Gone, But Still Here: Ambiguous Loss

*

Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

*

Not long ago, I was listening to a podcast when this phrase, ambiguous loss, came up.  I’d heard it before but had forgotten that such a predicament had been identified and given a name.  Now here I am, six years into caring for my husband with vascular dementia, still struggling with the same ambiguity and loss.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “ambiguous loss” first appeared in the work of psychologist Dr. Pauline Boss.  “Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process.” says Dr. Boss, “People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place.” ( https://www.wellandgood.com/how-to-deal-with-ambiguous-loss/)

 Boss first studied families whose members were pilots missing in action during the 1970s Vietnam War.  Ambiguous grief could occur when a family member was physically absent but psychologically present, in cases of military MIAs, divorce, desertion, or miscarriage.

The same ambiguous loss may occur when the member is physically present, but psychologically absent, as with chronic mental illness, dementia, traumatic brain injury, or addiction.

These days, my husband is unrecognizable as the man I met eighteen years ago.  I try to recall his personality, his presence, and way of being in the world from that time, and I can’t form a clear picture.  He is present in body, slower but still healthy for his seventy-four years.  Except he needs so much guidance, so much supervision, so much of my mental energy.

I have passed through many emotions in six years.  For a long time, I was enraged.  My imagined future, the travels, the freedom of movement, the solitude so necessary for an introvert like myself, evaporated like a puddle after rain.  I grieved for those losses, too, and the companion I no longer had. 

Only recently, I realized that there were some bright sparks in this life his illness has imposed on me.  I can work on my creative projects with little interference.  I’ve established a daily routine that works for me, making only two meals for us each day.  We have our regular activities with friends.  Despite the burdens, these adaptations lighten my load.

Boss recommends ways to cope with ambiguous loss.  I’ve done all of them.

Here they are:

Five tips for coping with ambiguous loss:

  1. Give a name to what you’re experiencing
  2. Find a therapist
  3. Join a support group
  4. Celebrate what remains
  5. Discover new hope for the future

Are you a caregiver?  Have you any additional tips for those of us dealing with ambiguous loss? Send me a comment.

*

Available from Handersen Publishing and Amazon.com

Where Sorrow Resides

sorrow

Years ago I read that sorrow affects the lungs.  The idea remained buried in a back drawer of my mind.  Recently, though, I’ve had cause to unearth this notion while dealing with a persistent health issue.

In December, while vacationing with my husband in California, I caught a bad cold.  Normally I would rest at home and kick such a virus in a few days.  My illness was exacerbated by an upended routine, long days of travel, and demands to be present for West Coast family gatherings during the holidays.

Three days before our flight back to New York, I realized that it was more than a cold.  My chest felt like it was imploding.  At the local urgent care I was given a “Z-pack” for bronchitis.  Things got a little better until the flight home, when the symptoms got worse. Back I went to another urgent care on a Sunday and was given another antibiotic.

Eight weeks later, I was still wheezing and tired, with stuffed sinuses.  The ENT specialist that I visited said I had a sinus infection and–you guessed it–gave me a third round of antibiotics.

The point of this narrative is this: in Traditional Chinese medicine, lung illnesses are connected with grief.

cycle of creation

ottowaholisticwellness.ca

I’m a grieving spouse, having lost the future I’d imagined with a spouse who is no longer the person I married.  Although I keep active and engaged with caregiving and many activities, I live with an underlying river of sadness, that springs up into my eyes often, sometimes with the slightest surprising provocation.

Grief  must be expressed to let it go.  We can’t measure the severity of loss with instruments, but only by how strongly it is felt. Unexpressed grief harms the lungs.  Coupled with the all the other emotions that caregiving can produce (fear, anger, guilt–see above diagram), caregivers’ health may be threatened.

So how do caregivers cope and keep illness at bay?  Exercise, meditation, support groups, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)*, time with friends, religious practice: all of these help me stay healthy.

lungs in chinese medicine

 

The website below was enlightening.

https://www.chinesemedicineliving.com/philosophy/the-emotions/grief-the-lungs/

*more about this in another blog

Monkey Mind, Meditation, and Caregiving

howler monkeys

You’ve heard the expression “monkey mind” when referring to the distracting thoughts that jump like monkeys when one is attempting to be still.  These days, when I sit to meditate, I have an entire troupe of howler monkeys yammering and flinging themselves about in my mind.  I’ve been meditating for a long time, so I know the guidelines: when you notice you’re off the mantra, gently come back to it.

Maybe it was the familiarity of the process, or maybe it was the overflow of emotions, worries, plans, and obligations that have beset me since I’ve become a caregiver.  Whatever the cause, my former simple practice of repeating “Om namah shivaya” (the mantra of Siddha Yoga, translated as “I honor the Light within”) wasn’t working.

A teacher of a class we took introduced me to a different type of meditation/prayer. This method has proved to be helpful for me.  I’m mostly attracted to the feminine aspect of the Great Mystery/Higher Power, so I’ve amended the sentence “Be still and know that I am God” to “Be still and know that I am the Mother and the Light.”  For me, “Mother” encompasses divine love and compassion, while “Light” represents wisdom and clarity.  By offering my mind more to do, I’ve found a way to move those howler monkeys to a distant tree.

Here’s my practice:

I hold my left hand in chin mudra, with thumb and forefinger touching.  The fingers on my right hand track the mantra and prayer by gently pressing my thigh as I silently go through the words, like this:

Inhale: Om namah shivaya

Exhale: Thumb–Be still and know that I am the Mother and the Light.

Inhale: Om namah shivaya

Exhale: Forefinger–Be still and know that I am.

Inhale: Om namah shivaya

Exhale: Middle finger–Be still and know.

Inhale: Om namah shivaya

Exhale: Fourth finger: Be still and feel my presence.

Inhale: Om namah shivaya

Exhale: Pinky–Be grateful.

Note that the mantra can be any word or phrase that has meaning for you and focuses on Spirit. In the midst of full-time caregiving, this process has helped me recapture the deeper calm and solace of meditation.

Do let me know if you try this.  I’m curious to hear if it works for others.

virgen de guadalipe

Compassion and Guilt

7BaS98D9RZyQVaRPKtRPVA

Caregiving 24/7 often feels like a rollercoaster of emotions. The two up there in the title are Big and Frequent for me.  Compassion: How horrible it must be to literally lose one’s mind!  How awful to be so dependent!  How frightening to search for words and not find them!

Reality intervenes.  Is it anxiety or forgetfulness that prompts the persistent questions I get daily: Where are we going? (4 times en route), Do the tulips need water? (three times during breakfast).  Who is coming over?  When are we getting the car back from the mechanic?  I can’t discern whether it’s his anxiety or memory, but–alas!–I do become impatient.

So then comes the guilt. I “should” on myself.  I shouldn’t snap back.  I shouldn’t use that tone of voice.  He can’t help it. I should be kinder, more patient, more forgiving, more COMPASSIONATE, more–more–more.  Give me my hairshirt and lash.

Compassion does come from the outside as well.  Some friends offer visits, outings, understanding, golden ears that just listen to me whine.  But there’s another kind of compassion that isn’t necessarily helpful.  There are folks who want to help by offering ways to fix the problem.  They provide suggestions about herbal supplements and links to websites that tell how to reverse dementia.

I’m ashamed to say that my initial reaction is negative.  You’re asking me to do more than I’m doing already?  I already make weekly rounds with doctors, provide activities and entertainment, meals, transportation–and now I have to watch infomercials and read articles about magic bullets?  My first thought is No, thanks.  

But then I think: What if?  What if the brain tonic helps?  And so off I go into cyberspace, just in case.

If I find a cure, I’ll certainly let you know.