Grief is a sacred journey

Ease Suffering for Everyone, Including Ourselves

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The second bluebird clutch

My phone buzzes. The screen reads “restricted number.” Probably an advertiser, but it could be my mother-in-law’s Hospicare nurse, so I pick up.

“Hi Elaine, it’s Ray.” Ah, the Hospicare nurse. “Virginia has an infection on her leg and skin break-down. It’s inflamed and angry. I’d like to order an antibiotic. What do you think?”

I think I’m inflamed and angry. I’m tired. I’m burned out. I’m choked by the rope that tethers me to my 102-year-old mother-in-law who has repeated crises and recovers from every assault to go another round. Ray knows. Our Hospicare social worker knows. They don’t need to hear my lament again.

“Do what will reduce her suffering,” I say. That position leads to my best, most generous self.

Virginia, June 2018

“OK,” Ray says. “I don’t want her to hurt.”

“Neither do I,” I say. “Yes. Please ease her pain if possible.”

“She didn’t know me this week,” I say. “It’s the first time she hasn’t known me. She kept asking who I was married to.”

“Yes, I notice more confusion,” Ray says.

“But her body is holding steady again after that major fall?”

“Yes,” Ray says. “I didn’t think she could recover from that, but she did.”

“OK. Thanks for suggesting a medicine. Thanks for your help.”

During this call, I sit on my couch and watch bluebirds through the telescope. The female comes and goes from the nesting box. Her mate hops from the roof to the perch above the box to scan and watch for intruders. Fortunately, I’m not seen as an intruder.

This is how I relieve my suffering during another distressing conversation about Virginia. As I watch the birds go about their lives, my heartbeat slows and my breath deepens.

The bluebirds nested in the box closest to my house again. Usually the female moves to a new location after her first clutch, but this year she chose to stay here for her second family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week, I thought the first brood of five had all fledged. I opened the box door to find two cowering in the back. “No, no, don’t make me leave.” I latched the door, ran inside to my telescope, and focused on the door of their house. Papa Bluebird flew to the box door and stayed a minute or two. I imagined him coaching or enticing or reassuring. When he flew away, they followed. Yes!

I hustled outside, cleaned the old nest out of the box, and left the door open to air. Then I saw the couple on the railing where she tenderized a caterpillar by banging it on wood while he watched. When they left, I closed and latched the nesting box door and waited.

The next day, she carried mouthfuls of grass into the box. He stood on the roof with a few stems in his mouth. Carrying grass is a male bluebird come-on even though he doesn’t offer the grass to her or help build the nest. She builds. He guards her and the territory.

New nest

Male carrying grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This morning, as I listen to the Hospicare nurse ask me what to do for my mother-in-law and take in the depth of my empathy-fatigue, I know what to do to ease my exhaustion. Watch bluebirds. As they build and nest, my heart fills with the sweetness of the life, despite the suffering, despite the unrelenting deluge of tragic news.

Mama warming eggs

Ease suffering. For my mother-in-law, for me, and for everyone.

Thank you, Hospicare. Thank you, Ray. Thank you, bluebirds, for staying close this year to let me watch you raise your second family. I need you.

***

How do you ease your suffering when life demands more than you can give? Does Nature’s beauty help? For other articles about caregiving, see To Forget and To Remember. This post reminds me of the many big changes we’ve gone through in the last 2 1/2 years. For more about the healing power of nature, see Mothering Monarchs, Mothering My Soul. (I changed the Hospicare nurse’s name for this story.)

 

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40 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, Thank you so much for sharing the warmth and wisdom of your heart with us. I love that you’ve included your exquisite bluebird photographs too! For now I shall think of you peering into your telescope, watching nature unfold all around you. Immediately Wendell Berry’s beautiful, and graceful poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” comes to mind as it’s been on a loop through my whole being these past couple of weeks. His book of poems, by the same title, is simply wonderful! So, in his own words …

    When despair for the world grows in me
    and I wake in the night at the least sound
    in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
    I go and lie down where the wood drake
    rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
    I come into the peace of wild things
    who do not tax their lives with forethought
    of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
    And I feel above me the day-blind stars
    waiting with their light. For a time
    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

    These days I find myself deeply drawn to the natural landscape, and with each passing year, that pull seems to intensify. For so often, I take my troubles to the rivers, mountains and woodlands … the poetic landscape of the soul … where rich blessings of healing and hope are encountered. Mother Earth provides such an amazing safety net when we feel overwhelmed! I love how Wendell leads us away from suffering, by encouraging us to find the time, to find ourselves. Solstice blessings, Deborah.

    • I love Wendell Berry and this poem particularly. Thanks for sharing it here, Deborah. My life feels stuck in this endless loop of caregiving and also in growing deafness, but the telescope and binoculars and windows call me to look outside myself every morning and see what nature is doing. The poppies are done and its the season of lilies. The second bluebird family will fledge in a month. They haven’t hatched yet, but that should come by the end of the week. My yard which opens out into fields with long views is filled with birds of all sorts–grosbeaks and finches at the feeders, hummingbirds sipping sugar water, hawks overhead, blackbirds and robins nesting in the spruce trees, swallows, and my sweet friends the bluebirds. They give me faith in the rounds of life. I’m grateful, especially in these tragic times for the world. Solstice blessings to you, too, on this rainy morning with few butterflies and many birds.

  2. How sad and tragic for all Elaine. Your responsibility to Virginia keeps you tied to her tragedies and suffering at this golden time in life where you should be able to breathe and enjoy all the moments of your own life. I’m so glad you have the birds to focus on the beauty of nature. 🙂

    • Debby, I’ve had to give up on the word “should.” This unfolds the way it does. Yesterday, Virginia seemed physically stronger than I’ve seen her in 6 months or more. She’s more confused, but in good spirits. She’ll likely be released from hospice care if she stays as strong as she is which means she’ll stay in the nursing home but without four visits a week from hospice nurses and volunteers. She’ll still be a palliative care patient and hospice will come back on when we need them. Their support has been strong during this big move and somehow we’ll get through whatever comes along. Life will offer surprises, as it always does.

      • She is the iron maiden isn’t she. God bless you both. 🙂

        • She is made of steel and will be released from Hospice service this week because she’s gaining weight, all wounds are healed, and no major health problems. She’s doing fine. I’m worn down. And on we go…

  3. Dear Elaine,

    Your devotion and love are powerful and exemplary. Your bluebird photos are fantastic. Most of us don’t ever get this close to these shy and delightful winged creatures. Thank you so much for sharing your life so generously in thoughtful words and brilliant photography.

    Love,

    Myra

    • Thank you, Myra. I’m tired but Virginia is doing better than she has in many months. Behind the scenes there’s so much to do with insurance companies (why can’t the hospital get the billing straight), arranging for a cremation because the nursing home needs that information now, tending Medicaid needs (that still isn’t sorted out) and accepting that Virginia will likely lose hospice support. They’re a huge support to me, too, but helped me get her in this situation where her care is more reliable. I was told about the ritual you did at Steve’s. How wonderful to share that blessing. I need to visit the tea house and see.

  4. It’s hard to not take care of someone when we are the only person left to take care of them. We are also the only one who can give us permission to take care of ourselves. It’s a balancing act, but as you say, it’s still too much. It is too much. And yet, this is what we have. Tonight I give thanks for the bluebirds who take care of Elaine.

    • Thank you for your blessing, Mark. I’m balancing the best I can–and, yes, it’s too much and I’m worn down. I’m trying not to worry about the probability that we’ll lose hospice support because Virginia is stable physically. Somehow we make it through these challenges. And all will be well. Just ask the bluebirds.

  5. Love this story! I could feel everything you mentioned.
    Glad you have the birds, the dog and the woods.
    Hugs, Andrea

    • Me, too, Andrea. I’m grateful for life’s sweetness. Worrying about the future doesn’t get me anywhere. It takes a lifetime to learn that.

  6. Thank you, Elaine. This is such a beautiful article, and watching bluebirds is the perfect way to ease suffering. ❤️

    • Thank you, Sally. Time to chill. Time to breathe. Time to stop incessant doing and fixing and simply watch this world. Blueboy is on duty despite today’s rain and wind. I love his loyalty.

  7. The topic is current for me as well, like you said, “take in the depth of my empathy-fatigue.” This deranged show going on in our culture. Out here, the roadrunner brains lizards by repeatedly banging it’s head against a rock. I can see how the pair that live here probably descended from velociraptors. When my attention is in the life of this desert I leave the rest behind.

    I love the way you evoke the archetypal tropes of the human psyche.

    Best to you as always.

    • It’s one way to tenderize dinner, but sometimes I feel like the lizard being hammered. I looked up images of velociraptors to see how closely they resemble roadrunners. Far out! When I watch for bluebirds and grosbeaks, red efts, hummers, and every other creature and scan the fields for Monarchs or Swallowtails which have been scarce this year, I feel the deep peace of this life in this place. Then I read the news (ugh…), but not too much. I’ll attend a protest on June 30. I’m trying to hold both sides of this world and not turn my back on the harm being done to the earth and to each other. Pema Chodron helps with this as do many other teachers. Thanks for your kind words, Fred. Thanks for your generosity in AZ. It’s so, so wet here right now. I’m trying to push these sodden clouds to AZ. I’m still trying to sort out my feelings about Chiricahua as the horrors of what happened to the Apache there like taking children away from parents and community are reflected in what’s happening on our southern border.

  8. Thank you, as always, for your wisdom. Ease the suffering. That is what we must do, for ourselves and others.

    • Thank you, Kara. I believe love and kindness are the only way forward, but it’s a challenge to deal with anger at the moment. Ah… Back to bluebirds.

  9. I believe the loyal bluebirds give you the longview, through the eye of a telescope. Your readers have commented beautifully about the restorative role of nature in your life, and I too think they provide distraction and balance. I find the bird’s strict gender roles you describe rather amusing though. 🙂

    Your friend Deborah used a beautiful Wendell Berry poem. The poet may have been referencing his wife Tanya in his book Fidelity: Five Stories. I remember one line that stuck out when I was in the midst of coping with the suffering of Aunt Ruthie: “There are many degrees and kinds of being alive and some of them are worse than death.”

    Though we don’t know when, this will end. In the meantime, keep the telescope handy. Prayers and hugs to you today, Elaine!

    • The bluebirds have strict gender roles–and it is amusing to watch the guy stand on the box with three pieces of grass in his mouth while she does all the work. After the building, she goes her merry way for days or even weeks while he guards the box. She returns to check in every day but doesn’t stay until she’s laid eggs. When it comes to feeding the kids, the gender roles break down. He feeds them from dawn to dusk, guarding when he isn’t bringing in worms. He carries out egg shells after hatching and then the fecal sacs (little bags of excrement that remind me of plastic dog bags) and dumps them far from the nest, so he cleans, too. On top of that, he hangs out with the juveniles from the first clutch, so he’s a good family man.

      I haven’t read ‘Fidelity: Five Stories.’ It sounds as though I want to. You always have great suggestions.

      Yes, this chaos will end. Things sometimes have to get worse before they get better. It requires faith to hold on to hope. I recently had a long dream where I was afraid and in danger. Then a Franciscan monk in his long brown robe tied with a robe appeared and the people scaring me disappeared when he arrived. I remembered how much I read about St. Francis in the 1960s and the power of the St. Francis Prayer. (I read that the prayer can only be traced back about 100 years and the author is unknown.) The message still holds and fits my image of the life and teachings of St. Francis: “Lord make me an instrument of thy peace / Where there is hatred let me sow love…”

  10. Thanks for this lovely post, Elaine. In this day and age we need to do a lot of self-care in order to get through the days. I’m watching birds too. Tree swallows stole the bluebird box that l lovely couple were beginning to build in but they seem to have built a new home elsewhere. However the young ones come to my bird feeder and are fun to watch. Blessings to all of us as we maneuver through these difficult times.

    • I agree, Joan. I took a walk before breakfast this morning because I knew it would be too hot later. I need both bodily care and soul care as I struggle to accept the political situation and the unkindness that’s been unleashed. I can’t remember if we interacted before about having two nesting boxes fairly close together (you can google to see best distance) so tree swallows have one and bluebirds the other. Two bluebird families or swallow families won’t nest close together, but after a little bickering (very little this year), bluebirds and swallows settle which box is theirs and stop trespassing on the other box. I love my seed feeder birds, too. Right now I have young grosbeaks and purple finches gobbling seed. I saw one Monarch this morning, but see few butterflies or bees of any kind. I hope that changes as the summer warms–and it’s gonna warm. Yes, blessings and calm hearts in these turbulent times.

  11. This prayer is beautiful and you probably know it has been set to music. Here is a rendition you may like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4X_5kPyLHoM

    • Deafness and hearing distortion which is the worst it’s ever been prevents me from listening, Marian. I rely on the music that comes in memory and in dreams. Thanks for thinking of me.

  12. Elaine, I’m not deaf, yet perhaps my favorite music is what I hear from within. Sometimes it sometimes it rolls on and repeats like a mantra from Spirit. Your tale reminds me we must put up a bluebird nest box in our new home. The clutch fledged in our old home after we’d moved. The bluebirds may be the best cure for empathy exhaustion that exists. Sweet blessings.

    • I love dreams with music, Annie. After Vic’s death, I had a dream filled with a chorus singing “Let It Be.” My sons and I sang it together when we buried Vic’s ashes. I had much better hearing then, but was already struggling to enjoy music. I remember lyrics and tunes from my girlhood (and all the dances) and all the way through life–and then that dream music on occasion. I love the bluebirds (obviously) and this is the first time a female has chosen to nest in the same box close to my house. I’m seeing for the first time that the juveniles from the first clutch hang around their parents while the second nesting takes place and often have the nerve to beg for food. They’re as big as the adults now, but there they are with their bluing feathers and wide open mouths. Papa provides. Blessings all around.

  13. Hi dear Elaine,

    I am sorry about your mother in law’s current situation… I hope her suffering eases.
    I like the way you are coping with this.
    The bluebirds are beautiful… I am amazed by birds in general… did you know that birds spend most part of their lives looking for food. (A reason to help them with their duty, maybe some bread here and there, close to their nests) …
    Resilience and strength. Care and protection. All these attributes make them justice, I’d say. Beautiful post. Sending love and best wishes

    • As of today, my mother-in-law is still a hospice patient. Her situation is stable, so I’m not sure how long we’ll have that support. They can’t keep her “on service” if she’s getting better, so we may lose hospice care until she has another relapse. She won’t be released this week or next. Whew! She has unbelievable resilience and strength, although she didn’t do much to nurture herself or those around her. Maybe she thrived because of that daily glass or two of red wine until she was 101?

      I have many birds in my environment–my yard opens to fields filled with wildflowers (and seeds and caterpillars). They’re always eating. Grosbeaks and finches come to my feeder and stuff themselves each morning. Other birds prefer the seeds in the fields, but will return to the feeder in the fall. The bluebirds don’t like seeds, but love worms and caterpillars and small butterflies (not the big ones I love). They like some wild berries and fruits although not the same ones human enjoy, so they don’t steal the raspberries. This spring they arrived in a warm period before it turned cold with lots of snow. I fed them dried meal worms. Since then, it’s been wet and there are plenty of bugs around so they ignore the meal worm. After the new eggs hatch, the parents work from dawn to dusk feeding them. The male is as much a part of this nurturing process as the female. I feel privileged to have them so close and at ease with my presence.

  14. I’m glad you have your bluebirds to help you deal with the hard places in life. I’m thankful that my mom never stopped recognizing me and that caring for her at home through her hospice experience brought us closer than ever. When I encounter stress now in any form, it is usually a nature walk that helps me deal with it and calm down again. Nature is very healing.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Barbara. I learned when my husband had cancer just how much Nature heals me. I nearly always took time in any weather to be outside and take in the power of the big trees where I live or in the cemetery across the road from the hospital. (As my husband joked, “Conveniently located.”) Bluebirds are my summer friends. I’m glad you could care for your mom at home with hospice. This is the best. I took care of my mother-in-law with 24 hour aides in her apartment until January. Her needs are overwhelming now. Hospice has been a huge help in the transition to a nursing home with visitors four days a week–from nurses to volunteers. My mother-in-law adjusted and seems content. She says, “They’re very nice to me here.” So on we go until the next crisis hits. When a person is 102, there’s always something, but on Friday, she seemed healthier than I felt that day. Although she didn’t recognize me, she spoke in a confused but cheerful way with me, a visitor, and a hospice nurse.

  15. I am a “be here now” kind of person. And yet, as I read your post I thought… what would it be like for Elaine to imagine Virginia having made her transition, ease into the thought and hold it, like a yoga position. See how your mind releases as does your body. As often as you consider the way things are now, your body is reacting to those thoughts. To counter their inevitable effect, think the opposite. Mind yoga…stretch one way and then the other.
    I know the bluebirds offer relief, they bring sweet life and new beginnings and you are fortunate to have them. When with you I found myself doing the “bluebird sidestep”. Anytime I walked through the living room I found myself veering off my path to walk over to the scope and take a peek to see if anything was happening, then on to making tea or whatever. How lovely.

    • I can try that again, Lauren. I have tried that and have had many conversations with her suggesting it’s OK to die (not what you’re suggesting, I know), but she’s one tough lady and her needs pile up if I don’t tend things. I’ve already been on the phone with hospicare this morning. During these calls and when reading one more letter from an insurance company unwilling to pay her bills which means more phone calls and more letters from me, I breathe deeply, put her and myself in the hands of Divine Mother, surrender to what is. It’s all fine when I’m not reactive but, I admit, I get a physical alarm response when I’m given one more task to accomplish for her. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. My body/inner ear is recovering from a rough spot after days of solitude and silence. I garden before 9 am when the heat sets in.

      Yes to the “bluebird sidestep.” A big smile for that dance. I’m constantly watching and for butterflies, too, although I don’t see many butterflies. The four bluebird nestlings hatched, all pink and fleshy with open mouths. They will miraculously turn into flying birds in 2 or 3 weeks. I watch as the parents feed them and as they grow. What a gift it is! As always, I loved our days together. Another incredible gift.

  16. My mom is 93 and up until about eight weeks ago she lived on her own. She had insisted on it and would not allow anyone other than two neighbors to offer care. I’m her POA so when she fell and couldn’t return her home I took over her care. My sister has always supported my mom doing exactly as she’s done without any outside help when I was wanting at the very least Home health. Anyway, I’m seeing your story and thinking what if she lives to be 103? Her money truly will run out and I hope to God I’ll no longer be living because I have chronic pain and health problems. Oy vey!

    • I get the woe, Jan. I’m so sorry. It’s probably unwise to imagine she’ll live another 10 years because we have no idea what will happen tomorrow, much less in 1 or 10 years. As I’ve said, I had to do a powerplay with my mother-in-law to get her to surrender to much needed help–although she made me her POA and wanted me to take care of all finances except for her own little bank account which became easy picking for anyone willing to drive her to the bank. Looking back at the situation, I think my husband would have let her do what she wanted even if it meant her money was being stolen and she was falling in the night or found wandering in the halls of her residence. He would have stepped back and let her crash. He wasn’t willing to engage in power games with her. Wishing you well.

  17. Today I saw that you were featured on the DailyGood (again) and realized I had never responded to your most recent blog entry. As always, I feel as though a bit of fairy dust has been sprinkled on me after reading one of your entries–both touched and inspired. You wrote about Rilke, “He gives us words to offer our sorrow to something larger than ourselves. He helps us surrender and be transformed”; you help me do that as well.

    I’ve spent so much of my life denying my suffering, and it’s such a relief to be at a point where I now deeply know that the only way through is through. Learning to make space for the waves of anger and helplessness when they arise (with as much kindness as possible)is made more possible when I can witness others who are doing the same.

    Ah, the delight of baby birds. We have two nests of barn swallows on our porch, and five babies from one fledged a few days ago. They still are small enough for the parents to somehow get them all back into the tiny nest each night. The birds in the other nest were born just as the first ones were fledging, and now we can see their little beaks peaking over the edge and all those gaping mouths as the parents deliver insects.

    One of the first years that the barn swallows made a nest on our porch, they had two broods in one season–one born on our son’s birthday in June and the other on our daughter’s birthday in August. They are an incredible reminder of the beauty and synchronicity that abounds.

    May your dreams continue to provide beautiful music, Elaine, and may the second family of bluebirds thrive.

    • Thanks for noticing the DailyGood article, Anne. Makes a writer happy when DailyGood finds something we’ve written worth sharing at their site. And fairy dust? Nice. I’m so glad I can pass a taste of Rilke’s inspiration along. His ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’ was my constant companion during my husband’s illness and after his death. I felt I was being taught the art of finding goodness in life–no matter what. The Sonnets can be dense, but my mythology group was working together to unpack them. Rilke and Etty Hillesum (An Interrupted Life) were my teachers. Another terrific teacher for me is Pema Chodron, especially her CDs which I played over and over again (when I had hearing), taking in the importance of being with whatever I felt and whatever life presented at any moment.

      I’m glad you have nesting birds to watch. They’re little miracles. And speaking of miracles, I witnessed Monarch butterfly mating dances yesterday and found eggs and 3 caterpillars from a previous romance out near the woods. Since only 1% of eggs make it in the wild due to predators, I now have 11 little jars, each holding a milkweed leaf with an egg attached or a small caterpillar. I’ll feed, nurture, watch, and release them into the fields to make more eggs and caterpillars and late summer butterflies. More effort than the bluebirds, but not much. I’d never seen their transformational magic up close until I raised them last year. The bluebird parents work from dawn to dusk feeding those four hungry mouths. All seems well. May you have sweet dreams and sweet days ahead.

  18. Having never witnessed the Monarch butterfly mating ritual before, I just watched a YouTube of it. Not even close to watching it in person, of course, but still magical.

    Pema Chodron has been a wonderful teacher to me as well, but it wasn’t until I started living with a chronic illness this past year that I learned that she has lived with CFS. I’ll copy and paste below the only thing I have been able to find that she has written about it, which has been very healing for me:

    “The key to working with what is so deeply unwanted, is to let go of the ideas, (the thoughts), about how we shouldn’t be sick and what will happen to us if we remain sick. Somehow we have to respect the illness, welcome it, enter into it… we surrender and say, okay, what have you to teach me? …about letting go of control, about slowing down… about tasting the full experience of a moment…the light, the sound, the quality of our mood, of our pain, the sight of dust or birds or nothing special…respecting all that. It’s a kind of death, this illness, the best kind of death if we’ll let it be. It’s the death of old stuck patterns and opinions and habits and it makes way for something new to be born in us. Really, you can trust that. Something new will be born if you’ll let the illness show you where to let go your grip… And please don’t scold yourself for failing, ever.”

  19. WHen I built my house and pond almost 2 decades ago, I told people I needed to live by water. I don’t think I fully understood the importance of this for myself at the time. But over the years I have found myself outside by that pond, listening for the frogs, watching the clouds reflected, swimming at times among fallen leaves, filling my aching heart with the beauty and comfort that grows around that pond. It’s as if the water is absorbing all my pain and doubts. It’s almost like the surface is reflecting the best my world has to offer me. It’s the opposite of a hug in that I am invited to lift up my arms, my head, my spirits and simply be before this body of water. It is as though I am standing before an eye growing from the earth that sees more of life than I do and knows better than I how to go about loving it.

    • Have you thought about writing a blog about the comfort and solace of water? This is a beautiful “reflection,” Robin. As I read toward the end with arms lifted to the sky and feeling the water deva (dakini in Tibetan), I imagine water also holding me–floating naked, looking up at the sky, letting every tight muscle relax. Feeling held, from above and below. I’m so glad you have your pond.

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