Here I am again. Buffeted by emotions and dimensions of grief. Surprised by their weight and intensity.
I feel rudderless as memories pass through my mind and body.
This time the grief is not for the loss of my young husband but for the loss of my father.
Similar yet different stories of loss.
My late husband, Mick, died from brain cancer in 2009.
My Dad died from early onset Alzheimers five months ago.
Witnessing and supporting Mick, then Dad, through each stage of their traumatic, debilitating mental and physical declines over a number of years was heart wrenching.
What have I gleaned from my experience of grief and memories following the loss of Mick that can ground me as I grieve for Dad?
I reflect upon three insights.
They anchor me to love and to life.
- Patience with and acceptance of painful memories
It has been fourteen months since we moved Dad into a dementia high care facility. So many distressing intense moments. During this time, Dad’s welfare (and Mum’s welfare as Dad’s prime carer) occupied a large part of my thoughts and energy. How best to support and love them?
Now that there is space in my mind and in my day, memories of all the difficult moments are floating in to fill the gaps. Part of me feels compelled to block the memories with new projects (or new worries!) as soon as possible. I no longer need to be on high alert in case something happens but I still feel tense. I am tempted to continue living within a mist of anxiety. It has become familiar.
Yet I remember from my first few years following the loss of Mick that the memories can be grounding reminders.
When Mick was sick I was constantly monitoring his health and planning his care. Appointments. Assessing symptoms. Watching, anticipating and waiting. On edge. As we progressed from one emotion-full moment to the next, I minimised my emotions as much as possible, steadying myself for the next challenge. I stored the emotions that I could not face, deep within, for later.
After Mick died and the busyness of funerals and paperwork started to ease, pockets of time began to appear in my day for reflection. Memories and parked emotions began to flood my mind. They were triggered by dates on the calendar, smells, music, the light in the sky. They were confronting. They were painful. They were unwelcome.
The memories were reminders.
- To rest.
- To slow down.
- To be compassionate to myself.
- To process and honour the loss and the trauma.
- To be patient as I regrouped and reevaluated what was important.
The painful memories of moving Dad into care, sitting with him at the nursing home and by his bedside are important grounding reminders.
I accept the memories. I sit with them. I reflect.
2. Forgive myself. I did my best.
As I reflect upon some of the most painful memories I ask myself was there more I could have done for Dad? Was I too abrupt, insensitive, grumpy or impatient? Could I have handled a situation better with more preparation?
I asked myself similar questions as I navigated through my initial years of grief for the loss of Mick. Self forgiveness became a part of my daily mantra.
I did everything I could to support both my husband and then my father within the constraints of also looking after my young children and myself.
I researched options and carefully thought through every decision.
I tried to be present and loving in every interaction.
We all make mistakes. We all learn from errors of misjudgement. I did my best. I was present.
If I was clumsy or abrupt that is okay. I was learning. I was trying. I was loving. I was present.
3. Memories of my father before Alzheimers
I am surprised by how much I now miss Dad in my daily life. I miss his strong presence and note all the opportunities in which he could enrich my life and my children’s lives. I think of him when I see a tall older man wearing bush walking gear striding down the street. I think of him when I talk to my kids about science and technology – one of Dad’s passions. I think of his wisdom, quick wit and repartee when my family gather together.
In recent years when he was unwell, I did not miss him as much. Why and how can this be?
Our relationship changed once Alzheimers took hold. It muddied our interactions, adding layers of murkiness. I was always second guessing his actions and behaviours, his addled thoughts, his confused conversation. It was difficult to connect.
I felt disloyal and disrespectful missing our relationship before Alzheimers. Dad was trying to participate in life as best he could.
To love, care for and support Dad as best I could, I tried to forget as much as possible how he was before Alzheimers took hold. To put aside my frustration and sense of loss and accept what was. To be in each moment with him.
My experience and approach, caring for Mick as he lived with brain cancer was much the same.
Now that they are both gone, my mind is free to miss them and also remember all the things I loved about them and learnt from them.
To be grateful for all the love and joy they brought to my life.
To be sad, but to also smile, often laugh and be inspired to continue living and loving just as they would if they were still here.