Archive for March, 2012

re-picturing TEARS

I was chatting with a friend about my grandmother recently and was startled when I said that she had passed away on March 4th. Wait a minute. Is that right? Could it have been almost a month since her death? How is that possible? I thought I would feel better by now.

Much of the time I do feel better, almost normal (or the new normal anyway), but often I feel pretty crummy. I may be fine for a few hours or even a day, but then the grief washes over me again and the loss cuts my heart just as strongly as it did on grandma’s death day.

As I work grow through this loss, I’ve learned that my grief is grounded in my body. When I’m perfectly honest with myself (instead of saying that death is a normal part of life and that I should get over it and just move on already!), I am not doing well. Or perhaps I am doing well, considering the circumstances. But I don’t feel good, at a deep, visceral level. I feel distracted during my days and nightmares of death and loss haunt my often sleepless nights. But I keep trudging on in my daily life. I have a conference to plan. I have a paper to resubmit. I have a dog to walk. And when I can’t express my grief, when I need to stuff it into my stomach and conjure up presentable smile, it manifests through my body. I feel out of sorts – tired, achy, dizzy, nauseous.

The upside of this grounded grief is that by expressing it through my body – I do feel better. When I am alone or in the company of friends, I find myself sometimes tearing up (sometimes sobbing) and although it sucks in the moment, it somehow feels better afterwards. Just as rain washes the grime of winter away to reveal the new life of spring, I can’t help but feel that this grief – including the blurry, muddied perspective that comes from my tears – is beautiful; it is an opportunity to grow in clarity, to reflect on what is important, and to appreciate the moment more (even when it seems unbearable).

What has your body taught you about grief?

re-picturing LESSONS LEARNED FROM LOVE AND LOSS

Below is a short tribute to lessons of love and loss from my Grandma Mildred “Millie” Armistice Jensen who passed away last week.

Ice. One of my first memories of Grandma Millie involves icy roads. It was 5:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and my grandmother was fretting over the ugly storm that had blown in overnight. When I rode the school bus and met her at her green house on the corner the afternoon before, we heard rumblings of another storm, but we were not deterred. We had enjoyed tacos (as was often our tradition) down at Cindy’s, which was a bar and pool hall with a Taco Tuesday special. We had drunk Squirt and played Uno that evening until I nestled into bed with her – feeling warm and comforted as the wind roared outside.

We were now listening to WCCO (or “CCO” as she called it), a radio station out of the Twin Cities, to see if school was cancelled. If it was, we were in luck. But, if it was only 2 hours late, we would have to hit the road, despite the icy and windy conditions. My grandma was the cook at my elementary school, and even if classes started late, school lunch would be served on time. And that meant that Grandma Millie would have to venture onto the icy roads to Tracy, which was where the area school was located. Grandma worried about the weather, but she never used it as an excuse to skirt her lunch lady duties. If school was on, we would leave an hour early to slowly make the 13-mile hike north.

I guess it should come as no surprise that my last memories of her also involve ice.  I had heard that it might not be long – she wasn’t eating much and was losing weight. Although I had heard this story many times over the last 5 of her 91 years, like when she took a nasty fall down her narrow old stairs or when she fell and broke her arm – twice, this really seemed like the end. So, I struck out. Another nasty ice storm had made its way through the area and schools were first 2 hours late and then closed. As I drove to southwestern MN from my home in Lincoln, NE, however, I was struck not by the dangerous driving conditions, but by the beauty of the ice. A two-inch layer clung not only to the roads, but also to the trees – when the sun snuck out briefly that afternoon, it made the branches sparkle.

When we arrived at Prairie View Nursing Home, which had been Grandma Millie’s home for the past 2½ years, I was not prepared. She was a shell of the woman I had seen just two months before at Christmas. She was extremely thin. Dark circles formed under her eyes from dehydration. A wet towel rested on her forehead because of the fever. Her breath was quick and shallow. One of her eyes was closed and the other lay half open staring at nothing.

I cried. A lot. This was not the strong woman who I had known during most of my life; the woman who was fiercely competitive when it came to bowling and playing cards; the woman who spent her life serving others – from serving milk from the dairy farm with her husband Alden during the early days of their marriage to serving meals on wheels to the “old people” up until age 85. This was not the resilient woman who grew up wearing flour sacks during the depression, who survived the loss of her husband to a sudden heart attack in her mid-50s, or who religiously trucked to North Dakota to visit sisters even though they didn’t remember her visits due to Alzheimer’s. This was not the woman who loved to dance the polka.

This woman was not Grandma Millie.

So, I said my goodbyes and my “I love yous” and I left. I went back to my parent’s house. I soaked in the hot tub. I drank wine. I took Tylenol p.m., hoping to sleep. However, my slumber was restless and nothing tempered those images of her.

You are stronger than you think you are.

My friend, Lauren, had left me with this phrase during a phone conversation earlier in the week. Her words echoed in my head and became my mantra as I returned over the next three days to spend the last face-to-face time I had with Grandma Millie.

I’m embarrassed to say it, but my reaction from the day before had become the norm since she had become a resident of the nursing home a couple of years before. When I visited, she was mostly sleeping. It was unbelievable that a woman who hardly sat down during most of her life was suffering from bedsores because of lack of movement. Sometimes she was awake, but just stared back at me. Once and a while she would talk with me and in a few rare moments her words made sense. She told me she liked my earrings, obviously forgetting that before they were mine, they were hers. In response to “love you” I got “thank you.”

However, this was time was different. I knew in my heart that this would be the last time I would spend with Grandma Millie. So, rather than letting the denial, the anger, the guilt, and mostly the sadness overtake my heart, I stayed. I let the emotions rush over me, but they felt better than numbness.

You are stronger than you think you are.

So, on the first day, I pulled up a chair. I held her thin, mangled hand in mine and talked to her.  Hospice told us that her hearing would be one of the last things to go. We talked about some important things, but mostly the mundane. Our conversations were only interrupted as pieces of ice were flung from the trees hitting the windows.

The time passed quickly. I couldn’t believe another hour had gone by when the aids came to move her to a different position. But I also had difficulty remembering what day it was and how long I had been in this icy wonderland. Yes, the ice remained; it did not melt. The temperature hovered just below 32 and gray clouds blotted out the sun most of the time.

But during this cold and dark time, I got reacquainted with my warm and colorful grandmother. Things were not the same as they once had been, but the core of the relationship was still there, even if the roles were somewhat reversed.

She used to perm my hair. Now, I curled hers. She loved curly hair and even during her last hours, I knew she would want to look her best. So, I curled and combed her matted mane.

She used to insist that I clean my plate. Now I offered her a wet a sponge hoping to sooth her mouth, dry from her shallow breaths.

She used to take me to her Presbyterian church. Now I read her scripture and asked a pastor to come and pray with her.

Not everything was different. We played Uno. We played out Grandma Millie’s hand just as she would have (with lots of skips and draw twos) and as usual, she won.

I did not go through this alone. My parents, especially my mom, as well as my aunt Dorothy and uncle Wayne also spent many hours with her. My other uncles, Bruce and Glen, aunt Shari, and cousin Kathy arrived on Saturday, so that we would not have to shoulder the long hours keeping vigil alone. We sat around talking about the good times. Moments of laughter were peppered amongst the tears.

And amazingly, on that last night, Grandma Millie came back to us – just for a few moments. While we were talking with her, Grandma Millie’s gentle blue eyes replaced her distant gaze. When we looked at her, you could tell that she really saw us. I haven’t seen her that “with it” for a very long time. We took turns. I told her I was sorry for things I had done to hurt her. I told her I loved her, I respected her, I admired her. She tried to talk, but we reassured her that we knew how she felt and that she should rest and be comfortable. Shortly after, the distant gaze returned and happy hour (one of Grandma Millie’s favorite times of the day) was over.

As we left the nursing home, I noticed that the branches no longer slumped under the weight of the snow. Most of the slush from the roads was gone. Just as most of the ice had melted off the trees, so had it melted from around my heart. Just as ice turns to water, the love that Grandma Millie and I shared was the same, but manifested differently.

*****

We almost made it. After getting a phone call shortly after midnight that the end was very close, we rushed back to the nursing home only to learn that she had passed away a couple of minutes before. I cannot help but think that this was purposeful on her part. Once happy hour had ended and most of us had gone, her breath slowed and she exited the party for good.

As we sat at the nursing home well past 2 a.m. waiting for the funeral director to arrive, my family sat in a circle. We mused silently. I whimpered. Letting the ice thaw from my heart made it hurt more now. Then, slowly we began to talk again. My uncle Bruce cracked a joke. I looked around and saw that although she was no longer physically with us, Grandma Millie lived on…her love, her laughter, and her lessons shared even in her last moments of life.

What lessons of love and loss has life taught you?