A quiet middle-aged woman with long brown hair walked up to my booksigning table. She had her two granddaughters, about four and five years old with her, and I saw “her” in their cherub faces–plump, creamy skin, intense blue eyes–it was like seeing her reborn with all the play and innocence of childhood.
But she looked worn, exhausted, with a tinge of sorrow in her eyes. I knew she was a caregiver.
She bought Mothering Mother, and I signed it for her as she told me she had cared for her mother for the last eight years and that her mother died almost a year ago. We shared “Mom stories” and I assured her that the last fourth of my book is about the year after my mom passed away. It’s about the transitioning out of caregiving.
I assured her I didn’t look so hot after caring for my mom either. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s not only affect the bodies of the person wracked with these horrible diseases, but they take a toll on everyone around them. Not only did I gain close to 40 pounds from stress eating, I let my appearance go in other ways–haircuts, daily upkeep–but more than that was the lack of hope that showed on my face. I recognized it in hers.
We hugged and she walked out of the store. A few minutes later she returned, walked straight to my table (a little girl’s hand in each of hers) and almost whispered, “Can I ask you a question?”
“When will I look…and feel like me again?”
After intense caregiving and then the passing of your loved one, the first emotion I had was that of feeling charred, as if you’ve survived an awful fire–but your nerve endings, hair and skin got scorched on the way out. That’s shock. That’s what the dying process and then going through death does to a person. You feel stunned. Numb and yet sensitive beyond belief.
You walk around empty handed and nothing you do seems to hold any meaning.
You miss your routine.
Then, the guilts and regrets wash over you.
All you want to do is sleep, but you can’t.
You have no idea how to start your life again.
Then come all the firsts–death certificate, a holiday or birthday, packing their belongings. Each one peels back another layer of new skin leaving you raw all over again.
After weeks or months (and for some, a couple of years–everyone has their own internal timetable) you know you need to get rolling again. It’s awkward, feels stupid, but you make yourself do something–get a part-time job, join a Sunday School class, go to Weight Watchers, volunteer at the library–and you simply have to make yourself go.
Everything’s overwhelming, and there’s a real temptation to just veg out in front of the television with the remote permanently affixed to your hand–or become the Solitaire champ of the world, but you know it’s not good for you.
You know you have to go on with your life.
I found that I already had my “answer” (at least a few tools) deep inside me.
This wasn’t the first traumatic event I’ve faced, and I doubt it’s your first either.
All the other things you’ve gone through–divorce, car accidents, cancer scares, even death of a pet has given you the tools to know how to heal yourself.
Ask: How did I get through ____________? (Fill in the blank)
I have a relative whose wife died in a car accident (beside him in the car). It was a grueling recovery as well as tragic grief. He dealt with it by walking–he walked two, three, sometimes four hours a day.
Months later, I asked him why he did that and if it helped him work through his grief.
He said that he used to run track after his dad left his mom when he was a teenager, and that’s how he dealt with the anger and hurt–he literally ran from it, and after a while, he had run through it. Atht eage of fifty, he couldn’t run for that long of a time, so he turned to walking. The mix of sun, air, nature, time alone, time with God, physical movement, and a daily routine began to change him and within a few months, he had gone from being an absolute hermit who lived off of anti-depressants into a lean walker with a bit of light in his eyes.
He had found his own way to heal his soul. And it was based off something he did in the past, something that had helped him before.
We have the tools and experience, and we came upon them naturally. Our bodies and spirits know what works for us. We’re naturally drawn to something–walking, journaling, classes, talking it out, the power of music, whatever it is, for a reason and not just by happenstance.
You know how to do this. Heal yourself. You’ve done it before.
It’s not that you don’t need help, trust me, we all need help, but you at least have a few tools in the toolshed–something to get you started. Use them. Look back and examine how you got through tough times. How did you make it through?
What’s two or three things that seemed to help you dig yourself out of that hole? Try using them again.
For me, it was the pen. I kept writing. I kept working through my grief on the page. Every day. Many times a day. I also started painting again. I realized that when I’m painting or gardening or cooking or writing, I feel most like “me.” Those are my natural states. That’s where all time ceases to exist and my mind and my hands become one. I forget my situation, the details, my sorrow.
I also returned to college. I needed a combination of something as familiar as gardening–something I’ve done all my life–with the newness of college. The exhilaration and challenge of buying books, studying, and showing up some place a couple of times a week was good for me. It was scary, yes, but scary meant I was alive again.
At the age of 44, I walked down the aisle in my graduation robes.
I leaned over my booksigning table and told this sweet, quiet woman with long brown hair to give it some time. Do something she liked or at least could tolerate. Be gentle with herself, but that “she” the essence, the joy, the person she always knew would return. Be patient and envision herself whole again.
This morning, as I type these words, I have a dirt under my fingernails. It’s spring and I’m busy planting flats and flats of impatiens–or as my kids called them, “poppers.” The English call them “Busy Lizzies.”
When my fingers dig into the cool, damp earth, everything else falls away.
Trust your path. Trust that you know how to do this. How to get over grief. Trust that in time, you will look and feel like yourself again. It won't be the old you. A lot has happened. You've changed. But you will feel like yourself. Joy and purpose will return.
~Carol D. O’Dell
Author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir
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Family Advisor at www.Caring.com
Syndicated Blog at www.OpentoHope.com