Thursday, December 17, 2009

There's No Grief In Santa

Last year was the first year my Mother didn’t recognize me at all . . . not even a glimmer. I’d been expecting Alzheimer’s to take away her ability to recognize my face, but wasn’t really prepared.

That was the first Christmas it seemed to make no difference whether or not I called my Mom for the holidays since she didn’t know whether it was Christmas or St. Swithens Day, whether it was me or the Easter Bunny. She’d long since forgotten what the telephone was and what those noises coming into her ear were.

Christmas was always a big deal for Mom and me. She’d come home from work with a fiendish grin as she scurried down the hall to hide my gifts (which she hid so well that, long before Alzheimer’s took hold, we’d be finding gifts into Valentine’s Day). I always loved trying to find the perfect things for her, something that’d show how much I love her, something to make her feel pampered and special. I particularly loved wrapping Mom’s gifts. We always exchanged multiple cards and I’d begun putting a hankie in the “mushiest” one to dab her Christmas tears of joy.

For Christmas 2008, I was longing for some Christmas spirit and for someone to buy a gift for, to wrap it and to imagine the happiness that gift would bring. Then my friend declared she’d created a holiday challenge for herself (and her friends, friends of friends) to get gifts for 100 kids through New York Cares Winter Wishes program. What it really was, was a gift to my heart, another demonstration that it truly is better to give than to receive, and that it is through giving that we receive much more.

I got to shop for just the right super-ultra PlayDoh, beg the salesperson on the phone to hold the last game of Super Uno Flash for me until I got to the store after work, and experience that grin I used to see on my Mom’s face when she smuggled home the perfect gift, anticipating the delight it would bring.

My Mom died this August. I’ll add another child to be Santa for in her honor. It provides so much comfort and joy to hold the handmade letters to Santa in my hand, reading over the simple wish lists, choosing just the right gifts, wrapping them, shipping them off and imagining the Christmas morning grins.

Someone once wrote, “don’t focus on what you’ve lost, focus on what you have left.”

Now, what the heck is a tech deck?!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Advent Calendars

In the Christian tradition, the season of Advent heralds Christmas and starts on the Sunday closest to November 30 and continues for four Sundays. 

Being Catholic(ish) . . . we made up our own rules.  Thus, Advent started on December 1 (I never could quite figure out why some years I had more windows to open on my Advent calendar . . . ).  Every year, Mom would come home from work with my Advent calendar (and even mailed them to me long into my thirties).  Whether she brought my calendar home on December 1 or 3 or Thanksgiving . . . it didn't matter and the season of glee had begun. 

Every day I'd pop open a little window to see what was inside.  There was no looking ahead - otherwise God would know you cheated!  That's it - nothing but anticipation and a little sparkly picture of something different every day.

It was our little tradition and it was a daily reminder of the spirit of Christmas . . . wonder, joy, traditions, love, family.

To honor Mom this year and share this tradition with you, I've posted links to some online Advent calendars:

A Bach Christmas calendar

Advent around the world calendar

Advent history and traditions calendar

Christmas stocking Advent calendar

Medieval Advent calendar

North Pole advent calendar

Perhaps you'll start your own tradition and pick one up at the card store on the way home . . .

Thanks, Mom.  You still are the spirit of Christmas.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Grief Tip . . . Go Get a Haircut!

I hadn't had my hair "done" since June 20. 

All I could hear when I looked in the mirror was my Mom's favorite expression for a less-than-fabulous apppearance: "I look like I'm going to haunt houses."  I did, too. 

Every day, I knew less and less what to do with "the mop," so I'd throw it up into some sort of "who cares" pony tail.  Every day, staring back at me was HER.  Every day, she looked a little bit more disheveled . . . not so that anybody would really notice . . . just a little something off . . . never any ooph or effort. 

If you looked really closely, you could see the grief in the eyes (and you didn't have to look too hard since no effort was exerted applying makeup either). 

The thing is, after all those months, it doesn't even matter so much what you saw when you looked at me; it's what I saw day after day reflected back at me in that mirror.

Right after my Mom died, a day or two before the first funeral mass in Southbury, my friend, Grace, asked me if I'd had a manicure:  "it'll make you feel better and you can't go to your Mother's funeral looking like hell - it's disrespectful."  I did as I was told.  I ended up getting the whole "schmear" . . . nails, toes, legs, shoulder massage. During the process, I'd occasionally feel a little inappropriately narcissistic getting "dolled up" under the circumstances.  By the time I left, I felt pampered, taken care of and human.

Since then, I've not tended to grooming so much, thinking I didn't need to impress anyone.  It's not for anyone else at all, really.  It's about what it says to me about me.  Even when I do my own manicure at home, I end up feeling taken care of, clean, orderly, "normal". 

Last week, I got my hair cut and got rid of the mousy color.  I felt fabulous.  I feel human, not quite so much like the walking dead myself.  I could definitely hear Mom saying, "Oh, Connie, you look so much better.  Don't you feel better?!"

Yes, I'm still grieving over my Mother's death, but I'm not making that pain worse by being mean and ignoring myself. 

I just might add a little mascara to that face in the mirror this morning . . . maybe even get a new outfit!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Anger could never be the first stage of grief!

Anger could never be the first stage of grief

First, you're busy making arrangements, then you're just numb.  I figure it takes a good couple of weeks before you get good and pissed off.
If you've never juggled before, but always wanted to, you will now have an opportunity to experience the "thrill" of trying to navigate your own grief, while donning the socially-expected (nay - demanded) stiff upper lip, while simultaneously restraining yourself from slugging someone.  It's quite a feat.  Nowhere will you get more practice than when you return to work (more about that in another post).

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book On Grief and Grieving, found that "anger is usually at the front of the line as feelings of sadness, panic, hurt and loneliness also appear, stronger than ever.  Loved ones and friends are often taken aback by these feelings . . . . "

If all of the other things haven't lunked you on the head, you can now add something else to juggle:  being "likeable."  The inherent unfairness of this has been noted by Kubler-Ross, the late Gilda Radner, and happiness expert Gretchen Rubin in her Happiness Project blog: "Being gregarious and upbeat wins you more attention and care. It doesn’t seem fair that your likeability should matter at a time when you’re in pain and afraid. But it does."  Mustering likeability does prevent isolation and can actually pull you out of your own quagmire, but it takes an effort that you sometimes feel you just don't have.

Everyone in my bereavement group has expressed some degree of anger.  Interestingly, very little of it is directed toward the person who died or God.  It's the result of what is sometimes experienced as an astonishing lack of compassion, disappointment in various people or family members we thought would "be there", and simply that the world keeps turning and expects us to do the same as if nothing ever happened.

Yep, we're angry.  Some of us are even sleep deprived, which probably makes us even crankier.

Like the lion with the thorn in its paw, we just want a little gentle compassion.  We promise not to bite. 

And so it is that for the many kindnesses shown to me, my gratitude is unbounded.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Firsts and Lasts

Today is my birthday.

I've been scheduling posts here to publish Mondays at 12:35 pm because my Mom died on a Monday at 12:35 pm. 

This Monday is my first birthday since she died.  I was born at 2:17 pm.

I thought about the "appropriateness" of writing a post today, but that seemed like avoiding the proverbial elephant in the room.  Right behind that thought, was "I wouldn't even be here if it weren't for her."  I am so grateful for this wonderful life she gave me.  I am her creation.  I am her legacy.  She lives through me. 

I remember all the lasts I shared with her:  the last time I held her hand, the last time we gazed into each other's eyes, the last time I said "I love you," the last time I said "goodbye."  I think of all the firsts she must have been so delighted about . . . my first tooth, word, step, boyfriend.

My firsts.  Her lasts.  We shared them all together.

And so it is my first birthday without her . .  . though I'd not shared one with her by phone or in person for a couple of years due to the Alzheimer's.  I remember missing getting that call from her every year at 2:17 pm to mark the moment of my birth and her wonderful cards (we always sent each other several).

Because I saved them, this year I have birthday cards from Mom.

It is indeed a wonderful life.  Thanks, Mom.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Think of your favorite animal, your favorite setting in nature.

I am proud to participate today in Blog Action Day (, where bloggers from all over the world will discuss climate change as it relates to their blog's theme/perspective.

What's Blog Action Day got to do with grieving the death of my Mom?  I think of how much I loved her, how much more I realize it now that she's gone. 

I don't want us to miss this planet and its natural beauty when it's too late!  Let's be its loving, grateful stewards NOW.

I know we have the technology, passion and creativity ensure that our water, air, plants and animals - and ultimately WE - thrive.
Please support implementation of bold, comprehensive, significant and innovative action to reduce greenhouse gases and develop clean energy.
It's not too late.  Listen.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On the Kitchen Counter

If Bette Davis were here, she'd put one hand on her hip, survey the place and declare: "What a dump!"

The state of my apartment always has reflected the state of my mind.  It's as if someone raised the volume on my "YOU'RE A MESS" knob.  How's THAT for a mirror?!  Wherever I go, there I am.  CRAP! 
During such times, I also tend not to feed myself properly. It's only after returning from my weekly visit to the Inwood Farmers' Market that I realize how I've not been nourishing myself quite the way I had been before August 17.

Even doing the laundry feels like an effort.

All this lack (no clean clothes, no food other than science experiments in the fridge, no order) is a constant reminder that I'm in pain, I don't know what to do with myself, everything feels like an effort, and my Mom isn't here to make it better.

Oh, goody - an opportunity to delve deeper. 

Nourish and nurture derive from the Old French and Latin word "to feed, nurse, foster, support, preserve," "to suckle".  How apt, then, that the death of my Mom would result in a self-nourishment crisis.  No surprise that nursery is also a derivative since I feel like a big fat baby!  I simply do not want to take care of myself ... myself.

Some of my best memories of my Mom and I are of days when she'd be cooking in our little galley kitchen in Douglaston and I'd hop up on the counter (which I did through my forties and probably still do with friends when I get the chance).  She'd cook dinner for us and we'd talk about everything.  I'd tell her about school, ballet class; she'd tell me about work and what she had planned for us for the weekend.  I'd ask what her favorite color was, she'd ask what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Both questions of equal importance.    Thus, nurturing and nourishment are inextricably linked forever for me. 

Maybe the lesson for me now is tenderness and self-nurturance; to take everything I learned from her about how to do that and learn to do it for myself or go visit a friend's kitchen (consider yourselves forewarned). 

So I find that I begin returning to my kitchen to cook the things Mom made for me that would make me feel better.  Chopping onions, I can still talk to her as the smells of comfort fill my home.   

Yes, Mom, I know . . . browning the meat before putting it in the crock pot makes a better pot roast (just please don't make me make those PEAS!).  I'll do that while the laundry's in the dryer.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What to say when you don't know what to say

Many people hesitate to offer comfort to those who are grieving because they think they don't know what to say and are afraid of saying "the wrong thing."  You are not expected to - nor can you (unfortunately) - "fix it".  Don't let this fear ultimatey prevent you from saying anything at all or keep you from offering what the grieving person needs most - YOU! 

So, here are some guaranteed, sure-fire, no fail, could-never-be-the-wrong thing suggestions:
  • Open your arms. Hug person. Listen. Repeat.
  • I'm so sorry for your loss; I don't know what to say. How can I support you?
  • Open your arms.  Hug person.  Listen.  Repeat.
  • How are you? 
  • Open your arms. Hug person. Listen. Repeat.
  • Just sit down next to them.  Be there.
  • Open your arms. Hug person. Listen. Repeat.

It's that simple.

Monday, September 28, 2009

SUCK IT UP and other condolences

"Try Google". There's another good one.

You'd think it'd be obvious . . . in the handbook somewhere:  SUCK IT UP is not an expression of sympathy.

Monday of Week Four, I was overcome with grief in the middle of my work day; sobbing behind my office door. For the past week, I was increasingly overcome by grief, uncontrollable crying "out of nowhere, and felt as if I couldn’t function, debilitated.

All I knew to do was something that's very uncomfortable for me - especially when my mood is dark - ask for help.  It was about to become a feral survival cry.

I turned to a few trusted friends who I thought might know of some bereavement groups. I called my former shrink (referred me to someone for $200/hour). A therapist acquaintance didn't know of any groups but asked if I tried Google (what's the best search string for that? "so sad I can't function" or maybe just "HELP ME!"). Nothing I was looking for.

When I got home from work one night, I received a mailing from the hospice service telling me about their "bereavement team," outlining the services it provided: bereavement support telephone calls and visits by professional staff and volunteers, support groups, community resource referrals to grief therapists and support groups. It was exactly the lifeline for which I'd been desperately praying. I could get help at last. There was a place for me that actually invited me to turn to them.

I called and left a message. No one returned my call. Truly concerned about my own wellbeing, I called the social worker from the hospice service that took such beautiful care of my Mom and I in those last two weeks. Surely, she would understand and put me in touch with bereveament team.

Sobbing and barely able to breathe, I told her I was at work and the grief that was increasingly overcoming me. "You're just going to have to SUCK IT UP." "It dishonors your Mother's legacy to be falling apart this way." "I have to go," I said; "thank you." 

Perhaps she thought a verbal slap across the face would snap me out of my hysteria. It did not. I was not simply looking for puerile indulgence. After only three weeks since my Mom died, I needed a tether to sanity - not Fellini's Satyricon.

It's now Week Six. No one from the "bereavement team" has called. 

I have, however, formed my own team.  Apparently, I'm the charter member and team captain.  Other members of the team?  My treasured friends, the Center for Loss and Renewal and Center for Bereavement (support groups I found through GOOGLE!), and this space.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Miscellaneous (the first trip to the house since . . . )

It's had to happen sooner or later, right?  That first mecca up to Mom's after she died.  Seems I'll never stop underestimating the ninja qualities of this entire experience.  I did not, however, make this trip without reinforcements; my friend Denys and her fiance bravely volunteered to drive me up this weekend.  I can never thank them enough for that.

That's my first tip:  DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS ALONE!  If people volunteer to go with you, take them up on it.  If you can squeak out a request that someone accompany you, do it.  This is particularly so for only children.

The grief ninjas struck the moment I cracked the door open.  My entire body remembered what it's done reflexively for the lsat 27 years:  door opens, "HI, MOMMY!"  I instinctively expected her to come out of the kitchen or down the hall and waited the usual moment for her to appear.  I waited a microsecond.  All is well, the house smells like her.  She must be in the bathroom.  Silence.  Emptiness.  The miliseconds of happy expectation into stunned comprehension.  Denys caught me and I sobbed.  I didn't expect to get walloped by it so immediately.  I'd foolishly girded myself for something . . . as if I could prepare.  HA!

Well, at least I got that over with first thing!

I steeled myself and we started looking through the file cabinets.  We were on a mission to find Mom's life insurance policy, policy number, information so that I could run (fund) things while waiting for Letters of Adminisration to be issued.  OK, I'll tell the truth . . . I've not done a thing about the will and was hoping finding the life insurance would buy me a little more avoidance time before having to deal with that and probate court.  Yes, I realize I have a law degree, but when it comes to this stuff, I'm a functional 3 year old whose Mommy died.

Thank God my Mom can always be counted on for funny and thank God we always teased each other about our idiosyncracies.  Heck, thank God I can always be counted on for funny!

Mom's filing "system" . . . wasn't.  The woman who began her career as a secretary for New York Telephone Company had many mislabeled files.  Most of the really important stuff was in a folder labeled "MISC" . . . about 25 folders labeled "MISC".  ARE YOU KIDDING ME???!!!

TIP TWO:  Make sure your "important papers" are all together, in one place, accurately marked.  If you put them in one folder or envelope, make an accurate table of contents on the outside.

I guess she figured I'd figure it out . . . just as soon as I stopped shaking my head and laughing.

Denys and I were in the kitchen and Dave in the adjoining den when I said, "You know, she always told me she left me a letter, with instructions about what to do, where everything is . . . "  I looked up at Mom (the ceiling has become Heaven) and said, "COME ON, WORK WITH ME HERE!!"  The next moment Dave padded into the kitchen looking like he'd seen a ghost, holding some yellow sheets of paper: "Is this that letter?"  He'd just picked it up the moment I'd "yelled at" my Mom.  It was the letter.

I guess her miscellaneous system worked.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

You Are My Sunshine

My mother died a month ago today. How is that possible? It feels like 10 minutes. Those last days and moments with her are still fresh, as is the aftermath of doing and numbness.  I am flooded with memories.

For Mom and me, memories and music went together.

Most summers when I was a kid (late 60's/early 70's), I spent a month in Florida with Aunt Marie and Uncle Jack. Mom got to save a little money on child care, give my nanny a vacation, relax herself a bit, and I'd get to have a month by the pool! At the end of my stay in Florida, Marie, Jack and I would take a scenic drive to New York to pick up my Mom and most of my family to continue up "Up North" to Saranac Lake or Lake George for a few days together.

We'd travel in 2 cars, making funny faces at each other as we passed each other on the highway along the way: Uncle Walter, Aunt Fran, Uncle Joe and Aunt Kay in one car; Aunt Marie, Uncle Jack, Mom and me in the other.

The cabin on Lake George had no television and barely any electricity. It had a deep back yard, a wooden dock and a canoe.

I always knew it was time to come in when I'd hear the singing start.  I'd run up the hill while someone started the barbecue. By the time I got up to the house, the grown-ups were singing all sorts of show tunes, songs from the 30's, 40's and 50's (cocktails apparently hasten the heating of the coals or at least make the wait more interesting).

My Mom, her four siblings and Aunt Fran grew up together in Witherbee, New York and had known each other since the beginning of time; after dinner clean-up always included more laughing over all the "old stories."

We'd all upstairs at bedtime . . . me and Mom in one room, Marie and Jack in another. One large dorm-type room had 2 bunk beds: Joe and Kay took one, Fran and Walt the other. Just like a bunch of kids, giggling would start up in some corner. Then "good night John-Boy" . . . then the singing . . . "Irene, good niiiiiiiight . . . . Irene, good-night . . ."
Today, my family and I will remember my Mom with music.  I've asked everyone to sing one of my Mom's favorite songs - You Are My Sunshine; from wherever we are, we'll be together singing (perhaps silently) and remembering Carmen today at 12:35 p.m. EDT.  It will connect us to each other and to her, with music, with shared memories and love.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Funeral arrangements are like peas??

I didn't listen, but the information got through anyway.

Just like with my Mom's peas. God, they were AWFUL. I mean A-W-F-U-L. They were so bad that even she would have to laugh . . . I'm sorry, they just smelled like . . . FEET. She'd claim they only smelled funny (it was NOT funny) because she "fancied 'em up" with minced onions. Ohboy.

She'd make the peas. I'd torment her. We'd crack up. I'd refuse to eat them. She'd start a conversation about something over dinner to distract me and, sooner or later, I'd eat those peas without even realizing it. Guess she had the last laugh!

Same way with her funeral arrangements. She'd insist on telling me, "you know, Connie, when I'm gone, there's a family plot in Huntington" or "I want to be cremated with my ashes sprinkled over my mother's grave."

I'd refuse to engage in this conversation. Like a little kid (all the way through my thirties and into my forties, mind you) it was like I'd squeeze my eyes shut, stick my fingers in my ears and go "blahblahblahblahblah" so I didn't have to hear about her stupid funeral arrangements or think about her dying, which was never going to happen any way so why are we even talking about it.

Just like those peas, it got in. When the time came, I knew exactly what did she and did not want. It was actually comforting to be so confident that I was doing exactly what she'd want and didn't have to fret or perseverate over anything. I knew I was doing the right thing. Making the arrangements was as easy as it could possibly be because she made sure it would be.

I didn't like it . . . any more than I liked those peas.

To you parents, my advice is: don't give up on the peas or making sure your kids know what to do and what you want. They may not like it, but they'll thank you for it.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Lost My Mom & Lost My Voice - The Update

My Mother died on Monday, August 17, 2009, at 12:35 p.m.

For the preceding week, I sang almost every Rodgers & Hammerstein show tune to her in her hospice room at the Lutheran Home in Southbury, CT accompanied by my iPod played through a little iHome speaker. In fact, when the priest came to "administer the benediction" (euphemism for last rites or, as we Catholic school kids of-a-certain-age may recall Extreme Unction), I was in the middle of singing "Shall We Dance" from the King & I.

After she died, I was driven by making arrangements and notifying everyone . . . call after call after call. I'm an only child, so there was no one to whom I could "delegate" this task. "Keep it together," I kept telling myself to get through another call or another interaction without falling apart. I'm good at that . . . the soldiering on thing. My Mom was, too.

I was amazed at how little I actually sobbed. I'm still not sure whether I consciously suppressed it because I couldn't bear to hear the sound of my own grief or that it somehow made my Mom's death all the more real or whether the automatic coping skill of numbness was kicking in. I do know that whenever I've held back crying throughout my life, I get a terrible sore throat.

By the day of my Mom's second funeral mass on Saturday, I was getting hoarse and starting to lose my voice. By Sunday, only little wisps of sound came out. I was completely "choked up."

In her book You Can Heal Your Life, Louise Hay says that "[t]he energy center in the throat . . . is the place in the body where change takes place. When we are resisting change or are in the middle of change or are trying to change, we often have a lot of activity in our throats." When one has a sore throat, it may reflect "[f]eeling unable to express the self." We even say that flower beds get choked by weeds.

I'd used my voice to soothe and comfort my Mom that last week and to sing the soundtrack of our life together, which had been so much about music. A particular song always triggers a very specific memory. Then I used my voice to carry out the funeral arrangements as she'd taught me (despite my persistent refusal to listen), to tell friends and family.

This voicelessness persisted for nearly a week until it became so annoying, physically painful and such a continual reminder of the cause, that I felt I had to do something. Unfortunately, the only thing to do was to "let it out" and cry. That scared the bejesus out of me. I could get on with it and bawl or continue sounding like a pathetic Brenda Vaccaro (there's got to be someone else for that analogy already!).

I was going to have to deal with it one way or the other. Thus, I "sounded my barbaric yawp" and have begun to speak. Like this whole process, my voice these days is sometimes fine (like when I recount something about my Mom or am loving the life she gave me) and sometimes wobbly.

There's nothing else to say.

UPDATE: I had my singing lesson last night with the brilliant Jane Kennedy I told her about my experiences lately with my quavering, unreliable voice. She lovingly explained the cause and effect upon the vocal chords. She reminded me of the expression, "having a lump in your throat."

What I most wanted to share with regard to the discussion in this original posting about change and the effect on the throat/voice is that, after we began our warm up last night, my vocal range has expanded since my last lesson (taken before my Mom died) . . . My three octave range is now an octave and a third! I suppose with change also comes expansion if we allow it and a whole new voice begins to emerge.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Psssst . . . your pajamas are open!

Nobody could possibly have prepared me for what it would be like when my Mom died. I'm barely sure even I can describe it, seeing as how I've lost my mind and all.

What I can tell you is what it feels like. It seems to boil down to, "I've completely lost my mind and that's perfectly normal." Typically said to me by someone with a piteous tone and a pat on the head; and I'm grateful as I can be for the tone and the pat!

The word that keeps running through my head is torpor ("a state of motor and mental inactivity with a partial suspension of sensibility") with a feeling of being completely lost. Definitely shaken AND stirred.

In the 70's there was an expression for when you smoked pot and were a little high . . . "maintain" . . . as in to maintain the appearance of being perfectly "normal" when you walked past your parents in the living room when you were stoned off your rocker, red-eyed and giggling.

In the aftermath of my Mom's death (today in fact is 2 weeks to the day), I occasionally catch myself thinking I'm just fine and then go and do something completely "off" . . . I think I'm "maintaining" but instead, it's really like wearing those feetie pajamas with the back door hanging open and everybody can see it but me.

For instance, it took me 5 separate trips from her house to the car the day she died . . . the new locks didn't work or worked too well and I was locked inside the house. Then I remembered I could simply go out the sliding glass door. I'M A GENIUS! Got to the car. No purse. Tromp back up the little walkway and around back, grab purse and head back out to car. Nope, no car keys . . . and so it went. It wasn't until the third trip I realize that it might - just maybe - have something remotely to do with my state of mind.

Or just today when I thought I left my apartment perfectly groomed and caught sight of myself in just a couple of hours later in the ladies' room mirror at my office. My Mom used to describe this particular look as "ready to haunt houses."

Here I will share what I learned and am continuing to learn as my Mom's Alzheimer's finally progressed, her week in hospice, making funeral arrangements as an only child. I will also share the joy, the humor (it's essential to avoid the booby hatch!) - all of it.