At the age of 48, after 28 years of being a high school teacher, a mother and a wife, my mother was alone. She jumped into redecorating our house and a new personality showed itself — an appreciation for French Impressionist painters, a curiosity about Native American art, a love for a shot of fine tequila.
Her future became an adventure and the adventure’s name turned out to be Len. Single roses. Poetry. Slow dancing. Traveling. She remembered that she was a smart, interesting woman and she married a smart, interesting man.
’til death do they part…
After only 13 years, Len was diagnosed with dementia. They left the doctor’s office, and he never mentioned it again. Instead, he began to teach her things like how to use the checkbook, and who to call for an oil change. Together in the same house, she grieved his disease alone. When Len died after years of not recognizing her, a big part of her adult identity died with him.
She told me after his death that she used to get angry when he seemed to be ignoring her. She was exhausted moving him from facility to facility as his behaviors became increasingly difficult. She was heartbroken when this meticulous man stopped caring about his personal hygiene and yelled at her for trying to help him. She suffered those griefs alone because she thought that telling anyone somehow would make her seem disloyal or weak. Some grief is brutal and isolating.
It was hard as her friends wondered why she wasn’t grieving: Didn’t she miss him? She didn’t know how to say, “I grieved every day for years. I miss him, but I am not brokenhearted in the way you think I should be.”
The greatest gift you can offer is really listening…
You can help your parents with practical things, but the greatest gift you can offer is really listening. I listened to her stories of the disease, of his dying, of his death. I listened as we went through his closet. I listened while we strolled around their favorite lake path, the first time scattering his ashes, and then every season walking with the quiet grief for her lost future. Some grief has no words.
I reminded her that she wasn’t alone and that this was all normal. I encouraged her to take time to sort through her life until she could discover who she was going to be next. I promised her that her children would not try to take over her life. She trusted me enough to believe me, even when she couldn’t believe in herself.
I encouraged her to take time to sort through her life until she could discover who she was going to be next.
Over time, my mother reinvented herself, buying a little casita in Baja and learning to speak Spanish. She kept a picture of Len in her bedroom there. We would bring it out to the kitchen table and tell stories and toast him with a shot of tequila.
Mom has been gone ten years, and sometimes I put a picture of them on my kitchen table and toast them with a glass of fine red wine. Some grief is tender and poignant.
Kim Mooney, founder of Practically Dying, offers private consultations and workshops for groups who need help developing plans, and identifying the resources needed to deal with the complexities of death.