Jul 21, 2010

Keeping The Love Alive: Redefining Family And Grieving Loss

By Sheryl Lynn
Alzheimer's Reading Room

I met Mary last summer. She'd moved into the Alzheimer's assisted living residence the same month as my mother. I first noticed her beautiful smile, which she generously shared with everyone she'd meet, and I immediately felt a connection with her. It was easy to feel connected with Mary. She had a purity of heart that remained untouched by dementia.

I was happy to learn that Mary moved into a room near my mother's when it became vacant. The staff decided that Mary would be a perfect fit with the other residents, and they were right. The caregivers seated Mary next to my mother at mealtime. That was good for my normally fearful mother, as Mary's sweetness felt comforting to her.

Each table had four chairs, and the four women who sat at that table bonded. I called them "The Cool Girls." The four of them would walk hand-in-hand from the kitchen to the activity room, from the activity room to the living room, and from the living room to the kitchen. They didn't say much to each other, but they'd clearly formed a team.

I don't remember my mother ever having multiple girlfriends before, and she seemed happier for the connections. As much as I tried to give her when I cared for her, and I gave her as much as I knew how to give, I couldn't give her girlfriends to live with who understood how it was to be her. Watching her interact with her three friends was a very new experience for me, an experience that helped me understand how placing her in this different residence was a great gift to her.

I'd mix with all four of them when I visited. I'd offer them little cupcakes, I'd bring them napkins to clean their hands after they ate the cupcakes, I'd show them where their rooms were, and I'd joke with them. They didn't remember who I was, so I always introduced myself to them as Eleanor's daughter, but once I demonstrated my connection with one of them, I was accepted into their group.

It's amazing to me how little acts of kindness can grow into love. I looked forward to spending time with The Cool Girls. They were delightful to be with. I loved them as my own family.

The Cool Girls stopped walking hand-in-hand when my mother got her walker, but they still moved as a group from room to room and they'd still sit side-by-side during activities and in the living room.

That's what love does.

I met Mary's daughter several weeks ago when we were visiting our mothers at the same time. I would have recognized her anywhere; she had her mother's smile. I asked her to dinner. We bonded over shared experiences, and we learned from each other.

I told Mary's daughter how happy her mother always was. She'd heard that from others but hadn't seen it for herself. Her mother was different with her. The daughter explained that Mary was afraid that her daughter would take her away from her girlfriends. She wouldn't smile or interact with her the way she would with others. I saw it myself when the daughter and I returned to the facility. I was my usual friendly self but Mary wasn't having any of it. She refused my cupcakes, she wouldn't smile at me, and she turned away. It was as if we'd never met before.

Apparently, I'd bonded with the enemy.

The daughter later emailed me a photo she'd taken of three of The Cool Girls. Mary, my mom, and another of their friends are in the living room, present with each other and with the camera. The photo doesn't show three women with dementia. The photo shows three happy, loving friends.

I will treasure it always.

The last several weeks have suddenly taken two of the four Cool Girls away.

This is the day of Mary's funeral.

I wanted to be there, but her daughter explained that her mother had left strict instructions for a private viewing and ceremony.

I understand and respect Mary's wishes.

I'm feeling the loss, and I'm also feeling alone in grieving the loss.

I want to share my memories of Mary today with others who also knew and loved her.

That's not possible.

I've realized that, when my mother passes, there will be many grieving her death as I am grieving Mary's.

I've realized that my mother has, like Mary, become a loved one to the staff and family of residents at the facility, and as an ordained minister, I understand the important of creating a space for everyone to celebrate her life together.

I've decided that, when the time comes, I'm going to ask the facility if I can use one of the meeting rooms to host a circle honoring my mother. I want to hear all the stories the staff and family members can offer about how she was when I wasn't there, and I want them to know who she was before the dementia showed up.

Even if only one person shows up to share with me, I'll feel I did what I was supposed to do.

I feel it will help us all in whatever way we all need to be helped.

But for now, I'll remember Mary's beautiful smile as I go through my day and will hold a private ceremony honoring her beautiful spirit on the beach at sunset.

Thanks for being with me today.

Sheryl Lynn is the author of the upcoming book "The Light Is A Thank You," which chronicles the spiritual journey through dementia she has taken with her mother, Eleanor. She is the host of "Glow With The Flow Radio Show," currently on hiatus.

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Original content Sheryl Lynn, the Alzheimer's Reading Room