A personal update: two years after my mother’s death

It is two years since my mother’s death; I guess it is time for a personal update.

When, for years, I was immersed in caregiving, I’d not considered what would happen after my mother’s death–on how I would feel, and how I would adjust to the loss and my changed role and situation. I hadn’t expected the process to be so slow and fraught with confusion. Over these last two years, I have gone through various phases of emotional upheaval and readjustment. The process of adjustment continues.

Two years later, my mother is still a presence in my mind every day. Even if I am not actively thinking of her, I have a faint, dull awareness of her, a sort of feeling something’s missing in my life, a feeling that has taken me time to get used to, but which I accept.

I end up thinking more specifically about her quite often, too. I remember things she did for me, or arguments we had, or things we shared, and it has an air of reminiscence, gentle, sometimes amusing or heart-warming, sometimes mildly sad. These memories are reasonably matter-of-fact, and while not always easy, they seem a part of my past and my personality like many other things.

But sometimes I get yanked into memories that plunge me into a sharp sense of loss. It’s like a sore spot touched suddenly, a spot a splinter lies buried under, unknown to me. The emotion leaves me gasping, exhausted. It takes an effort to emerge from, spanning for several minutes, even hours, and often, though I know the feeling will subside, I still have to ride the wave and cannot rush the pace at which it subsides. These emotional plunges, though declining in intensity and duration, occur often enough for me to dread them.

I am aware now of the sort of events that trigger these disorienting episodes.

Meeting my mother’s peer group, for example, still reminds me of my loss and of the loss she suffered because of her dementia. Sure, life deals out different fates to different people, everyone has problems and setbacks, and even if she hadn’t got dementia, other problems would have happened. Yet I need several deep breaths to compose myself again.

The major trigger for such plunges is related to my continued work for dementia caregivers.

A significant part of my work involves maintaining my online resources for dementia caregivers in India (I have websites/ videos at Dementia Care Notes , Dementia Hindi, youtube videos on dementia and caregiving, and caregiving-related personal interviews). For this work, I keep myself up-to-date with recent discussions and studies on dementia care and also stay on the lookout for India-specific services and facilities. Many caregivers and other concerned persons contact me through my sites or this blog, and I try to share my experiences and ideas with them. During all this work, I am actively thinking of dementia and how it impacts the person and families, and naturally, this is emotionally and mentally tied with my experiences as both caregiver and volunteer.

For most part, while doing such volunteer work, I have sufficient insight and distance to productively use what I have experienced and studied. But sometimes a sentence/ factoid I read or an incident someone relates connects me a hurtful memory or emotion inside me and disturbs me with an unexpected intensity. Some days ago, I was talking to another caregiver alumnus who tries to help other caregivers and spread awareness by sharing personal caregiving anecdotes, and she told me that she experiences similar plunges and pain.

Here’s the thing: caregiver conversations are needed. It is only by openly talking about such things that we can spread awareness and improve the situation for persons with dementia and their carers. For the large part, at least in India, dementia is untalked about and invisible, and caregiver stories remain unspoken and unheard. Dementia awareness remains poor, misinformation remains rampant, and support systems remain non-existent. The number of people who need help is growing faster than sporadic attempts to add support services. This overall status saddens me on some days, and frustrates and angers me on others. It makes me want to withdraw on some days, while on other days, it energizes me to do what I can. I know that sharing my caregiving experiences can be helpful to others — my mother’s death does not mean that my caregiver experiences have become irrelevant — and I wish I were not hampered by hurtful memories.

I continue to search for the optimal level of involvement in dementia care, hoping to find a level where I am effective and productive, and also safe from burnout or depression. It would definitely be easier to do what I want to do if my mother’s memories were by-and-large peaceful, benignly swinging between my experiencing a gentle nostalgia and sensing her supportive and affectionate presence. It seems, though, that time heals rather slowly, and part of the delay is because I continue work in this domain (thus extending and reinforcing my identification with a caregiver identity and related experiences and memories).

When I was a caregiver, my work was determined by factors beyond my control and I knew an end would come. But in volunteer work, I have to set the pace and take the decisions.

Regarding other fronts: I continue to extend myself, experiment, and redefine my understanding of what I want to do with respect to non-dementia-related areas. This adds to some variety and enrichment (and fatigue 🙂 ) I have already realized that travel and sightseeing are pleasurable to me only in small doses. For most part, I prefer simple long walks or curling up with my Kindle. I have resumed professional writing but not yet attempted any ambitious creative writing that requires a larger mental canvas; this will have to wait till I become better at juggling time.

I’ve shared on this blog that I find it difficult to resume a social life, given that I am, anyway, an introvert. In the past few months, I’ve attempted some degree of socializing. I’ve peeped out of my shell and started saying hello, and risking mistakes on this front.

I could say I’m progressing one smile at a time 🙂

And I have been learning some new topics.

I’ve always been a curious person. For the last several months, I’ve been enrolling in free online courses (MOOCs) on a diverse range of topics. I felt like this kid let loose in a candy store, and I sort of overdid it, completing around 20 courses in nine months, and peeking in and attending parts of many more. I enjoyed the concentration and rigor some of the courses required, but yeah, the courses do require time and energy and I am whittling down the courses to a less obsessed level.

So yes, this is where I am two years down the line after my mother passed on: taking moderate steps of venturing out into the unknown, trying to find a sane place between integrating and drawing upon memories of my mother while not getting sucked into them. Looking for peace. Looking for balance. Still figuring out how to pace my dementia care support work so that I can sustain it without draining myself. I suspect this is not too different in essence from folks around me, because everyone has to do some such balancing act, for whatever situations and challenges life throws to them.

And BTW, I have not been posting as regularly to this blog as I used to earlier; this blog already has over 200 entries, and while I have many ideas for new blog entries, actual writing may be sporadic as I balance other work/ commitments, including ongoing dementia care work. You can always contact me if you want.

My online dementia resources (in addition to this blog)

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Personal update: A year after my mother’s death

My mother died one year ago; it’s time for me to post a consolidated personal update. Here goes…

I’ve written a lot about my mother in the past. I’ve shared memories of her as a person (including my childhood with her). And I have, over multiple posts, shared episodes of her dementia journey in this blog. I don’t really have much to add to that right now, and I’ll use this entry to share, instead, my experiences of this last year as I have tried to adjust after her passing away.

My mother’s death was a major shift for me not just emotionally but also because I no longer had to coordinate her care. A year ago, most of my life centered was centering around my mother’s care and also my efforts to help other caregivers. This was my main form of self-identity. Of course I was doing other things, too — I had other work and responsibilities, I read books (gobbled them may be a better way to express the truth), I took long walks, I did jigsaws, I saw an occasional movie DVD. But my self-identity was closely knitted around my mother’s care, and this part of my role/ identity collapsed overnight.

One immediate consequence of my mother’s death was disorientation. I’d become used to a constant state of alertness about her, expecting any crisis to happen at any time. I always carried my mobile, even for a five minute trip to a shop. That I no longer needed to remain alert was very odd. I would feel vaguely guilty that I no longer needed to keep her in my mind all the time. I even have intense anxiety episodes  sometimes–for example, waking up with a horrible feeling that something’s wrong or about to go wrong, and that it is related to my mother. Even after remembering that she is dead, and telling myself that, the anxiety takes a while to subside. I’m relieved to share that this disorientation and anxiety has kept reducing over time, both in intensity and frequency.

Then there have been these memories of my mother. While she was alive, I was anchored to her current reality and did not have the time, energy, or need to recall past memories related to her. Her death removed that anchor to the present. I found myself rudderless in terms of a context to think about her. Memories from childhood and my youth all rushed at me with equal weight and validity. I found this distressing and disorienting. Good and happy memories made me nostalgic and I felt a great sense of loss. Bad memories (my mother was not a perfect and neither was I, so we had our share of clashes) brought back restlessness and regret about issues/ grievances we never smoothened out. Both types of memories, good and bad, were disorienting and left me anxious.

In the past year, I have also met many persons who knew my mother, and their recollections of my mother has affected me. Some were her peers, and are active and fit; chatting with them made me acutely aware of how my mother could have been without her dementia, reinforcing my sense of loss.

I’ve been trying to work my way out of these experiences, and also been examining how to carve out my future.

I had not planned for my life after my mother’s death, because any such plans/ dreams could have distracted me from my role and caused me to resent my caregiving work and responsibility. I had a few vague ideas on things I’d like to try, but nothing clear, tangible, prioritized.  So yes, I now have some clear spaces in my life, but I have not experienced any paradigm shift. I’ve realized: Removal of some activities and responsibilities from the day does not automatically confer the mindset and energy to use the cleared up spaces. How does one do what one wants, if one is not clear of what one wants?

A major problem I am facing is lack of energy. All my life (except for a period when I was quite ill), I’ve had abundant energy. It was not always positive energy, sometimes it was excessively negative, but energy as such was never in short supply. This last one year I’ve been so low in energy that I sometimes fear I’ll never recover my drive and energy and that I’ve changed in an irreversible way. Even outings and vacations are tiring. I go for an outing and return without feeling refreshed, almost like I’ve been working hard at “Project Enjoyment” and I now need a vacation to recover 🙂

I’d like to add that every caregiver is different, the situation around the caregiving is different. Grief and loss and the process of healing, recovery and rehabilitation vary from person to person, but there are commonalities, too. I’ve been fortunate inasmuch as I’m in touch with other caregivers who are coping with bereavement and know that my experiences are not exceptional in either range or degree. Many caregivers, after months or years of their loss, continue to feel anxiety or disorientation and remain uncertain about what to do next. The impact is highest for persons whose lives were woven around caregiving and who saw the severe deterioration at very close quarters. Even within the same family, others who were not as involved or as close to the person who died have different recovery pace/ paths. I’ve known caregivers who were so numb at the death that it took them over a month to be able to cry. Books on bereavement and grieving (yes, I read some) also often say this process could take years.

The problem is, we see only the outside part of others, and so if we are feeling confused, disoriented, or anxious or irritable, we may feel we are the only persons with this dark, small, vulnerable inside. We think everyone else handles loss much better, and that we are being inadequate and negative and are disappointing people around us.

From what I see around me, it seems that society expects people to be reasonably active and positive within a few weeks, or maybe a month or so of the death. After that socially accepted grace period, people start saying things like, “when will you move on,” and “she’s at peace, why can’t you move on,” and “come on, be positive, you are free now,” and “snap out of it now, for heaven’s sake” and “when will you get normal” and things like that. Perhaps these statements reflect a general discomfort that people have while interacting with a person who is feeling “low.” Because they don’t know what to say or do, they are tempted to dismiss feelings and they say things that would stop persons from expressing their grief. Or they avoid the person till enough time has passed and they need not mention the bereavement.

Any trauma needs time to recover from. I suspect that anyone (not just caregivers) who has undergone something traumatic/ been bereaved gets sympathy only for a limited time window. People around them “cut them slack” for just a few days or weeks. I suspect that this socially normal duration is far shorter than what the person may need. And the grace period assumed is probably even shorter if the person who died was very ill and fully dependent, persons about whom neighbors, relatives and friends feel justified in saying that the person “is better off dead” and “death must be such a relief.”

Anyway, in terms of future directions…

For the past three months, I have been organizing and consolidating the resources I have created for dementia caregivers. Based on past emails from caregivers and my notes on phone interactions, I have modified and enhanced my existing resources. For example, sometimes persons sent in queries for which answers are already available on my site, so I added more questions in my FAQ and modified pages to make related links obvious, or added some more information. I have checked my to-do lists and wish-lists, completed most items and added the remaining to a new wish-list. I’ve also put in behind-the-scenes technical work to streamline my maintenance effort later. It’s been slow and tiring work.Sometimes I feel that this cleaning up and consolidation effort is the right way to organize myself and free mental resources; at other times, I fear that I am using this consolidation as a rational, legitimate-sounding way of procrastinating 🙂

As of now, I expect that I will continue to provide support to dementia caregivers in India through creation and maintenance of online resources, but I’m still in a flux about what else I want to do and how I’ll combine all the things I want to try out.

I’ve always been a curious person, and I enjoy learning new things. But time is always a constraint, and my current low energy poses a problem. On some days I feel excited about what I want to try, then I feel overwhelmed about how can I ever fit it all into a day or even decide what to start with, and finally I reach the other end of the pendulum swing where I tell myself that I don’t need to do any of this, why bother! On the plus side, I have tried some new things, found that I may like some, and that I don’t like others. Vacations and sightseeing, for example, don’t interest me much; I have found I don’t enjoy the malls in other cities any more than malls in my city, and I’m not into history or religion or eating different cuisines from local hotspots. But I love walks of all sorts. I have plans to try some types of craft.

Overall, I’m not unhappy with my recovery pace, but it has been more difficult and long-drawn than I’d hoped it would be. I continue to be gentle with myself, though, and hope things will keep evolving. And my future activities are still nebulous, but not as nebulous as they were earlier.

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Seven months after mother’s death: updates and musings

It is seven months since my mother died, and I sometimes get queries on how I am doing, so I’m sharing an update.

My mother’s death meant I lost the person my life had been revolving around for the last several years. My sense of identity changed. My role, responsibility and activities needed a rethink. Given the sweeping change caused by her death, I think I’m handling my situation well enough.

I am living a reasonably active and productive life. While I have not firmly decided the way I will divide my time and energy across current and new activities, I am clearer now than I was some months ago. Redefining my life activities and directions will take more time, but that’s okay; I prefer to proceed cautiously and experiment with small changes, see what works, what doesn’t, and tweak things rather than do something dramatic and then have regrets.

I continue to face challenges on the emotional front, where my readjustment is slower. I continue to ponder over my new identity, my desires and my possible prioritizations. And, I also try to understand what “moving on” means. I tell myself that while a situation may change abruptly, the related habits and personal characteristics take time to change, and that well-set patterns have an implicit inertia.

My years of caregiving changed me in many ways. I am different in what I like to do, what I find important, what I am curious about or concerned about, what I feel about issues and incidents, what I want to buy or see, and so on. Some of my earlier friends now have life direction, interests, and priorities that are very different from mine, and there may not be enough commonalities to resume friendship. Our paths have diverged, and I am not much in touch with them. I am trying to make new friends, but my somewhat introvert nature makes that tough.

Seeing my mother’s decline and staying emotionally close and connected through the process, is helpful in the process of closure, but even now, not a day passes when I don’t think of her or miss her in a gentle way. And there is a sense of loss I experience when I see how she spent her last several years alongside how her peer group is faring.

In the past few months after her death, I have met my mother’s friends and peers, many of them after several years. They ask me about her last few years, or start telling me stories from their shared past. And they bring back memories of a mother who was younger and more active. As I talk to these friends of my mother, I notice how, though they are my mother’s contemporaries, they are physically active and cognitively sharp. I become acutely aware of what my mother could have been like without her dementia, and how different our interactions would have been. It hurts.

It will take time to find my new equilibrium of friends and interests and to find my peace with the overall loss. I also know this will need effort on my part, and this is what people call “moving on.”

But what is “moving on?”

I sometimes have people advising me that I should not think of the past and “move on” and forget what happened because now I am “free.”

I find that approach strange and unacceptable. It assumes that my life was a black hole when I was a caregiver, and that is not true. My years as a caregiver are an integral part of my life. They had their ups and downs, like any other phase of life has. The years involved work, responsibility, and tension. They also gave me the fulfillment of staying emotionally connected to my mother, they taught me many things about life, identity, joy. They changed my perspective about what matters and what does not, what dignity is, what connection is, and so on.

As far as I understand, “moving on” is something that happens all the time, for everyone. I think any “moving on” can be robust and wholesome only if it involves resolution and peace and consolidation of lessons learned. It cannot be achieved by amnesia or denial or pushing the past under the carpet.

Anyway, I have started consolidating my dementia care thoughts and my experience sharing, hoping that sharing and structuring will help me neaten my mind and perhaps help others. As part of this, here’s one e-interview (A Caregiver’s Role) and below is a video where I share my late stage dementia care experience. (You can also view it directly on youtube here.)

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A sense of loss

Losing a memory is horrible; it is as if a part of oneself is lost, because ultimately, our sense of identity is an integration of all the memories and thoughts we hold close to us.

It is also horrible to find oneself wanting to remember something, and not being able to, and not having anyone who can help us fill up the gap. And I am not only talking of what a person suffering from dementia feels; we all have experienced this some time or the other. Perhaps that is why we like to have around us, for at least some of the time, people with whom we have “shared memories”.

This fact came home to me some months after my father died. I was on my evening walk, and suddenly remembered an incident of the past, but could not remember some of the details. It’s okay, I thought, I’ll go home and ask my father. Then I remembered that my father was dead.
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