Tag Archives: grief

Complex relationships can complicate grief

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth and marking the 21st anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, I thought it would be a good time to discuss the complexities of the grieving and mourning process. As humans we often crave a blueprint for navigating difficult times. But as a recent article from Next Avenue points out, “Grief isn’t organized; it’s a mess and a natural human experience. There is no ‘normal’ way to grieve.”

I delved into the complicated relationships I had with my parents and how that impacted my grieving process in The Reluctant Caregiver. Diseases like dementia can also leave loved ones feeling conflicted; one may feel feel relief that their loved one is free of such a terrible disease yet still deeply mourn the person’s death.

Others may mean well but how one processes grief is an individualized process. What may seem “normal” for one person may be inappropriate for another. It’s also important to remember that there are many nontraditional family structures now and that we live in a time when people are more encouraged to share and process their family trauma.

For those who are grieving the loss of someone who they had a complicated relationship with, allow the feelings to flow naturally and try to ignore any societal expectations. If you would like help navigating the challenging journey, consult a therapist, grief counselor or grief support group.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash.

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Suicide risk among older adults deserves more attention

While younger generations seem to be more open about discussing mental health issues and suicide, there doesn’t seem to be the same level of openness among older generations. According to the CDC, people aged 85 years and older have the highest rates of suicide. Middle-aged and older white men also are at increased risk of suicide.

For caregivers, suicide risk awareness not only applies to those one cares for but for the caregiver themselves. Older adults and their caregivers may be dealing with debilitating physical and mental health issues, which may cause them to also be socially isolated and lonely. As this report from Next Avenue points out, depression is not a normal part of aging. But older adults may be experiencing grief over the loss of loved ones, or worrying about financial issues or their own health problems. Loss of independence and cognitive decline can also factor into an increased risk for suicide among older adults.

Caregivers may suffer burnout while trying to care for older loved ones and raising their own families. Recent studies suggest that burnout can cause changes in the brain. Stress is linked to an increased risk of a variety of health issues. The report from Next Avenue includes a list of common depression symptoms.

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week. Below are some resources that you can use if you are in need of help or are trying to help someone else who is experiencing a crisis. I took some suicide prevention courses earlier this year and one of the main takeaways I learned was how important it was to be direct if you feel a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts. One should ask, “Are you thinking about suicide?” or a similar direct phrase. Being this direct can be challenging in certain cultures but with someone’s life potentially on the line, one needs to push through any social awkwardness.

The new national suicide prevention hotline number is 988.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers resources and information on local community chapters.

The National Council for Mental Wellbeing offers a variety of resources including Mental Health First Aid training.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers this video with tips for caregivers.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash.

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A mantra for those who are grieving

What we’ve learned about grief is that it is a very personal, individualized process. No one grieves for the loss of their loved ones in exactly the same way. While plenty of guidance exists for those who are struggling through the grieving process, it truly is a journey we take alone.

When psychologist Carol Ellstein lost her first husband suddenly and unexpectedly, she developed a mantra to help with the grieving process. What she chose really resonated with me: “Grief sucks. Life goes on.”

I liked the realist approach, as it is what I embraced and wrote about in my book, The Reluctant Caregiver. This approach isn’t for everyone, but it can be liberating to stop trying to force yourself to see the bright side and sit with the meaning of loss until you’ve processed it enough to move on. That process may take months, years, or it may be ongoing for the rest of your life.

Mantras aren’t set in stone; they can be adapted along your grief journey. A friend of Ellstein’s offered a playful twist to her mantra by suggesting, “Life sucks. Grief goes on.” Ellstein found there were days as she was in the early, active grieving process in which her friend’s suggestion was fitting. She would offer herself more self-care on the days in which “life sucked.”

As time moved on, Ellstein’s mantra continued to evolve. By the second year after her husband’s death, her mantra became, “Grief still sucks, and life still goes on.” By year three, she found that she didn’t need to use her mantra as much, as she emerged into a new normal.

I hope Ellstein’s approach can be helpful to others who are embarking on that dreaded journey of grief. It does indeed suck, but there are moments of profound insight that emerge as well.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

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Stuff You Only Whisper — When Dementia Knocks

Those of us who have cared for a loved one with dementia know the roller coaster of emotions one can feel. Click on the post below from When Dementia Knocks to learn more about one common yet guilt-ridden experience: wishing for our loved ones to depart this world to finally be free of this terrible disease. I know I felt this more than once towards the end of my father’s life.

Last week, a caregiver told me something that she considered so horrible that she could only say it in a whisper. She told me about her husband and his Alzheimer’s journey. He had just moved from a memory care community to a nursing home. She wasn’t pleased with the care he was receiving. Their kids […]

Stuff You Only Whisper — When Dementia Knocks

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Memorial Day reflections

As we honor our fallen military members this Memorial Day weekend, our somber mood extends to the deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Comparisons to Sandy Hook make me think back to December 14, 2012, and of my mother, who awakened from major surgery to news reports of the mass school shooting. We watched the tragic news unfold on the TV in her hospital room. My mother was more concerned for the children, and for their parents, than she was about her own physical health.

Almost a decade later, more children have died. More families are grieving. More somber anniversaries have been added to our national calendar. One of the most profound ways we could honor the sacrifice our fallen military service members made for America is by working to reduce the amount of mass shootings.

I hope you get to spend time with your loved ones this weekend. After a week such as this, time spent with family becomes even more precious.

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Marking 7 years since Mom’s death

The top of Mom’s urn.

It has been 7 years since my mother died. The pandemic has made time’s passing more difficult for me to track. Seven years feels both not long ago and yet another lifetime ago. I think my mother would be very upset about the state of the world right now, as she always looked for common ground and the good in people. Those things seem to be in short supply these days.

I did have a moment of synchronicity today. I was listening to Glenn Campbell’s late masterpiece albums, Ghost on the Canvas. It was recorded after Campbell’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and was one of my mother’s favorite albums. It’s one of my favorites too, and I’ve listened to it dozens of times. Today I played it on the YouTube app on my TV and when I looked up during one of the instrumental interludes, I realized the song was titled, May 21, 1969.

I had never noticed this before! According to information I found online, May 21, 1969 was the date the date Campbell’s network variety show debuted on network TV. It would become a hit and known as “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.”

What are the chances that May 21, the day my mother died, would also be in a song title of one of our favorite albums? The moment felt like Mom’s spirit connecting with me through the wonders of the universe.

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Growing around grief

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

“Growing around grief” is not a new concept but I saw this image being shared across social media recently and thought it might resonate with others.

Dr. Lois Tonkin described the growing around grief process in a 1996 article. The concept is that our grief may not feel like it lessens over time, but our lives will grow around that grief.

You can see another visual depiction of this grief model in the TikTok video below. I like the idea that our grief, while sad and heartbreaking, can become the core of something beautiful.

@amagiovany

My interpretation of this model. Picturing this in my head has been helpful. #watercolor #artistsoftiktok #therapytiktok #griefandloss

♬ Only in My Dreams – The Marías

You can see more visual depictions of the growing around grief model on the what’s your grief website.

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A thoughtful end to ‘After Life’

I’m a big fan of the Netflix show “After Life” created by and starring Ricky Gervais. While the subject matter and profuse profanity make it a show that not everyone will enjoy, I find its take on death and the grieving process refreshing and poignant.

The third and final season debuted this month and I was blown away by one scene in particular, which felt like my mother was speaking to me from beyond the grave.

As I’ve written about extensively on this blog and in my book, The Reluctant Caregiver, my mother was reluctant to discuss any end-of-life issues, but she did give me a poem she had copied by hand and said she would like that read after she died. She didn’t want any service and she chose cremation over burial so it was left to me, her only child, how to honor her wishes.

The poem she chose is the poem that is read during a very moving scene in the final season of “After Life.” When the actress began reciting the poem, I almost jumped out of my seat and my breath caught in my throat. The poem is fairly well-known but still, what are the chances that the poem my mother chose was the one that was recited on a TV show?

I chose to honor my mother’s wishes by not only reciting the poem after her death, but having it imprinted on her urn. You can read the poem below.

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Reflecting upon 10 years since my father’s death

It has been 10 years since my father’s death. So much has happened in the past decade, but I’ll never forget where I was when my mother called with the worst news of my life, in the middle of the newsroom at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I had been waiting for that awful call for quite some time, and some part of me wished for it, because it pained me so much to see my father suffering in the late stages of dementia. But of course there was no immediate sense of relief upon my father’s passing, just sadness and regret.

I do still carry feelings of regret and guilt to this very day, and probably always will. I discuss this at length in The Reluctant Caregiver, and urge others not to judge themselves too harshly. In that spirit, I am taking a look back on what my father inspired me to do over the last decade.

  • I began this blog, The Memories Project. What began as a way to document memories of my father and process my grief has become the foundation of my dementia and caregiver advocacy platform. I have also met so many fellow caregivers through the blog and am grateful for their wisdom and their support.
  • I wrote a book, which was a life goal of mine. My collection of personal essays on family caregiving, The Reluctant Caregiver, won a gold medal at the IPPY Awards. An essay from that collection won the Rick Bragg Prize for Nonfiction from the Atlanta Writers Club. A story I wrote about my father, “French Toast,” was included in the Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s and Other Dementias collection. I know my dad, a lifelong lover of books, would be proud.
  • I finally made it to Ireland and visited my father’s hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland. This was at the top of my bucket list and has been one of the best experiences of my life.
  • The privilege of sharing my father’s story through a variety of outlets, including NPR, AlzAuthors, Caring Across Generations and the Aging in America conference.

The decade since my father’s death has been the most difficult of my life, but also the most rewarding. I hope that you can take time this holiday season to recognize and reflect upon the highs amidst the lows of your own caregiving journey. Give yourself the grace that you deserve.

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A lesson on how grief impacts our memories of traumatic events

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is coming up and there will be many powerful reports, essays, and accounts written to mark the somber occasion. Remarkable pieces have been published over the years about 9/11, such as The Falling Man. An essay published in The Atlantic recently is one of the most well-written and moving accounts I’ve ever read. On the surface it’s about a family’s struggle with losing a loved one on 9/11, but peeling back the layers with both compassion and clarity, Jennifer Senior reveals much more than meets the eye.

One of the more interesting aspects of the essay to me is the impact that trauma and grief have on our memories. It’s a lesson that may serve dementia caregivers well. Getting the details just right may not be as important as how we are able to process past traumatic events in the here and now. Sometimes remembering a specific word is less important than conveying the meaning and emotion of the message.

Another important lesson learned from this family’s heartbreaking experience is that grieving can cause us to act in ways we don’t intend. Communication can become difficult. It’s important to give those who are grieving space to process what they are feeling. Be a compassionate listener. This essay captures in vivid detail just how different the grief process can be for members of the same family.

The 9/11 anniversary is coming at a time when our nation is reeling from the deadly coronavirus pandemic. There are many of us grieving right now. I would encourage all of us to remember that as we go through our daily interactions. A moment of kindness can make a big difference.

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