Getting Hit With the Reality of Loss

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an old image of her mother who died. Hit with the reality of the loss of her mother, she is learning to adapt to a new reality.After someone you love dies, your brain doesn’t always completely register that your beloved is no longer here. Like when my daughter died eight years ago, it wasn’t until weeks later, when I sold her car, that I understood for sure she wasn’t coming home. Fairly composed up to that point, when I handed over the car keys, a massive tidal bore broke loose from deep within me.

Getting hit with the reality of loss, just when you think you’re in control of your emotions or beyond mourning, can knock you upside down. A totally unpredictable, ridiculous little event has the power to erupt into a pivotal moment when you realize what you lost and that something big in your life is changing as a result.

After my mother died in January, I wondered for months, Where’s my grief? Then, last week I was stuck in the bathroom doing a pre-colonoscopy prep — you know, the dreaded procedure where you flush your insides out with gallons of clear liquids and laxatives, and then sit on the toilet and wait. Filled to the gills, I sat there alone, bored, picking away at my cuticles, trying not to think about the next day’s procedure. It was a time I would have phoned my mother. And she’d have told me, “Go drink a glass of white wine, it’s a clear liquid.” But I remembered my mother was no longer just a phone call away. That’s when the reality of her dying hit me. Hard. And even though towards the end of her life she was too deaf to hear me over the phone to reply with encouraging words, it would have been enough to simply hear my mom ramble on about what she ate for dinner, how she was doing the best she could, and that nothing else was new.

When I stopped sobbing, I phoned sisters and friends. I phoned the Halco Heating Company to say I was appreciating the new heat pump in the bathroom. I called the gastrointestinal nurse for the umpteenth time, “Nothing’s coming out yet” — anyone — just to have some company during my lonely mission. Until I thought I could hear my mother growling at me, “Shit already, or get off the pot.” And that kinda worked the magic.

 

What was a moment in your life when reality whacked you over the head? What was the moment the loss of a loved one really hit you?

 

 

Continuing a Relationship After Death

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops photos of her daughter to illustrate continuing bonds grief theory.“Become all the things you love about the one you lost.” This was a post that appeared on Facebook recently. Shortly after finding it, I discovered that one of my favorite authors, Alexandra Fuller, wrote a new memoir, Travel Light, Move Fast, that suggests the same idea. Due out in August, its description begins:

After her father’s sudden death, Alexandra Fuller realizes that if she is going to weather this loss, she will need to become the parts of him she misses most.

You may be wondering, how does one ‘become the parts of’ someone else? This is something I’ve been practicing ever since my daughter Marika died eight years ago. Broken and miserable, first I wanted to die too. But I got distracted from that as I searched through all Marika’s belongings to learn everything I could about her. Then I made desperate efforts to honor, imitate, follow, dress like and eat like my daughter. She sang, so I sang. She wrote, so I began writing. She was courageous so I tried to be less fearful. She loved photography, so … Allowing my daughter to inspire me, I simply did what she did and learned to love what she loved, until I could barely remember my life as it was before.

Holding on to Marika and continuing a relationship after death was the only way I could survive. It has turned me into a better person. A happier person. Having incorporated different parts of her life into my own life, I carry her with me as I continue to participate in the world. This is one approach to the Continuing Bonds grief theory that is based on redefining or creating a new relationship with a deceased loved one rather than detaching oneself and moving on from the loss.

Sometimes I think of myself as the mother who swallowed her daughter , and then really became alive herself. I am here now because of Marika. When I found who she had been, I discovered who I could be.

 

Who would you die for? Who would you live for? Who would you change your entire self for, to keep alive and present in your life?

Talking About Death

Talking About Death Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a drawing found in her daughter Marika Warden's room. She pictures death with the face of her daughter so it isn't so scary and unapproachable.During our almost-three-year journey through the Wilds of Cancer, my daughter Marika and I never spoke about death or dying. To do so would have been to abandon all hope of ever being free of cancer. It’s like we made some sort of pact to pretend that everything would turn out all right. Our discussions focused only on coordinating the here-and-now. This way, we could stride always forward from setbacks and disappointing news.

So towards the end, as the palliative care team took over, hinting about unplugging the life support system, I made them whisper and would not mention aloud that Marika was not going to live. At that point, I was too crushed by the thought of losing her. I couldn’t utter the D-words. Death. Dying. Dead. They pulsed in my head as I tried to convince myself of the terrible new reality. Marika, mostly unconscious by then, only heard encouragement from me as she lay there, “You’re doing fine, keep it up.” I’m pretty sure she already knew she would not survive. Holding back the truth has haunted me ever since.

Eight years later, a good friend of mine is in the end stages of her cancer. In the strange circumstances of life, I have been granted an opportunity, a second chance, to do a better job of supporting a loved one through the process of dying. I’m still wondering why it is so difficult to talk about the tough stuff with the ones we care about. All the very difficult, very human things one needs to address at the end of a loved one’s life — like apologizing, forgiving, thanking, acknowledging love and appreciation, and saying goodbye — are easy to ignore.

Then came the day my friend announced she was stopping treatment and starting hospice care. It was time to step up beyond my comfort zone, to acknowledge her dying.

Now Death is turning into a third friend in our company. In my mind I picture Death as having the face of my daughter, so it isn’t as scary and unapproachable as it used to be. Most days she (Death) sits peacefully between me and my friend. Sometimes she hugs us close. Other times, like when I’m being less than thoughtful, she (Death) blatantly slams our heads together. I’m getting used to Death’s gaze waxing and waning with my friend’s energy.
“What will happen when you die?” I ask my friend, “I’m going to miss you. You know?”

 

How can we make death and dying easier to talk about with our loved ones?

 

 

I Want to Live

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops her old heating system as she puts in new heat pumps and hopes to live to be 100.At some point it becomes apparent that no one is going to be able to fix you, fix what’s wrong with you. Nothing lasts forever, my father used to say. Including health and youth. And life.

I always said I wanted to live to be a hundred. Why wouldn’t anyone want to last a whole century, I used to wonder? That was before I started noticing friends and family coping with chronic pain. It was before losing a daughter to cancer. Before I knew about Alzheimer’s and dementia. Before a friend was reported to have howled in the emergency room, “Kill me now.” This was before my own body began deteriorating with age.

I love living. When it comes right down to it, I would sooner give up my independence, my house, my limbs, my eyesight, wine and magnificent food, … before giving up my life. Even though my daughter died. Even though I often feel unnecessary and unneeded. Even though I feel depressed just thinking of the day I’m told I am beyond fixing, I want to live.

This line of thought consumed me weeks ago as the twenty-year-old heating system in my house started to die. Nothing’s wrong with the boiler, my plumber had said. But meanwhile, the loud grinding noises and stinking were keeping me awake at night. And it was expensive to run. That couldn’t be fixed. So I shut it off and began the process of gutting the closet that contained the mess of old pipes and outdated parts. It made me think of outliving my own parts and becoming a useless, non-functioning nuisance. It brought up some of my greatest fears around dying: disappearing, losing myself, not mattering, and then being erased completely like I never existed. I killed the plumbing system anyway.

I could look at strawberry shortcake or anything and relate it to dying. But I stood mesmerized, elated, watching the shiny state-of-the-art heat-pump units being installed up and down the house, and forgot the old familiar plumbing system that was being removed. And now I’m calculating the lifespan of this new equipment, considering how long it will keep me warm, how many more decades I can keep this house, how many years I can keep living — until the time when I, too, can no longer be fixed.

 

Would you want to live to be one hundred? What do you fear about aging out and dying?

Welcome to Cancer

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, in homage to Cindy Sherman, and inspired by a friend newly diagnosed with cancer, photoshops cancer as a cranky old aunt.Dear J.,

For days, in response to your request for cheerful cards, I’ve been wondering what I could possibly say to “cheer you up” as you embark on your affair with cancer. I call what happens after a diagnosis an ‘affair,’ even though most people call it a ‘journey,’ one’s ‘cancer journey.’ People typically fall or jump into an affair, while journeys are usually anticipated and planned for. Instead, you got swiftly swept away into strange territory. An unusual and engaging and possibly hazardous experience—that is an affair or possibly an adventure. I’m wishing you luck.

From my own past experience as a caregiver, I compare cancer to having a controlling, cantankerous old aunt move into the house. She disrupts all your routines and plans, demanding your attention constantly. She bullies you. Every time you wake she whacks you. Cancer. It’s a shaking-up, a re-thinking of everything you thought you knew and could depend on. It’s a whole new relationship. It is not a fight. The worst of it — the recovering from surgeries, reactions to treatments, and the times you just want to be knocked unconscious — I call the Wilds of Cancer. That’s when the old aunt goes on a rampage, callously gutting you of kidneys and lungs, tearing your world apart. She whips you. She invades your dreams and re-colors every waking moment. She keeps you humble, keeps you ever on the lookout for a respite, and then gets you dreading her return. But she does quiet down here and there, and that is when you can hear your own breath again, feel your heart still beating. That is when you find your whole world is amazingly rich. Even robbed of your energy and well-being, life appears to be beautiful.

I hope you find ways to make peace with cancer. Don’t take her aggressive advances too personally. So many people are living with cancer. Maybe the “cheering up” is in knowing you are not alone. And in learning you can do this — you can do a slow-dance with cancer. Each new morning is a gift. And she may just loosen her grip and ditch you one day, leaving you wiser and more grateful and more respectful of everything in the universe.

I hereby add my best cheer and encouragement to your community of support.

 

What do you say to a newly diagnosed cancer patient? What can you do to ‘cheer’ them up?

 

Hugging. Learning How to Hug

Robin Botie, of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an old photo of a mother and baby daughter hugging.I’m still learning how to hug. Growing up in my family, except for the occasional outright throwing of ourselves at our rigid parents, hugs didn’t happen for us kids. We didn’t see our parents hug or kiss each other. As a child, I remember occasionally scrubbing red lipstick kisses from my cheeks. My mother sent me off to college with a quick dry peck on the forehead. But I cannot remember being hugged.

For decades I avoided hugs. They were uncomfortably close encounters that mostly made me cringe and feel ravaged for a torturously long time.

My sisters and I only began to hug each other once we became adults and left home. Maybe they, also, learned that hugs could take the place of words when there were no words. Like when my daughter died and my world stopped. Everyone hugged me. Those hugs may have been what brought me back to life.

Hugging is good for you. It says so all over the internet: Hugs reduce pain and stress, improve communication, and make you happier and healthier in general. So giving and receiving hugs has become one of my ongoing projects. I’ve worked hard to figure this hugging-thing out. Three of my most memorable hugs over time:

Decades ago, reuniting with an old friend, we hugged and our earrings got hooked together, prolonging the hug so that we were stuck together until someone could help unlock our ears.

Hugging my babies. Tightly, as I danced them around the house, reeling and swerving wildly to music. As they became toddlers they yanked away, to be free of my hold. That pretty much ended the hugging of them.

And finally, after the life-support had been removed from my almost-21-year-old daughter and she was declared dead, and everyone dispersed, I tried to gather what was left of her into my arms and hold on. But it was like hugging a toddler. She was already free from my holding.

Have you ever tried to hug a dead person? It takes at least two conscious beings to really hug. It has taken countless hugs to get to the point where I understand what it means to hold another. And last week, for the first time that I’m aware of, I flew, in joy, to hug a friend without even thinking of how to hug.

 

Now that I’m getting the hang of it, I wonder, is there any sort of etiquette for hugging?