A Dutiful Daughter’s Keeping Grief at Bay

Judith Henry, author of The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving: A Practical Memoir has an offbeat yet compassionate way of expressing herself, thus her inclusion here. For instance, advising us to “write our own obituaries to have the last word” is a novel take on the matter and humorous at the same time. Judith has a knack for describing what caregivers go through and what advice they could use, paving the way for those about to begin this role as well as affirming the complexities that more seasoned caregivers face. Her book also shows you what it might be like just after a loved one dies. There is the usual mixture of anger and sadness, but also the use of sarcasm and incongruous images.

It is worth pondering how using sarcasm and unexpected comparisons can help us grieve in the beginning. Death of a loved one is too much to take in, so any strategy we can latch onto to let this information come in a little bit at a time is a blessing. I have met with survivors who even months later would wonder out loud whether so-and-so was “really” dead. They knew this intellectually but could not absorb it emotionally. As Judith confronts the death of her mother, she uses humor to distance herself from the awfulness, to defend herself against it. Perhaps reading her description below will suggest how you too can find a way to add humor to your arsenal of healthy defenses if you are currently grieving.

[From a  section called,Dealing with Grief and Loss] “How many times can a daughter say the words ‘my mother has died’ without crying? For me — the stoic, the realist, the pragmatic ‘death is all part of life’ philosopher — only once.

A week after Mom’s passing, I drive to Orlando with my current ‘to-do’ list in hand. The first of many that serve to keep the grief at bay, this one addresses the business side of loss. The day is gray and rainy.

I’ve mapped out each step of my visit, beginning with the funeral home to pick up my mother’s ashes and multiple copies of her death certificate, which are soon to be handed out like flyers everywhere she’s had an account or an enrollment of some kind.

The funeral director speaks in hushed, respectful tones, but I don’t blink an eye when he presents me with the small, white cardboard box containing her remains. It looks like a present in need of a bow and with my lifelong tendency to ‘awfulize,’ I imagine someone breaking into the car to steal it. Figuring that my mother, of all people, would understand, I place the box safely in the trunk as I go about my other errands.

Next stop is the Orange County Courthouse to file her last will and testament. I get lost downtown and end up parking blocks and blocks away from where I need to be. After a twenty-minute hike in heels, I enter the security labyrinth of the courthouse lobby and stand speechless as a guard roots through my purse and proudly confiscates a pair of tweezers. What a relief that the chin hairs of Orlando, mine included, are safe for another day. The head of security tells me I can retrieve them on the way out. Like I am really going to add that to my freaking list.

Finding the second-floor Probate Division takes forever and requires directions from several people. When I finally walk into the right office, a woman with a genuine smile looks up at me from behind the counter and says in a warm southern drawl, ‘How can ah help you?’

The words ‘my mother has died,’ spill out of me with a flash flood of tears, and when she reaches out and squeezes my hand, I cry even more. Minutes later, I leave with a gift of tissues from her desk and a suggestion to do something nice for myself that day.

Arriving next at the neighborhood bank where my parents have kept a checking account and safe deposit box for more than 40 years, I walk up to Juanita, the young woman at Client Services, and say, ‘I’m here to close an account. My mother has died.’ The last sentence is barely out of my mouth when she comes around the desk and wraps her arms around me as a parent does a child. And I, almost 60 years of age, rest my head on her shoulder and sob.”


Judith Henry: "How to have the last word: write your own obituary"

Judith Henry: “How to have the last word: write your own obituary”

Judith Henry’s Biography

In addition to working on her second book and writing for online publications, Judith leads a well-loved writer’s group for caregivers, and does presentations on caring for aging parents, the benefits of expressive writing, how to create a legacy letter for family and friends, and having the last word by writing your own obituary. For more information about Judith and purchasing her book, go to. http://www.judithdhenry.com


Announcement to my followers and visitors: Now hear this! Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died is now available as an audiobook on Amazon and on audible.com. Go here for a free sample of the narrator’s emotionally touching voice (Cindy Pereira): http://www.audible.com/pd/Religion-Spirituality/Encountering-the-Edge-What-People-Told-me-Before-They-Died-Audiobook/B011CHH2BE

The Long and the Short of It

The isle of Griefland has many unique geographical characteristics, including its varying distance from your home. Not only that, its size and terrain constantly mutate as well. You might become entangled in masses of vines unable to break free for a while, or have to drag yourself interminably over harsh rock after harsh rock. Or, as someone recently wrote in her blog, you might be forced onto a most capricious roller coaster there. A few of you might be lucky and just take  in poignant scenes as you sit on grass as soft as cashmere. Most peculiar of all, visitors never know in advance the length of their stay let alone the starting date. Not even “death professionals” can give an estimate. In fact, their own assumptions can throw off their estimate more than the average person’s.

Come again? Haven’t hospice personnel and the like seen zillions of cases and discerned some trends? Sure there are overall patterns, but like the weather and the stock market, on any one given day, the pattern appears totally random or idiosyncratic. Just because we have a hot day at the end of October in the United States does not mean that October is typically a very warm month. And it does not mean that the next day will be hot as well.

One of the two major mistakes I’ve seen hospice personnel make is overestimating how long a mourner will be in Griefland after the death. I once read about a chaplain urging the surviving son of a dementia patient to be in touch with his feelings and allow himself time to mourn. On the face of it, that sounds pretty wise: If you give yourself permission to feel and work your way through the sadness and anger and whatnot, then your departure date from Griefland can be sooner rather than later. That is generally true, just like October is generally on the cool side in the Western Hemisphere. Alright here’s the catch: This response came after the son revealed that “My Mom died the day she forgot who I was.” In other words, that was his start date in Griefland, which might have been months or who knows even years before he heard the crunch of shovels filling with dirt to throw onto the casket. Not only that, his departure date from Griefland might have been more or less before the start date of the funeral.( Note: if you are a budding death professional, the terminology goes like this: the mourner had engaged in anticipatory grief.)

The other mistake, as you might guess, is underestimating how long someone will grieve, or telling the griever in so many words that they have worn out their welcome in Griefland. Sure, the concern is unhealthy grieving (i.e. inability to do one’s job, not enjoy anything at all in life, not function with other surviving loved ones and friends), but there are cases where extended grieving is not dysfunctional. One of my most popular recent Tweets was to the effect, “Once the whole fandamily stops telling you to ‘get over it,’ that’s when you will be able to take the first tentative steps to doing so.” Whether dysfunctional or not, indicating that a griever is “overdoing it” impedes his or her expression of feelings. Ironically this keeps the grieving process stalled and therefore even extends our stay in that most frequented but least popular destination, Griefland.

Moral of the story: Grieving outliers unite!

A Dog’s and a Cat’s Take on “Disenfranchised Grief”

Even though I was being made fun of, I was flattered that animal news writer Melissa Stoneburner mentioned my last week’s post about a pet ceremony in examiner.com, a blog that boasts  of having “20 million monthly readers.” With readership like that, I’d be hard-put to complain about my blog name getting in print, short of defamation of character. She characterized the ceremony, which some 40 dogs and one cat attended, with the headline, http://www.examiner.com/article/first-nyc-non-denominational-pet-blessing. She paraphrased me as saying, “if a person grieves the loss of their pet, the big term that other humans have given this is ‘disenfranchised grief.’ What? And what?”

Alright there, Melissa. You just brace yourself. My thirty-three faithful readers and I are all lined up ready to do battle. (At least I’m pretty sure that they are.)  Apparently you thought I was being pedantic. Harrumph! As champion of the disenfranchised, be they voters, restaurant chains or grievers, I hereby will now defend the use of the expression, “disenfranchised grief.” All you had to do is talk with any of the dozens of animals there. Buster for example would have told you, “You betcha that people grieving over pets is dismissed. Haven’t you heard people snicker over the idea of a pet cemetery? And when I mention there are pet hospices, most people think I’m all-out  kidding. And my biggest PET peeve, practically before our precious bodies have gone cold, is when they tell owners, ‘Oh, don’t be sad. You can get another dog.’ What are we, stuffed animals?” Molly then might have added, “OW! Meow! How would you like it if someone in your family died and your clothed-friends said, ‘Oh well, you can get another. With 7 billion humans, a replacement shouldn’t be a problem.’ Just put yourself in my paws and you’ll see why I’m so CATegorically insulted.”

Just you wait, examiner.com.”Disenfranchised grief” is merely offbeatcompassion’s  initial assault.  I and my minions will now overwhelm you with my impenetrable arsenal of other terms: “complicated grief,” “Conflicted mourning,” “high-risk factors” and “inhibited grief.” So there! And there! And there!

A First for Buster, Max, Princess and Molly: Pet Blessings

Buster’s latest diary entry: My owner Stacey makes sure my life’s not dull. Yesterday it was a pet costume contest where I had to strut around in a suffocatingly hot Superman outfit. Ugh! Today it was a pet blessing ceremony. As usual, I had begun my fitness routine in a dog run in a city park, but I knew something was up when Stacey trotted on over to the nearby gazebo, where plenty of other doggies were milling around, plus one cat that doggedly remained seated on her owner’s lap. I’m like what’s up, and then some alpha human named Chaplain Daniel started talking and we and all our owners all settled down along the edges of the gazebo. The word that most stood out in my mind in that chap’s introduction was “treats,” so I figured if that was on the agenda it would be worth my while to sit still. The other dogs were just as smart, because they arrived at the same conclusion and didn’t interrupt overly often.

The ceremony was not half bad as human noise making goes, and a guitar in the background made up for some of the “for humans only” type of chatter. But man my ears went on triple alert when I heard later on I could get my very own individualized blessing. That was a doggie of a different color; almost as valuable as a treat–well maybe that’s pushing it. Anyhow, a great big line of dogs formed along with their owners to wait their turn for Daniel’s made-up-on-the-spot blessings. As I waited in line, I swear I couldn’t help overhearing what the other dogs’ issues were. I thought their blessings were gonna be things like, “May your bruised leg get better soon,” or “hope you get frisky again like when you were younger.” Nope. Most of the blessings were about emotional things like, “May your dog lose her timidity and come to enjoy dogs and people more and more.” Or, “Molly has been sad and not sleeping well. May she find her zest for life again and speed along the dog run with new-found joy.”  The blessing I got was pretty lame: try to give Stacey (my owner) more slack. Argh! as Snoopy would have said. I thought the blessing was supposed to be for us, not our owners.

By the way, pets that were absent were part of this deal. I don’t mean just that they were not there, I mean they were gone forever. When Chaplain Dan said, “Bless our cherished pets  who have left this world but not our hearts,” I almost whimpered with sad memories about my parents. The chaplain then paused for people to say the names of their lost pets, and I was astonished at hearing a whole pile of ’em. A cat owner even got up to read a poem in it’s memory, how about that? Later I heard Karen, another chaplain (Sheesh, how many chaplains do you need at one time, anyway?) go over to that lady and mention how often  humans can be so insensitive about other people’s pets dying and act like grieving over them is nonsense. The lady basically replied, “And how!”

Oh, and I almost forgot: the treats, including animal crackers and bone-like strips got 5 stars, according to yours truly.   Yours truly, Buster

(Editor’s note:) The fancy shmansy word for types of grief that society delegitimizes is “disenfranchised grief.” Pet owners, and even fellow pets that lived with a pet who has passed (that’s another story), have every right to grieve for their pets as they need to. Not only that, did you know there’s such a thing as pet hospices? It’s true. They are all over, and two of them are called “Pawsitive Passings” and “Compassionate Care Cat Hospice.” You can see for yourself at the website of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care. Their address: http://www.iaahpc.org/

An Occupational Secret

If you were to happen upon a picture in a magazine of a broadly smiling face whose caption read, “I’m so miserable,” or see a companion picture of a frowning tear-speckled face with the caption, “Things are going very well thank you,” you most likely would think, “Something is wrong with this picture.” Or maybe, to avoid the cliche, you’d declare, “Off with the editor’s head! They  must have reversed the captions by mistake.”

Not so fast. The widow Shirley would have been a fit subject of the first picture. Upon my arrival, she would joyously usher me into her stylish home.There she was, lively as could be, with her favorite kind of music purring from the living room and a batch of homemade “very very healthy granola” cookies ready to bask in the warmth of her oven. After her husband died, I visited her once a month for about a year, the maximum time that hospice workers offer to stay in touch with the bereaved. Shirley had a very complicated story, but her way of telling it did not go with the meaning of her words. She would talk of how terribly she missed Elliott and how devastated and lonely she was, but she smiled and smiled at me as if drinking me into her digestive system, her mascara-bedecked eyes dressed to kill, her arms migrating from the table to her cheeks to her forehead to the air and back round again as she pointed out photos of “the most wonderful man there ever was.” He truly was. Who else would take stopping at a red traffic light as an opportunity to get in yet another kiss during their day? Who else arrived at breakfast as if it were a date? Whew! Shirley really raised the bar on attentive spouses alright. What made her story truly poignant is that this perfect man was her second husband, who she was married to for a scant 6 years, but not until his predecessor obligingly got out of the way for him after 50 uninspiring years by leaving this earth.

The incongruity between what she was expressing and how she was behaving tipped me off to a much deeper story. How could someone so depressed flash around like she was hosting a surprise birthday party? How could a mourner so devastated be practically singing as she spoke? Picking up on this sort of thing is one of my occupational secrets. When something does not match, I know there’s much more going on that the mourner might need to become aware of or talk about. One of the many deeper layers we touched on during all those visits was that my being there brought a little of Elliott back to her. As I gave her the opportunity to speak about him at length, she got to feel close to him all over again as she passionately listed one marvelous quality of him after another.

Later in the year, I helped her to look at other layers that her cheerfulness might have held at bay, such as guilt she might have felt at being released from her less-than-ideal hubby Number One. Her demeanor and what she was saying started to match up more and more closely, Shirley was able to let her picture of Elliott become just faded and dusty enough to broaden her devotion to other people and other interests who were just then starting to come into focus.