Monthly Archives: July 2018

Learning to Sit Vigil with the Dying

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her eyes watching over her dying daughter's face to illustrate sitting vigil with the dying.Always squeamish about facing death, after years of volunteering solely with the bereaved through Hospicare and Paliative Care Services, I finally attended the workshop for how to sit vigil with the dying. The main idea of sitting vigil is to listen, stay present, and direct your energy and compassion to the one who is dying. To practice this, toward the end of the training, the participants paired off for an exercise where we took turns playing each of two roles, the Thinker and the Listener. First my partner sat, thinking of something. I, the Listener, was to simply watch her and be with her. Silently. This, I imagined, would be the harder part. But it went smoothly as I observed attentively, breathing in sync with my partner for what seemed like forever, until the time was called and we switched roles.

I intended to fill my time as Thinker with memories of my daughter who died seven years ago. Marika having tantrums, rolling her eyes when she disagreed with me, laughing, her hoop earrings and iridescent eye makeup…. But shortly after I started thinking, something unexpected happened. Instead of remembering our sweet and sour interactions, I was transported back to our last two days together, when I sat vigil with her, watching for the tiniest twitch of her brows. Staring at her face to remember her features forevermore.

Suddenly something in the exercise went screwy. My partner seemed to be me. And I felt like I was my daughter. Looking up into brown eyes that waited patiently with me, I became Marika, lying still, waking occasionally from sedation to find my sad loving eyes fixed on her face. The rest of the world disappeared beyond the bubble that contained our two sets of eyes.

Over the past seven years, I’d never thought of those last days from Marika’s point of view. I’d never considered that my being there, caressing her with my eyes, might be a comfort to her. Before this, I couldn’t have imagined what a gift it was, for us both, to just be there together at the end.

How could I possibly try to illustrate this? I don’t know. But I do know, now, how I will sit with the family members, friends, or strangers I am privileged to be with in their final hours.

 

Have you ever sat vigil with a dying person? What gifts can we give to someone who is dying?

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Bereaved Mother at Wedding

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops an image of her daughter who died onto a screen of flowers to illustrate one of the emotional triggers encountered as a bereaved mother at a wedding.Extra tissues were stuffed into the small purse I’d made to match my dress. The dress sewn with my daughter’s image tucked into the folds so I could ‘take’ her to her friend’s wedding.

I’d set rules for how to conduct myself at this wedding: Be inconspicuous, don’t glom onto any one person, look for others who appear lost or alone. And, to anyone who might ask about the image of Marika on the dress, reply, “It’s too long a story to tell here. What’s YOUR connection to the bride or groom?”

There were some thorny things about weddings I’d failed to think of. Like, how memories would be triggered by rollicking flower girls spinning in shiny shoes and pink twirly dresses. The father-daughter dance. Like having people pop up from my past, from my time with Marika. Plus, I was stunned by how grown up and beautiful her friends had become over the past seven years.

My plan was to leave before the reception. But the ceremony was short and I soon found myself talking to old acquaintances, inching towards the drinks and cheese platters. Besides, it would be rude to go without greeting the mother of the bride who was off being photographed. When I finally caught up with the wedding party, they insisted I stay for dinner, and showed me the seat where my name was written on a handcrafted coaster. The seat next to the mother of the bride.

So, gathering up the skirts of my dress, I sat down for dinner across from the family’s closest friends who all seemed to know about me and my daughter. A woman came over, followed by her husband who told me they’d lost their son, and knew how I was feeling. That’s when I remembered I wasn’t the only one with a story. Weddings are bittersweet events for many. I made silent toasts to Marika and to the son of the kind parents, and then laughed and applauded with the crowd.

Occasionally, my eyes got watery. But I did not have to dig out the tissues.

When dinner was over, just before the cutting of the cake, before anyone could ask me (or not ask me) to dance, I slipped out. Away from the party, dashing down the driveway like Cinderella escaping the ball. But first I grabbed a piece of the bread-pudding cake to-go.

And at home, in the lightest rain, I danced with my dog in the driveway, spinning like a little girl in a twirly new dress.

 

What is it about weddings? That makes you cry? That makes you want to dance?

 

 

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Triggering Grief, Triggering Joy

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, Photoshops a scene from a morning hike off a country road that triggered happiness rather than grief.Smelling ripe peaches or hearing certain Christmas carols can trigger emotional meltdowns that leave you sobbing your eyes bloodshot. But what I didn’t realize before is that triggers like these can also bring memories that warm and comfort you. Sometimes, the thing that plays with your passions smacks you plainly in the gut. Other times, you find yourself shaking your head in disbelief at how the mind can mash your feelings.

Like last Saturday, when a mysterious euphoria set in after a morning hike through lush woods. What on earth could infuse my brain with shear bliss? Was it the wildflowers? The sun? We had new haircuts, the dog and I, and we climbed down a small hill at the end of the trail, and found a shady spot on the quiet country road. There was a pond nearby. Swallows soared overhead. And a cool breeze stroked my bare shoulders. Maybe it was the perfect temperature of the air. Or perhaps it was the sound of my dog lapping water from the cup I held, her whiskers brushing my hand as she gratefully gulped. Could it have simply been my anticipating Chinese leftovers for lunch? I don’t know what it was, but something felt right and vaguely familiar.

Catching up to the friend I’d hiked with, in giddy bewilderment I announced,” I think I feel – happy.”

 

What triggers your happiness? What triggers your grief?

 

 

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Lost Children

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene in the country of two unhappy children running away.Where in the media are all the scenes and stories of separated immigrant families reuniting? Where are the videos of children running joyfully into the arms of their parents? On TV and Facebook, I need to see tears of joy, arms reaching and clutching, border-crossing mothers ecstatically hugging sons and daughters.

We need more time, the government says. More time. As a bereaved mother, I know that more time without one’s child is tormenting. Time is not a friend when it accumulates mercilessly between the last time you held your loved one and the present, looming dimly into the future. I know how it is to yearn to be with your beloved child. I’ve lived with longing, spent days aimlessly wandering in despair, and cried myself to sleep too many nights over the loss of my child.

A child is lost if you don’t know where they are, or whether or not they’re safe. If you cannot be with your children to hold and comfort them, they are lost to you. If DNA tests are needed for your reunification, a child is surely lost.

The aching for a child who has been taken away is different but not unlike that of bereaved parents. For people who have had a child die, their worst nightmare has already taken place. They are not in the middle of agonized waiting, wondering if and when they might be reunited in their lifetime. Hope is different. And bereaved parents don’t have to consider the aftermath, the psychological effects of separation on children who died. But these immigrant parents, whose children were torn from them as they tried to secure better lives, are now facing a slew of their worst worries. Will their family survive? Intact? How and where? On top of an undocumented family’s uncertain future, there is added anguish in fears their child may be scared, hurt, confused and lonely. And knowing one’s child is also suffering the pains of separation, only adds to the grief.

There can be no beginning of relief or peace for these families until these children are returned. This has to be one of the cruelest forms of torture. I cannot relax until they are all reunited. And the media is gushing with videos of joyous reunions.

 

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Wedding-Guest Dress for a Bereaved Mother

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a picture of her daughter who died onto a floral design and then gets the photo printed onto fabric so whe can sew it up into a dress.Even though dead for seven years, there was no way my daughter would miss her friend’s wedding. So when my invitation arrived, I knew immediately that I would wear something of Marika’s to the event. I searched through closets and drawers for her black sequined shrug. It would be the perfect thing over my cocktail dress. Only, I couldn’t find the shrug. Anywhere. For two days I pulled apart the whole house, but it didn’t turn up. The only other clothes I still had of Marika’s were her soccer sweatshirts, winter scarves, and a tank-top. Totally inappropriate for a wedding.

I came up with the idea of photo-shopping an image of Marika as a young girl onto a flowery background, and then getting the picture printed on cloth so I could sew it up into a new dress. A Marika Dress. For days I sketched pictures, made a paper pattern, shopped for trimmings, and researched companies that would print photos on fabric. I immersed myself into the project with an energy and enthusiasm that had been absent in my life the past seven years.

“That’s totally inappropriate for a wedding,” a friend of mine said, when I told her my plans. Suddenly, I felt myself sinking into a dark abyss of grief and shame. I was wrong, weird. Out of place. I’d always been a little different, “You’re an artist so it’s okay that you’re kind of kooky,” someone told me long ago. Having my daughter die made me even more unlike most people. More self-conscious about who I was and how I fit in. Less likely to attend parties. I never wanted to call attention to myself or offend anyone. What I wear doesn’t really matter; just being a bereaved mother at an event like a wedding feels like standing naked in a crowd. Now, I was being inappropriate. And about to make people uncomfortable.

But working on the project had given me so much joy, I decided to make the dress anyway. I could wear it to The Compassionate FriendsRobin Botie of Ithaca, New York, has a photo printed on fabric and sews it into a dress. monthly meetings for bereaved parents, where they would understand my wanting to “take” my daughter to the wedding. For the ceremony I would put on the cocktail dress with Marika’s tank-top underneath.

Finishing the project, I scoured the house to find a satin sash to top it off. And during the search for the sash, I found Marika’s sequined shrug. It would be perfect over either dress. So now I have to decide. Or maybe I’ll leave that up to the bride and her mother.

 

Do you think the new Marika Dress would be inappropriate to wear to the wedding?

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