Grief is a sacred journey

Disbelief

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With Vic's mom Virginia

With Vic’s mom Virginia

“Embrace your grief. For there, your soul will grow.” Carl Jung

Yesterday my husband’s mom looked up at me with her nearly blind milky brown eyes and asked, “Is Vic dead?”

“Yes,” I said quietly. “He died seven years ago.” If I lie, she remembers, so I tell the truth. Her face crumpled. She waved me aside with a dismissive backhand to rid herself of bad news. She turned her eyes away and wept. For twenty seconds.

“What happened to Vic?” she asked within a few minutes.

“He died Virginia.”

Virginia and Vic ~1947

Virginia and Vic ~1947

“Who lives here?” she whispered.

“You do, Virginia.”

“I’m mixed up,” she said, shaking her freshly permed curls.

“I know, Virginia. I’m sorry. It’s so hard.” I put her groceries away while the evening health aid sat with her.

“Where is Vic?” she asked in two minutes, waving me closer. Then she asked again. Each time, she heard the impossible truth for the first time.

Until recently, she fought grief, raging at God and at me. Forgetfulness and frailty have made her vulnerable. For the first time since Vic took me home to meet her in 1967, she trusts me. I hardly recognize this gentle broken woman I’ve vowed to care for until the end.

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Virginia with Willow

Virginia in her apartment

Virginia’s world

“How did he die?” she asked as I put a leash on my dog Willow. Virginia turned her face away and then glanced back with pleading wet eyes. “Why didn’t God take me?” Her fist clenched for a second before relaxing into open-palmed helplessness.

She’s ninety-nine. One hundred in January. Her only child is dead. She doesn’t have the fire to rage anymore.

It’s more than seven years since Vic died. His mother’s insistent questions mirror an unsettled place in me. Oh, I know he’s dead, but what about the part of me that tells him about my day or asks for guidance, as though he were a god? The part that pleads for protection when I’m scared, as though he were an angel. The part that asks for help with a decision, as though he were an oracle?

He is still the positive inner masculine I counted on for so long. Our partnership continues in this odd disembodied way.

Vic and Elaine at home

Vic and Elaine at home

I’m not surprised his mother can’t believe he’s gone. Neither can I.

Vic and I grew up together. We created the life we dreamed in hippie days. Our marriage was part of our spiritual path, a psychological vessel, a dream holder, a place of safety where anything could be shared. It still is that for me, except… “Where is he?” and “Why am I talking to myself?”

I can recite the imperfections of our marriage. I knew his flaws. He knew mine. We leaned into love anyway. I can list the ways I’ve changed and grown strong without him. I’m more independent and willing to take a risk. I’m doing well. That doesn’t stop the secret longing.

Vic’s mother’s questions tear at my heart and make me face my own persistent disbelief.

“What happened to Vic?” “Where is he?” “Will I see him again?”

Autumn ritual at Vic's cairn

Autumn ritual at Vic’s cairn

I have no answers. I can only hold his mother’s hand.

***

Do you have strong continuing bonds with people or places from your past? Does something in you not quite believe they’re gone? What experiences reawaken your disbelief? For other posts about my long and complex relationship with Vic’s mom, see Mother-in-Law Blues: Lessons in “Don’t Bite the Hook”. Pathways, a hospice and home care agency in California, has an excellent article about Dementia Patients and Grief. They recommend honesty–and patience.

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38 Comments
  1. This is a wonderful, deeply heartfelt post Elaine. Your rich words moved me in silent sorrow, so strange and ordinary all at the same time. As I read I recalled watching the film ‘Magnolia’ and resonating deeply when I heard one of the characters say … “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

    I do wonder, often, about that and how friends and family are doing on the ‘other side’ (however defined). In dreams, once in a while, they still speak to me in their dis-embodied voices, appearing larger than life itself. Upon wakening, even decades later, I still wonder where they are … most especially the children.

    Today as I sit and type I recall a lover who passed through my life so fleetingly yet here in this moment, their memory fills up the scarlet chambers of my heart. Love, blows through Eternity, it cannot be carried away or disremembered … for when love comes, beyond death, the air is alive with something. Love and blessings, Deborah.

    • “When love comes, beyond death, the air is alive with something.” A beautiful way to put it, Deborah. It seems the past is never done with us. Watching Vic’s mom, my own mom who died of Alzheimer’s in 2007, and others, I’d say we have work to do with our deep losses and if we don’t do it at the time, it waits around for us. I’ve written about the heart-opening conversations I had with my mother who would not discuss my father’s death or speak of him at all in 1959. In the late 1990s, as dementia closed in, she needed to talk about her love and loss–with tears and all the feelings she’d stuffed all those years.

      As a child, I learned the Christian views of heaven and hell. As an adult, I learned the ideas of reincarnation in many religious traditions. Reincarnation appeals and reassures in so many ways, but deep down, I’m left with “I don’t know.” I don’t truly know. It felt that Vic left, and yet he stayed. The mysteries surround me. Thanks so much for your loving attention to this piece. I just saw my mother-in-law and she was less confused and agitated than a few days ago. The pendulum swings.

    • Love to you, Marty.

    • I lost my son in 1996 when he was 22, so that is nearly 20 years ago and I am only now starting to accept it, but a part of me seems to be gone forever. There is also a class thing with the local Grief organisations, such as Compassionate Friends. I don’t have a car, can’t drive and no one offered me a lift .. such is life – the closure and acceptance may have come sooner if I was able to attend the support groups. Lorraine

      • Oh, Lorraine. What a terrible loss you’ve suffered. We all need support. I wonder if you’ve actually told the group leaders that you need help getting to the groups rather than waiting for someone to offer. Sometimes it’s an oversight or everyone being busy, so I hope you’ll ask before giving up on them.

        There are wonderful on-line grief groups. I highly recommend Grief Healing Discussion Groups. If you scroll down their first page just a short way, you’ll find a group for people who have lost a child. Here is the link: http://www.griefhealingdiscussiongroups.com I know you’ll find parents there including group leaders, who know a grief such as yours doesn’t go away. Thank you for writing. I hope this helps.

  2. Words fail . . . friends care . . . you are loved, Elaine!

    • Thank you, Marian. I’ve had a difficult relationship with Vic’s mom since the moment she laid eyes on me in 1967. She wanted something “better” for her son. I KNEW it wasn’t personal, but it still hurt. It’s a gift to feel my heart open toward her now.

  3. Dear Elaine,

    You have such an amazing way of touching the tender places inside yourself and us, of helping us see and accept them fully through the hurt. The heart is so vulnerable, yet profoundly tough. Grief has taught you something few understand, Crone Woman, and you have faced it fiercely and learned your lessons well. Your wisdom helps me remember to keep the door to my heart open, no matter how much it hurts. Because strength and wisdom lie on the other side. I thank you for this rare insight.

    Jeanie

    • I bow in gratitude, Jeanie. Thank you for reflecting back the lessons learned in a life. Many times I wanted to abandon Vic’s mom to her aggressive anger and resentment, but I couldn’t do it. She had no one else to take care of her. I knew vulnerability and pain were underneath her rage, but they were well defended. In many Jungian workshops and during many shadow explorations, when I was asked to name the woman who was hardest for me to understand and get along with, I always named Virginia. I didn’t know if we could ever step out of our mutual shadow projection. I stayed and learned more than I wanted to know about my own resentment and anger. Now I don’t have to live with regret.

  4. You have expressed so well the tragedy of memory loss. Virginia’s not being able to recall her painful loss, losing that loss, translates to her then experiencing it anew each time. Is she in the perennial past or in some permanent present moment, I wonder. But, do you think it might be meaningful or useful to help her re-focus? Vic was her only child, but there are wonderful grandsons, who now have wonderful women, and thus the circle of life continues…

    • Hi Myra. Virginia’s mind isn’t settled anywhere. It wanders from topic to topic and time to time. Yesterday she was clearer. She asked a few times if David and Anthony were coming for Thanksgiving, but knew Vic wouldn’t be around. Of course, I try to refocus her energy and tell her about something good happening soon (such as a relative visiting her today from Connecticut). Sometimes this lightens her load and distracts her, but when she is at her saddest, there are no grandsons, there is no life she leads now, there are no old friends. Only Vic’s death and the emptiness of her life now. Except–there is always the presence of my dog Willow who loves Virginia’s rubs and treats. Willow helps more than anything.

  5. Your strength and courage remind me of a meme I recently saw on facebook, “If I were any stronger, I could benchpress a buick.”
    I can only imagine how hard it must be to have to keep reminding Vic’s mom of his death over and over; as if saying it once isn’t hard enough on both of you. You are a pillar of strength Elaine. <3

    • Which reminds me: I’m back to twice a week strength training sessions and it feels very good. I don’t think I’ll benchpress a Buick, but I’ll benchpress more in six months than I’m doing right now. The body remembers fast.

      It’s poignant to hear her sweet and pleading questions, but not as hard on me as you might think. I know and have befriended my grief and it doesn’t upset me in others. I’m much better with grief than with finger-pointing anger. It’s a relief to feel vulnerability rather than having to duck her rage. Since she has health aids and still lives in her own apartment (I’m not sure how long we can pull this off, but I’ll do it until her funds run out because it’s so much better than a nursing home), I don’t live with her and her questions 24 hours a day. I’m glad I stayed to allow life to offer a solution.

  6. I feel this post deeply, Elaine. My family situation and loss is a different set of circumstances but your message resonates. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your comment, Monica. Grief is hard for any family. In hospice work, I see how family members hold a mix of sorry, anger, competition, resentment, and all sorts of messy emotions that get in the way of love. In all the chaos of life, it feels like a breakthrough to leave anger behind and sit together with our sadness and disbelief.

  7. ‘she heard the impossible truth for the first time’. Pain and pangs every time hearing the truth as if for the first time. Thank you Elaine. May the pendulum keep swinging as the mysteries of life continue to baffle yet comfort. You’re right, the past never leaves us and continues to reveal itself in new ways, new pathways, new life, just like the cycles of life, death and rebirth. …

    • I feel we are in a new and much better place than we’ve been before–difficult as it is. Virginia has steamed with resentment since learning Vic was sick. She’s never been easy to deal with, but I was amazed at her unwillingness to accept help with grief from her priest, a nun, someone from hospice, much less family. She needed to fume and blame. So this sharing of tender grief is a breakthrough. It’s interesting to meet her in the confusion that dominates her mind and whispers in a child-like place in me. I’m watching carefully since she’s always been the Shadow person for me. It seems to be my job to hold her hand to the end.

  8. Elaine and Deborah and Marty, your deep beautiful sharing help me so much to not feel so alone. Your sharing helps me to not feel alone in my grief, or in the feelings and thoughts I have about my husband, Ron’s, death on May 27th of this year. As I mentioned before, he was killed instantly when a truck pulled out in front of him while he was riding his motorcycle.

    My mind never stops thinking about him. My heart never stops longing to know where he is right now, and it is always reaching out, open to feel his presence.

    Last year we went through breast cancer together. This February our dearest friend died of cancer. Eight years ago we held his sister while she took her last breath, we stopped life support for his mother a few years before that and held her as she took her last breath. His father died just a couple of years ago. Now, no one remains of the family I married into.

    I hope they are all together.

    Thank you Elaine for your reply to my earlier post. I am doing many of the things you suggested.

    My life is so radically changed.

    I can’t believe it.

    Love to you all.

    Deb

    • Your line, “I can’t believe it,” says so much, Deb. You’ve lost so many people in a short time and May 27 must feel like yesterday. It’s a hard, hard time for you, including seeing the loss of a whole family. I hope they are together, too.

      I can only hope you have plenty of support and plenty of love and patience for yourself. Do you like to write (not for publication, but to express feelings)? There is a one month writing course given by Megan Devine of Refuge in Grief. Many get a lot out of her on-line courses and you might check it out if it sounds interesting. Her website is http://www.refugeingrief.com. You’ll see her course information at the top of the page above the banner.

      I’m glad you’re reaching out, Deb. It seems the healthiest thing you can do in a hard situation.
      With love and tenderness,
      Elaine

  9. This is so moving, my heart breaks for your Mother-In-Law, and it must be so incredibly hard for you… I was in tears by end of reading. Exquisite writing!This read will stay with me for a long time I think.

    • Thanks so much, Kimmie. My mother-in-law doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, but suffers from memory loss that come with extreme old age. It rarely seems happy to live to 100. It is hard for me and my husband’s death put us both in a difficult position. It’s a gift to have this softening of the heart between us.

  10. I was so glad to meet your mother-in-law. At the time there was such a connection because I, too, had lost a grown child. It must be so hard for you to relive the pain over and over again at each retelling of Vic’s death. I still try to convince myself that I will not see my daughter again. But it doesn’t stop me from talking to her all the time. And it doesn’t stop me from dedicating my every action to her.

    • I understand some of the ways your relationship continues with Marika, Robin. Until recently, Vic’s mom never spoke about him with anyone close without anger and resentment, but you brought out her heart of grief by sharing common experience. We become empathetic toward each other’s suffering the hard way. Thank you for reaching out to her and to many others.

  11. Oh, Elaine, how well you capture the disbelief born of belief! What is “gone” and what is “here”? I am okay in the space of all the questions my heart holds. It’s a space I need more than ever these days. Thank you for finding the words that stir me, again and again. Those stirrings keep me from sticking to the bottom of my own pot and allow for new bubbles to simmer and rise to the surface.
    Love to you, and gratitude,
    Julie

    • Thank you, Julie. I’m honored to be stirring you in any way at all. What a great image from our kitchens.
      I’m also comfortable with not knowing the Great Mystery. Except that It Is. The sadness comes from watching Vic’s mom grieve for her son over and over again. Still, it’s much easier for me than her rage, because our mutual grief is a link between us whereas rage pushes me away.
      With gratitude to you. I have my ear cocked for news about the anthology. I hope all is proceeding along. It takes so much to do what you and Vikki are doing.
      Sending love and gratitude for you.

  12. Elaine, I have nothing to add, but thank you for this powerful post.

  13. So very kind and generous of you to care for her and be present with her, when I am sure that her aggressiveness and anger probably hurt you many times throughout the years. So compassionate of you to let go of your own defences enough to see the pain underneath her hostility.
    I get this too, how her ‘forgetting’ that he is gone and her shock when she is told or remembers it awakens that part of you that still can’t believe this happened. I can’t believe I lost my Stan in the way that I did. Sometimes I am still in shock. I still talk to him everyday, many times throughout the day. I still ache for him to answer me. Sometimes I feel he does, in various ways.
    Thank you for this insightful post. I am sharing it to my page. xx

    • Thanks for your comment, Tricia. When Vic was diagnosed with cancer, I told him I’d watch out for his mother. He didn’t suggest or expect it, but there was no one else. She is challenging, but her love for her son and grandsons was always clear. She’s forced me to learn patience.

      Ah, that disbelief. I’m still surprised by life without Vic. Yes, I feel a constant deep connection to him, but I miss brown eyes, laughter, silliness, and mutual support. I miss telling him my dreams, meditating with him, and making dinner together. Thanks for sharing my piece.

  14. Elaine, I’m so behind on everything and just haven’t felt like being on the computer for some reason, but I’m so glad this piece caught my eye this evening. How beautiful in so many ways. Who would have thought that you and Virginia would develop this closeness – life is strange, isn’t it? She’s very blessed to have you watching over her, and I know it must be difficult answering the questions about Vic over and over again – seeing her hurting and of course, the effect it has on your own heart. I’m always inspired by how grounded you are and the way you seem to be able to sort through so many varied emotions and make sense of them. It will just be three years in December that I lost my mom, but I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that she’s gone and that I’ll never hear her laugh or hold her hand again. When I think about it, I cry… Still. Maybe always. Sending love and gratitude. ~Ann

    • Thank you, Ann.
      After being in Italy, you probably have your priorities straight. Less time at the computer sounds like a good thing. I hope your landing was smooth and your leg has healed. You were an amazing trooper in dealing with that.
      It is a surprise to feel so much empathy for Virginia. I always hoped we’d get to this place, but I didn’t expect it. It’s much easier to answer her repeated questions than to deal with her constant anger. It’s only in the last year or even six months that she’s started expressing grief rather than raging at it. I’ll take tears over bitterness any day.
      I remember how hard your mom’s last months were. You’ve done so much to honor her with your life, Ann, but I know all this doesn’t make up for her absence. Crying is allowed. I’m a weepy one. I know my longing is another form of love. Yes, maybe alway.

  15. Thank you for this gift from the heart, Elaine.

  16. Elaine,
    Thank you for opening up your heart with such honesty. Your humility inspires me.
    It is difficult to learn to live without regret. I have been working very hard on this. I call it not having to do ” do overs” at the next stage of life.
    When my mother was in her final years and facing increased dementia I was tempted to confront her with past painful experiences. I wanted answers and some closure. But when I looked into her deep green eyes I saw her pain and fear and my selfish motives were insignificant. Sometimes we need to let it go and concentrate on the time we have left.I guess that is called unconditional love and it feels much better than a fleeting moment of payback that leaves a bitter taste the next day.
    My mother-in-law asked me recently ” when will the tears stop.”. She knows I have walked the path that she is now on after the death of her husband of 68 years. I wasn’t going to try and make her feel good for a moment with an insincere assurance, so I honestly told her ” never”. But I did add that the tears are not as frequent and I am not embarrassed when they do flow. It is only liquid love.
    You are a wonderful daughter-in-law and you know that Vic is very proud of you. We don’t sign up for all of the tasks that come our way, but we do choose how to handle them. You are a model to others.
    Hugs to you and I hope to see you again soon.

    • Dearest Kim.
      My mother-in-law has been my teacher from day one. She taught me how to stand my ground. Now she teaches me to yield and forgive. I knew enough, even as a young woman, to empathize with the pain of her life and her adoration for her son. She would have smothered Vic, except he took charge as a teenager. His mom had an eighth grade education and was poor. His father deserted in the first year of marriag, when Virginia was pregnant with Vic. Vic realized in 9th grade that he was smart. In the 1950s and 1960s, being smart and doing well in school meant big scholarships and opportunities. He went for it with the help of teachers. Virginia always said she didn’t know where Vic had come from. He broke away. And yet he felt responsible for her and so did I.

      Yesterday, the social worker at her residence asked I’m handling her forgetfulness. They recommended distraction. I couldn’t agree. Yes, distraction sometimes, but I see a healing taking place. She doesn’t always ask about Vic and I don’t bring him up, but if she asks persistently, I take it as an opportunity to be two women grieving for the person we both loved. We meet in this vulnerable place. It’s good for both of us. My mother and I had a similar late healing when she began discussing her grief for my father’s death 40 years before. It took early dementia to unloosen her frozen pain and we were both healed. I wrote about that in a piece called “My Mother’s Blessing.”

      Yes, I hope we meet again, too. Following your lead, I submitted an article to Hippocampus. We’ll see what happens next. Thanks for your loving comment.

  17. No need to thank me for writing, no need to reply. We talked of this today. You are so very strong and so very fragile at the same time. Both are gifts, and you wield either well. I am so blessed to enter your sanctum sanctorum and share with you your thoughts, your feelings, and the awesome sunsets. And no one makes better soup! D.

    • I like to thank you for your generosity and friendship, Dennis.
      What an awesome sunset it was. I just posted a photo of it on FB. Thanks for sharing The Princess Bride with me yesterday. I should have watched The Princess Bride in the 1970s along with everyone else, but I was too busy meditating. 😉

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