Monday, May 6, 2019

Parent Loss: Grieving An Elderly Mother

We knew and loved our mothers our whole life. It's no mystery why it hurts so much and why it takes so long to heal.
~ Elaine Mallon
A reader writes: Yesterday was the 4th month anniversary of my Mom's death. I still feel that after this time I have not fully grieved over her, or that if I do, I will not emerge from the pit of despair. I have been beset by material problems that have distracted me from grief, problems that are connected with her death. I feel that my mind is fracturing, that I am being hemmed in and trapped by everything, and there will be no end to this suffering. It is a constant companion that seems to not ever want to leave.

Part of me seems to feel that I have no business grieving over her. After all, she was 89 and in poor health. Couldn't I have seen it coming and have better prepared myself for it?? Also, she was just my Mom, not a wife or child. Parents are supposed to die before their kids and the feelings of grief that I have after 4 months are best reserved for these others. (I know better after having had face-to-face grief counseling. But still, I feel what I feel.) I feel that the squirrel cage will never stop. I feel better after a while and then get whacked by some problem or emotion or memory. Then the squirrel cage gets running and my mind goes off at warp speed. After a while it slows down and the squirrel leaves, but I'm just tired. I still go to bed at 7 or 8 pm, blissfully welcoming sleep as a little death or escape. I awaken 9-11 hours later resentful at having to experience another butt-draggin' day of abject misery. 

I miss my Mom a lot, and feel that Reality is just someone's nightmare and I'm their stand-in. There are gods or demons and they're all laughing at me. "Heh-heh-heh, what can we do to him, today?" I remember things, and want to talk to her, but can't. I reach out, and there's no one there. This all just seems so unreal. I am supposed to build a new life, but feel hamstrung. I just need to vent and air all this out. This problem ain't anything new, but I'm feeling isolated.

My response: I feel such a need to respond to some of your concerns, my friend. I know you’ve probably already heard from your “in person” grief counselor much of what I am about to say, but I feel a need to say it anyway. So I guess you’ll just have to bear with me.

You say you “just need to vent, to air all this out,” and that it “ain’t anything new.” That’s why writing, as you have done here, can be useful for you. You say you’re feeling isolated, too, but that is just a feeling, and feelings aren’t always accurate. Accept that you feel isolated and express it as you did here, so you can expose it to the light of day, where it can be examined more objectively. When you acknowledge openly to others what you’re feeling, you can test the reality of it, and permit others to challenge its validity.

Since yesterday was the four-month anniversary of your mom’s death, it’s not surprising to me that you are feeling as you are at this particular point in your grief journey. By now, all that initial shock and numbness have worn off, and you’re being hit with the full force of your grief. This is nature's way of cushioning the blow until your head and your heart can catch up and begin to accept what you really don't want to know. Now there is no more “forgetting” or denying the reality that your beloved mother is physically gone; now you know for certain that she is not coming back. And the pain of that reality is excruciating.

You say, “I still feel that after this time I have not fully grieved over her, or that if I do, I will not emerge from the pit of despair.” I’m reminded of Carol Staudacher’s astute observation that grief is not quicksand:
Often, a survivor fears that if he shows his sadness, there will be no end to it. If you are among those who feel that you do not know how intense, lengthy, or deep your expression of grief may be, you may find yourself thinking that it would be impossible — or at least very difficult — for you to pull out of grief's deep pit to do all the things you need to do before or after the death. Being afraid of getting sucked down into a hollow of "no return" is not realistic. Grief is not quicksand. Rather, it is a walk on rocky terrain that eventually smooths out and provides less challenge — both emotionally and physically . . . For example, you may think: I will fall apart and won't be able to function if I start to show how I feel. Replace such thoughts with the more realistic: I will let go for a time, release what I feel, and will be able to function better as a result of having vented the feelings that are an ever-present burden.  ~ Carol Staudacher in Men and Grief: A Guide for Men Surviving the Death of a Loved One
You say you “have no business grieving over” your mother: she was 89 years old, in poor health; she was “just my Mom, not a wife or child,” and “the feelings of grief that I have after 4 months are best reserved for these others.” I’m gratified that you added that you know better after having had counseling. Still, as you say, you feel what you feel, and we can’t always control how we feel. It seems to me that you’re spending an awful lot of energy trying to do just that: working to control your feelings instead of simply giving in to them and accepting them. In another of her wise writings, Carol Staudacher observes that
Some survivors try to think their way through grief. That doesn't work. Grief is a releasing process, a discovery process, a healing process. We cannot release or discover or heal by the use of our minds alone. The brain must follow the heart at a respectful distance. It is our hearts that ache when a loved one dies. It is our emotions that are most drastically affected. Certainly the mind suffers, the mind recalls, the mind may plot and plan and wish, but it is the heart that will blaze the trail through the thicket of grief.  ~ Carol Staudacher in A Time to Grieve : Meditations for Healing After the Death of a Loved One
If you’ve ever worked out on a regular basis, you know that it requires a great deal of time, effort and commitment ~ but when done consistently over time, it produces physical, emotional, mental and spiritual benefits. So it is with grief work. Doing the work of mourning takes enormous energy. It is both emotionally and physically exhausting ~ which serves to explain why you feel so tired, even after retiring early and awakening nine to eleven hours later to “another butt-draggin’ day.” Grief work may well be the hardest work you will ever do, but it can also produce tremendous healing and growth. Much as you may want to forego this labor, whatever issues you don’t address will lie there, waiting to be resolved. When feelings are expressed outwardly, they can be released. When they’re held onto, they just fester and keep on hurting.

As you already know, the work of grieving can be done through private activities such as reading and writing, and with others through talking, participating in bereavement counseling, or finding support in a group (including online virtual support groups like our Grief Healing Discussion Groups). It is an active rather than a passive process, not only of coming to terms with your loss, but also of finding meaning in it as well, so both the painful experience of your loved one’s death and your life without her physical presence will count for something.

Have faith that there is both a purpose and an end to the hard work that you are doing, and trust that you will find your way through this grief of yours. Take responsibility for doing your own grief work, and give yourself credit for doing so. As another wise mourner once said, “Your family, friends and support group may help get you on the right path, but very early in the process you have to get behind the wheel. Only you can complete the road to recovery.” The decisions you make, the feelings you feel, the tears you cry belong to you alone, and no one else can do your grief work for you. That does not mean that you cannot take time out and time off whenever you need to do so. I don’t have to tell you that your grief will be waiting when you return. Ask for help when you need it, from those of us who are working through losses of our own, and from others who understand the grief process. And take all the time you need. Grief work will take more time and effort than you ever thought possible, but you will make it through this, and others are here to help. You may feel isolated, but you are not alone. 

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Image by James Chan from Pixabay

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