With the holiday season upon me I have been trying to force myself to write a happy, cheery message. However, I have struggle and grief laden topics on my mind. Perhaps I am a pessimist. I don’t know. I think I am a realist and this is what is on my mind and heart so, I’d like to share a few messages about the toll that grief takes on a person and on a family. I have sat on this topic for over a month and can’t quite avoid it any longer or go around it. Now is the time to deal with the issue of grief. I think this will be a series of messages that I hope will by the end of the series give us some helpful and healthy ways to look at and process the grief we experience. This first section is about the grief of losing a family member to Alzheimer’s. Part II will be denotations and connotation on the stages of grief. In Part III, I hope to wrap it all up by giving some suggestions on helpful ways to process and move through the different aspects of grief we experience.
The hardest thing about having a big, loving family is when one passes away. The absence of one person’s presence changes everything! And so, we are constantly, as a collective, becoming something else with each new loss. My mother’s cousin,my second cousin, just passed away. She was absolutely a matriarchal figure in my family. She was even the namesake of my great-grandmother. The culprit was Alzheimer’s disease, which takes a person’s life in slow, sequential stages. This has in turn left me with layers of grief.
Alzheimer’s is an illness that seems to rob loved ones of their family member several times over. I watched and supported my godmother and my cousin as they cared for their mothers as they grew into these completely different people. Or maybe they grew into the most intense version of their true identities. They were my great aunts. One, Aunt Lizzie, was as sweet as can be. “What you want me to do daughter?” “Thank you so much!” and other such pleasantries squeezed between the soulful hums…”doo, doo, doo, dooooo.” That was Aunt Lizzie, as sweet as peach pie. Memory fading with no recollection of people from days gone by but, it didn’t matter, she’d talk kindly to the stranger just the same. I gleaned a lot of wisdom from her, even then. Then there was my aunt Fanny. I grew up a few short blocks from her house and she was always nice to me but, when her memory faded…she was mean. She didn’t trust anyone, cussed everyone and kept a generally combative disposition. My, oh my, did her daughters have a challenging time taking her on trips and well, just taking care of her period. I often wondered what caused the difference in each of my aunts dispositions because, after all, Lizzie and Fanny grew up in the same household. They were sisters.
Now it is Fanny’s daughter, my second cousin, who has also succumb to this mind-snatching disease. I watched as my cousin forgot things and began to keep a journal to remind herself of the things that she sometimes “forgot.” She spoke of taking pills to help slow the progression of what was happening to her. When her husband passed away, she took a turn for the worse. I think she began to hear things and imagine people were coming into the house. How terrifying. It wasn’t real but, it felt real to her. To avoid the confusion of daily life as it were, she tried to drown her problems in booze. Sadly still, this only exacerbated the problem. I heard a tale of people taking advantage of my cousin because she wouldn’t remember anyhow. Those people who really did her wrong got off fancy free. On the contrary, on a visit, I was accused of stealing something to put it in my house even though we were just sitting there. “This belongs to you dear cousin and we are in your house. I’m not taking it anywhere,” I said. Then there came the long, hard stares at the seemingly familiar yet, unknown. The visits become less frequent because losing you is hard to bare. Then the loss of coherent speech, then movement, finally it is a task to even remember how to swallow.
Just when I thought there were no more layers of this grief or trouble. There is yet another. This disease takes a loved one’s life and I am reminded yet again of the loss of a family member, a matriarch. Who will research the family line and bind it in a book for us all to remember our family history? Who will teach us of the stories and songs of our great-grandparents? In whose home will we meet for holiday dinner to reconnect with the ones we love? I feel a disconnect from the past happening in this moment. Ripples of change wash over us and I don’t know how to navigate these waters of unfamiliar territory. Part of me was relieved that my cousin will finally get to rest in peace. In fact, a small miracle happened. She told her husband she was coming to see him just before she slipped away. I am sure she was happy to be reunited with the spirit of her husband, sister and mother who went before her. I asked my mother if she was glad that her cousin would no longer be in the state she was in. She said, no I’m not happy. I am sad and I will miss her. I have been missing her.