Last week I finally had a chance to unplug and unwind–and not a minute too soon. My husband, daughter and I went to a warm, remote getaway, where I took a whole week off from computers and work. I still had a lot of creative ideas in between sailing, eating and naps, but I let other people do the heavy lifting for a week. It was magical.
While we were in this peaceful, relaxing setting, I had very weird, intense dreams, as if my mind had been waiting for a quiet moment to unload a whole bunch of intense thoughts. Many of the dreams were just incredibly busy–I had to get to The Today Show! In a snowstorm! Jumping over fences! And the elevator was broken!
More significantly, for the first time since my mother passed away 19 months ago, I realized in a dream that my mom had died. This was sad, since I like seeing her alive in my dreams, but in a way seeing that truth in a dream made me feel that I could finally come face to face with losing her. I can survive without the dream shelter from that reality. When she died, at first I thought I could never be happy again. It took a long time, but now I can say that I am at least open to the possibility of happiness on a regular basis.
As our beautiful week in paradise together as a family came to a close, we began our trip home, which promised to be a long and boring 16 hour journey. Our first leg started with a short ferry ride back to the main island where the airport lay. Shortly before the ferry landed my daughter asked me, “Are we here yet?” I set aside the thoughts of the trip that lay ahead, looked out at the azure water and islands in the distance, and replied, “Yes, we are here.”
The past year has been very, very heavy emotionally, 2010 was like a steamroller. It has been seven months since I lost my Mom. I had faith that I would eventually feel better, but it was still as surprise when I actually stopped feeling 100% awful all the time. After six months, when the clouds started to part, I felt like telling people I had been on another planet but now I was back. So I am feeling better, which is great, but I haven’t felt like writing much, which I don’t like. There is still clearly work to be done in the recesses of my mind, but don’t confuse my relative silence for depression.
This week I took a step forward by lightening my load on a literal level, hoping it would help me generate a fresh start in my mind. At the very least I would sublimate all my grief energy into something productive. It was time for a major spring cleanup, and I finally let go of more than 1000 pounds of lifetime accumulated possessions that just we didn’t need any more.
Notice I didn’t say “junk.” My family’s stuff was still not junk to me–these were things that meant something important to us at one time, but now it was time to let go. Throughout my life, I have never lived in one house more than five years, and those moves always prompted major periodic cleanouts, so living in my current house for more than ten years has been a novel experience in accumulation. When we moved to North Carolina in 2000, I was a mother of a newly toddling baby, I expected to teach psychology or neuroscience again, and a second baby was definitely a possibility. It was being a writer than was just a twinkle in my mind’s eye and a few dozen pages of experimental writing that I had freewritten as procrastination and a creative outlet while I was supposed to be finishing my Ph. D. thesis. (That later became my first book, the young adult novel, High Water. And I did finish the thesis on time, too!)So when we moved to North Carolina from California, I held on to all my baby clothes and gear as well as all my teaching materials and neuroscience notes and textbooks. Now felt like the first time I was truly ready to re-evaluate and LET GO. I am not going to have another baby–my own baby is now almost as tall as I am, and only a bit more than a year shy of being a teenager! I still consider myself a teacher, but I am not going to teach psychology the way I used to, or chemistry, or neuroscience. Saying goodbye to those materials was hard but it felt right. I even appreciated the fact that I was probably a better student than I mentally gave myself credit for, based on the thousands of pages of notes and papers I wrote, researched, or studied. I made sure to pull out the most complicated journal article I could find and show it to my daughter and say, “This is what I used to read every day when I was a scientist.”
So, the final tally of what we let go was more than enough to fill a small moving truck: a tied-down pickup truck bed plus a minivan load of donations, four bins of paper recycling, two bags of shredding, and an 11-yard dumpster filled to the brim with trash! Yes, the trash felt bad, like a Time magazine article about how much stuff Americans have, but at least we’re not carrying it along unnecessarily in our house any more. Part of me feels like I’ve just won The Biggest Loser: the result feels like freedom, and space to bring in new, good things into our lives.
So look at the snapshot I took of the dumpster load….goodbye, Nancy Drew Cookbook from elementary school, goodbye broken alarm clock, and gross old sneakers that weren’t nice enough for the donation pile. And goodbye, crime against fashion, iridescent high-heeled Candie’s shoes from the 1980’s. I accomplished this clean-out in two days with the help of two talented organizers. I could not have done it without them, and I would not want to try to do it on my own! If you are looking for help in the Raleigh area, I highly recommend Marsha Stayer of Stayer Organizing and Stefanie Watkins of Clever Spaces.
I am ready to move forward while staying in place here in our home, enjoying this feeling of peace and possibility.
For a compassionate, intelligent exploration of related issues of mindfulness, attention as love, and letting go, read my friend and Zen priest Karen Maezen Miller’s lovely book, “Hand Wash Cold.” Karen, your wise messages are finally starting to sink in.
Chapel Hill and Raleigh are mourning the passing of Elizabeth Edwards this week. I’ve been surprised to see how her death has become national news as well. She was a beloved member of the community here in the Triangle. I had met her several times and found her to be a friendly and caring person. She was smart and passionate about public policy, and at the same time she really was another Mom you would run into at Target. I also have to admit I feel awkward writing about her because I became a truly disappointed and disillusioned John Edwards supporter after his campaign unraveled as a result of his own actions. But today my thoughts and prayers go out to the whole Edwards family, especially Elizabeth’s three grieving children. I know we’re all thinking about her young children, Emma Claire and Jack, who have lost their Mom, but I am sure her oldest daughter Cate will be going through an unbelievably hard time as well.
Meghan O’Rourke wrote a moving piece on Slate.com, “Elizabeth’s Legacy,” which I highly recommend.
I also connected with “Elizabeth Edwards made wise choice to go home” on CNN.com, about dying at home rather than in the hospital. We are so used to thinking about the fight and battle against cancer, that sometimes we forget that when the time comes to let go, it can be much more comforting to travel that path at home. My mother was on hospice care for the final three weeks of her life, and while I had heard good things about hospice, it was all in the abstract until I went through this experience with her. Having a team of nurses and a social worker focus only on her comfort, care and safety, on her terms, was a remarkable gift. Hospitals are the place to be if you have a chance to get better, but not a comfortable, familiar, peaceful environment to be in to pass on.
As for the cruel, intolerant people who are planning to disrupt Elizabeth’s funeral, I hate to even write about them, but the good news is in the counter-response. The Raleigh News & Observer reports today that there are up to 10 picketers registered and about 200 counter-picketers who will show up to form a protective shield around the church where Elizabeth’s memorial service will be taking place. I hope it will all stay very peaceful and that the Edwards-Anania families can grieve and pay their respects to Elizabeth, surrounded by friends and a supportive community.
This whole fall, and especially since Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get through our first holidays without my Mom. I am posting a picture of us together at my Mojo Mom book launch in April 2009 to cheer myself up a little bit. I was really proud to have her be able to attend my author talk. She often babysat my daughter while I did my book talks, so it was really special to have her come to an event. This is one of my favorite pictures of us together:
To get through Thanksgiving I focused on being thankful for the family who were able to be with us, while remembering those whom we’ve lost. But what I am learning about grief is that it does not follow a timeline that is like most other things in society. We’re so used to experiencing events, or going through seasons, then moving on, lightning-quick. These days, the Christmas aisle is fully set up the day after Halloween, if not before! It has long been a pet peeve of mine that grinding consumerism creates a nearly unbroken cycle of spending and candy. (Remember when candy was an actual holiday treat?) But this year my emotional state is what is dominating my landscape, as I realize that grief will be a long process that needs to be honored and not rushed. I am trying to create a meaningful holiday without forcing myself to feel or act “jolly.” One part of that is conserving my energy and acknowledging that I already have a lot on my plate. The second part is figuring out what my family really does want to do to celebrate Christmas, and I to be honest I have not made a lot of progress on that one yet.
Since I need guidance more than I am able to create it this season, I wanted to share the following advice from Project Compassion a non-profit organization in based in Chapel Hill, NC, that creates community and provides innovative support for people living with serious illness, caregiving, end of life and grief. This piece is reprinted with their permission:
Hope for the Holidays: Living with Grief
The holidays are a traditionally seen as a time of joy and laughter, sparkle and glitter, sharing and gift-giving. But for people who are grieving, the holidays may be a time of mixed emotions, feelings of being overwhelmed with multiple demands, and a renewed reminder of losses. As the holidays approach, consider about how you take care of yourself during this time.
Helpful Hints for the Holidays
1. Acknowledge the Energy Needed for Grief
Adjustment to the death or dying of someone close to you does not simply come with time. The work of grief demands that you deal with all the feelings that loss engenders. This work takes psychic and physical energy that can leave you unable to deal with the extra demands of the holiday season.
2. Allow Yourself To Be Human
Avoid perfectionist expectations during the holidays. Let some things slide. If you really want to do all the cooking and baking, let the dusting go. Enlist the aid of others “in the holiday spirit of sharing.” You do not have to do it all yourself this time.
3. Plan Ahead
Sit down with your family and friends ahead of time to discuss and decide those activities, experiences, and people that make the holidays special for you. Decide to do a few special things with a few special people, not everything with everybody.
4. Set Limits
Tell your family, friends, and yourself now- and continue to remind them- that you are on a stress reduction diet this holiday season. You will not be over-doing, over-shopping, over-cooking, over-complying or over-worrying this year. Put a sign on your bathroom mirror or refrigerator to remind yourself or others.
5. Change Shoulds To Wants
Be aware of your own statements to yourself. Are you saying “I should do this or that”? Decide which of your “shoulds” you really want to do and make those your priorities. Remember: You should not “should” yourself. There are enough other people doing that already.
6. Strive For A Balanced Lifestyle
With all the parties and demands of the holidays, it is difficult for anyone to get enough rest and exercise. It is easy to overindulge. Set exercise, relaxation and self-care as a priority
7. Tell Others Clearly What You Want And Need For The Holidays
Do not be shy or embarrassed to let others know what you want from them in terms of emotional support, help, or sharing. Unknown expectations generally go unfulfilled and lead to disappointment and bad feelings.
8. Honor The Old/Create The New
This holiday time may not be like previous ones. But what will it e like? Realistically, this may be the last holiday with your ill family member. How can you make it the best?
If this is the first holiday time without your family member, include your deceased loved one to the extent that you can; the memory of him or her will be with you this holiday season no matter what you do. Consider giving gifts in acknowledgement of the person you are remembering. Consider giving love to others in honor of the love you have received. Only you can put the joy into the holidays.
9. Be Generous To Yourself
The holidays are a time of real and symbolic gift-giving. What are you giving yourself this season? When the new year rolls in, what will be your answer to the question, “What supportive and caring things did I do for myself this holiday season?”
10. Celebrate Life
It seems impossible for someone in grief to find joy and peace at any time, but especially during the season for joy and peace. This is your challenge. Life is worth living only to the extent that we make it so. Survivorship means more than merely surviving, it means fully living. Search for the living path for you and start now!
If you are grieving this holiday, I wish you solace and peace, and please know that you are not alone.
I have thought a lot about how to tell you that my life has gone through major upheavals this year, putting me at a true crossroads, professionally, personally, and spiritually. Over Thanksgiving weekend, I thought about how this post will be necessarily imperfect, and about how I both wanted to write it and desperately did not want to write it. But you deserve an update, so it is time to let you know what has been going on with me.
My life started to change last spring when my father got sick and I was in the middle of a caregiving crisis with him. As the only child of divorced parents, a lot of responsibility fell on my shoulders. At that point I had just launched the new book Courageous Parents, Confident Kids–I literally sent in the book to publish on the afternoon of March 26, and that evening he showed signs of being ill. That crisis snowballed through the spring and early summer, and I slowed down the blog to try to take a little bit of time off to catch my breath, hoping that things would get back to normal in the fall.
Which was not to be. Because as hard as my Dad’s crisis was, it turned out I hadn’t seen anything yet. When I finally got a very brief breather in late July after downsizing his house and moving Dad, I went on a much anticipated two-week vacation with my Mom’s side of the family. We had a wonderful ten days together to start out–most of the time it was just me, my Mom, and her three sisters and their husbands, as the larger crowd hadn’t arrived yet, including my husband and daughter. Then just as the whole crowd arrived and “Family Week” got underway, my Mom got very ill, very suddenly. She walked three miles in the woods one day and was in the emergency room the next. We thought she had experienced a stroke, but it turned out that she had brain tumors that had seemingly materialized out of the blue. She had coexisted with cancer for many years with successful treatments and close monitoring, but now new aggressive metastases had developed. What was really surprising was that she could have had this crisis develop to such a serious point with few if any symptoms. In a way I think that points to her strength and resilience.
So the next seven weeks turned into a journey that I hope I will never forget, but I you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t share it in detail here. In brief, after several days in the ICU, where she stabilized really well, we were able to travel back home to North Carolina, and care for her at our home for three weeks. We tried the best treatments available at UNC, but then ultimately had to accept the reality that this time, there would be no cure. Mom went on hospice care which allowed her to have a peaceful and pain-free final month, and she died her own home at the end of September, after time surrounded by family.
The past two months have been surreal and so painful. Over the years I had grappled with Mom’s illnesses. Even though she was an incredible trouper and bounced back many times from adversity, we had enough medical challenges to make me think about her vulnerability. The best way I can describe how I felt about her is that we were so close that it felt like her very existence was a precondition for my happiness. We spent a lot of time together, living in the same town for the past 10 years. So I talked to her and saw her almost every day. Even if I didn’t see her on a given day, I knew she was nearby. Our lives were interwoven together in ways that I was aware of but that were almost impossible to totally appreciate until she was gone–though I did my best to remember not to ever take her for granted. She was Mojo Grannie and she helped me be Mojo Mom, as I acknowledged back in 2005 when I wrote “Mojo Grannie is the glue that holds everything together.” I knew that her support was part of what made my career possible, reaching out to connect with other mothers, even when my daughter was very young.
Now it almost feels like I am starting a new life–not one that I am ready to embrace yet. It still feels wrong to go on with out her. But I can see rays of light and I know there is a path forward even if I can only see two feet ahead of me right now. I fully appreciate that I am incredibly fortunate to have had 42 years of excellent mothering. I still needed my Mom, a lot, but I at the end I was able to tell her in all honesty that she had taught us what we needed to know to keep going. And I have to remind myself that I will never be a motherless daughter because of her care and the deep bond we have shared.
But professionally as well as personally, I really am at a crossroads. I see motherhood differently now that my daughter is growing up into the middle school years. That feels different in ways that I will write about more another time. The short answer is that my identity is not based on being a mother in the way that it once was. People have always told me that middle schoolers still need their parents as much as younger kids, sometimes even more so, but it does feel like a different kind of “needing” as tweens really start to develop their own lives.
The good news is, I have adjusted to the ways that motherhood is evolving in my life, and I have explored different aspects of being Amy, including the important facet of being Mojo Mom.
I stand my the advice I have given as Mojo Mom, and I and have even come to appreciate some of it even more, especially the idea that you have to take care of yourself and do whatever it takes to make some time for your own interests, whether that is a paid career or other pursuits. In fact I’d say you have to build your priorities from the ground up around that. Not because it’s more important than your children, but because you’ll most likely have to fight to keep that time and space. Not necessarily fight against the people in your life, but fight other demands from taking over every available moment–because when “something has to give,” it’s all too often coming out of the time of a caregiving woman’s own best-laid plans. If you don’t have groundwork and a support network in place before a crisis hits, you can really go over the edge into deep trouble. I realize that I am particularly fortunate to be a self-employed author because I was able to take time off and come back. Many jobs would not have been as forgiving, which would have deepened the crisis–and also calls out for sane family-leave policies that support all family caregivers.
My experience has shown me that being a new mother is very challenging, but life can throw curveballs that are harder than being a new Mom. I say that with all due respect because I know the early weeks and months are HARD and I don’t mean to minimize that. But it should get more manageable over time. You need to make it a priority to make it manageable, because there is no guarantee that other crises won’t come down the road to pile on top of what you are already juggling.
I wish I could say that more eloquently, and maybe I will over time. But for now that’s the unfiltered truth, and my new starting point.
Thank you for your support, for caring, for commenting and gently prodding me to keep blogging! It helps more than you can know. Thanks for hanging in there with me. Pretty soon I hope to be able to share some news with you about what happens next.
I am back. I’ve had a very difficult month to say the least. The hardest part as far as the blog goes is that I am not ready to write about it. We have had a lot of illness and loss in our family this year and my family responsibilities and coping have put me on the sidelines.
But, healing does happen. This week I can see a tiny ray of light and I feel something that is not quite happiness but is a lot like happiness. I want to write again, to get back in touch about other things. So even as I set aside my sadness for private contemplation, I am opening a crack in my armor to let in a tiny ray of light and see what happens next.