Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Saturday, October 23, 2010
October 19th, 2010I think about Mom a lot. It seems like she crosses my mind most when I am driving. Yesterday I was thinking about her hair. She had the most beautiful wavy hair. When she was younger it was blond. I always wanted blond hair. I don’t know how my sister can say that I was Mom’s favorite when she got the blond hair, not me!
At the end of her life, her hair was white as snow. She had it styled once a week by the beautician at the nursing home and if her bath aide would put a shower cap on her head, her hair would stay looking beautiful until her next appointment. When I would comment on how nice her hair looked she always did this “thing”. She would tilt her head to the side, raise her hand to her cheek, smile and bat her eyelashes like a silent movie star. I sure wish I had a picture of her in that pose. She always made me laugh. I still chuckle when I think about it, like in the car yesterday.
When I think back on the time I spent caring for Mom, I have a few regrets. I didn’t know at the time but it is little things that I miss the most. Little things like the way she used to introduce me to the same people over and over, her elegant taste in clothes and art, her whimsical smile when she was laughing at herself. If I had known before, I would have taken more pictures and videos of Mom while she was alive. I would have recorded more of those moments so I could look at them and chuckle and say “Yep, that is so like her!”
Another thing I would have done is to get her to talk more about her past and her family. I am the youngest in our family, and when I was growing up we didn’t live close to any of our relatives. I look at old family photos now and I only see strangers looking back at me. It bothers me that I do not know much of our family history, and that I can’t share it with my son either.
I think that if there is something about your loved one that reminds you of them, or makes you laugh or cry, or something that defines them in your memory then you should write it down or record it on film while you still have time; get them to talk about their childhood and their memories so that those experiences are not lost. A good place to start is a book like Mom, Share Your Life With Me (there is a version for fathers, too) or Memories for My Grandchild. These books at least get the dialogue started, and they start you thinking of questions you want answered. If they don’t mind, you could record or film the conversations, too.
I realize now that I should have spent some of the time that I was visiting with Mom by asking many of the questions contained in these books and writing her history and memories down for all of us to know her better. And while I may regret that I didn’t visit her more often, or didn’t take her more places, or that I didn’t bring her enough flowers, I think what I regret the most is not asking questions while I had the time.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
In my crib, alone at night… wind blowing the curtains, the closet door a fright…
Thinking I was all alone, calling out in childish terror…
And mom was always there.
So many days and nights of illness, bedbound in my early years…
Always needing special care…
And mom was always there.
Traveling across the country, paper bags carried with her…
For those unpleasant moments of motion sickness…
Wish we had gone by air!
And Mom was always there.
Several deaths in the family, dad and big sis were two…
I asked, how do you go through this?
“My faith”, she said, “and you need it too”…
And Mom was always there.
Many years passed by, more then we ever imagined would…
I became her caregiver, her parent, her mom…
For over 4 years…
I was always there…
Go home now mom, it’s ok, dad is waiting for you…
Holding her hand watching her breath as her time drew near…
But mom was always here….
Your mom died. You really miss her. And here it is, those media-saturated days just before Mother's Day. You are not going to be doing any of the things for her that the TV commercials, newspaper ads, e-mail sales pitches and florist shops tell you to do. What you are going to do instead is miss her. You are going to miss her, and you are also going to miss the experience of being a mother's daughter.
I know what that feels like. Although it has been a dozen years since my mom died, each Mother's Day still needs some variation of "special handling." No matter how many years pass, when the spring violets appear, I always remember how I used to pick Mom a bouquet of them for Mother's Day every year, and how she would put them in a special small pale green glass vase. I see those early violets, and always remember. It never goes away.
If you are a mom yourself, part of your day can be taken up with whatever loving things/events your family has devised to make you feel special. But you may also feel a special poignancy at not being able to share that with your own mother.
What can you do to get through this day better for it, as opposed to having to survive it? Plenty.
Set Aside Some Time To Remember HerSet aside a designated time and place on Mother's Day to remember your mother who died. This does not have to be gloomy. When you miss your mother, after all, it is the good times that you miss. Now is a good time to call forward those fine memories and revisit what a joy they were.
The Mother's Day PicnicFor the first few years after my mom died, Dad and I created a picnic in her honor. The last place I wanted to be was in a restaurant full of mothers and daughters. Mom had loved the out-of-doors and had always created spontaneous picnics for us at the slightest whim. Dad and I had a couple of rules about those picnics.
1. They must be in a pretty place, preferably a spot that Mom had loved.
2. We ate at least one food that she really enjoyed.
3. We could only share happy memories of her, preferably ones that made us laugh.
Share the WealthYou must know someone else who is also without his or her mother this year. Call them up, and arrange a get-together on Mother's Day. Go for it head-on. Decide to share your favorite memories about your mother with your motherless friend, and ask her to be prepared to share hers with you. Someone who has been through the loss of a beloved mother will understand your need to share stories, and you will understand hers. Think of it as Mothers' Posthumous Introductions. You may wish to suggest that you and your siblings do this if you are not an only child. Every child in the same family has a different "take" on the same parents. The mom you knew may be different from the way your sibling experienced her. Here are some ways to get this started:
1. Bring a few pictures, or a short bit of video.
2. Think up several memories you want to share and discuss the categories with your friend/sibling in advance. ("I laughed so hard when Mom ... ," "I knew she was a great mom when ...," "My mother surprised me so much when ... ," "The best thing Mom ever cooked was ... .") That way you can each take turns sharing these short stories as a way to get the conversation going.
Write Her a LetterMaybe you had some unsaid things left over when your mother died. Write them out, saying whatever is in your deepest heart. Say what you need to say in as loving a way as possible. Then, in a safe place, burn the letter and let its ashes free in the breezes and winds. Visualize the ashes finding their way to her spirit. Release the feelings that you had about not saying these things.
The Famous Gratitude ListI have written before that when I feel least inclined to write out a gratitude list is when I am most in a position to benefit by doing so. It is the odd irony of gratitude lists that even when they are written grudgingly, they help. You miss your mom. And when you focus on why, you can come up with a long list of her qualities that you miss. Write a list thanking her for each one. Look at the list and feel how fortunate you are to have had this woman in your life. Some of the people reading this article were not so lucky. They had very hurtful relationships with their mothers. And although you miss your mom, focus on how fortunate you are to have had her. Say "thank you" to God, the Universe, a Higher Power, your mom, or Lady Luck. But say "thank you."
A ScrapbookIf you have children, they might want to help you make a "Grandmother Scrapbook." Helping them with their grief will help you with your own. You can include memories, pictures, drawings, anything that reminds you all of her.
Make a Corner of the Garden "Hers"Take a small patch of your flower garden and dedicate it to you mother. Plant things you know she would like. This can become a place you can visit when you need to "be" with her.
Pick an Honorary MotherPerhaps you have someone in your life that you have always called a "second mother." If she is still living, honor her. Perhaps you have a godmother who would love to spend time with you. Or perhaps some woman has mentored you who would be very moved to hear from you. Your extended family, once you look at it, may yield a variety of "Honorary Mothers."
Fill the BlankDo you know any mothers whose children are absent from them for some reason, or whose children have died? Perhaps they live too far from them to get together. You are a daughter without a mother, and they are mothers without children present. Make a match, and two people get to have a happier day.
Go Do Something GoodTake the focus off sadness and move it over to generosity. There are lots of things you can do:
1. Work at a soup kitchen or food pantry that day. You'll feel better as you give your time to all these children of God or the world who need your help.
2. Donate to a charity your mom valued or one that expresses her spirit. You can do this every year as a new tradition.
3. Ask a local nursing home which of their residents is not getting visitors. Every nursing home has a few people like that, sadly enough. Pack up some flowers or nursing-home-approved treats and go visiting. Become a "visiting volunteer."
Whatever you choose, be kind to yourself. If you are, as I am, a person of faith, spend some time praying or meditating. Ask God, or the Universe, to send you the strength you need to get through the roughest spots of grief. And help that process along by finding ways to turn the sadness into something else. And what could that "something else" be?
When I asked my normally gruff father how he dealt with his own mother's death, he got very quiet. Then he said to me , "It hurt. It hurt for a long time. But after a while, after a few years, something else started to happen. Something else slipped in next to the sadness."
"What was that?" I asked.
He was quiet again, then looked out of our kitchen window at something he saw maybe a thousand miles away from here and now, as he said, "A certain sweetness comes." Then he turned to me, looked deeply into my eyes and said, "Right next to all the hard things, there it is. A certain sweetness." And he smiled.
And so this is my wish for all of you daughters who, like me, will have at least an occasion to pause on Mother's Day because you are "not like all the other daughters who have their mothers." I wish for you that in the midst of all you feel, in the midst of sadness or sorrow or regret, that you feel the beginning, and then the fullness of "a certain sweetness."
I promise you, it can come.
Every once in a while another of my friends joins me and becomes an adult orphan. It is like a secret club, and should probably have its own password and handshake. No one tells us about this event, this developmental hurdle. No one tells us that it will be a very special kind of hard.
Losing one loved parent is, of course, awful. Losing two is beyond normal grief because it suddenly puts us in a new world -- the world of the parentless -- the world of the adult orphan. It is a world with new feelings in it, new possibilities, new scary bits, new awareness, new responsibilities.
You are now among the familial elders. There has been a shift in generational marker-people. You stand for something different in your family now. Every day in every way you sit in one of the big chairs.
In an instant you no longer have someone around who recalls every minute of your life. Your personal historian, the last one who remembers everything about your life, even the early parts you cannot recall for yourself, is gone.
There will be no more stories of cute things you did when you were two or ten. You don't get to feel like someone's little girl any more.
When I was 32 I went through a painful divorce. The day that I told my mother about the divorce, she asked what she could do. I said, "Brush my hair?" I sat in the living room, at her feet, my head in her lap, and she brushed my hair -- the same way she did when I was little and needed comforting.
There'd be no more of that.
Ones sense of "home" changes. I had my own dwellings over the years, but "going home" always meant coming back to my childhood home and spending time with both or (when one passed) with one of my parents. The guardian of one's roots changes.
Whatever you counted on from your parents -- it was big. Even if it was not all positive. Their lives affect you.
So does their absence.
It may feel difficult when others discuss spending time with their parents. Holidays my feel especially poignant. But in those senses, it will feel like regular grief. But this time you can't discuss it with your parents. You can't call Mom or Dad and just talk it through with them.
For some, parents provide a kind of safety net. If the world falls apart, the parents are still there. If you lose your job your home, your foothold you have them to hide out with for a while. If you have gone through a rough emotional time, you can plug into their love for you to get your soul's batteries recharged. Whatever mooring your parents have provided, emotional, financial, spiritual -- will go.
And you will feel adrift in very particular ways.
I have found that my faith gives me a considerable reassurance that we will all be together again some day. I also do feel a distinct presence in my life -- which I am happy to believe is my Mom watching over me. I have a dozen strange stories that would seem to point to that presence -- so I happily choose to believe in it.
As I put hand to tasks that used to be my parents' tasks, whether it is a certain kind of gardening, or cooking a certain meal, or baiting a fish hook, or nailing a shelf together, I feel their hands over mine, invisible but there in memory.
It is a definite life-position -- that moment when one is an adult and orphaned. It is not like other grief. It has a residual change impact on all of us. I learn every year how different it is to be in this place. And as other of my friends go through it, we are able to comfort each other in specific ways, and offer a special understanding. But make no mistake about it -- the spiritual impact like a deep interior explosion, miles below the surface of the earth. The effect ripples upward for years.
So be brave, feel what there is to feel and share with others who have also gone through it. There are survival tips to share, shoulders upon which you may cry, and many things to learn. After all, like it or not, you are now one of the familial matriarchs.
A friend of mine recently lost her sole surviving parent. In speaking to her through this time, I made sure to tell her that there is an added grief, a new developmental place that will emerge in this grieving process -- the sudden realization that she no longer has any parents at all. She is, like so many of us, an Adult Orphan.
No one really prepares us for this. When it hit me a bit over a year ago when my Dad died, I was totally unprepared. (That was also the death of my last blood relative, which was another cauldron of grief entirely.)
But there is something unique to the Adult Orphan position. It forms an added empty space around us, a place where our history was lodged, down to the earliest detail. Gone.
For some of us, mercifully not all, the only place where we ever felt unconditionally loved is gone.
Mostly, it just is an oddly awkward feeling, like having to wear someone else's shoes that have been broken in in all the wrong places.
We live in a world full of children and parents of all ages.
And then, for most of us, eventually, the world is not that way.
Are you an Adult Orphan too? Then you know what I mean. It is a unique place to stand.
Why is it that the world finds this a largely unmentionable topic? To move on in life sans parents is to live a peculiar sort of life, at least at first. I confess I still feel somewhat more un-ordinary than usual, and I am not entirely sure why.
It is a time of turning, of redefining, of having the presence of ones parents reduced to memory and objects of meaning.
The two people we generally need to 'work things out with most' are suddenly unavailable for comment.
It is a brush with the Big Bad Finite. It is the cold air that rushes through the open door in the dead of winter.
Yet, chilled though we are, we move on. Life goes on. The rhythm of things resumes, interrupted and changed but familiar.
But there are mornings that we open our eyes to see ourselves in an eerily different surrounding, as though someone had moved the furniture ever so slightly while we slept.
Saturday, October 9, 2010
Midlife orphans, orphaned adults — there’s no established term for them, yet losing your parents is one of adult life’s most significant rites of passage. And while society recognises the loss that children feel when their parents die, adults are supposed to be fundamentally different, quickly dealing with the grief of losing the people that raised them from the cradle.
If only it were that simple. Psychologists warn that the impact of losing your parents goes way beyond organising the funeral and sorting out the will. It might be the natural order of things that parents die before their children, but the sheer inevitability is no cushion to the pain, soul-searching and sheer feeling of rudderlessness that so often follows.Sue Cooper, who lives in Mt Martha, lost both her parents within 10 months of each other nine years ago. “I remember sitting with my sister crying and saying to each other ‘We’re orphans now’. There was a horrible emptiness, like all our back-up was gone. I felt very alone.”
Jack, a journalist with a wire service in Melbourne, lost his mother at the age of eight. He was in his early 20s when his father died. “Dad’s death hit me very hard,” he says. “About a month after he died my brother said to me, ‘You know, we’re orphans now.’ I hadn’t thought about it in those terms till then. It made me feel really alone, like I had a huge obstacle in front of me.”
Rob, a bank officer who lives in St Kilda, was 27 when his mother died, 29 when his father succumbed to bowel cancer. “I had this great sense of loneliness,” he says. “I ended up having quite severe depression. There was a lot of reckless partying, a lot of drinking, two phases of depression of about six months. At one stage I was quite suicidal.”
The second parent’s death plunges us into what can feel like a bottomless pit of emotion.Bettina Arndt, Age columnist and member of the National Advisory Committee on Ageing, says she got an “enormous shock” when her parents died one and two years ago respectively, a shock that still affects her deeply.
American author Jane Brooks was almost 50 when her mother’s death stopped her in her tracks. “For a 47-year-old mother of two to admit to feeling like an orphan was somewhat embarrassing, making me seem needy and childish,” Brooks writes. “Especially since everyone assumed within weeks after the funeral that I was fine. I continued to work, to parent, and to go about my life. Internally, however, something was happening to me. The avalanche of emotions churning inside was throwing me off balance.”
Brooks, who has since written a book called Midlife Orphan: Facing Life’s Changes Now that Your Parents Are Gone, thought she was an unusual case until by chance she heard a woman voice similar emotions. “When I heard (her) words, I realised that perhaps my reaction wasn’t as extreme or unique as I imagined,” she writes.
“What we’re talking about here is disenfranchised grief,” says Chris Hall, director of the Centre for Grief Education at Monash Medical Centre. “It’s not a grief that tends to be appreciated,” he says. “The first question people ask is `How old were they?’ And because people can say the older parent had a good innings that grief can be disqualified by others.”
“Parents are like repositories of memory. They’re the only ones who hold certain memories of you as a child. It’s like a mirror — we define ourselves in terms of our relationships so our parents’ deaths challenge us to define who we are.”
Jack Lockett was one who had a good innings. Australia’s oldest man, he was 111 when he died in May last year in Bendigo. His son Kevin was thus 74 when he finally became an orphan. “I was lucky enough to play bowls on the same team with him, we went on fishing trips together,” says Kevin. He’s kept plenty of memorabilia, including newspaper photos of his father carrying the Olympic torch through Bendigo. “But it was a milestone (when he died),” the septuagenarian says sadly. “No matter who you lose, it always hurts. I still get emotional about it sometimes. There’s no use dwelling on it too long, but sometimes we certainly have our moments!”
American psychologist Alexander Levy in his book The Orphaned Adult describes the despair that can follow losing your parents. “At a minimum, parental death in midlife elicits lingering feelings of loneliness, memories of former losses, unresolved conflicts, and doubts concerning life’s purpose,” he writes.
“Feeling adult, a member of the eldest generation, brings the chilling knowledge that there is now no one between us and death. Without exception, those whom I have spoken to soon after the death of their second parent have said to me, I just realised that I am the next in line to die.”
The death of the last parent can also trigger grief for other losses, in particular reactivating mourning for the first parent. Brooks says adult children often do not fully mourn the first parent because they become so preoccupied with the surviving parent. “Thus, the second parent’s death plunges us into what can feel like a bottomless pit of emotion as we struggle with grief that had not previously been fully acknowledged.”
Bettina Arndt uses that term “a good innings” to describe her elderly parents’ lives. “Before they died I had this sense of dread not being able to contemplate what it would be like, but beyond that I hadn’t thought much about it,” she says. “It’s just been an enormous shock, the extent of the loss, even now over a year or two year later. I’ll just never get over it. Every day it hits me, that they’re not there any more.
“As your parents get older the whole process of dealing with them can be difficult, yet you end up with so many regrets, the things you don’t know, the questions you would’ve liked to have asked, the things you would like to have said. When my mother died I looked at every scrap of paper in the whole house hoping she’d written something for me.”
Arndt has been struck by what she calls the “selfishness of the younger generation”. Parents, she says, are always interested in what’s happening to their children but when the children grow up the interest is not always reciprocated. “The gaps are starting to emerge now in what I’d like to know. I’m rather shocked at what I don’t know about them — when they’re around you’re used to the fact that you can always ring up and ask them.”
Family relationships have changed. Losing her parents has drawn Arndt closer to her brothers, she says. “Organising the funeral was amazing, extremely stressful of course. These experiences do create a bond we hadn’t experienced for many years. There was good as well as bad in all of that.”
Rob has similarly bonded with his three older sisters. “Our parents’ death definitely strengthened my relationships with my sisters,” he says. “As children we didn’t get along so well but we’ve got over a lot of animosity and sibling rivalry.”
Jack, too, says the bereavement has strengthened ties, in his case with his brother and his stepmother. “We’re united now. We’ve all lost the same person, we’re the only people who can help each other.”
Sue Cooper’s parents held the family together socially. “All of a sudden that history was gone,” she says. “From being a very close family that did everything together, suddenly there was this void — our children had no grandparents and we had no parents. All the dynamics had changed. It seems stupid because I had a husband and children, but it felt like I lost my family — you do lose that family that you grew up in.”
Cooper has assumed some motherly duties with her relatives, visiting her mother’s aunt and helping her younger sister look after her pre-school-age children. “I used to ring my mum every day, now my sister rings me every day.”
Family experiences are not always so positive, Hall warns. The bereaved may be exhausted physically as well as emotionally, particularly if they have been looking after their parents. Disputes can arise over a range of matters, including inheritances, drawing in siblings, step-parents and children.
“Every sibling will have a different relationship with their parents,” says Hall. “You can have five people in a room crying for five very different reasons. There can be a lack of communication between siblings, and different ways of grieving.”
Melbourne mother-of-four Karen Rusden hoped that one of her older sisters would step into the role of organiser of family celebrations and events when her mother died 13 years ago. “But noone really did, so we lost all the family traditions and all just drifted apart. The family became fairly fractured. Mum was the link that kept us all together.”
Relationships with partners can also be rocked by a parental death. Brooks notes that those seeking comfort and support might find their partner insufficiently sympathetic, leaving the bereaved angry or disillusioned.
Furthermore, married adults can often experience some resentment of the spouse whose parents are still living. When that happens, she says, its not that the wife, for example, wishes her in-laws were dead, but it’s still “he has his parents and I don’t have mine anymore”.
Brooks concludes that midlife orphans are compelled to examine the past, dredging up both meaningful and unpleasant memories. “Expressing our ambivalent feelings about our deceased parents affords us a measure of comfort, and, at the same time, encourages our personal growth,” she writes. “Really knowing our parents — that’s what enables us to think of them gently.
“Finally we must make conscious decisions to move on, if only with tiny, tentative steps until we find comfort in our own shoes, shoes that fit us better than those of our parents.”
Hall, though, challenges the notions of “moving on” and “letting go”. “There’s the idea that what we need to do is sever the emotional connection, that out of sight is out of mind, which dates back to the early work of Freud that says grief is about disconnecting,” he says. “We now know this is incorrect. After a parent dies we continue to carry their voice in our heads at some level, as an encourager or as an admonisher. Death ends a life, it doesn’t end a relationship.”
Levy describes parental death as a compulsory subject in the school of life. “Everyone is enrolled. Everyone pays tuition in the form of grief. Nearly everyone learns something valuable.”
The primal fear we experience from childhood that our parents might not be there next morning when we wake up, is what makes losing parents so confronting, he argues. Yet, the enormity of the loss can ultimately be liberating.
“After we recover (and, hard as it is to imagine at the time, we do recover), our life and reaction to death is changed,” he writes. “And it is the gradual realisation we will survive the loss that makes parental death so transforming.”
- Adult Orphans (caregiving.com)
- Family: The Last Goodbye (time.com)
- Rocks And Sticks On The Path (caregiving.com)
- Experiencing Grief (blogher.com)
- How To Find Personal Renewal After The Loss of a Loved One (prweb.com)