Grief is a sacred journey

A Mother’s Lament: “I Loved Him with All My Heart”

Vic and Virginia, 2006

My mother-in-law Virginia was present during every conversation the last few weeks. She was alert when the public health nurse evaluated her condition and approved the application for skilled nursing care. She watched her health aide and me write her name on her clothing with permanent markers and place a neat stack of shirts and pants in a bag.

Even though we explained what was happening, she kept forgetting. That’s not surprising since she’s 102

A week earlier, our Hospicare team had suggested it was time to consider a move. I knew they were right. We were running out of money for private care in her apartment. My energy was spent. I spoke with a social worker at the nursing home and visited. Two days later, a bed would be available for a private pay patient. Maybe the speed would make it less painful for all of us. Or maybe not.

Today is moving day. There’s a knock at the door. When a man in a blue uniform walks in with a wheel chair, Virginia’s eyes widen in alarm.

“I don’t want to go anywhere,” she says. “I don’t want to go to a home.”

I brace for a scene, but the ambulance driver who is used to providing transportation for hospice patients grins. “It’s a nice day for a ride,” he says. He wheels her down the hall with me next to her and a health aide following behind. Virginia waves like a politician as we leave her apartment building.

It feels like a movie or a dream.

At the nursing home, the staff smiles. The elderly shuffle down the hallway or nod out in wheelchairs. Virginia watches through her nearly blind brown eyes. Everyone wants to meet her and know her name.

Virginia & Elaine

For a few hours, she is queen again as she was in her apartment with a 24-hour team of health aides. Then, the nurses leave for other jobs and other patients.

“I want to go home,” Virginia says, looking down at the floor. I can only imagine how helpless she feels, but Virginia has said she wants to go home for the eleven years I’ve cared for her. Home is Norwalk, Connecticut, her parent’s home where she lived as a girl and raised her only child.

“This is your home now, Virginia,” I say. There is no choice for either of us.

She looks down at the floor again, searching for herself.


My son Anthony with Granny

In two days, they move Virginia to a new room with a lively roommate who talks incessantly as the TV blares. The roommates talk across the gap between their parallel beds, not concerned about understanding each other, but enjoying talking to someone. To anyone. Sisters at the end of days.

For the first time since his death, Virginia wants to talk about her son. “Where’s Vic,” she asks. Or “Where’s my son?” or “Where’s your husband?”

“He died ten years ago, Virginia,” I say. I hold her hand. She’s calm instead of yelling at me or her God for not saving her son.

“It’s such a shame,” she says in a small voice. “We live and then we die.”

“That’s true,” I say. “When you become very old, you see many people you love die. I’m sorry, Virginia.”

“I never had a baby,” she says, pulling me close to her with surprising strength.

“Vic was your baby,” I say.

“I wanted more babies,” she whispers. “I loved him with all my heart.”

“I know, Virginia. I know you did.”

We have this conversation over and over again as she digests her sorrow for the first time. A decade after his death, at the age of 102, her heart opens to grief—and, because she’s too tired to defend herself against sorrow, she’s filled with vast Mother Love.

Vic at 6 months in his grape box highchair, 1941


This move consumed my days and kept me awake at night for a few months. I fretted over the decision, filled out forms, made sure her apartment was emptied and cleaned, and gathered five years of records needed for a Medicaid application. I often felt hopeless or resentful about the endless tasks, but then the next step happened. As I always do during hard times, I watched for tender moments when grace poured in, the moments I’ll remember when the exhaustion fades.

Have you given more than you felt able to give? Were you resentful, willing, or both? Have you seen time transform someone’s grief-rage into acceptance? For the first articles about this move, see “I’m Moving Your Mother to a Nursing Home.” For an article about a last conversation with my own mother, see A Mother’s Blessing: Heart to Heart with an Alzheimer’s Patient.

  1. Dear Elaine, Oh how my heart lifts and falls by successive turns! Thank you for letting us know how “moving day” went, and how those long (hopefully departed!) anxious nights stacked up before the big day itself arrived. What a relief to be greeted by such a positive animus figure, as that of the ambulance driver, thankfully handling the situation so well!

    Ah, those regal hours when Virginia was Queen again! I do so love the human condition, especially “curiousity” as you describe well those shuffling feet, keen to take a closer look. Sisters at the end of days! Oh just to bear witness to the strange but familiar comfort and companionship of the wild feminine! You painted such a picture with your words there!

    Loving the photos, especially Vic in his “Grape” box. Hmm, I wonder if he was “in-training” even then, learning to “symbolically” press down on “spirit” from such a young, tender age. Compassionately, calm is Virginia’s new reaction, I too wonder where it will lead as she’s now too tired to defend against the sorrow. A mother’s love can be deeper than the ocean!

    In pure synchronicity, yesterday I gave more than I felt able. A young woman spoke to me of such horror, it shook my heart. However, to hear her story and bear witness also felt an honour. I found myself willing yet overwhelmed. Appreciatively, I have a great supervisor who oversees my work. I resonate, time has transformed my own grief rage into acceptance.

    As always my dear friend, yours is beautiful, heartfelt writing. At the end of my therapy session yesterday my young client angrily asked me, “what is the meaning of life?!” And in all honesty, during such an overwhelming moment I replied as truthfully as I could,”Heavens! If only I knew!” Warm and wild blessings, Deborah.

    • Vic was told that the grape box was his high chair when he was a baby. It’s nailed onto something heavier and seems to be a few feet off the ground. A Dionysian training? He loved red wine.

      Virginia is fading mentally and she’s physically weak, but as you can tell in the photos, she’s still amazingly robust for 102. She loves to eat! The more carbs and sugar, the better. I thought this transition would be much harder for her than it has been. That’s one good thing about not remembering what happened yesterday. The most challenging part has been the endless paperwork and gathering of documents. I’m almost ready for the Medicaid meeting in early April.

      I think of you and your recent mother loss and wonder how that is for you. I know the exhaustion of taking on too much. I’m afraid I’ve neglected friends in my community who need support. Fortunately they have others to help them and I’ll be able to do more for others who are struggling soon–especially friends whose partners are dying. That’s something I know about. I love your answer to your client. For me, Meaning is some elusive clarity I’m always seeking but never quite find–so I keep looking. It’s a verb: “to meaning-make.”

      • Dear Elaine, Thank you so much for your benevolent thoughts. Ah twitter! alas, another mother has recently died, however, she was not my personal mother. Despite my family’s mass estrangements I’m sure I would’ve heard otherwise. Great to hear you’ve nearly climbed the paper mountain. Love Mark’s beautiful reply! Much love and respect to you, Deborah.

        • I wasn’t sure. Yes, a twitter confusion. I imagine that even though you’re estranged, your mother’s death will make waves in your soul. Blessings.

  2. This was a beautiful post. I hope your mother-in-law’s transition to the nursing home was a smooth one once she realized it was her new home for good.

    • Thank you, Lydia. She adjusted with surprising ease. It isn’t easy being 102. I’m learning to step back and let someone else handle each little crisis.

  3. What wise counsel, Elaine. To watch for the moments of grace during the hard times. Too often I let myself be overwhelmed by what needs to be done.

    • You articulated the most important point, Mark. I wish I’d named the post with that idea in mind. I got through the hard years of Vic’s illness and the grief that followed his death by looking for moments of grace, love, and beauty. The smallest positive thing brought a ray of light into the gloom, but I had to notice.

  4. Your storytelling transported me to Virginia’s room and you by her side every step of the way. I’ve been down this road recently, but with two sisters. Not alone . . . and with a gracious aunt who lost her mind.

    Recently I have felt resentment at my brother, who failed to return a form that would enable him to stay on a wait list for accommodations that would be a better fit for his budget. He called last week to say he missed the deadline and wants me to fill out the application again (10+ pages). The form required only a signature which he is perfectly capable of. “I forgot about it,” was his weak excuse.

    He is 12 years younger than I, so I don’t expect to see a day when he is not my concern.

    You mirror my feeling, hand on cheek, staring into the distance.

    Bless you, dear one!

    • I know you’ve been down this road, Marian–a few times. It’s hard. I didn’t feel alone because I got so much hospice support in this transition. There wasn’t much my sons could do since so much of it was about paper work, going through her records, and doing things that required my presence because I have power of attorney. I expect Virginia to be taken “off hospice service” in a week when she’s re-evaluated. She’s been stable with strong heart and lungs. Since she isn’t “actively dying,” she’ll likely go back on palliative care, but hospice will be there when we need them again.

      I understand your feelings toward your brother and your sense of responsibility toward him. And the frustration when he needed to do one small thing but couldn’t pull it off. It sounds like he needs your help every step of the way.

      Thank you for your blessing. I’m breathing it in on this snowy day. (Not much snow expected, but we’re still in winter’s grip.)

  5. Our family is about to move my mother too. Her’s will be a less traumatic event, but she too feels the pain of giving up each “home as she moves to a smaller one.

    Your example of caregiving fills me with respect and love. Mother love to you, Elaine.

    • The move seemed to be more traumatic for me than it was for Virginia. She had a few moments of apprehension, but then seemed to accept. She speaks about her life as a young woman, but not about missing living in her own apartment or missing the health aides who cared for her there. It’s hard being 102 but there’s some benefit in the loss of recent memory. This is so different from my mother’s Alzheimer’s memory loss because Virginia remains entirely herself even when she doesn’t remember what just happened. Ask her when she was born and she’ll say without hesitating, “January 24, 1916.” Forgetting things doesn’t make her anxious or ashamed, so this is also much different from what I’ve experienced with my family. It’s lovely hearing from you, Shirley. May we all have the blessing of Mother Love.

  6. How you’ve cared for your mother-in-law all these years is an inspiration to me, Elaine. I am grateful every day that my mom is healthy and well, but I know one day we all face the challenge of our loved ones aging. You are setting a wonderful example of how to handle it. Wishing you strength and restorative time.

    • I’m grateful your mom is doing well, Colleen. Virginia was still managing most of her life including food preparation until she was around 98. Things began to fall apart then. She seems to be doing well enough in her new situation. The first week, she said it was difficult, but now she doesn’t mention that. She even likes the food. (I’ll reserve comments on that.) It rattles me a bit to know I’m next in line. Like most of us, I hope I won’t linger with infirmities, but my mom did and now my mother-in-law. My sons and I need a family pow-wow about what to do in this situation. I’ve already made it much easier with financial decisions I’ve made and the big decisions are made, but the devil is in the details.

  7. Thanks for writing this blog and keeping folks far away like me caught up with you. I admire your unending sharing of this reflective process – one which I and so many others can learn from. Sending love… Peggy

    • Peggy, I hope I’m done sharing this process for a while. My stack of other things I want to write about is growing and I could use a little rest from the Virginia show.
      Come on home and take a walk in the forest–when the snow melts, that is. It’s one of those snowy springs and we’re only at the beginning of March. It will melt. It always does. I look forward to your return.

  8. I’ve been reading your posts about Virginia for some time now, kind of squirming in my seat, as I can relate to life moving and changing too quickly and uncontrollably as we age, or as our relatives age. I can feel for Virginia, being uprooted from her home, and for you, in the position of the one who has to manage all this. OMG it must be so hard. I hope you’re finding some relief. I hope Virginia is finding some things to like about her new situation. And meanwhile, this whole thing makes me worry and wonder about the possibility of my outliving my funds. There’s no way my son would take the care that you have taken. WOe is me if I get to live to be a hundred.

    • I’m squirming in my seat, too, Robin and hope to take a break from writing about Virginia. (I will continue writing articles for Hospicare from the caregiver’s perspective, but those won’t be on my blog.) Virginia’s story has been my story the last few months. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t fun. It scares me, too. Today I learned that Virginia will continue to receive hospice support because of further slow, slow decline. She has the nursing home and hospicare watching over her, so my goal is to step back and let others take over. I imagine my sons and yours will rally as we need them, but I hope they don’t have to. This life is not for the faint of heart.

  9. “We live and then we die.”

    That was powerful, dear Elaine. As I read along I thought of my two grandmothers. One of them is 92 years old and she is doing really well, in terms of Health and overall.
    But she begins to forget things and confuse people. She often calls me Paloma which is my youngest cousin´s name. She likes cooking and she still cooks well. But she forgets how to prepare simple dishes and needs help every time.
    She has been a very strong woman… And even sometimes a bit cruel with almost everyone. But now she is the sweetest version of herself. In fact; I now have a great relationship with her, and when I was younger that was not precisely the case.
    The conversation you had with Virginia about his son´s (your husband´s) death was something special. I think you are a great woman and took the best decision you could have taken.
    Thank you for this post <3 Much love

    • With that brief sentence–“We live and then we die”–I knew my mother-in-law was finally accepting the human situation and her own losses. Like your grandmother, Virginia had a mean streak. I always knew how much she loved my husband and saw me as the competition, so acceptance of me came slowly. I hope your Grandma has plenty of support. When Virginia was around 98, we had to stop her from cooking after she began burning everything and setting off fire alarms in her building. She fought us every step of the way as she lost her independence, but has surrendered now and a sweetness has surfaced. I’m grateful. It’s hard watching another person fade and fail, but it also teaches me about the preciousness of our time on this earth and how interdependent and helpless we all become in time. Thanks for your comment, Aquileana. I hope to get back to writing about mythology, but this experience consumed me for a long time. I hope that will change now.

  10. In 1998, my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer on my 50th birthday. I had just gotten a little relief from child rearing as the kids were in the preteens. As they careened into high school, me into menopause, my mother lay dying. It was the friends that I had cultivated that made my life be recognizable to me. They called and came by alot. Picking up the kids when mom had a chemo appointment. Always willing to listen. Mom was like a big old freight train puffing to a stop. It was startling, the irrevocable trudge to losing her.

    About 18 months later, my father began dying. He wanted to go to a nursing home because he had become afraid to stay in his house. The first one was a terrible bust. The second one, about 5 months later was great for him. He loved having there be people who were paid to take care of him. He told me he loved that we could just sit and visit, instead of my having to always run and do something. He started holding my hand.

    I very very rarely grieve for my mother any more. But my dad and I had a lot of life that was taken from us, by the time I was 3 I would think, and I cry for the life we didn’t have. There was so much potential there in the beginning.

    Our family came apart. Now I live with my sister. I am 69 and she is 66. We were talking about the enormous weight that she may have to carry with my being older. I kind of wanted to hit her. I think life and death not life or death is the correct expression.

    That’s all. Thanks so much for writing. I am always riveted by your honesty.

    • Oh, Stephanie. You’ve been through so much.. I’m glad you had your friends for support. I’m glad your dad found a good place to live and you had that time to hold his hand. I also remember my father more often than my mother. He was the “maternal” partner and the nurturer. My mother was more distant and goal driven. I married a man who had that same nurturing energy as my dad. Without him now, I’m trying to learn to nurture myself.

      I understand your aggravation, but your sister and you don’t know who will need what and when. You’re close in age and know from experience that life-threatening illness can come at any age. I hope you find a way to hold each other with love in both life and death–and that you hang on to a larger community of friends. The ability to organize communities of care on line is so helpful. I’m watching this with a friend right now. I haven’t been able to help because of my mother-in-law’s needs, but others are stepping in and I’ll be there soon.

      Thanks for your kind words about my writing, Stephanie. Sending blessings your way.

  11. Elaine, your words reveal such beautiful, agonizing layers of loss and acceptance, grief and growth. My 90-plus-year-old mother-in-law and other family members entered care facilities in the last year for various reasons. None were easy decisions for those who made them. Although I (almost) grew accustomed to my late husband’s premature, mid-40s dementia, it still throws me off stride when I face questions or statements from others whose minds once directed my own.

    Thank you for your frank, compassionate voice.

    • “None were easy decisions for those that made them.” Those words comfort me, Teresa. I agonized over this decision for years, knowing we couldn’t keep paying for or providing private care. I never imagined she would live this long or be this strong at 102. With all that agonizing and contemplating alternatives, the actual decision was swift because of guidance from hospice and because the best nursing home in town had an available place. I still rely on my husband’s inner voice. I imagine those guiding voices are still available to you when you turn to them inwardly. We’ve internalized all of them.

      Thank you for your kind words. I can’t think of anything better than being honest and compassionate.

  12. Thanks so much, Meg!

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