What I Learned From Losing Loved Ones

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
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.

My Mom
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.

February/March—Passing Away

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?

Thanks to rummuser, bikehikebabe, Mike, B. Wilde, Ellen and Diane for commenting on last week’s post.
 
And thank you, Robert, for the topic.
This entry was posted in Lifelong Learning, Love and Compassion. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to What I Learned From Losing Loved Ones

  1. Ulla Hennig says:

    I had a similar period of extreme stress when my husband suddenly died in February 2007. What helped me most were my friends and my family. I could talk to them whenever I had the urge to do so. My colleagues at work accepted me as I were at that time: breaking out into tears several times a day, not properly doing my job.

    Ulla Hennigs last blog post..Fallen Leaves

  2. bikehikebabe says:

    What a surprise to see the creepy picture of the gravestones, bare tree, grey sky, blowing snow after all the delightful pictures of past Posts. But very fitting.

    This is only to cheer you up. In our family the grandmother asked her granddaughter what color sweater she wanted knitted. Granddaughter said,”Anything but purple.” At the yarn store the grandmother thought “Now what did she say? Yes, PURPLE.” So she got a purple sweater.

    When I die I’m not thinking of Heaven or Hell. I just hope it doesn’t hurt.

  3. rummuser says:

    The choice of the photograph says volumes!

    “Buddhist non-attachment doesn’t come naturally to me…I even mourn when a favorite article of clothing wears out.” It does not come naturally to anyone and that is not the point of detachment any way. Buddhist detachment is to the emotion. Let me explain. The emotion of mourning a loss is natural. Detachment is to acknowledge that this is natural, recognize it for what is happening, that is getting attached to the emotion, whatever it is at the moment, and then detaching from that attachment. Equanimity comes by not reacting to a stimulus, but taking appropriate action. That experience will also pass. That affirmation that it is temporary and that it will pass repeatedly brought into our awareness leads us to equanimity.

    rummusers last blog post..Small Joys

  4. bikehikebabe says:

    Afterthought: My mother & I didn’t have that close relationship that Jean & her mother had. Our relationship was more like I’m the boss & you’re my child. We loved each other very much though.

    I was relieved when she died of her very fast cancer because she wanted to die. I didn’t cry until much later.
    Actually I’m crying now & it’s been 30 years.

  5. bikehikebabe says:

    P.S. My crying was “an attachment to an emotion–& temporary.” Thanks rummuser for that!

  6. Jean says:

    Ulla,
    I commiserate with you about your husband. My husband and I talk about our deaths from time to time. The conversations are light-hearted, but we don’t avoid the subject. I’ve told my daughter if he dies first I expect to fall apart for a while…she’s allowed to do that, too, of course.

    I’m glad you had friends, family and understanding coworkers.

    bikehikebabe,
    That picture does have an emotional impact, doesn’t it? As soon as I saw it I knew that was the one. You can’t say I didn’t warn people that the post might not seem as upbeat as some!

    Thanks for the cheerful story. That’s why affirmations are always supposed to stated in the positive. The subconscious ignores the word “not”. :)

    rummuser,
    Thank you! I should have known that. One of my favorite books is Natalie Goldberg’s The Long Quiet Highway, Waking Up in America. She talks of her experience with Zen and her mourning when her teacher, Katagiri Roshi died. Your comment brought back her description of her mourning process, which touched me to the core, but that’s not the part I usually remember. The part I’ve integrated into my everyday life was his statement, “It’s just loneliness. Don’t let it toss you around.” She had gone back to Minnesota to see him and was complaining that she was lonely in Santa Fe. She felt alienated from the people there. After he made the statement he pointed out that everyone who goes deeply into Zen is going to feel lonely.

    I modify his statement all the time. “It’s just ____ (insert strong emotion of the moment). Don’t let it toss you around.”

    I have all sorts of tools to change my emotions, but I usually choose not to. I’d rather feel them deeply, and cleanly. I suppose by “cleanly” I mean welcome the emotions instead of rehearsing stories about how life shouldn’t be the way it is. That doesn’t mean not taking appropriate action. But as you say, that action can’t be a blind reaction to the stimulus. For me it goes back to the Traits of Stress-Hardy, Resilient People: the action has to be based on my deepest values.

    I may describe the Buddhist idea poorly, but I use it all the time. :)

    Again, thanks for the clarification and for extending the conversation.

    bikehikebabe,
    I, too, shed a few tears over this post. Oh, Lord.

    You’re right, my relationship with my mother was different than most. She was a feisty lady but I felt protective of her and worried about her being happy. Listening to her and caring about her was one of our biggest connections.

    There was also some relief when she died because I was grateful that Marvin was there by her side. The thing that would really have torn me apart would have been if Marvin had died first. He brought a lot of joy into her life, and she deserved it.

  7. Pingback: That Stir of Might and Instinct Within Us — cheerfulmonk.com

  8. Evelyn Lim says:

    It is hard to practice non-attachment when it comes to our family members. I feel your sadness with your post. It is not a typical one I had expected on how to reduce stress. Thanks for sharing it here!

  9. Pingback: Middle Zone Musings » All Entries: What I Learned From Stress

  10. rummuser says:

    Jean, there is a lot of confusion between solitude and loneliness with both being used to describe the same emotion. If one can learn to be in solitude, that is be comfortable with oneself, he will never be lonely. Loneliness is a modern symptom of a dis-ease with oneself. We seem to want others to validate our existence!

    rummusers last blog post..Afraid To Sleep? Frank Sinatra?

  11. Jean says:

    Evelyn,
    Thanks for the compassion… that compassion and the understanding that life is transitory is one of the best ways of dealing with external pressures, I believe. It’s so easy to get caught up in daily pressures and forget what’s really important. Just standing back and reminding ourselves of our deeper values helps put things in perspective.

    rummuser,
    I agree. From what I’ve read on your posts, I spend a lot more time by myself than you do, yet I’m almost never lonely. In the rare cases I do feel that way I write. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy being with other people, just that desiring company is different from loneliness. Loneliness, for me at least, can only be dealt with by going deeper.

    Clearly in the Goldberg example I used she and the other students had started to go deep, which meant they were loosening their connection to their old habits of thought, ways of being in the world, and they weren’t yet at home in their new inner world. I wrote something about this last year in At Home In the Universe: http://cheerfulmonk.com/2007/10/22/at-home-in-the-universe/

  12. Diane says:

    Hi Eveyone,
    For me death has always brought a deeper reflection of just about everything there is to be deep about…. Going deeper. When my father died in 2004 , it was sudden probably a anuerism in his heart. My mom was here and we flew out in shock. There was so much to do… I felt like I mourned in it and each phone call made the reality set in. But I really felt I did not truly mourn till about seven months later. Friends were a great comfort to me. And my friends in business amazed me with their support and when their you can get to it attitude it will be there waiting for you. Alleviating the pressure of not being able to be regular in routine. And they have continued doing that for years since so much has been going on for these passed four years. Recently I burst into tears on a job and I was told not to ever hide my life away, we are all heere to support you….Talk about learning about compassionate and loving arms…Cause love insists you cry and feel it!

    As I have been studying non- attachment and detachment philosophies… I have felt it unnatural… oneness yet seperate? I like the way rummuser states it.. that feels like a more natural process.
    Until I read a the book Autobigraphy of a Yogi, gained some insight and clarity…
    That helped me anyway especially to understand myself and reactions of certain people… He said he would get anry at students that felt no grief or loss at certain times and of course at death. His description of his grief when his mother died and his clear intuition on the event before it happened. It just resonates with me…And the other profound statement was God is Simple…. at least for me.
    This was definately a tear jerker for me…and I am wipind my eyes right now…

  13. bikehikebabe says:

    Diane’s comment about her father dying, reminded me. My father died when I was 30. He fell off a cliff getting a rare cone for a botanist & died a week later.

    Hurriedly I caught a plane after I found out. It hit me on the plane & I was crying. The guy sitting next to me said, “Your boyfriend left you?” “You found out you’re pregnant.” “You crashed your motorcycle?”

    Finally I was able to say, “My Daddy died.” He cheered me up with stories about riding his motorcycle in the woods.

  14. bikehikebabe says:

    P.S. Actually I was 33 when “Daddy” died. I had 4 kids. Lost your boyfriend? Pregnant? was starting to be funny.

  15. Jean,
    Such an important topic to talk about though of course most of us don’t talk about it. I think that the loss of loved ones is probably the most enduring stress that any of us face. My husband lost his son nearly 3 years ago and is still grieving. Thanks for visiting my blog and for your comments. Blessings

    Christine Sines last blog post..Becoming God’s Compasisonate Response in Times of Economic Crisis

  16. Diane says:

    Bikehikebabe,

    Wow, What a freak accident? Was he a interested in that field or just friends with a botanists? That is so sad.

    Four kids , me too! You’re funny!

  17. Jean says:

    Diane,
    Bless you for your touching comment. I’m glad you have loving friends, even at work. I’m retired now, but I did cry at work sometimes when I was mourning someone. It was not a loving environment like yours, but that was all right. There was no hostility and I was doing what I needed to do. That’s an important part of being authentic.

    I still remember my daughter mourning a favorite pair of shoes when she was little. She started crying quietly and my husband said, “Don’t be a cry baby!” Mostly he was her hero, but this time she said, “It’s all right to cry! Mother said so.” I still smile when I think of it. My time on this earth has not been wasted.

    bikehikebabe,
    Thank you for the heartwarming story.

    Christine,
    I love your blog and will be back. I agree, it’s important to talk about death. I think our culture is unhealthy when it essentially denies that it will happen. I’m sorry about your husband’s son.

  18. Maya says:

    Jean,

    “if I cut myself off from emotional pain I’m also cutting myself off from life’s deepest joys”

    I could not agree more.Being there for loved ones is one of the most powerful feelings I have experienced. What a perfect post for this blog!
    Here is my story – It is long and on my personal blog – http://www.nammamane.com/2008/02/14/getting-out/

    Mayas last blog post..What’s RIGHT with your life?

  19. bikehikebabe says:

    Answering Diane’s question:
    “Wow, What a freak accident? Was he interested in that field or just friends with a botanist?”

    Not friends. They were looking at forests that are donated to Nature Conservancy. People will their land so that after they die their woods will be preserved & not cut for development.

    Diane, if you want you may send your email address to Jean (she to me) & we can “talk”. Where we live; about our 4 kids… Jean, is this “legit” (acceptable)?

  20. Jean says:

    Maya,
    Thank you so much for sharing your touching story. I’ve just subscribed to your blog with Firefox’s Live Bookmarks.

    I tried seeing if I could find Taare Zameen Par, the DVD you recommended. I saw the trailer, but apparently Disney owns the US rights to it and hasn’t released it yet. I saved it to my Netflix queue, so presumably I will be able to see it in the fullness of time.

    bikehikebabe,
    I wrote to Diane and asked for her permission. Yes, this is not only legitimate, it’s encouraged. My blogs are about making this poor old world a slightly more loving and friendly place. Thank you for reaching out. :)

  21. Diane says:

    Bikehikebabe,
    I would love that!

    Jean, That would great!

    Thanks both of you…

  22. Thom says:

    Jean,

    Thank you so much for all the comments you left on my posts about stress. I appreciate your thoughts on capturing the sacred moments all the time instead of just on one day a week. As a follower of Christ I am supposed to do this, but many Christians, including myself, had been taught for so long to disconnect Sunday from the rest of the week that I often fail. It’s a work in progress.

    It’s nice to have a cordial inter-faith dialogue!

    Thoms last blog post..The Bible and Missional Listening

  23. rummuser says:

    I just visited your earlier post and offer you my compliments on a well written one. Yes, now I can see where you are leading.

    There is the other way of looking at the inner life – to empty it so that new ideas have space to come in! Somewhat like spring cleaning!

    rummusers last blog post..Old Is Gold.

  24. Diane says:

    Jean, rummuser, and all,

    I just love your comments!

    As I am a Christian… I was raised Catholic each time I have been greeted by so many not all but many… They have said this Oh no you need reforming.. My head would cock to the right or left with non- understanding…My insiide would say, Why would anyone want to reform my love of God, God is everywhere and in everything. And tolerance of others beliefs?
    Often I would not say much…depended on the person and everything else. Learning Yoga and its spiritual practices has only deepened my own faith…it is in the opening of ones heart wider…

    For me its about finding the bridges… to unite us all…Saints and Sages know this.. and teach this.. when we are ready we learn….

    And I definately agree with rummuser on being empty. Its like certain saints say be a beginner….with your personal meditation, contemplation, prayer! Its a practise to embrace every moment. In everything!!!!

  25. Jean says:

    Thom,
    Thank you. I enjoyed your posts and thought you had a great idea, going through the week on the same topic.

    rummuser,
    I like the idea of comparing emptying our lives to spring cleaning. I’m a great believer in the concept of beginner’s mind.

  26. Jean says:

    Diane,
    :) Thank you so much for sharing. I was raised a Catholic, but I was taken by the Hindu idea that all roads lead to God. I also love the idea of beginner’s mind. Our minds are so small compared to the universe it seems silly to assume our personal views of the world represent the truth, the whole truth.

  27. My father in law lived with Alzheimers for the last 5 years of his life. When he died his mind – and his body – was nothing like that we remembered him for. His devoted wife had taken the best care she could and he had had to go into a care home. She hated that but she was physically (and emotionally) unable to look after him herself. Only 3 weeks after Dad died Mum was caught in a house fire and died from the affects of that 4 days later. Our loss was immense. Our sadness at losing them both was indescribable. But through the 55 years of being together the did little apart so somehow it was fitting. I learned a great deal about celebrating life as well as mourning death from this…. and I treasure the time I still have with my own parents.

    Jackie Camerons last blog post..Some more on not reading your slides

  28. Jean says:

    Jackie,
    Thank you.

    I agree, that’s the great lesson…to appreciate people while they, and we, are still here. Our positive, can-do culture denies the idea of death. I think we’re cheating ourselves and our loved ones when we do that.

  29. Diane says:

    HI,

    I so agree with that … appreciation of people that are in our lives both close and in between. Strangers make my day quite often. That is a valuable lesson and to remember that. It can bring with it a renewed gratitude for life. In all that it is.

  30. Diane says:

    Hi all,

    In 2005 our family visited my husbands aunt as we usually do. She had been getting worse the last three years..hearing loss and not eating and multiple other things. It was so sweet she didn’t say a word but showed me the guest room like the first time I had been there. And she hugged me mant times…

    The other family members were quite stand offish… and I remember certain conversations on her not being present.
    And I wasn’t in total agreement with them but said nothing about it. She was the sweetest lady and I for one noticed that presence and even though she couldn’t say it with words her mannerism said it all. Don’t under estimate spirit even when other things are diminishing. That was the last time I saw her as she passed away about 7 months later. Don’t underestimate your connections in this life. And nurture the ones you have and new ones as well.

  31. Jean says:

    Diane,
    Amen to that. I agree with you about the power of nonverbal communication…your aunt could still convey her love. Bless her! And you, for sharing this and your other stories.

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