I feel like the worst daughter ever! I cry when I remember.
I was not present for my mother’s last Christmas day here on earth. There. I said it. Judge me harshly. Go ahead. I have judged myself over and over in despair and nothing can change it or bring it back.
It’s been 2 years now.
After a very hard year and a half of walking through increasingly horrible Parkinson’s dementia with Mom, my husband and kids encouraged me to take a trip to Texas to visit his sister’s family that would have us away from home on Christmas day. With work schedules what they were, that was the only time we could visit them.
At first I resisted vehemently. No! How could I leave my mother?! She needs me. I kept thinking, What if this is her last Christmas?
But after a trip to the neurologist and a change in meds Mom started getting back to her normal self. Hope returned. She seemed to be getting better for a few weeks. During this lucid phase, I mentioned talk of a trip to her and she said, “Yes. Go. We can celebrate before you leave.” And when I talked to my brother and family about it, they readily agreed to have her with them that day. So I made the choice. Somewhat reluctantly I began to prepare for the big trip to Dallas.
The Saturday before Christmas we got together with Mom for our Christmas celebration. Dinner, presents, laughs. It was nice. She was doing well. She was pretty much herself that night. Spirits were good. The trip was on. The next day my dear husband, the kids and I pulled out early for the 10 hour trip. It was great weather and I felt relieved to be free from the constraints of the past several months. A change of scenery would do me good.
It had been a grueling time of almost weekly medical appointments, sometimes several times a week. Mom’s decline had been coming more rapidly. I had been making from one to several trips a day to be with her, to coax her to eat and try to make her take her medicine. Many times I ended up spending the night or several nights in her apartment at her assisted living to try to console her. My year had been consumed by little things like forgetfulness, incontinence, and struggles for her to maintain balance and feed herself; big things like the falling which resulted in several late night calls, and trips to the emergency room; and really huge, tragic things like a stay in the geriatric psychiatric ward of the hospital, her fearful hallucinations of fire and flood and murder and abduction, her paranoia that the people who cared for her were out to get her, and the constant delusions that nothing I said, no rational argument, could convince her not to fret over. Tears and the Lord were my two constant companions.
But now I was leaving all that behind for a bit. As each mile rolled by on our trip, my spirit lightened. I called Mom several times and she sounded normal, not confused at all. Thank you, Lord! We had a restful, joyful, family centered few days of Christmas celebrations with my sister-in-law’s family. My brother called on Christmas day and I got to talk to Mom who was still doing great. We made it home with no catastrophes and all my worries were put to rest! I felt rejuvenated.
Sadly, Mom’s short Christmas turn around didn’t last much past the new year and the old symptoms grew worse again. Medicine changes seemed to help for shorter and shorter periods as her condition progressed. Her decline was on a downhill slope picking up speed, and a week after we enjoyed her last Mother’s Day together, she passed away.
I never thought grief would so consume me. I had a strong relationship with the Lord. I believed that life and death were in His hands. I was very practical. But all that was before my mother died. The one person who had always known me was no longer there. Suddenly I was an orphan. My own mortality was staring me in the face. It was a very hard year. Summer and fall came and went. Then the holidays hit! I felt blind-sided. All I could do was cry. Every conversation with my girls ended in tears. I couldn’t make myself get out of the house or do anything. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t think straight, and I hurt all over. Was this grief?! I never realized!
That was only last year.
What a difference a year makes! This year hope has returned to this sad heart. So may I encourage your grieving heart? Looking back here are some things that helped, although at the time I didn’t want to do them and didn’t think they would help.
Read a book on the stages of grief or you may think you’re going crazy! Somewhere in the aftermath of Mom’s death I acquired a little book called Good Grief. I refused to read it for the longest. When I finally broke down and read it months later I was shocked how accurate it was. I was thinking I was going crazy and dying. Seriously. When I read in that little book that physical pain is one of the things a person experienced in grief, I was shocked and relieved. There were many other things that helped me realize what I was going through was normal.
Keep practicing the spiritual habits you have established in your life as much as possible. Go to church. Read your Bible. Pray, even when you feel you can’t put coherent thoughts into words. God seemed far away some days, but I’ve since realized that He wasn’t. He was just hidden from my view by a thick gray veil of grief. I did miss church more during that first year after Mom’s death, but loving family members pushed me to go if I missed more than 1 week at a time and I relented and went, because I knew it was just because they cared.
Carry on holiday traditions that you did with that family member in the past. You’ll cry and it will hurt, but it will be bittersweet. It will be healing to your heart. I made Mom’s specialties for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners that year. I could hardly eat them, but they were there. And with them it seemed like a little part of her was in our celebrations. Cooking was her thing.
Talk about your lost loved one. That hurts too, but it helps. We sat around and told “remember when” stories. We drug out the Memory Jar I had given Mom 15 years earlier that was full of little cards with old memories written on them, and we read and cried and laughed and felt comfort in reliving the joys of Mom’s life.
Look for joy (even in the little things). I was so grateful for a dear old highschool friend who sent me a Christmas card specially written to acknowledge this first Christmas without Mom! What a huge thing that was. What joy (through tears of course) it brought. But there were many tiny things that brought joy that I chose not to let slip past. Listening to Christmas carols and watching the twinkling lights of my tree. Playing a board game with the family. Allowing myself to laugh at things that would have amused my mom. Seeing my grandson’s eyes lighting up at the sight of the Christmas tree.
Put up a tree for Christmas! It was a burden. I just wanted to skip it that year. It only got half the ornaments it normally does. But it brought light and joy and peace to dark nights. I was glad I did.
Hug the people dearest to you, snuggle and share tender moments just because you still have them. The gift that the death of a loved one brings with it is a heightened awareness of making the most of the time you have with others who are still living. Don’t squander those times even if some relationships are difficult or awkward. You will never regret reaching out and expressing yourself. Trying to, even in a tough relationship, keeps the regrets of “if only” and “why didn’t I” away.
I hope you have a blessed Christmas and experience the hope of Christ in the midst of your grief. Here’s a sweet song that an old friend posted on social media recently. It is comforting for those of us who are spending Christmas without someone dear to us.
Enjoy the music! Different Kind of Christmas