Looking for the next stage of grief

Betsy PickleOpinion, South Knox

My mother and I were “roommates” for 11 years. She called me on Nov. 1, 2010, and said, “It’s cold in my house. Can I come stay with you?”

I said, “Of course,” and we both thought it would be a temporary thing while we explored options to improve the heating situation in her 51-year-old house (with no central heat or air) in East Knoxville.

But being cut from the same clueless cloth, we never got around to comparing heating options, and Mom simply stayed. She ended up selling her home and moving in with me in South Knoxville.

I’d lived alone in my house for 19 years, but I never saw taking Mom in as an intrusion. Well, maybe sometimes. She wasn’t thrilled when I would go out late to see a movie or hear a band at a club, and she would let me know when I got home that she “hadn’t slept a wink” because she was worried about me.

The tables eventually turned as she grew older and I became concerned about her driving, and I couldn’t relax until she got home, even in daylight. As it turned out, she was happy for me to become her chauffeur – up until the last time she left the house, on Sept. 30.

This is the third time I’ve written about her since her death on Nov. 21, and I appreciate you readers hanging in there with me. Writers are told to “write what you know,” and I’ve had time for little else in my life lately. Besides, I’m doing my best to deal with those stages of grief they talk about, but I’m not sure I’ve figured them out.

My mother, Mary Eleanor Pickle, started exhibiting serious signs of dementia in April this year, though she’d had plenty of “senior moments” previously. My grief over losing her came the day she no longer knew who I was. I never saw that coming, even though I’d experienced it with my father nearly 20 years earlier.

So even though I had quite a bit of time left with Mom, our relationship wasn’t the same. She became my responsibility instead of my roommate.

I was lucky that one thing she never lost was her sense of humor. When I joined Facebook way back when, I would constantly amuse my FB friends with Mom quotes. Then she got on Facebook, and I had to quit that.

Even with dementia, she would still laugh and make me laugh. One day she told me she was waiting for her father (long deceased) to come pick her up, and her mother (in the grave since 1987) would be with him. I said, “What about your brother, Jim?” She replied, “Don’t be silly; he’s dead.”

I had to turn away so she couldn’t see that I was cracking up with laughter.

The five stages of grief Elisabeth Kubler-Ross observed aren’t set in stone; sometimes there are fewer, and sometimes there are more. I’ve never had an iota of denial. Mom told me that death wasn’t scary to her because she grew up surrounded by older relatives and went to all their funerals. She outlived her husband and nearly all of her friends. She was a Christian and was ready to go when God called her.

I assumed she would die before I did, and once she was ensconced in dementia, I never expected a miracle could turn the clock back and make her brain function properly again. So no, denial was not a stage for me.

Anger and bargaining weren’t in the picture, either. How can you be angry that a person lives “only” to 96? What kind of bargain do you want to make with God to get a few more weeks or months for someone who’s unable to connect with the world around her? My best friend died of cancer at 57. That made me angry. That put me through denial. That caused me to try bargaining. But Mom had a good run.

Depression and acceptance are the last two stages originally described by Kubler-Ross. I know depression; I am not depressed about my mother dying. Acceptance came to me immediately. I knew death was the natural path.

So, how am I grieving? Am I grieving? I’m sad she’s not with me anymore, and I miss her company, but again, that started months ago. Driving around and seeing Christmas lights and decorations on houses is bittersweet because Mom and I liked taking those drives, but I don’t think she minds not being here for them this year. I get a little wistful at the grocery store when I see products I used to buy for her, but I know that that will fade with time.

Mostly, I feel unfocused. Our lives have been entwined so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to live on my own. My relationship with my mom is the closest and lengthiest that I’ve had.

Immediately and for many days after she died, I had lots to do – planning, organizing, reporting, writing, calling people. Now that has eased, and I’m confused. I was a caregiver, and something always needed doing. Now I have time, and I don’t know what to do with it.

It’s hard to make decisions. I can’t decide what to eat, or when. My oldest brother suggested that he come help me sort and dispose of Mom’s clothes. I nodded agreement, but then he backed off. He realized I wasn’t ready.

I still have thank-yous to write and loose ends to tie. Many friends have said they want to take me to lunch or dinner. If they all came through, I would have to insist that they take me for a walk instead.

Thanksgiving was fine, and I don’t anticipate breaking down at Christmas. I appreciate all the calls and cards, all the texts and Facebook comments. I am blessed with wonderful friends and family. My loss is outweighed by my blessings.

If you catch me crying, it’s due to love, not grief. I’m sorry it can’t be like that for everyone.

Betsy Pickle is a veteran reporter and editor who occasionally likes to share her opinions with KnoxTNToday readers.

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