit.

I felt so honored to be among greatness this past weekend – not greatness that comes from a powerful legacy or credentials behind a name, but greatness that grows out of adversity. 

There are so many people who need help after loss and if I could give them one gift, I would share the stories I heard at the convention.  Stories of foundations, non-profits and scholarships set up to honor loved ones, stories about the books written, blogs started and laws changed by the very people whose hearts are broken.  I would share the stories of resiliency and life triumphing over death and darkness, and I would tell them that each of our stories end with Hope.  

  

 

Posted in death, Grief, Grief & Hope Convention, Healing, Inspiration, My story | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In the Name of God – How Faith Communities Can Support the Bereaved

The words of his story stick in his throat as Roger tries to swallow his emotions.  His wife Elaine has died four months ago; the fresh pain being unleashed as he finds a willing listener in me.

Elaine had been chronically ill before her death, but Roger’s role as caregiver has ended abruptly.  Two weeks after her funeral, he finds himself in need of his own caregiver when he falls and breaks his leg, requiring surgery and rehabilitation.

Some of it is a blur as he tries to retrace the facts; but one thing is adamantly clear as his voice deepens and he stands tall saying, “I will never go back to my church as long as I live!”

Digging deeper into his story, Roger tells me the priest didn’t call or visit him while hospitalized.  There wasn’t a follow-up call to check on him after the funeral, nor any contact made until four-months later when the priest asks, “Whatever happened to Elaine’s memorials for the church, we haven’t received them yet?”  

blog image - clenched fist

Roger’s fist is clenched and his jaw locks as he describes his feelings about that phone call.  He is hurt that he was never asked how he was doing and that his grief wasn’t recognized. 

A week after that life-changing phone call, Roger’s neighbor invites him to a grief support group at her church and he accepts.  He feels welcomed, supported by the parish nurse and the other men and women he meets who have lost their spouse.

Roger is given a safe place to express his feelings, and even when he talks about being angry at God, he is not shunned.  Others admit similar feelings and questions about faith are explored, not denied. 

The memorial contributions are mailed to the church where his wife’s funeral took place, but Roger is no longer a member.  He has found a new community of faith, a place of love and compassionate care.  Thanks be to God!

For the last twenty years, I have heard similar versions of this story as I journey with those who have lost a loved one.  The deceased is a spouse, a child or a parent and the church leader is a priest, pastor or a rabbi.

It doesn’t matter.

What matters to those who are grieving a loss, is that they have a safe environment to openly discuss their grief – which may include anger at God.  The most therapeutic message (from the stories I have heard) is that their faith leaders did not preach theology or say that they had all the answers; rather, they offered compassion and acceptance along the way.

Offering prayer support and understanding at a time when the bereaved often cannot pray for themselves or attend church has been helpful as well.  Given adequate time to grieve their losses in a supportive environment, people are more likely to return to their faith and their places of worship.  Even those who struggle with their faith after the death of a significant person, if supported in a therapeutic way – will worship again and often report a deeper, personal relationship with their Higher Power.

Roger turned away from his church only to find another where he felt accepted and supported during an extremely difficult time in his life.  He felt like his priest and those in his first congregation “just didn’t get it.”

What about you?  Has your community of faith supported you during your loss?  What has been helpful or hurtful during your journey through grief?  I would love to hear from you!   

Posted in Bereavement, Faith, Grief, Healing, Lessons from others, Religion, Spirituality, support | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What Makes Your Grief Bubble Up?

“My grief bubbles up at the most random times,” she says as we find ourselves talking about our losses during our coincidental meeting in the YMCA locker room.

Days later I think of her words when my eyes fill with tears.  I am scraping remnants of blueberry pancakes from our plates before loading the dishwasher, and grief “bubbles up.”

Dad loved coming over for pancakes on Saturday mornings, eating a simple breakfast with us before watching cartoons with his grandchildren.  The last time we were together he ate this same Saturday breakfast at our home, and two days later he was gone.

In the last few weeks I have attended two funerals, given a grief presentation for widowers and widows and spoke with people of all ages about life losses they are experiencing.  Like all in the caring professions, I forget to care for myself – shouldering the weight of journeying with others through loss.

Like the hot molten lava that spews out of a volcano, grief needs to be released.  Today my tears bring relief, other times the release comes through exercise, pounding a pillow, or finding respite in nature.

Whether our loss is recent or many years in the past, we can find our emotions fragile.  Let it out.  Find healthy ways to release the pressure of your loss and allow your grief to bubble up!

Posted in Grief, grieving, Healing, Lessons from others, Life's Losses, My story | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments