Help for Healing

Bitter & Sweet, living daily with grief


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“Stuff”

When you are helping someone downsize their life, or sorting through someone’s things after they have passed, it is quite an experience. My new client has been keeping me very busy!

I was talking to a dear friend this morning who has been slowly going through his mom’s things after she passed away last month. He got a bit teary eyed as he talked about the things he is finding and the realizations he is making. Often times, even though we know someone is a great person, sifting through their things raises your appreciation for them even more. He brought back many memories of when my own mom died. Lots of increased admiration for her, even though I already thought she was an incredible person.

My client is preparing to leave a fairly large home and move into assisted living. Her house reflects a life time of “stuff” and also that of an aging woman who couldn’t get around so much anymore. People are often very emotional about this process and I was expecting this feisty woman to be a difficult person to work with.

She has been anything but that. She is ready. I recognize that tired look and sound. Yes, I was this amazing professional for years and years, but I’m done now. I’m a bit worn out. And I don’t need the boxes and boxes of work I did. It’s not necessarily a sad thing as if everything you did was a waste. It’s just a recognition that the time has come to close that chapter.

I’ve found incredible amounts of bank statements and paid bills. She sure loved L.L. Bean! Years and years of carefully folded and stacked papers, all in the recycling bin now.

Talk about bittersweet. The sadness is obvious. But there is a peace that also comes with making your environment ordered and simpler. When you get older, you realize that the really meaningful things aren’t in any of those material objects. I know it sounds cliche, but it is completely, 100% true.

I just have to throw it out there. (OOOO, great pun!) You don’t have to be “old” to experience the relief of simplifying your life. Get rid of the clutter now. You won’t regret it!


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Another Twist on Grief

My clients gave me persmission to write about our work together. I have been seeing them about a year and a half. They were referred to me because I am a “grief expert” and I have been on their journey with them as they grieve the loss of their daughter.

She was killed in a tragic car accident. As if that wasn’t enough pain to bear, she was also in her last weeks of pregnancy. If the accident hadn’t happened, she would have given birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl.

I have to laugh at the “expert” piece when I miss really obvious things that later hit me smack between the eyes. The mom has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), the latest name for Multiple Personality Disorder. It wasn’t until last week that I even thought to wonder about how that might be effecting her grieving process. And not just hers, but her husband’s as well.

I have only encountered DID twice in my practice, and once in my social life. While we were talking about other traumas they have faced together as a couple, many stories about the DID came up, which has happened in several other sessions.

People who are grieving are often afraid of letting their emotions really go. People who are working through past traumas are often afraid of letting their emotions really go. They are usually afraid the intensity will be too much and they will get swallowed whole. It is my job to assure them of the safe place in my office and reassure them that they will not emote forever.

I’m not so sure that is true with DID. Personalties or “alters” are often formed to cope with specific traumas in a person’s life. The alter bears the brunt of the experience, or develops a coping mechanism. The alter actually IS the coping mechanism.

As my client and I were talking, the mom was saying that she keeps her grief at a distance. The more we discussed it, I realized that there is a possibility that if she embraces it fully (which I am always encouraging in grief work), she literally may not ever come back from it. It truly might not be safe for her to take on the loss of her daughter and granddaughter with all its force.

I couldn’t believe that I didn’t take all that into account before then. Some expert, right? Then it also hit me. I asked the dad if perhaps he might be holding most of the grief for both of them? He is wondering now too. Not that any dad’s grief wouldn’t be intense from the loss, but his may be even greater as he unconsciously tries to “hold” it for both of them.

Wow, my lesson (which I relearn from time to time) is to never, ever stop learning. Is there ever really an “expert” on anything in the dynamic, changing world we live in? As is often the case, I grow more from my clients than they do from me. Oh, and please pray for this couple as they navigate this incredibly difficult journey they are on. They are two of the bravest, most resilient people I know.


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Dying in America

I have been reading this mammoth 506 page document referenced at the end of the blog. I admit some of it I read and get the general gist but I couldn’t parrot back the details.

Other times, I feel like I am reading the biography of my father. All of the death experiences I have had with loved ones as well as my own dealings with the medical system certainly resonate too.

It’s strange because I’ve built my business, lectures, etc. around my hard-learned life experiences. I’ve probably said a thousand times that our medical system is broken and I would have no idea how to fix it. Now, reading this work that was published in 2015, it is all there in black and white. I understand slightly better WHY it is broken. I understand a teensy bit HOW it might be fixed.

But mostly, even though it is incredibly validating to read that I actually do know what I am talking about, it is beyond maddening that this stuff is real. It is so lacking in common sense, it is incomprehensible things are allowed to exist the way they are.

Reading on the Kindle platform, I am able to highlight things as I go. I am also able to add “notes” that store in the relevant sections of information. I am like a broken record in my notes when I start with, “This is the like the time with Dad when…”.

There is a plethora of research to back up the usefulness and credibility of end-of-life care. Yet the statistics keep bearing out that most folks don’t die the way they wished. And those that get palliative care only get it briefly at the very end of their lives. Getting it months sooner would be ridiculously more beneficial to the patient and their families. And the big whammy? That actually costs much LESS money.

I have had so many clients and close friends lose people dear to them. Even though they know what I do, most people think they understand what is happening and what their rights are. I hear the horror stories afterward and I want to scream out loud. It didn’t have to be that way!

Yet this will continue, probably throughout the rest of my life on earth. My business won’t make it and my heart will keep breaking because folks (medical and lay) don’t understand death, and don’t understand there are other ways to let things happen than the way they normally fall out. In part, because we still just don’t want to talk about it or deal with it. And we definitely don’t want to feel like we have failed our loved ones in any way.

Even recently when I was at the statewide palliative conference, as I told my story those folks were saying things like, “How did you even know to call the Department of Health?” It makes me sick to think of how many people, every single day, are bullied into choices not in their best interest. And worse yet, they don’t even know they were bullied.

I just took a deep, deep breath as I was writing this. I guess I am equally as crazy, because even though I know all of this, I am going to keep going. I will keep trying and fighting and learning and reading. I’m not even sure why, I just know my passion for this doesn’t seem to be dying.

Pun intended.

Institute of Medicine. 2015. Dying in America: Improving Quality and Honoring Individual Preferences Near the End of Life. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/18748.


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2011

I’ve heard that sometimes silence is deafening.

I have been working for several weeks now on a project that I proudly finished today. My 14,778 photographs are in a photo program that keeps them organized in a way most people would envy. However, my OCD has not let me rest for years because the way those photos are stored was not consistent.

Now who would even care about something like that? It finally got the best of me and I started the maze of trying to swap this for that. Eventually, I contacted my peep in CA from Adobe who told me a much, much, much easier way to accomplish what I wanted. Unfortunately, I had already completed about a third of the collections but at least the rest of the project went more quickly.

It was interesting to walk down nostalgia road. Back in the days of film, photos were much more difficult to date and record. You know how it was. You had a roll of film for a decade or so and then you finally got it developed. If you were lucky, you could remember what you photographed.

I couldn’t help but do that grief thing with dates. Before and after kinds of things. Oh, before Mom died. Oh, after Tim died. They become non-erasable markers in our heads that leave a scar.

Without even meaning to, I looked at those photos and wondered things like, “Wow. That was Mom’s last Christmas but we didn’t know it then.” And all the years that we were careful with Dad around holidays because we learned from Mom that you never knew when it could be your last.

The part that I wasn’t expecting, was when I would get to a collection and realize that suddenly, the photos would drop off. After about the third or fourth time it happened, I realized the pattern. It was 2011. There just were hardly any photographs at all that year. For anyone, it seemed.

In 2010, Tim got his diagnosis. There was our last Father’s Day together. There was his benefit. But in so many sections, 2011 was just gone.

It was a reminder that my entire family and support system grieved right along with Tim’s wife and children. Where did that year go? What happened to us? We must have been swallowed up in grief. Perhaps nothing felt important enough to want to remember. Yes, there were some pictures, but the difference in amounts of photographs between years was startling.

It makes sense. But it was yet another reminder that grief and loss change us in ways that we aren’t even aware of. The aware parts are tough enough, but sometimes the other insights can take years to see. I’m sure decades too, I just haven’t gotten that far yet.

I guess the take-away is this. If you are in acute grief right now and feel like there will never, ever be a smile in your life again, please know that it won’t stay like that forever. It hurts like hell, but the intensity does not stay the same. Thank God.


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Grief Nudges

I’m no stranger to grief, but I still get caught off guard when a wave hits me unexpectedly. I should expect the unexpected, but then that’s an oxymoron, isn’t it?

Just a couple of those moments this week. When they are wrapped in positive things, I am reminded of the bittersweet nature of life. Where you find the sweet, there is also bitter and vice versa.

I have been in meeting after meeting via the phone and computer this week. (It’s a good thing they are scheduled that way because I have been snowed in!) I am thrilled to part of a statewide group that is seeking to make medical changes for the better. It’s intimidating to be chatting with some of the state’s top dogs in the field, but I’m honored.

After one such meeting where I had to briefly describe what happened with Dad, I hung up and went to find Tim. Before I knew it, I was crying again about feeling like I let Dad down because I couldn’t get people to do what they were supposed to do. He was his usual awesome self. I do know deep down that other people’s behavior is not my fault, but I just hate how everything went down for him when he deserved the best ending a person could have.

A couple of days later, Tim and I were at his trailer packing things up and preparing it for going on the market. That’s a positive, exciting step for us. We got to the recliner in the living room which Tim inherited after Dad died. It took less than five seconds for me to start crying. Dad spent most of his time in that chair. It was his favorite spot. Again, Tim spoke up first. That chair isn’t getting sold or donated, it is going in the cabin we are hoping to build soon. I felt much better after that.

Bottom line, I miss my dad. A lot. So there are going to be reminders, everywhere. Expected and unexpected. It’s all part of the grief process.


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Why Do I Bother?

I received a letter that was most disturbing. It literally took the wind out of my sails. I felt my energy drain out of me and within 15 minutes I found myself in bed at 730 pm, checked out for the night.

It was from the Department of Health. It read like this: “Upon completion of the investigation, based on all the information available to OPMC (Office of Professions, my parenthesis), there is insufficient evidence to bring a charge of professional misconduct…”

I couldn’t believe it. And it has thrown me into another existential career crisis. This was so obvious and blatant to me, my jaw (and heart) dropped.

Ignored my dad’s request for help with his pain for four business days.

Refused to order a catheter at dad’s request, in spite of Dad being a serious fall risk due to the Parkinson’s and the nature of his infection. He even went so far as to say, “If you aren’t willing to take an antibiotic, I’m not letting you have a catheter.”

Blatant bullying behavior toward my father with statements like, “You understand this infection could kill you and you still won’t take the antibiotic?” And the most unprofessional of all, “Well, if this is what you want for your life, peeing your bed, going to the bathroom every 30 minutes, you just keep right on refusing the antibiotic.”

Requiring a conversation with the Hospice CEO before agreeing to a catheter, but refusing to read the texts that came directly from that CEO.

All of that is disgusting, but could be stretched to say it’s a matter of opinion if you really want to go out of your way to defend him. But what is NOT debatable, is the professional, ethical and legal responsibility of a doctor to RESPECT A PATIENT’S WISHES AND RIGHTS. Dad had his ducks in a row. He had a legitimate, accurately completed MOLST form. It is without doubt a clear expectation of every medical professional to respect that. So many more details I won’t take the time to write.

This doesn’t get easier with time. If fact, the more times the ball is dropped and justice is not done, I get more and more angry.

Why do I bother? Yes, because it’s the “right” thing to do. Honestly though, I spent hours and hours documenting what happened, filling out the proper forms, and speaking with investigators at length. I was told that this case would most likely go very high up the chain because the behavior exhibited was of such a serious nature.

And now this.

Nothing. How do I not throw in the towel like most people do? Why should I be the exception and continue to fight and never give up? I am seriously questioning if the things I pursue are a good use of my time and energy. I would not apologize for being emotional about my loved one, but this was not about that. There were repeated unethical acts against Dad and something drastic needs to be changed.

But it’s obviously not going to happen. Not on a professional level, not on a state level. And even the facility has chosen to keep him employed in spite of the havoc that was caused by his behavior. And oh yeah, a man more than worthy of an honorable and peaceful death got nothing of the kind.

I’m pissed. I’m disgusted. I’m crying. I’m angry. Disheartened. Wondering if I should even bother anymore. I’m bitter – that grieving my father has been more painful than I could have imagined and now AGAIN, it’s clouded with this utter nonsense.


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Blue Thanksgiving?

This week I was cleaning out my closet to continue my efforts to purge and minimize where possible. It brought me to my two memory boxes of Tim. Every once in a while as I go through them, time passes and I notice that some things that seemed important to keep at first, don’t seem that important later. I think that is a natural part of the passing of time.

This time, I found myself looking with the perspective of having tried to become as paper-free as possible over the last year. This led to a boatload of scanning. I had over 80 scans by the time I was done, the largest one being 25 pages. (Thanks Stef for showing me how to top-load documents!)

Overall, as the days passed, I knew I was melancholy and sober. It wasn’t just reliving my husband’s death, it was reliving the loss of my church family as well. But the deepest wound by far, was finding one of Tim’s treasures he had saved. He had a couple of Christmas tags in Mom’s handwriting that said, “To Tim, From Mom and Dad.” A wave came over me as I said in a whisper, “My God, all three of them are gone, completely gone.”

Today I had to go to the Hospice campus for something. They have done lots of remodeling. Their already nice facility is even more beautiful and more convenience-friendly. But I didn’t even make it back to my car without calling Michelle back and dumping a whole bunch of tears on her.

She asked how I am overall. Lost. I feel lost and orphaned. Both parents gone, a spouse gone. Geeze, I know lots of people are in the same boat, but I’m super in touch with my own grief right now. It’s mine, and it’s intense. Why does this stuff always happen around the holidays? That familiar stomach ache. That familiar hollow feeling I know so well. Only it is carved even deeper now. That feeling like this death aged me another ten years ahead of my time. 

I laugh when I job hunt and I hear dumb things like I don’t have experience with some of this stuff. The hell I don’t. I have gobs of it. Not as much as some, but more than a lot of people. I’m not feeling a pity-party at the moment. Just letting folks out there know that if you are in grief, don’t let anyone tell you there is a time limit to it. You’re allowed the rest of your life. It’s okay if the holidays are bittersweet at best. That about sums up life in general anyhow. Let yourself show the courage to taste both ends of the spectrum.

It can still be a Happy Thanksgiving, even when you’re shedding some tears.