One of the positive parts of being a family caregiver is the opportunity for emotional growth. We can develop increased compassion, patience and tolerance, as well as humor. Yes, we often shed tears over our loved one’s illness and often over our feelings of powerlessness. But humor may be the saving grace that keeps us from drowning in sorrow.
Some situations, of course, leave no room for laughter. But some tough times can offer moments of levity if we choose to recognize them. My sister, Beth, and I experienced what to some people may be a rather macabre situation during the three days our mother was going through the death process. If we hadn’t maintained our senses of humor, I’m not sure how we would have handled those sad, seemingly endless days.
Mom had lived in a fine nursing home for over seven years, most of which were spent in a private room. Our dad also had a private room in the same nursing home. During the last months of Dad’s life, they moved into a shared room so that they could be together when, predictably, Dad’s life came to an end. After Dad died, Mom acquired a new roommate named Mavis. Mavis had Alzheimer’s. Within a day of moving in to Mom’s room, Mavis had decided she "loved" Mom. While the same may not be said about Mom’s feelings for Mavis, Mom did admit that Mavis wasn’t a bad roommate and could be amusing.
During our visits to Mom, Beth and I made a point to talk to Mavis and include her when we could. We also gave her a few items of Mom’s that Mavis liked and Mom no longer cared about. Mom had begun giving up on life even before Dad died, but after his death she truly felt there was no reason to go on. It took five months for her body to get the message that she’d suffered long enough, but one day the nurse prepared us for the fact that Mom was dying.
Slowly, Mom’s body was slipping into death. She was comatose. Her extremities were mottling and, though her heart kept beating, she was completely unresponsive. Beth and I kept vigil over the three day period that Mom went through the final death process. We stayed with her, held her hand, talked with her.
"Is she dead yet?"
During this time, the nursing home staff tried their best to divert Mavis and keep her from Mom’s room during the day, but, alas, the room also belonged to Mavis. And Mavis was quick. She was also sneaky. So, on the first day of our death vigil, as Beth and I spoke soft words of goodbye to Mom, Mavis suddenly popped her head around the dividing curtain and hollered, "Is she dead yet?" She then sighed, shook her little gray head and quietly murmured "I loved her so." Beth and I were startled to say the least.
A staff member scooted in right on Mavis’ heels. Red faced, she quickly apologized and led Mavis away. However, it wasn’t too long before Mavis again popped her head around the curtain and loudly inquired, "Is she dead yet?" Again, the question was followed by a tender "I loved her so." What could we do but laugh? We didn’t want to mock Mavis, and we certainly didn’t take our mother’s death lightly, but the whole scene felt like a sitcom.
Mavis provided other distractions from grief during those three days. While a male friend of my sister’s appeared for a short, respectful visit, Mavis scooted into the room and announced the fact she couldn’t find a bra that morning. She proved her lack of underclothing by hiking up her sweater, pointing to her naked breasts and saying, "See? I’m not wearing one. I guess I’ll go check the laundry." We all stifled laughter until Mavis had gone on her way. Mavis had, once again, provided a moment of levity as we moved through those sad days. We both knew that, given Mom’s well developed sense of humor, she would have found the situation hilarious. Perhaps on whatever level of consciousness she did have, she still did.
I’ve been told some people would have been angry with Mavis or the nursing home staff, but we understood that Mavis had lost her inhibitions. That’s typical of Alzheimer’s disease. We knew that the nursing home staff did their best. Short of placing a guard on Mavis, they kept her as occupied outside her room as anyone could. Mavis simply outwitted the busy staffers from time to time.
Often in life we have a choice. Laugh or cry. Laugh or get angry. Laugh or develop an ulcer. Of course, laughter isn’t always possible or even appropriate (some would say we were inappropriate to laugh with Mavis as Mom was dying). But if there is a ray of sunshine to be found in a situation, it’s often healthier for all of us to embrace it even while we acknowledge the seriousness of our overall journey.
For many things the saying that "attitude is everything" is true. Mavis offered us a bit of comic relief during those dark days of Mom’s death, and we chose to accept her gift. Thank you, Mavis. We won’t forget you.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.