Grief is a sacred journey

Goodbye to Her Little Sister: Helping a Grieving Elder

Helen, Virginia, and Rose (L-R), 2002

Sisters Helen, Virginia, and Rose (L-R), 2002

When the overnight aide arrived at 10 pm, Virginia wasn’t asleep in her bed. She wasn’t in her apartment or down the hall in the sitting area or anywhere obvious. After a frantic search, the aide found my mother-in-law sitting on a cement floor at the top of a stairwell, lost, shivering, and weeping.

Virginia’s little sister Rose, 91, had died the day before. Virginia and her third sister Helen, 98, speak on the phone every day, so Helen agreed to give Virginia the news. Health aides, my dog Willow, and I were with Virginia that day. She seemed calm as friends called to share their grief, but it was all too much.

“I want to see my sister,” Virginia sobbed when the aide found her. “I want to go home.” The tender-hearted aide got Virginia back in her apartment and in bed.

Women who raised my husband: Virginia, Helen, Little Vic, Rose, & Grandma, 1943

The women who raised my husband: Virginia, Helen, Little Vic, Rose, and Grandma, 1943

Since a fall and hospital stay in November, Virginia has had health aides 20 hours a day, including all night. After her disappearance act, I increased hours to fill any gaps. I don’t want to leave her alone with her fear.

Fortunately, Virginia loves her health aides. I love and depend on them.

DSC03030As Virginia loses more short-term memory, she becomes increasingly affectionate toward me. She also tries to re-create our rocky history.

“We always got along, didn’t we?” she asked a few days before Rose died.

I waited to see what she’d say next.

“We always liked each other, right?” she said. “We were always close.” She looked up at me with hope. Something in me resisted having her erase the truth, but why should it matter?

“We got along fine, Virginia. We get along well.” She grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze.

Virginia with her neighbor's guinea pig

Virginia with her neighbor’s guinea pig

“But you would never take care of me,” she said, leaning back with a scowl, digging at the scab.

My mouth yawned wide to snap the bait. I almost bit the hook. Almost.

“What do you mean, Virginia?” I asked instead.

“I mean you never took care of me.”

“Virginia, I always took care of you. I reminded your son and grandsons to call you. I called you myself. I sent birthday cards and letters. I included you in every family gathering. I helped you stay close to your grandsons. I moved you to this nice apartment. I cooked your favorite pasta. I’ve always taken care of you.”

“Yes, I know,” she said with a small nod of defeat. The pasta must have convinced her.

I was grateful I hadn’t grabbed that bait, but my desire to blame was right there, just under the surface. A hint of unresolved resentment mixed with caregiver’s fatigue.

That night, I created a sandtray. I wrote about sandtray last week and promised I’d make one for Virginia and me. I smoothed the white sand with my palms and built a shale ledge to divide the tray in two. Half for Virginia and half for me. My life feels like that some days.

DSC00218A Grannie figure represented Virginia. I surrounded Grannie with what I imagined would bring Virginia comfort—a nurse, a priest, a nun, a dog, and St. Christopher carrying Jesus on his shoulder. The ladder was my hope for an easy exit from this life when it’s her turn. On the shale wall, I added two angels and a spirit bear watching over her.

DSC00201My side of the tray was harder. I started with many figures before slowly removing everything except a spiral in the sand with a yin-yang symbol in the center. The yin-yang symbol was a Christmas gift from my daughter-in-law.

Virginia needed protection and love. I needed quiet centering. I also needed faith in this spiraling path of slow transformation.

Did my sandtray help Virginia? Even though she calmed down, I can’t say. I know for sure that it helped me.


As I promised in my last blog, I continued working with sandtray. I needed it this challenging week. I’d love to hear your experiences with supporting yourself when someone’s needs drain you dry. If you’d like to know more about transforming a tricky relationship, see My Lover’s Mama and the Negative Mother Archetype. I’ll be at the Women’s March on Washington this coming weekend. I’m grateful to Virginia’s reliable health aides who make this possible.


  1. Dear Elaine, I read your article today with a heavy heart, so am sending you much love, light and laughter across the ocean from my heart to yours. I can see that the price you pay for helping to look after Virginia is demanding, and then some! In every way, mind, body, spirit and soul, the limits on your everyday life must be huge.

    As always I enjoy your photos, most especially, Grandma and Virginia’s sisters, the women who raised your husband, love your words here! Thank you for sharing your latest sandtray creation, I was deeply touched by the small space you’re holding onto right now in your life, and how quiet centering, the spiral, and yin yang are helping you weather these storms.

    Turning towards the “living waters” (in whatever unique and individual ways they work for you) comes to mind, whenever I’m feeling shattered. Whether I go swimming, sit quietly and read poetry, or pull on my boots and take myself out for a walk or do nothing at all, except lie down and weep. Thinking of you (and Willow!), blessings always, Deborah.

    • Thank you, Deborah. It’s been a stormy week, but at the moment Virginia seems to have forgotten her sister died. I asked relatives to stop calling and the health aides answered the phone quickly and coached whoever called. I asked that no one send cards for a few weeks until we get her settled down again. About the price I pay, the cost to my soul would be steeper if I didn’t take care of her.

      I also love the photo of Vic with the women who raised him. I have a few of that crew, plus a third aunt who married into the family when Vic was about two. His childhood was rocky because of his alcoholic father and desperate mother, but he was the first grandchild in the family and his aunts and grandma loved him.

      I’m taking care of myself the best I can. Main thing is to not fret about the future–either Virginia’s future or the government’s future or my own.

  2. You prove that a life symbolized by shifting sand is not unstable. (Love the ladder!) What a replenishing exercise with your sand tray, at once playful and profound. Siblings usually represent the family relationship with the longest span of history. It is understandable that Virginia would act out her feelings of being bereft. I recall now the recent loss of your brother . . .

    I am happy you can shed the role of daughter-in-law/caregiver and join the sisterhood on Saturday. The weight of a care-giver’s mantle is very heavy. Bless you for practicing self-care in unique ways, Elaine.

    • Thank you, Marian. Virginia’s response was understandable and heart-breaking. Fortunately she sat down on the stairs and didn’t try to go down them. My main role was getting more help, phone consultations with frightened health aides, and talking to Virginia’s family. After the first night, the health aides instructed callers about Virginia’s situation before handing the phone to Virginia. This helped. She was calm and quiet yesterday afternoon and didn’t mention that her sister died.

      I hope Saturday will be a day of sharing the power of democracy and the importance of social justice and human kindness. I hope for a sense of resolve and joy. Virginia will be cared for just fine–and I’m still a phone call away.

  3. Oh Elaine, I’m sorry for the added pressure of Virginia’s loss falling on your shoulders. You’re such a pillar of strength for her. It seems she tries to be grateful and at times in her memory her nastiness resurfaces leaving you on a seesaw of emotions with her. I’m glad you have your outlets of coping, and hoping your people are there for you when your going gets tough. Wishing peace for you. <3

    • Thank you, Debby. The health aides get me through. There are also a few kind elderly women who visit Virginia and keep her company. It takes a village to give someone her age a reasonable life. I don’t see nastiness so much. She seems to be trying to put the pieces of life into some kind of order. May we all have peace.

      • Amen to that Elaine. It certainly does take a village. Glad Virginia has the added support. 🙂

        • She has 20 hours a day of health aide support. It takes a lot and costs a huge amount to give an elder a good life.

          • I can only imagine. I’ve been watching the senate grilling Price all day on Obamacare replacement. So frightening.

          • You have a strong constitution, Debby. I read about the hearings later–and I send letters and postcards. People around here are having weekend postcard parties to send messages to our politicians that we are unhappy with this man-made disaster. They forget that another election comes soon.

  4. Elaine,

    There’s a lesson here for me. Thank you for writing and sharing. I’m sharing it to all my outlets.

    Be well,


    • Thanks so much, Kathleen. I appreciate your support. Virginia was hard on me, but I was also reactive and caught in a shadow complex I felt compelled to understand. She isn’t and never was all bad–not at all–but she’s been the most challenging person in my life. Since she’s still here and so am I, there must be more to learn.

      This quote by Carl Jung has been the operative idea in my almost fifty-year relationship with her. “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” Carl Jung

  5. Dear Elaine,
    You are such a mentor for the relationships women have in their lives. The transformation process of our soul encompasses so many emotions and challenges. Thank you so very much for sharing and giving insight to women’s issues.
    I won’t be in Washington this weekend, but know that I am supporting your efforts and will hold you in my heart for a safe, meaningful experience. Hope you can share that also. Please keep writing!

    • Thank you for your encouraging words, Beverly. I’m persistent in working with emotional conflict, because I trust I’m receiving essential lessons for me. I’ve never had to be this persistent, but I’m not the only one who struggles with their husband’s mother.

      When I heard about the Women’s March soon after the election, I wanted to go–and a local friend made it possible to take a trip that won’t be too exhausting. It would have been wonderful to be with other friends gathering in Seneca Falls or in Ithaca. Women supporting each other and standing for democracy and social justice. I’ll have my camera with me in DC and hope to hear a little of what’s going on, but deafness will make that hard in a noisy situation. My friend can tell me what was said later. I’m going because I want to be part of a powerful positive force at a challenging political time. I can read the speeches later.

  6. You deserve more credit than you receive. You have a dear heart. I suppose that taking care of Virginia is still tending to Vic in some way. I love the photo in this article dated 1943. I spotted Vic’s mom instantly as I could see his likeness in her face. You are a good and deep soul sister. This world is lucky to have you among us

    • Thanks, Dennis. I think I’ll have to give myself that credit, although Virginia tries now. I’m compelled to honor the woman who birthed and raised my lover and the father of my kids. Vic looked a lot like his mom, but he had a sweetness she doesn’t have. Thanks for your kind words, Brother Dennis.

  7. Wow. You are one strong, conscious woman. My mother was a very intelligent, kind-hearted, well-intentioned, gentle woman but she was not very conscious of the implications or impact of some of the things she said and did. Toward the end of her life I moved her to an assisted living facility just down the road where she lived out her last 8 years.

    I held my tongue throughout that time except for once, in the last month of her life, when I was so stressed and hurt by her behavior toward me after a visit to her doctor that I lost it and gave her a very angry piece of my mind. (I never had tantrums as a child; I was too busy being good to protect what I thought was her emotional fragility!)

    I know I needed that tantrum to show me a nasty aspect of my shadow I was still largely unaware of at the time, and to convince me that my struggle to become conscious would be a never-ending journey. But I don’t think she needed or deserved it, and I’ll always regret that she was my target. She was wonderful about it, never held it against me, and was so happy that I could be with her at her very beautiful, peaceful passing. That was the last of her many generous gifts to me throughout her life.

    So I congratulate you for having the courage, perseverance, and presence of mind to see and restrain your shadow and create the increasingly peaceful relationship you two are building together. It may always be an uneasy peace, but it is nonetheless a highly commendable opus and a gift to you both! Jeanie

    • I’m sorry you have that hard memory, Jeanie. They test us. I can only guess that something in you met something in your mom during that hard interaction–and that despite surprise, shame and regret, there was relief on both sides. One soul honestly touching another in a long relationship dance. I write about one conscious moment in this piece, but I haven’t always held back and I’ve often approached her with my claws out. Mostly, I’ve judged her. I’ve probably told you that Vic commonly used an exercise in workshops about the shadow where participants had to choose a person they disliked the most and work with their traits. I often traveled with Vic and even though I’d done the exercise, I did it again. Many times. I always chose Virginia as the person I struggled with the most. The shadow. I never felt I got anywhere with uncovering the strong hook that made the projection impenetrable. But somehow, after all this time (I’m a slow student), I see my reaction to her judgment. No one has judged me more harshly, except me. I’m the harshest, most unrelenting judge–and I’m still trying to soften that inner hurtful voice. It only took 50 years…

  8. I’m not sure you’ve mentioned Virginia’s little sister before, Elaine? Surely a shock for her, my condolences. Your gestures in the sandtray of love and care and protection towards her is very moving to me. This will make a difference in a meaningful way to her. As will the yin yang symbol to you-
    You’re probably en route to the march tomorrow – may it all go well and energise you

    • I hadn’t mentioned Rose, Susan. There were three living sisters. I hadn’t seen Rose for many years because she was housebound, but I talked to her on the phone once in a while. The remaining sister Helen lives with her son and his family, and I see her about once a year. I felt soothed by the sandtray and Virginia has calmed down for unclear reasons–except we asked relatives to be more careful in phone calls and not assume she is as she sounds. She hasn’t mentioned Rose in the last three or four days, so it sank back into wherever memory goes when we lose it.

      I’m in a suburb of Washington, DC as I write this. In a few hours, we’ll meet with people in the neighborhood, along with my hostess, and the friends I drove with for a subway journey (apt symbol) into the capital district. I’ll have a notebook and camera and see what I see. I won’t be able to hear much, but I can read speeches later. I’m glad to be here. It feels important to energize and commit to social justice (and for me, the environment) for the years ahead.

  9. Boy, I didn’t edit. forgive me. There was one home in Ithaca I liked, the one with a couple of cats and visits from dogs, like you have done Hospice. But does the place she’s in have further care? Aging in place is so much better. And maybe she wouldn’t mind the place nearer to you. There’s lots of Italians near there and some Italian food as well.

    Love, I think you are wonderful and you really are the only one to take this on. It’s such a heavy burden! I wish the sisters were together. In today’s world people with her constitution can live longer than you do! We took Richard’s mom to Florida to her Nursing facility, by hiring someone we trusted and was also a cook and also paid her favorite care person to go with her. It took them two days. And we met the trailer (It was equipped) Her caregiver slept for one night in her bed. And Martin made their meals.
    We flew and met the vehicle, so did Stephen. It all worked. Where her sister lives is there big family there? I’m just thinking.Love Evelyn/Julianna

    • Thanks Julianna. Virginia lives in a senior residence in Ithaca called McGraw House. You probably know it. Vic and I moved her there less than a year before he died. It was one of the things he and I had to figure out so someone could watch out for her, so she moved from Florida to Ithaca. She’s never lived with me, but I have power of attorney and manage her affairs and her care with the help of wonderful health aides. I also see her about twice a week and her favorite is my dog who hangs out with her on the days I’m in town.

      I think you imagine that she lives in my house, but that’s never been the case. With the help of the social worker at McGraw House, many residents are cared for by private health aide teams. Virginia has the privacy of her own apartment and schedule, but most importantly, her health aides are like family to her and treat her with great love. There are old ladies of every background in the building, and Virginia has a few who hang around her apartment every day. The health aides know how to cook pasta. At 5 pm, Virginia gets her favorite glass of wine.

      Only one sister remains besides Virginia and she lives with her son in North Carolina. She and Virginia talk on the phone every day. In any case, our arrangement works well. I remember when Richard’s mom lived with you. I knew that would never work for us. I hope you are well and enjoying Colorado. I’m glad you’ll visit Ithaca soon. This getting old isn’t easy, is it? Warmly, Elaine

  10. I loved seeing the pictures of the sisters, Virginia’s old life. It reminded me of my mother’s relationship to her two sisters and the conflicting emotions I experienced with my own two sisters, as my aunts aged and died. Becoming the caregiver for the elders in your life is such a strange thing. Especially when they cling to the control that grows ever harder to maintain. All the changes and jerking around in life that takes place if one is lucky enough to live a long time – I wonder if I will find the same patience and good humor that you do, Elaine, as I step up into my next place in the circle of life and living.

    • Thanks for sharing a little of your story, Robin. I only had one brother so haven’t had the experience of growing up with sisters. These three did lots of fighting which surprised me when I was young because my mother fumed in silence rather than fighting. They said things that seemed unforgivable–but they always forgave each other in time.

      I haven’t always been patient with Virginia, but I’m patient now (partly because she stopped fighting for control) and I’m making sure she gets good care. I’m also tired and hope this doesn’t go on too much longer. Her 101st birthday is tomorrow. Old! And hard.

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