My dad died on December 2, 2011. I was with him as he passed from this world into the next. He struggled and fought hard. I held his hand and told him it was okay to go to Mom. I told him I forgave him for everything and I hoped he forgave me. I combed his hair because he was so very fussy about his beautiful hair; he wouldn’t have wanted to die with messy hair. When he died, his struggle ended; mine gave way to a different struggle, one I will need to walk through in order to heal.
The trauma of Dad’s accident affected him physically and in an elderly person with dementia (even the mild dementia Dad had at the time of his accident), trauma will upset the brain in ways that we cannot fathom. Dementia truly is a terminal disease and it does its deed very insidiously, inch by inch. Physical compromises are not easily seen because we all focus on the mental changes and how to work with those. Trauma ramps up those physical changes which in turn causes serious mental changes which in turn . . . . you get the picture. Trauma can be mental or physical and it might not even look like trauma to a younger person.
In my dad’s case, his trauma started when he lost his wife of 65 years and leaving his home of 20 years. The three months from the time my mom died until Dad’s accident were challenging but we were all adjusting and learning how to live together. We were “growing” into the situation and that is quite amazing for an 87 year old man with mild dementia. He could still learn new things even when he didn’t really want to. It takes a lot of patience and we were just at that point of figuring it out. At the time of his accident, he was settling into his new digs, laughing, eating well, and still enjoying golf three times a week. We’ll never know why he took off in his truck without telling us or where he was going. He did remember his accident and praying someone would find him (he probably laid outside his truck for several hours before anyone saw him in that ravine), but he had no idea why he was where he was.
My parents died 4 months 2 days apart. Mom died two weeks before their 65th wedding anniversary. I believe they were always meant to be together and things are as they should be. This doesn’t mean I don’t grieve. I miss my mother terribly, and I have a lot of challenging thoughts concerning my dad and his hospitalization to process and release. During those first three weeks of his hospitalization, he bit me, slapped me, balled his fists up to punch me several times, threw a filthy bedpan at me, screamed at me constantly, and flipped me off and other assorted hand waves. Even the things he’d say to me in a calm voice were ugly. I’d run home from the hospital and cry, have my own tantrum, or beg my husband to take me to a restaurant where people were laughing and having a good time. I needed to be where there was positive joyful energy!
During Dad’s last week, he had calmed down except for a few hours in the late afternoon when he’d be sick of laying in bed and being restrained (and who could blame that!). This is when his body began to shut down bit by bit. The trauma of being his object of rage changed to being the decision-maker for him and every day was filled with it. In December 1982, I made the decision to terminate life support for my 5 day old baby son. The week before Dad died, I was once again discussing end-of-life options with doctors—and during the holidays. It seemed an impossible choice for my own child, and yet, it was more challenging with my dad. He wasn’t on a respirator, there were no machines breathing for him and he wasn’t brain dead as my son was. Dad was still very much alive and talking to us (and to many people we couldn’t see!). There was no clear cut choice so each little medical decision was discussed with me and I would constantly ask myself what Dad would want. I found his medical directive and that helped a great deal as it took the much of the onus off me; I wasn’t truly making the decisions but speaking for Dad based on his wishes. And yet, not everything was totally written down in that directive so there was a lot of guesswork and assumptions. I hope I assumed correctly Dad . . .
It’s now been 8 months since Mom died and 4 months since Dad died. I am stuck in family trust executor hell. There is so much to do to settle Dad’s bills and legal issues, sell his house in a lousy real estate market, and sort out the extra furniture and “stuff” we acquired when we moved him in with us. Trying to manage his trust has been a comedy of errors, and the way things have worked out, I cannot legally fulfill my parents’ final wishes. This pains me greatly.
Some days I feel those angry thoughts grabbing hold of me and shaking the sense out of my brain. I’m learning to notice this pattern and go with it, rather than against it, remembering to breathe life into my hurting heart and overwhelmed brain. My husband hasn’t had a commission in 20 months. My business has been neglected since Mom died and it shows terribly in my monthly income. My business server went on the fritz yesterday and I will need to spend an entire weekend with an OS reload and reconfiguring my sites. We are on some seriously shaky financial ground. We have health issues, stress issues, and our poor house is falling down around our ears. We’re feeling assaulted on all sides except one . . . we’ve grown closer through this and closer with our sons. It’s a blessing we’ve accepted with full grace because something positive MUST come out of this chaos.
Last week, someone who heard my story of loss for the first time (5 babies, both siblings, both parents 4 months apart) asked me how it is that I’m still standing. This question always surprises me because I don’t think I have a special trick for it. My answer is simply because I CHOOSE to be. It’s a conscious choice every.single.day. I didn’t have a choice in losing those 9 significant people in my life but I have a choice in how I live the rest of my life. I can choose to wallow in self pity or I can choose to remember them with love and joy and incorporate their memories into my life in a loving joyful way. When the difficult feelings consume me as I deal with the family trust mess, I try to remember that my attitude about it can make it easier or harder. I can chronically live in flight or fight mode through this or I can remember to breathe, do what needs to be done, be thankful for my blessings, and keep in mind that this isn’t forever. The choice is mine.