Grief is a sacred journey

I’m Moving Your Mother to a Nursing Home: Active Imagination during Hard Times

Virginia & Vic, 1945

Dear Vic,

I can’t take care of your mother anymore. I can’t keep giving her the precious energy I need for my own life. I have to face that she’s almost out of money to pay for 24 hour health aides. I hoped she could die in her own home when she became a hospice patient in December, but within a few weeks her lungs cleared.

“102? How wonderful,” people say.

It’s only wonderful if you don’t mind Depends and adult bibs, being unable to walk, and being helpless and blind. It’s OK if you don’t mind forgetting your only child is dead and your sisters and your husband and all your friends.

I’m running out of steam. Who imagined she would live to 102?

December 2017

I’m sad with a tinge of guilt, but grateful something is shifting. I need to make a decision while she’s still a hospice patient, while I have their support and advice. Her grandsons have no doubt we should move her, but I want to talk with you.

***

My Dear E,

What took you so long?

You cared for her 11 years despite her bitchiness. It was enough you cared for me and your own mom. Move her, E. You’re worn out. It’s time.

***

Virginia & Vic, 1942

Dearest V,

I waited out of loyalty, but also avoidance. Who wants to deal with Medicaid forms and nursing home applications? Who wants to upset and  frighten your old mom? Who wants to clean out her apartment?

Once I considered the possibility, I learned that entering a nursing home while someone has enough money for a few months private pay meant a relatively easy transfer to the place of our choice. To delay suddenly felt irresponsible. She can’t stay in her apartment without the money to pay health aides. Something has to change.

***

Dearest E,

Move her. You’ve done too much. I’m glad hospice is helping. I wish I could help, too. Thank you for all you’ve done, but it’s time for a change. How have you managed this for so long?

***

January 2018

Dearest V,

I pull into her apartment building parking lot, cringe, and swallow hard. I take the elevator to her floor. Once sweetly decorated by me, her room is barren to accommodate a walker, wheelchair, and hospital bed. There’s a rumpled cot in the corner for a health aide to spend the night and a stained couch I bought new 11 years ago. We can’t leave her alone for one minute or she panics or falls. She dozes in her blue lift chair exactly where she sat when I was there a few days earlier.

“How are you?” I ask. She waves her hand in an Italian half-and-half gesture. She’s mezza-mezza. Not here. Not there. Nowhere at all.

Hospice advised I talk to her about your death to make sure she isn’t waiting for you to show up to say goodbye.

Vic & Virginia 1963

“Do you know where Vic is, Virginia?” I ask.

“He’s with you,” she says. “You take care of him.” In her world, I take care of everyone.

“Vic died ten years ago,” I say. She seems more curious than upset. “Are you waiting for him?” I ask.

“I wait for him every day,” she says.

“He’s not coming, Virginia. He can’t come. He died. He’s on the other side with your husband and your sisters. You went to Vic’s memorial service. I took you to his grave.”

She looks at me blankly. “What happened to him?” she asks.

“He died, Virginia. He’s with your mother. They’re in heaven now.” Heaven is a word she understands.

“What a shame,” she says. “He was such a beautiful boy…” She pauses as if to consider whether she’d rather see you or stay right here in her blue chair. “Such a shame,” she says, “…but I’m not going there.”

It’s time to decide. I know what you’d say.

Family holiday visit, January 2018

***

Have you had to make a decision similar to this? Did you feel you had a choice? As you might guess, the decision has been made. Next time I’ll let you know how it’s going. For a post about complicated family dynamics, see My Lover’s Mama and the Negative Mother Archetype.  For another post about taking care of Virginia since Vic’s death, see When Forgiveness Requires Patience. If you’re interested in learning more about the Jungian technique of Active Imagination, I suggest Jungian Therapy 101: Active Imagination.

34 Comments
  1. What a difficult decision. You wrote about it so beautifully, too. I hope you’ll take Vic’s advice. 🙂

  2. You’ve chosen a cherished way to communicate raw feelings this week: letters to and from your beloved.

    “You’re worn out. It’s time . . . How have you managed this for so long?”

    Indeed!, I say.

    Prayers – and a huge hug, Dear E. 🙂

    • Thank you, Marian. I’m doing better than when I wrote this since the decision has been made. She’s doing fine although everyone expected a huge adjustment crisis. She surprised us again. I spend my days organizing her financial records and getting new copies of many records needed for Medicaid. In the years before I was in full charge of her finances, she threw everything out. I’m regathering, getting new copies, and reminding myself that I only have to do this Medicaid application once. I’m almost there. Thank you for your prayers and hug. Thank you for your friendship.

  3. Wow Elaine, powerful stuff. I love the way you aired your thoughts out in a letter to Vic, and instinctively you knew how he’d respond. It’s time Elaine. You have yourself to take care of, time to allow others to share and carry your burden. Enjoy the rest of your own life. 🙂

    • Thank you, Debby. Yes, it’s time. I’ve done Active Imagination (writing all the voices in the conversation in a dialogue or sometimes it evolves into more voices than two like a little play) for many years. It’s an interesting kind of writing for psychological clarity. One rule is to not embody the voice of someone who is alive–so I don’t do Active Imagination with Marion Woodman or the Dalai Lama, for example. But I can interact with Vic’s voice within me in this way. If someone asks me if I’m talking to “the real Vic,” I say, “I don’t think so, but I don’t know for sure. I only know I’m talking to the Vic I carry around in my heart and contact in dreams and inner conversation.”

  4. Oh my dear Elaine. Listen to your husband. Listen to his wise words, and know that you are doing right by his mother, just as you have always done. You have made the right decision ~ for her, for Vic, and for yourself. My heart is with you and I hope this brings you peace ♥

    • Marty, I listened to his wisdom and mine and made the changes that need to be made. I’ll write more about this transition in coming weeks, but she’s adjusting well to her new environment. She’s still a hospice patient, so has a hospice nurse visit and a volunteer spending time with her every week. Hospice has helped both of us with the transition. Virginia will likely be released from hospice care in March and will return to palliative care, but they’ll return when needed. Virginia is now speaking about Vic’s death in a more accepting and gentle way without anger or rage at me and God about not saving him. This is after not being able to share her grief for 10 years. Our conversations are meaningful to me and I imagine to her, too, even though she forgets and has to ask again where he is. We have this conversation over and over again. The need for repetition isn’t surprising, but her acceptance and willingness to deal with grief is. Life never stops surprising us.

  5. Dear Elaine, What a beautiful, deeply heartfelt post! I love the layout of your affectionate letters and Vic’s moving replies through the magic and mystery of Jung’s active imagination. It’s such a great way of working with Self, Shadow and others, especially when we feel stuck and no clear answers are coming any day soon. So thank you for this well-timed reminder!

    In your letters, your immense tiredness and courage shine through! Vic’s acquiescent reply of, “What took you so long?” brought this Jungian-loving poet to tears with his profound love, acceptance and compassion, encouraged by, “Move her. You’ve done too much.” Yes, you know what Vic would say! Oh, how we the reader feel his hand and heart in yours!

    Not a similar decision but choosing divorce to come out as a gay woman has been one of my most overwhelming ones. A decision that would break mine and others hearts …. yet I felt I had no choice or that suicide was the other viable option. So (thankfully!) in its place, I chose life, tore my life in two and started again. Heart-breaking and liberating all at the same time.

    Your wonderful photos (which you so willingly share!) add such richness to your blog posts. I really enjoy seeing them together with your graceful words. A pooled gift and legacy you share with your readers. I truly believe, you like Vic, will be more “than a name” on your ancestral family tree because they’ll be talking about you two for centuries! In soul, Deborah.

    • My eyes fill with tears, Deborah. Why did I wait for so long? Much of the delay was because I didn’t want to have a confrontation with an enraged Virginia (who is still a force of nature at 102). I also didn’t want to do all the paperwork (it’s consumed my time for a month) needed to move her and gather all records for Medicaid so she can stay in her new residence when she runs out of money. I didn’t want to upset her with a move and hoped when she became a hospice patient in December that it wouldn’t be necessary. As often happens with hospice’s loving care, the patient got stronger. So I had to face that I wouldn’t be let off the hook quite yet. I didn’t want to make this huge effort to dismantle her old life and apartment, gather her records from the last 5 years, change doctors, change addresses, etc. All this keeps me from what I think I want to write–but maybe this is just what I need to write. Once it’s done, I won’t have to do it again. Meanwhile, I’m having tender conversations with her about Vic’s death, something she couldn’t discuss until now without rage.

      I’m glad you made your choice. I’m fortunate that everyone backed me in this hard choice except the health aides who have done home care for Virginia for many years. Once they understood a change had to happen, even the main health aide got on board to help me clear out her apartment and I’m still paying her to visit Virginia a few hours a week. You didn’t get that kind of support, Deborah. Knowing the little I know about your life, I’m saddened that you didn’t get this support, but I’m grateful you chose life and the liberty to live who you are.

      • Thank you! A thousand blessings to you my dear friend! Re decisions the divine poet Rumi counsels,

        “Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.”

        Wise words from a beautiful soul that help me greatly when I’m moved to make a big decision. Namaste

  6. Elaine,
    My heart goes out to you.
    Such a tough decision, but one that must be made.
    I am a licensed therapist and a bereavement counselor with hospice.
    If I were seeing you, I would suggest you love yourself as much as you love your MIL (and your husband through her).
    Remember, she has her path, as well.
    Love and Peace to you,
    Pamela

    • Thank you, Pamela. Yes, a decision had to be made. I made it, but my blogs are a few weeks behind real time.

      Thank you for the hospice work you do and all the support you offer patients and families at a hard time. I LOVE hospice. Once my mother-in-law became a hospice patient, help and wise advice poured in. Before that we had help the palliative care team. I led bereavement groups for our local hospice for many years and now write for the newsletter. My Hospicare articles are about palliative care, hospice services, and the support received by patient and family from hospice. I wouldn’t have known that I should move her before she was on Medicaid (which will be in a few months). Hospice even provided wheelchair transportation for her to her new residence and she’s still receiving hospice care in her new residence. I hadn’t been on the receiving end as a hospice patient family member before, but I’ll write about all this in my next blog.

      Yes, she has her path–and I have mine. Somehow our paths which were never harmonious stayed intertwined in ways I never expected–and the transformations continue. I return the Love and Peace to you. I’m not peaceful about this just yet, but I’m edging closer.

  7. love is the whole and more than all
    e.e. cummings

    Thanks for writing about the “dark and dusty” corners of life. We all benefit when light shines there …

    • Thank you, Lynne. And thanks for doing the same. These journeys to the underworld are always harder and more filled with love than we imagine they will be.

      • So true, Lynne. Thank you so much, Elaine, for offering the medium and leading with courage. I love this quote. Just this morning, I said the exact thing to a client 🙂 Ah…synchronicity!

        • Pamela, a little ah-ha went off in my head yesterday while I took a two hour drive. I know Pamela, it said. I met her when Jean Raffa and I gave a workshop in FL. Didn’t you bring a gift of fragrant leaves (or something similar)? I struggle with my hearing in group situations and also focused on keeping the workshop on track, so I had to let my memory work on this. I just remembered the leaves this morning. You also sent me a book. It’s only a few years ago, but it seems like another world when we enter that depth material together. Do I have the details right? I’ll remember what Lynn wrote, too, and remember that dwelling in dusty corners of the Underworld is helpful as long as we remember to keep looking for and finding the light.

  8. Tears brim as I read this Elaine. I have seen the strain this has put on you, and know that is wasn’t an easy decision but a necessary one. I hope you can relax some now; catch up on sleep, down time, whatever makes your heart sing!
    Much love, Wendy

    • Thanks for commenting, Wendy, and for your endless sweet support. Yes, a big strain. The decision was made, but the work of getting Medicaid information in place goes on. I also got a call from the nursing home around noon and they took Virginia to the hospital because she fell. I’m waiting for news–and of course this would be the first time ever that my Bluetooth streamer that I use to talk on the phone (because of deafness) malfunctions. I’m communicating with the nursing home through email but they’ll call my sons with updates if the hospital finds problems. My sons can text me. I may wind up at the hospital this evening, but so far they tell me to wait. I also know she might be returned to the nursing home without anyone informing me since main staff goes home for the day–and I can’t call. Sigh. Important to remember that I’m not in charge and never have been. Important to surrender to what is. Sending you love.

  9. Oh my dear.

    • I know you know what this is about, dear Paula. Yesterday she had an ambulance ride to the hospital after a fall and needed stitches. She’s 102 with a fiery energy that doesn’t quit, so she bolts out of her chair on impulse to go somewhere and forgets she needs a walker or helper. They’ll have to figure it out. I have to step back. Interesting thing in all this is that she wants to talk about her grief over Vic’s death for the first time in 10 years. Very interesting. This is new, so I’ll see where it goes.

  10. You have done so much. So hard to let go. There is, as you have said, another rhythm here, another truth that is so raw, beyond what you can say even with poetry. We all need time for simply breathing.

    • I have done a lot, Ira, but I’m getting a distinct feeling that she remains on the front burner even though her residence changed. She already ended up in the hospital from a fall. She gets up, takes off, and bang. She forgets her walker. She forgets her instability. She can’t protect herself. We’ll see how the nursing home handles this. I’ll take that a long AZ break the second half of August and let my son be the contact person for Granny for a few weeks. Hiking, breathing, looking for desert flowers with dear friends, and watching sunsets. I hope there will be a “March for Our Lives” gathering not too far from where I’m staying. I want to be there.

  11. “I belong to no religion. My religion is love and every heart is my temple.” – Rumi
    .

    You wake us up, Elaine!
    .
    In truth, you are an exceptionally talented writer, and mind-heart-melting poet. In every sense all your literary work is gloriously engaging and dazzling gifted. Truly, you deserve big shiny literary awards and to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and your work translated into many languages.

    Marvelously, you are a person quite generous with a truly caring personality for other people’s well-being still praising their skills and making them feel important as well. Poignantly to all us with a passed loved one, your life stories illuminate our own tragedies and daunting aftermaths, and at the same time give us a wonderful sense of connection, understanding, compassion for everyone including ourselves, and coherence to choose forward a life that matters.

    Thank you for your insightfulness and kindness.

    HEAVEN’S RAIN – Medhi
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbQLMUU1fco
    .
    BEETHOVEN – MOONLIGHT SONATA
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydKwY0tqAXQ

    Take care and have fun,

    Guillermo Rivera
    San Antonio, Texas

    **

    WHAT WILL MATTER (by Michael Joseph)

    Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end.
    There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days.
    All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten
    will pass to someone else.

    Your wealth, fame and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
    It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
    Your grudges, resentments, frustrations
    and jealousies will finally disappear.

    So too, your hopes, ambitions, plans and to-do lists will expire.
    The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
    It won’t matter where you came from
    or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.

    It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
    Even your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.
    So what will matter?

    How will the value of your days be measured?
    What will matter is not what you bought
    but what you built, not what you got but what you gave.
    What will matter is not your success
    but your significance.
    What will matter is not what you learned
    but what you taught.

    What will matter is every act of integrity,
    compassion, courage, or sacrifice
    that enriched, empowered or encouraged others
    to emulate your example.

    What will matter is not your competence
    but your character.
    What will matter is not how many people you knew,
    but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.

    What will matter is not your memories
    but the memories that live in those who loved you.
    What will matter is how long you will be remembered,
    by whom and for what.

    Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident.
    It’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice.
    Choose to live a life that matters.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Guillermo. I love the Rumi quote and the Dalai Lama says something similar: “Kindness is my religion.” I didn’t know the Michael Joseph poem, so thanks for sharing it. It’s a teaching we all need to take in. I learned from Carlos Castenada to imagine death on my left shoulder and “consult my death.” When I ask my death if the thing I’m upset about will matter in the end, the answer is often no. Sometimes the answer is yes. It helps keep perspective. Be well.

  12. Who takes care of the caregivers? If you give and give until your own well runs dry, then the water that remains can have a bitter taste, and we are exhausted. Sometimes resentful. Having to figure this out with two sets of parents, I know it’s not easy to figure out what is best for the person who needs help. Often there is not a best, just better, for all the people involved. Sometimes what people need from us is not a caregiver, but a friend. My thoughts are with you as you navigate these waters, my friend.

    • Thank you, Mark. She’s moved to a nursing home and already taken a day trip to the hospital for stitches from a fall. She stands up and bolts out of a chair like she did 20 years ago and then falls flat because her legs are weak and she has no balance. She survived without me running to the rescue since I didn’t know the details until it was over. The nursing home will figure it out, but she falls a lot and at 102 has never broken a bone.

      A few days ago, for the first time in the ten years since Vic’s death, she asked me about him without rage. She wanted to know how much she misses him. She wanted me to know how much she loved him and that she wanted more babies. She hasn’t shown such tenderness since his death because she was too busy defending her broken heart by being enraged at god, Vic’s doctors, and me. Maybe she’s had to stay around long enough to be able to experience the love found in grief.

  13. A very practical and important use of AI!

    • Nice to hear from you, Skip. Yes, very practical. I often do Active Imagination with inner feelings, dream figures, or even trees, but this issue needed practical perspective and Vic was a practical guy who understood my relationship with his mother. He was the best “other” for this issue, and his voice cut to the chase. Sometimes an Active Imagination conversation wanders here and there before breaking through to new ground. Sometimes it takes weeks. This one was fast and clear. I called our hospice social worker the next day and we began considering new options.

  14. Well,12 years for me with a member of my own family whom I have had to take care of…The world needs us to love ourselves the best we can so we can help others do the same.Very very difficult but we are doing it.Hope to steal a Teusday or Friday.I love you

    • Thanks for your comment, Alicia. I know you’ve been in the caregiving trenches for a long time, too. I hope we’re coming to some equilibrium, but everything is still in process. When I understood that keeping Virginia in her own apartment until she had no money left (not long from now) would be a great disservice to her because we wouldn’t have the option to choose the next step if she was already on Medicaid. I’ll be in touch.

  15. Reading your posts, Elaine, makes me reconsider my decades old plan to live to be a hundred. OMG there’s no way our brains, our eyes, our ears, legs, hearts can all survive all the years. Something’s gonna go sooner or later, making you dependent on someone else. And if You’re lucky, there’ll be enough money and some understanding, supportive person to help see that you’re comfortable. YIkes! All the the things that can go wrong. Thank you for showing me how it is – both the good and the not-so-good parts of aging and caregiving. I’m in awe of what you have been able to accomplish.

    • I think living to be 100 is a lousy idea–and Virginia was unusually vigorous for 100. She had her own bank account until she was 98 and still volunteered at the food bank and library. Then her memory began to slip and her body started slipping, too. There were many falls. Then incontinence and blindness. Yes, yikes! Getting older doesn’t look a thing like an AARP advertisement for most of us. At the same time, these last years allowed a sweetening between Virginia and me. She trusts me now and no longer blames Vic’s death or her unhappiness on me. I empathize with her situation. Whatever complicated karma we have together, we’ve had time to work it out.

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