More Than Meets the Eye, True Stories about Death, Dying, and Afterlife covers many aspects of the dying and grieving process and sheds light on euthanasia, suicide, near-death experience, and spirit visits after the passing of a loved one. ___________________________________________

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Dealing with Guilt and Grief

No matter how much we give or do for a critically-ill loved one, it is common to feel that we have not done enough for them. Guilt can be debilitating and keep us stuck in the past. It is important for the caregiver and family members to heal their grief and let go of guilt. A dear friend of mine, Jake Matson, tells his story:

My grandmother had a stroke and was placed in a nursing home. I hated for her to be in a home and I was mad at my mom and Aunt Sue for putting her there. It was a long time before I would go to see her because I kept hoping she would get better. I guess I knew she was bad off and I didn’t want to see her that way. Finally I met my parents at the nursing home and went inside to see her. At that time my grandmother was very coherent, but she looked like she had aged 15 years since the last time I had seen her. She couldn't do anything for herself and the home provided the constant care that she required.

On the 3-hour ride home I kept trying to think of ways to talk Mom into letting me take Maw-Maw into my home (even though deep down I knew it was a bigger job than I could take on). Maw-Maw did so much for me and I felt like she deserved better. I kept thinking how horrible it must be to live in a bed in a strange place with only a TV for company. I vowed to visit her once a week.

The first time I went alone, I sat in the parking lot trying to talk myself into going inside. I hated seeing Maw-Maw in that condition. I walked in and she was so happy to see me. She complained about the food the home served, so I went to McDonald’s and got her a kid’s meal with a malt. She kept raving about how good the chicken nuggets and malt tasted. Since she only had the use of one hand, she couldn't eat like a normal person. It was very sad to watch her struggle to get the food to her face, only to have it fall out of her mouth. When it was time for me to go, she begged me to stay, “Please don't go, please stay longer!” she pleaded. I promised I would return the next week. On the way home I felt sad and vowed to go back the next week. I was mad at myself. I should have given her more of my time. Why did I wait until she was dying to spend time with her?

Over the next few months it got easier for me to see her. The visits were more upbeat. I went alone most of the time because I didn't want my kids to remember their great-grandmother this way. Maw-Maw was rebellious. She hated the food, she hated living there, and she fought with the nurses and aids. She asked me many times to get her out of there. She was more like a child wanting attention, and that didn't make it easy on me; I hated for her to be there too.

Mom and Aunt Sue hired a personal aid/babysitter. Why they hired a black lady to sit with an old New Orleans gal, I’ll never know. It reminded me of the movie “Driving Miss Daisy”. Every week Maw-Maw told me she was going to fire her. She treated her so badly, but Shea wouldn’t stand for Maw-Maw’s foolishness. She’d threaten to quit at least once a week. Shea must have really needed the money to stay with her. Truth is, Maw-Maw lived many more years because Shea saved her life more than once. Shea would stay seven or eight hours a day and Maw-Maw liked having her there, even though she would never tell her so. The aids at the home got used to Shea being there and they didn't do much for her after that. When I came to visit I would let Shea take a break. She deserved it! She was a saint!

Shea would have a wheelchair ready and I would push Maw-Maw up the hall and back, and sometimes I would take her outside. Maw-Maw lived for the day when someone came to visit her. Every week she would ask, “What did you bring me?” I brought flowers for her room every week, and we tried to decorate her room for every holiday. I always brought her something to eat and snacks for her to have later. I put up a bird feeder outside her window and she quickly came to expect that I would fill it during each visit. We laughed and told jokes. Once, I pushed her in a wheel chair down to a water fountain. I brought a fishing pole. We sat there and fished together and told fishing stories. I tried to make her laugh. If she was in pain I'd grab a nurse and ask if she could have a pain pill. If they told me she just had one, I would ask them to give her something else and let her think it was a pain pill. Maw-Maw would feel so much better then, not knowing she’d only had sugar water.

I would call my mom on my way to the nursing home and ask how Maw-Maw was doing. Mom would say, “Oh, she has good days and bad days, but the good days are less and less, and she is getting worse!” Mom even told me that I shouldn’t visit her anymore. Still, I was full of hope and optimism—thinking she was going to get well and get out of there. After all, she had conquered every illness known to man. I thought she was Superwoman. She defeated cancer more than once in her last 15 years. She lost her hair twice from chemo and grew it back. She had pneumonia several times. She broke her hip and still went dancing around. She had cornea transplants twice in 20 years. Even after her stroke I'd bet she could still drive a car with one foot and one hand if someone would have strapped her in! In reality, though, she was dying, and most of the good days she had was when I was with her. Even though her bodily functions were deteriorating, her mind was as strong as ever.

As time passed, Maw-Maw learned to tolerate living in the home, but we always talked about her getting well and getting out of there. I usually arrived around lunch time and always brought her food. She was diabetic, and I always got fussed at by Mom and Aunt Sue for bringing her food she wasn't supposed to eat. In reality she didn't eat enough to send her sugar level soaring. She loved the vanilla malts but never finished a whole one. I would stuff her closet full of snacks and Coke and things she liked. No one else visited enough to know that all she took was a bite or two. I encouraged my sisters to visit and bring her something; ANYTHING to brighten her day. One day I was running behind schedule and was wondering what to bring. I figured I would be there just after dinner, so I stopped at a liquor store to get the fixings for a martini. When I arrived she said in an ugly tone of voice, “Where were you today?” She quickly changed her tone, “What did you bring me? What's in the bag?”—trying to grab the bag from me with her one good arm. I told her I was going to make Martini's. She said, “Oh, Jake. I don't know if I should drink alcohol with all the medication I'm on.” I replied, “Just a little sip won’t hurt.” I set the bag of goodies to the side, having second thoughts. We talked for a minute or two and then she said, “Boy, are you going to fix us a drink or not?” I took a small Styrofoam coffee cup and made a Martini, poured half into another cup, then added an olive to each. She was so excited! She took a sip, spilling most of it on her clothes. She took another sip, spilling even more. Determined to get to the olive, she spilled even more. She couldn't have had much more than an ounce when all of a sudden she came to life with a sudden burst of energy and giddiness. She started telling dirty jokes, laughing and cutting up. She said, “Oh, Lord. If I pass now, I am going to smell like a drunk, and the nurses are going to think I been drinking all night. Don't tell Shea or Sue Ellen or we might get in trouble.” I didn't have to say a thing, within an hour she had everyone in the nursing home laughing. Maw-Maw had her wheelchair comic sit-up debut!
Even though I was nervous about Mom’s and Aunt Sue's reaction, I laughed for most of the 3 hour ride home. I called Dad to give him a heads up on what I had done. He laughed and thought it was great. I never heard from Mom or Aunt Sue, but a week or so later Shea wanted to know why we had a party without her. Everyone had heard about it. Time and time again, even at the funeral, many of our family and friends told me how she and the nursing home staff talked about that one visit.

In her final months Maw-Maw lost her volume. She still had presence of mind but she spoke very softly. She was not her feisty self anymore; not much on conversation. Every answer she gave was either “yes” or “no” without further reply. She slept a lot and didn’t want to get out of bed. She seemed to have aged 10 years in only a few weeks. It was getting harder and harder for me to see her this way—an old lady confined to a bed. I skipped a week and didn’t go to visit her. Before she would have fussed at me, but by this time she barely noticed. I skipped another week, maybe more. I couldn't make myself go to see her in that condition and I knew she didn't have much time left. More than once I prayed for God to let her go. I could see no reason why He would want her to live like that. There was no point.

The last time my two sisters visited Maw-Maw, she didn't open her eyes even once, but they felt like she knew they were there. My little sister thought it was time to pray. She took out Maw-Maw's favorite prayer, took her hands, and began to pray. Maw-Maw responded with tears from her closed eyes. Did she know these where her last days? Was she sad to be leaving or happy to be going? They all continued to pray through their tears. My sisters prayed well that day. Maw-Maw left us later that night.
I am glad I wasn't there when she died; yet sometimes I wish I had been. For a while after that I would get mad at myself. Why didn't I spend more time with her before she got sick? Why did I let all of those years slip away?

That must have been difficult for Jake, but what special memories he has of his dear grandmother. He was such a blessing to her.

No comments: