Category Archives: Loss

Beauty and Loss All Commingled

Today I spent two hours with my ailing mother instead of the usual four to six.  And as I indulged in the sacredness of time alone, I discovered myself sinking deeper into my “feeling body.”  Once again, I discovered that being too busy is anathema to the soulful existential questions and emotions I need to let bubble to the surface once in a while.

Mom’s health is declining.  It hasn’t been that stellar for quite a few years, but now her body is starting to fail in ways that are no longer remediable.   I found myself wondering how conscious she is of her decline and when is the right time to discuss it all.

My mother has suffered from mood swings and a fair amount of depression these last several years.  Even when she was living in her own home, surrounded by her loving (albeit increasingly demented) husband, excellent and compassionate caregivers, and a regular rotation of visiting children and grandchildren, she frequently found reasons (not always easily discerned by us) to dissolve into tears.  Being in a nursing home the last year and a half has not resolved her feelings of depression.

Fortunately, when I inquired recently of the RN on duty about the possibility of an anti-depressant, it was subsequently approved by the facility physician.  I am not someone who ordinarily believes in indiscriminate pharmaceutical solutions, but her crying jags were disconcerting and I simply wanted her to feel better.  (And Mom was, in no way, open to therapy.)

So the question of the hour is:  do I open the can of worms that end-of-life discussions precipitate?  Or shall I let her “feel good” for a little bit longer?

Unlike Dad, who embraced the idea of heaven and, though he loved life, looked forward to “going home,” Mom has only ever talked about death when she was unhappy with her life.  I find myself hesitating to talk about something that will likely send her back into a downward spiral.

On the other hand, as someone who worked for two different hospices, I know how vitally important it is to have the opportunity to talk about these matters and to work through all the myriad emotions which certainly arise.

And so, I pray for guidance to know when the time is right.

Meanwhile, after leaving the nursing home earlier today and finishing a couple errands, I arrived home and dressed for a walk in the cool October air.   As I ambled down the road, I was struck over and over again by sights so achingly beautiful, I found myself invoking God’s name in whispered awe.

The trees are aflame with color this year—golden yellows, vibrant oranges, corals, and scarlets.  Breathtaking and heart-opening beauty is everywhere.  Even the skeletal remains of Queen Anne’s lace and the dark petal-less heads of black-eyed Susans are beautiful.

In addition to the splendors of autumn, there are lingering roses, hibiscus blooms, and purple clovers—splashes of summer in the midst of dying grasses and fallen leaves.  Life and death are all mixed together in this seasonal transition.

As I walked I found myself feeling the grief of Dad’s absence in my life.  Like me, he loved nature.  We would have had some fine walks together this year had he still been alive.  But I know we are both immersed in beauty and love—he where he is and I where I am.  And Mom, too, though she is not as skilled at recognizing it or appreciating it.  Then again, her childhood was not as special as that of Dad or me and my siblings.  When she was little she was abandoned by those who brought her into the world, and so abandonment is often her default emotional setting (even now, over seventy-five years later.)

Beauty and Pain.  Life and Death.  Love and Loss.  It’s all here.  We are surrounded by it all.

As my wise friend Kristy recently said, “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”*

May I carry it all with grace.


Remembering Dad

In eleven days, it will be the six-month anniversary of Dad’s death.

I don’t necessarily miss him, because except for the last four months of his life, and for sixteen months in 2009 and 2010, I hadn’t been in his physical presence on a daily basis anyway.   And many of the memories from the last four months of his life were fairly painful.  But mostly I don’t necessarily miss him because I don’t necessarily feel that he’s completely gone.

Now saying that last sentence may make you think that I’m a bit gone.  So let me explain.  I don’t feel like he’s a ghost who’s hanging around.  But he kind of feels like a human version of God – someone I can talk to at any time and I know that he’ll hear.  I know he’s around, just not in physical form.

Several times a day, or sometimes now maybe every other day, I’ll think of Dad and I’ll simply say, “Hi Dad.  I love you.”  Sometimes I’ll say “I love you” one or two more times.  That’s it.  I don’t feel the need to say much more.  My love for him is as strong as ever, and I’m sure the reverse is true as well.  I just somehow need him to know that I haven’t forgotten him and that I love him.

Some grieving people seem to feel the need to go to the cemetery where their loved one’s physical body lies in order to feel close to them.  That isn’t true for me at all.   I know he’s wherever my heart is.  Or the heart of my mother, or my sisters and brothers, or his grandchildren.    Whenever we think of him, he lives.  It’s like that sentence on the altar of my childhood church “Do ye this in remembrance of me.”  All I have to do is think of him, remember him, love him, and he feels somehow present.

Losing a parent is, I’m sure, vastly different from losing a spouse or a young child.  With a spouse, you’ve had years and years of intimate physical contact.  The missing of that physical presence must be almost unbearable.  And with a child, oh especially for mothers who have carried that body within their womb and then nursed it and raised it for years and years…. I cannot imagine that pain, I truly cannot.  But with a parent, as sad as it may be, there is often a natural progression.  If one doesn’t fight that natural progression of life, illness, decline, death, there can be an element of peace about the process.

I know I sure am grateful that Dad’s spirit doesn’t have to be confined to a body which was confined to a bed or geri chair.   And I’m glad he’s no longer saddled with a mind which had become increasingly confused and incapable.   There is great freedom for Dad now.  He is no longer in the physical presence of those he loves, but he can be by our side at a moment’s notice.  And for that I am very grateful.

Two days ago I thought of Dad when I was climbing a large hill – The Stations of the Cross shrine in San Luis, CO.  I was looking at the powerful sculptures depicting the last days of Jesus’ journey on Earth.  It was moving to me because I think I was alive then.  I think I knew Jesus in that lifetime.  And the thought came to me, Was Dad there, too?  Did I know Dad then, too?  And a wind picked up and blew around me.  It was the only wind I had felt all day.

So there you have it.  The presence of those we love can be felt in multitudinous ways.

So Dad, this is for you.   Thank you, as always, for being such an amazing father to me and to all my siblings.  Thank you for being a good husband to Mom.  Thank you for being a good man.  You surely made this world a better and happier place.

I love you.

(And now the tears flow.  And it’s all good.)

Goodbye House, Goodbye Dad

A part of me doesn’t want to write this.  I don’t want to revisit my grief.  And, I also want to write this while the memories are still somewhat fresh.

Six weeks ago I temporarily moved into the room I had lived in as a teenager.  It was the family home, although my family no longer lived there.  The kids were all grown and my parents had both recently moved into a nursing home —my father because of the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and my mother because there was no longer money for the caregivers we’d hired to assist her.

My home was in Colorado, but I was back in Pennsylvania to spend time with both of my parents and to sell, sort through, and dispose of all the remaining family possessions so that the bank could take possession of the family home.  No, it wasn’t a case of foreclosure; it was because we’d had to get a reverse mortgage to pay for my parents’ care.  And with them no longer at home, the house had to go to the bank. To say it was a time of great change for the Greb family would be an understatement.

So, I walked in the front door loaded down with my luggage.  And I gazed around in shock.  My siblings had told me about the pipe that had burst about two weeks before.  Apparently the thermostat had been set at about 50 degrees, but one particular bedroom hung over an open porch and I guess the radiator pipes couldn’t hold up to the record cold temperatures.

Large sections of hard wood floor had been pulled up.  Insulation had been ripped out.  Drywall had been torn down.  Rusty looking stains ran down the hall walls.  Wainscoting had been removed.   One closet had been completely ruined.  Furniture and other items had been moved from the damaged areas and stuffed into adjacent rooms.  There was a layer of dust everywhere from the work my brother and the clean-up crew had begun.  Several fans were going and the living room still smelled of mold and mildew.  It was a large house and it looked like a good third of it had been ruined.  And the rest of it was looking none too good either.

Stunned, I went about putting my things away and then I searched for one room of the house that was still clean enough to support an altar for my daily meditations.  I settled on the piano room.  I set up a card table and covered it with a beautiful scarf.  I placed some sacred items upon the cloth, found a candle, pulled up a chair, and lit the candle.

As I sat before the flame, breathing, I became aware of how sad I was.  I felt stunned by the devastation around me. I decided to talk out loud to the house.  What the heck; I was all alone.  Why not?

Within a few minutes my one-sided conversation had turned into a song.  I was singing to the house when a thought popped into my head.  Our house was sad.  It had burst into tears because everyone was suddenly gone and it lay empty.  Its tears had flooded the house.

My song turned into a lament.  I keened and keened, filled with sorrow for this poor house.  This dear house had been so lovingly built by my father’s own hands when his burgeoning family had outgrown the small one-story house we’d grown up in.  This house had once been filled with my parents, my three siblings, and then a fourth sibling—my youngest brother, newly born to my mother when she was forty years old and we had just moved into the house.

It had been the family home for forty years.  It had seen thousands of meals served, scores of holidays celebrated, and parties and picnics hosted.  It had heard the laughter and conversation of friends, relatives, and visitors.  There had been the pitter-patter of a dog, several cats, six grandchildren, and one great grandchild. Later, after the last of the children and one foster child had moved out, it had held a rotating roster of boarders, visiting adult children, grandchildren who needed a place to stay, children who were having temporary marital or financial problems, and eventually, caregivers who became an integral and loving part of the family system. So much life!  So much love!  So much laughter!  And suddenly, all of it was gone.

When Mom moved into the nursing home, the house was suddenly empty.  There was no more husband and wife in the home, no more visiting children or grandchildren, no more friends, no more caregivers, no more love and laughter.   And no one had said goodbye to this dear house.  No one had said thank you.  The house no longer had a purpose to serve.  It was still holding possessions, but all the life was gone from it.

I wailed.  No one was home so I could be as loud as I needed to be.  I cried and cried and cried.  I cried for the house that no longer felt like a home.  I cried for all the changes.  I cried that we would no longer have a family home to gather in.  I cried for my mother who was no longer in the home in which she had raised her five children and found her purpose for living.  And I cried especially for my father because I knew he was dying.

My poor father.  He had begged us to keep this home in the family.  He wanted it to be available for the grandchildren or for anyone in the family who would ever need a place to stay.  And now, not only could we not honor his request, but he himself was no longer here in this home.  He was in a bed, in a nursing home, asleep more than awake, barely eating, getting more and more gaunt, speaking less and less, and suffering the indignities of all elders who have to depend on others to take care of their most basic needs.  My poor, dear, wonderful father.

Dad died thirty hours later.

I hadn’t expected him to die then.  I knew he was headed in that direction, but none of us expected him to die that weekend.

Maybe my unexpected outpouring of grief helped me to release him.  Just like the house’s “tears” helped to release my own.

I have had so many blessings in my life it would be difficult to count them all.  Living in that home with a family that  loved one another was certainly a very big one.  Being raised by good parents was a huge one.  Having a father who worked so hard but so willingly, who loved so unabashedly, who laughed and played and prayed with equal abandon, is absolutely a blessing beyond compare.

Goodbye, House.  Goodbye, Dad. I love  you.