I am fresh into a new grief that started three weeks ago and I’m still living in the wake of one that began many years ago. Everyone faces grief at some point; it’s part of being human. I’ve learned a few things about grief and mourning that I hope may help you.
Did you know there’s a difference between grieving and mourning? Grief is the feeling of great sorrow, the profound sadness. Mourning is the expression of that feeling. It’s the lament. Grief is inward and personal. Mourning is outward and can be done in community.
My grief is due to the loss of two parents to dementia: the cruel disease which starts out making you–closest observer and caregiver–question whether you’re imagining things. Friends and family far away often do think you’re exaggerating. Dementia moves slowly and leaves a long path of destruction in its wake.
We all have to grieve on our own. Grief causes me to move in slow motion. I don’t have the energy I used to, but it is returning–slowly. I cry easily, seemingly for no reason. My arms and legs feel heavy when I move.
I’m not just dealing with the loss of my mom, but with the stress from repeated traumas over years of caregiving. The last several years caring for both parents left me with a bit of PTSD. I don’t know when I’ll recover. How does my mind tell my body it no longer has to hold on to the stress?
The last 18 months, nurses called our landline frequently, always in the middle of the night, to let us know Mom fell again. To inform us whether she had to go to the ER. Now when our landline rings, I clench up. When I go to bed, my muscles tense up. I’ve been conditioned, just like Pavlov’s dog. I can’t seem to turn off the adrenaline. I needed it then; I don’t need it now.
But I have to let myself feel this. All of it. If I don’t grieve now, it’ll rear it’s ugly head later. As I let myself feel sad, I relive it all. All the years of delusions and wandering and agitation and confusion and inconsolable tears and paranoia and fear.
I’m grieving for both parents all at once. I’m reliving Dad’s death along with Mom’s.
Loss has both a cumulative and a triggering effect. I can’t face the loss of my mother without remembering the loss of my father just 18 months earlier. That takes a lot out of me; there’s not much left over. I may look like I’m myself, but I’m not. Many people don’t understand and expect me to be able to do more. I still need time. I’m trying not to let their disappointment–their opinion of me–affect what I do.
I want to wear a neon sign on my forehead. “My mother just died.” When Dad died, I wanted a sign that said, “My father just died.” Every day these three weeks, this is the steady refrain that hangs over everything. I want people to know why I’m not back to normal yet. Will I ever be?
When I moved back to the States after living abroad, I wanted a sign to warn people why I looked and acted and seemed out-of-place. I expected to acclimate after a while and become a normal American. I did acclimate somewhat, but I’m not who I used to be. Eastern Europe changed me. I am not the same person I was before I moved there. And I’m glad for that.
I don’t think I’ll ever be the same person I was before the caregiving and the loss. And I’m not sure I want to be.
Caregiving was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it was one of the biggest honors of my life. I am so grateful I had the chance to walk through these last few years with Mom and Dad. I think I softened the journey home for them.
As I feel the grief, I’m allowing myself to lament. Mourning is expressed best in rituals, in things we do. Visiting the cemetery. Crying, alone or with others. A public service to celebrate a life lost. The Jewish tradition of sitting shiva after a death is a wonderful way to heal. Mourners gather in the home of the grieving person and sit silently with them for seven days.
My personal mourning includes writing in my journal, taking walks in nature, reading Psalms, listening to a playlist I made for Mom of her favorite music, looking at her photo albums, remembering, staring into space, retelling stories (even if it’s only to myself). Writing this blog is therapeutic to me. I’m a writer; it’s how I process and heal. And I hope my words may help someone else process and heal.
The week after Mom died, I went on a personal two-day retreat. I did all the rituals of mourning listed above. The beautiful setting in nature and the time away was very therapeutic to me. After months of feeling numb spiritually, my overall sense during that time away was that God still loves me.
I hope you feel that, too. God still loves you. He loves you in your sorrow.