Each holiday I reminisce about the holidays that came before. I don’t imagine I’m unusual in this way, I guess many people may do the same.
It’s the patterns that are most interesting to me, the symmetry and asymmetry of our traditional family gathering. The good years, the transitions and the challenging years.
This year was a good year. We surrounded ourselves with family. We shared stories, we ate too much, we toasted the memory of those no longer with us and we celebrated new and renewed life.
Not too long ago were the bad years, the years of decline and isolation. The dementia years.
My mother lay in her bed at the memory care facility with covers pulled tight. Although the day was filled with crisp late-November air and bright sunshine, mom’s room remained dark with curtains drawn and a heavy weight of sadness lurking in each dim corner.
I’d plead to the outline under the covers, “Please mom, I’ve cooked a big meal with everything you like. Please join us for dinner.” But, no response, no movement. I’d finally give in and package up a meal for her that I knew would only be thrown away.
My mom died after a long decline through Alzheimer’s disease and it took time for joy to return to our holidays. We filled the transition years with anything but tradition. Distraction seemed the only way to mount the wall I built up. The wall designed to protect me from the torture of those precious and painful moments.
Losing a loved one is paralyzing, there’s no way around it. And after years of caring through decline the end brings us one more surprise. Because the end of caregiving isn’t freedom, the end of a long journey is grief. I’m still learning to manage through my grief, however I found a wonderful concept and image from Dr. Susan Delaney of the Irish Hospice Foundation (my mom, Kathryn Vera would be so proud that the answers came to me from her ‘people’).
Dr. Delaney tells us that grief is not conveniently structured and possesses no endpoint. Instead she likens grief to the image of a dark mass held within a jar. As time goes on, the mass (which represents our grief) doesn’t diminish but the jar (which represents our emotional capacity) gets larger. She argues it’s not our feelings of loss that disappear or begin to fade, but rather we become able to grow emotionally and able to fit more feeling around our grief.
We become able to invite other people, other passions and other activities back into our lives. And as a result, we become bigger.
I love Dr. Delaney’s concept. It just feels right to me.
It’s important to recognize what we seek after loss is some kind of peace. Peace is not forgetting, peace is not just moving on and peace is not an unfair reaction to losing a loved one. Instead I now understand that finding peace is our best effort to make space within our jar. Finding peace allows us to move along the journey of grief, not through it.
WS Merwin captures it well in the poem Separation:
“Your absence has gone through me,
like thread through a needle.
Everything I do now is stitched with its color.”
This year has been a good start to the holidays for me after several years in transition. In this moment, I am grateful. I write this blog today, however for others who I know are at different points along the path of their grief.
David Anthony Fuller passed this past week after a long battle with cancer.
David was lovingly cared for by his sister and my friend Lillie Fuller.
David may you now find rest. And Lillie, in time may you find peace in your journey.