Tag Archives: death

“Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death” a fascinating documentary

Leave it to me to find the heartbreaking, gut-wrenching yet powerful documentaries. While films about dying are always an emotional experience for me, I also find them thought-provoking, which is why I keep watching them and sharing with others.

The latest film I watched is titled, “Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death.” It aired on PBS earlier this year, but I caught it on Netflix. What I liked most about the film was the diverse range of subjects who were interviewed about their perspectives on death. From people of faith to scientists to a former member of an Islamic extremist group, those interviewed were candid about their thoughts on the meaning of life, death and the afterlife.

I loved the imagery captured in the film, such as a son finding an acorn in the pants pocket of his recently deceased father, or a favorite family photograph of a parent and child on the shore of the beach. There was also an interesting discussion of near-death experiences.

One of my favorite death positive advocates, Caitlin Doughty, is also interviewed for the film. A traumatic brush with death as a young child greatly influenced her life.

The most moving segments were with those who were actively dying. Anyone who has spent time with a dying person knows they often offer an insightful take on their imminent demise. Some people fight death until the very end, but others make their peace with death in order to better appreciate the time they have left.

The overall message I took away from the film is that each of our lives are unique stories, and all stories must come to an end eventually.

Watching such a film made me reflect upon my own views of death, as well as those of my parents. My father, a staunch Catholic, had an intense fear of death. Did his dementia offset that fear, or intensify it? There is no way for me to know. My mother, on the other hand, had a more positive end of life view. She thought we “go to a good place, and a right place,” based upon whatever our views are of the afterlife.

For me, I’m more afraid of terminal disease and the dying process than death itself. I dread the idea of pain, misery and loss of self-control. I also dread the loss of mental faculties, but know that is a distinct possibility, as Alzheimer’s is all over my family tree. I admire those that make peace with death, as I think it is the best way to go. At some point, the fight to live is over, but I don’t see that as giving up. I see that as focusing remaining energy on the life you have left.

If you’ve seen the documentary, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Bittersweet birthday memories

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Pixabay

For me, July will forever be associated with birthdays. My mother’s birthday was July 6 and my birthday is July 19.

While birthdays should be filled with happy memories, ever since the death of my parents, I’m left with bittersweet memories. There’s a profound quote in the Netflix documentary, End Game, which is about end-of-life care and hospice, that touches upon what I’m feeling this week.

“Suffering is the wedge, the gap between the world you want and the world you got.”

Even though I didn’t spend my birthday with my parents as an adult, they always sang Happy Birthday to me over the phone. It was a fun tradition, and each year Mom would tell me how they practiced all week to make it special. My parents both had some musical talent, with Dad especially fond of singing in the style of his favorite crooner, Bing Crosby.

The year before my father was placed in the memory care center, my parents performed the best rendition ever of Happy Birthday. My dad was in high spirits that day, and even though he was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s by then, he hadn’t lost his ability to sing or to ham it up. He continued singing, performing a medley of classic show tunes before Mom was able to get the phone back from him. At the time I thought, “I wish I had recorded this!”

As my birthday approached the next year, I was visiting my parents and Mom and I made the trek to the memory care center to see Dad. He was mobile but heavily medicated. I didn’t expect any birthday singing, but Mom insisted. I was torn about recording it, but I knew in my heart that it would be my last birthday with my father alive. Little did I know then that my mother would be in a care center a year later recovering from cancer surgery.

Even though I knew it would be painful, I decided to record it. I’m glad I did, even though it is heartbreaking to watch. (I rarely share this video, but am making an exception here.)

As to the quote about suffering, what I wanted was the sublime Happy Birthday performance from the year before. What I got was my father, addled with medication and his brain ravaged by Alzheimer’s, trying his best to perform one final time, with my mother trying desperately to be upbeat.

Ultimately, both memories are gifts. They are both filled with love.

 

 

 

 

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The eyeglass whisperer

One of the toughest moments during the frenetic cleanup of my parents’ condo just after my mother’s death was what to do with her eyeglass collection.

My mother’s many eyeglasses were laid out neatly atop the dresser, where she always kept them. Each pair of glasses had its purpose.

mom eyeglasses

A routine trip to the grocery store required three pairs: sunglasses, a pair for walking and a pair for reading coupons and expiration dates. Whenever I was with her, I was expected to know which pair she needed at any given time. I became her eyeglass whisperer, though to be honest, I never did figure out what all of the pairs were for.

She did try bifocals at one point, but hated them. “I feel like a chicken trying to pick up corn,” Mom complained.

So as I moved around the condo in a whirlwind, using the activity to temporarily blunt the grief, my mom’s eyeglass collection brought me to a halt. She had not worn any of the glasses for weeks, since she had become bedridden. While I was purging the condo of many items, I wasn’t ready to part with her glasses. Instead, I put them each in a case and then into a box, which I mailed back home to Atlanta.

I had some hazy notion of turning them into a sort of tribute piece. The glasses sat in the box in a closet for almost three years, when I finally decided it was time to do something with them. I found an appropriate shadowbox and created a simple display of the glasses my mother used most.

The display is now on my bedroom wall, and I’m pleased with the results.

Have you come up with any unusual memorials for loved ones? I would love to hear about them.

 

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Respite in the woods

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Sunset in Ellijay, Georgia.

I just returned from a 5-day trip to the north Georgia mountains. It was a nice getaway, with a mix of rainy days to crystal clear nights with the sky full of stars. In the past, I haven’t been able to enjoy these trips as much because I  was worried about my parents as their health declined.

Back then, cell phone service was very iffy in the woods, and being able to reach them required some effort. Calls would drop often and my mother always thought I was hanging up on her, haha. (While there were many times I wanted to, I only hung up on her a couple of times in my life.)

I am always in awe of the majesty of the mountains, from the beauty of the sunsets, to the way the rains strikes the roof of the cabin to the blanket of stars overhead on a clear night. But life cycles are also on display in the mountains. The hawks swooping and soaring effortlessly overhead were seeking their next kill. I took a short hike and came across so many fallen trees. Taken out by severe weather or just old age, they will decay until they return to earth or are removed by developers looking to build a new cabin.

Sometimes it helps to watch nature do its thing, and know that many of the same rules apply to us. I think especially for those grieving the loss of a loved one, there is comfort in observing the cycle of life and how there is always something new to take the place of what is lost. A dogwood tree was just beginning to bloom near the cabin, a sign of the rapidly approaching spring; a tree stump became home to abundant fungi.

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It’s these moments that I get to fully enjoy now that makes me realize how difficult it is for caregivers to truly unplug. Caregivers are always on edge, awaiting the next calamity. Even if you know your loved one is receiving good care while you are away, you never know when a medical crisis might arise. After awhile, it becomes your new normal.

I hope that my fellow caregivers will get a chance to enjoy a real respite soon.

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Lessons on life from dying children

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File image via Pixabay. (Not Dr. McAlpine.)

A Twitter thread by a pediatrician has been making the rounds lately, and for good reason. Dr. Alastair McAlpine asked some of his terminal pediatric palliative care patients what has mattered the most to them in life, and what has given their lives the most meaning. The children’s answers are both simple and profound, and something we adults should take to heart.

The things so many of us are hooked on, such as television or social media, did not make the kids’ important list. Family, pets, books and ice cream did rank high. These young souls whose lives will most likely be cut short barring a medical miracle shared a couple of values they found to be the most important. Kindness and a sense of humor made the list, not wealth or celebrity.

I encourage you to read the short thread on Twitter. At the end, Dr. McAlpine offers a takeaway for all of us.

We could all use a reminder to let go of negative thoughts and regrets and focus on the truly important people and things in our lives.

At the very least, we can commit to enjoying more ice cream.

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Breaking the news to someone with Alzheimer’s that their spouse has died

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Photo credit: Pixabay

Of all the things families have to deal with when their loved one has Alzheimer’s, explaining that a loved one has died is one of the most heartbreaking and difficult issues to handle. Guest author Michael Longsdon of ElderFreedom offers tips on how to approach this sensitive subject, and how caregiver should prepare for the moment.

How do you tell your loved one with Alzheimer’s that their spouse has died? It’s a tricky proposition – one that people with aging parents dread. It would be a lie to say it’s a easy process, but it can be manageable. Here are some tips.

Pick the right time

This is a judgment call, but some common strategies for having this tough conversation include making sure the person is in a safe, comfortable environment, trying to pick a more lucid moment to break the news, and trying to have only one person deal with the news as to minimize possible confusion.

Be straightforward

Every surviving spouse has the right to know that their loved one has died – no matter their condition. When having the first conversation (of many, to be sure), you must be as straightforward as possible. Speak slowly and calmly and tell them that their spouse has died. Avoid euphemistic phrases like they passed away or they are going to be gone for a while. You don’t have to get into the details, and you should stick to the basics if you can. If they ask for details, however, you should be honest.

Offer to go through the deceased’s belongings with them

The practical reason for doing this is that following any death, the surviving loved ones must go through the deceased’s belongings and decide what to keep, what to pass on to loved ones, and what to throw away. For someone with Alzheimer’s this process is vital because you don’t want them to have to do it themselves, plus you don’t want them to have to stumble upon troves of their dead spouse’s belongings, triggering confusion or agitation.

But it can be even more important in the immediate aftermath of the death. Going through old clothes, photos, jewelry, and keepsakes can help ground your loved one to the situation, and in some cases this methodical sorting through possessions can be cathartic. Your loved one may want to hold onto a particular item, which may give them comfort. Let them.

Don’t mistake forgetfulness for denial

“When dementia is severe, people aren’t just in denial. They truly have not been able to form the new memory that lets them remember their beloved family member or friend has died,” says caregiver Carol Bursack.

You’re going to be faced with times that your loved one simply doesn’t seem to be on the right page about their deceased spouse. They may think they’ve gone on a trip, or that they’ve left them. They may ask where they are, even hours after you told them about the death. Don’t think of this as denial. It’s simply a product of their Alzheimer’s. When it comes to what you do in these situations, it’s up to you. Judge the situation and determine whether it’s better to reinform them, or whether you should “punt” and either work around the truth or redirect them with something else. There’s really no right answer here –  it all depends on your loved one’s state at that very moment. It can change from day to day.

You may have to “break the news” to your loved one with Alzheimer’s more than once. How you choose to handle these situations is up to you. Most professionals believe, however, that the initial conversation is a must – both for ethical and practical reasons. Try to find a good time to have the conversation, remember to be straightforward, respect their reaction, and never try to limit their grief.

 

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Marking 2 years since Mom died

Mom school

It’s hard to believe it has been two years since my mother died. The world seems like such a different place, even though two years is but a speck over the course of history.

While merely coincidence, Mom’s death seemed to send the universe into a chaotic spiral. I feel like I’m living in perpetual survival mode, just like I did when I was a caregiver.  Mom’s eternal optimism would have been sorely tested over the last year or so.

The grief is less oppressive and not as constant at this point, but it continues to lurk in the dark alleys of my mind, popping out like a villain in a movie from time to time. The “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” mantra hasn’t been silenced quite yet, but I’ve been able to turn down the volume on the second-guessing for the most part.

Just like in this photo of Mom, I will spend the day writing. She always loved this photo, which appeared in the yearbook. Mom took her education seriously, which wasn’t always a given for farm families when crops could trump classes. I inherited a similar love of learning from both of my parents, which is a precious gift that I use every day.

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