They know how to mourn the inevitable losses in their lives.
—The Traits of Stress-Hardy, Resilient People.
I cheerfully admit, I’m hopelessly sentimental. Buddhist non-attachment doesn’t come naturally to me…I even mourn when a favorite article of clothing wears out. So when Robert Hruzek asked us to talk about a time when we’ve been shaken by a stressful situation, I thought of the time about 13 years ago when my best friend, my uncle and my mother died within 7 weeks of one another. In fact, their deaths were the least of it. The process of dying was the hardest part.
A Very Rough Autumn
Mary, whom I’ve written about in a previous post, and my mother both died of cancer.
Mary had ovarian cancer and had been fighting it for several years. She didn’t suffer much pain, but by the fall of 1994 it was clear she was losing the battle. The doctors had removed her small intestine to prolong her life, so she could no longer eat food…she was nourished by intravenous feeding. She had family to care for her, so all I could do was to phone her a few times a week. That was hard, because she was understandably depressed and there was no way to cheer her up. All I could do was to tell her a few things that might interest her and let her know I cared. I know she appreciated the calls, but it was hard to know what to say with so little response from her.
The thing that really helped me during this time was my daughter wanting a special sweater. I hadn’t knit in years, but when she had showed me a picture of the style she liked I offered to knit her one. When she came to visit at Christmas we bought some red wool yarn and a basic pattern for me to modify and I went at it. It was just the therapy I needed because
- the very act of knitting is soothing,
- it was challenging to figure out how to modify the pattern to match the picture, and
- I was doing it for someone I loved.
That last part was crucial.
In the meantime, my mother, who had a great tolerance for pain, suddenly was having severe problems with her upper back. X-rays indicated it was degeneration of the spine, so the doctors sent her to a chiropractor. It didn’t do any good, and the pain killers messed up the rest of her body, so she lived without them…sleeping in a recliner in the living room because it was torture to lie down. I couldn’t do anything about the pain, but phone calls helped some.
I worked hard on my daughter’s sweater and aimed for her to have it for Valentine’s Day. I mailed it off February 2nd, and that evening received a phone call saying that Mary had passed away. That Saturday my mother phoned to say she was going to the emergency room but first wanted to tell me what to put in her obituary. She also reminded me I had promised to give the eulogy at her funeral.
In fact, the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with her and sent her home with some pills. I won’t even go there! A week later she went back and they finally did a chest x-ray. She had terminal lung cancer and the pain had been from fluid in her lungs pressing against nerves in her back. (A useful piece of information…x-rays of the spine don’t tell anything about back pain. Some of the worst looking backs have no pain, and some of the better looking ones can have severe pain.)
When she was released from the hospital Marvin, the love of her life, and I decided we wanted her to be able to go back to her own home. With the help of some hospice care he and I could take care of her. It was only for a little over a month total, and after the first week Marvin said he could handle it by himself for a while. I could go home and he would tell me when he needed more help. We kept in close contact by phone, talking several times a day. It was actually a cheerful, loving time… Mom and I had a long history of good telephone conversations, and these seemed just like a continuation of what we had always been doing. She and Marvin were making last minute arrangements (she from her bed), rewriting the will, etc., and seemed to think of me as the emotionally stable Rock of Gibraltar. In fact, I was spending most of my time lying in bed knitting and trying to get my stomach to accept some food. The phone calls were as therapeutic for me as they were for them.
It was during this time that my uncle, my mother’s brother, died of a heart attack sitting in his chair watching TV. He had been having trouble with congestive heart problems, so it wasn’t a big surprise. He had been visiting her regularly, so it didn’t seem sad…somehow it seemed fitting that he passed on about the same time. And he passed away painlessly, a blessing to us all.
One day my mom was telling me everything that was going on about his funeral when she started running out of breath. The thing that sicks in my mind was she was so cheerful. When she had to stop she said, “I could talk all day. I do truly love you!” That is, without a doubt, one of the best gifts anyone has ever given me.
That period couldn’t last forever, of course. Soon enough Marvin phoned to say he needed help and I flew back. When I arrived at the house and walked into Mom’s bedroom she reminded me of a little kid. She was surprised to see me. Her face lit up and she said, “Oh, you came back!”
Of course I came back. There was nowhere in the world I would rather have been at that moment and during the next few weeks as she gradually lost awareness and slipped away.
What I Learned
Even though the next few weeks were physically and emotionally exhausting, I felt privileged to be there and to help. The details don’t matter.
It took me over six months to get back to eating without effort, and my stomach still seizes up as I write this. But it’s a small price to pay for caring. This wasn’t a new lesson for me, but it reinforces what I figured out years ago, that if I cut myself off from emotional pain I’m also cutting myself off from life’s deepest joys. That would not be a good bargain.
This experience was also a great illustration of a little-known aspect of stress-management. So much is written about fight or flight. But what works for me, like many other women, is tend and befriend. I didn’t want to fight or run, I wanted to connect, to help. I’ll be forever grateful that I had a chance to do that.
What About You?
Have you ever had a period of great stress in your life? How did you handle it? What helped?
And thank you, Robert, for the topic.