• “I’m so sorry about your dad’s death, Carol.” I heard that kind message repeatedly after my dad died. The only problem was that my dad, as I knew him, had died ten years earlier. Well-meaning people were giving me their condolences a decade after the fact.


    Dad had undergone brain surgery to correct fluid build-up caused by scar tissue from a WWII injury. The shunt inserted in his brain functioned, so the operation was medically successful. No one seemed to be able to explain why the man who went into surgery a little fuzzy from the fluid awoke severely demented.


    After the surgery, Dad as I knew him was dead. His body and sick mind lived on for a decade. During that time, there were rare times where a glimpse of my real Dad surfaced. He said to me, during one of these lucid moments, “Do they know what happened to me?” It broke my heart that he was aware of how demented he was. I worked hard to give him some quality in his life, mostly by making his fantasy world real.

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    The devastation his mental and emotional pain caused my family is indescribable. I’ll never forget the look of horror on my sons’ faces when they tried to talk to their beloved grandpa and got demented garble for an answer. I tried to cushion their grief.


    I tried to absorb my mom’s grief over seeing her sweet-tempered, intellectual husband turn into this frustrated person with a voice in his head that told him the nurse was trying to kill him.


    What I didn’t try – what I forgot to do – was label my own grief and look for ways to soften it. I failed to consider myself worthy of care – the same care I would instinctively give a grieving friend. I never even gave my pain the dignity of a name.


    It took years of this frantic activity before I became conscious of the fact that we grieve much earlier than most people realize. We grieve each time we notice a decline in the capability of a parent. We grieve each time a child suffers a setback. We grieve as we ourselves see a decline in some ability, caused by age or disease. We don’t just wait for someone to die, and then grieve on schedule. Life offers us more complex reasons to grieve than death.


    My youngest son has multiple health issues. He’s in his mid-twenties now and still dependent on me. We hope that will change, but that is how it is, currently.

    I now realize that I grieved each time a new illness was diagnosed in him. But I never stopped to acknowledge that grief. I just kept trying to fix it. Desperation and denial ran the show. I held off the natural grieving process for years.


    I’m beginning to learn that I need to label this emotion in myself. It’s right and proper – healthy even – to take time to grieve our losses. These losses often come long before death. They are a part of the process of life. Being aware of our deepest feelings, as we take each step on life’s journey, can remind us to process life as we go. Then we don’t have to look back with such pain.


    If we experience grief as it happens – label it and process it – we can give ourselves the same care we would a good friend. Then we will move on in healthier manner. I’m still learning.


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    For more information about Carol go to www.mindingourelders.com or www.mindingoureldersblogs.com.

Published On: February 12, 2007