It was the winter when my cousin Diane died that we recognized the severity of the situation. Every situation has a turning point, and this was ours. 

We were on our return drive home to Rantoul from the Chicago suburbs after attending my cousin’s memorial service. Mom was supposed to go with us, but decided at the last moment that she wouldn’t attend. She was disagreeable that day, a mood swing likely attributed to her stroke-related dementia. We figured she would be OK for some hours by herself since before this day she could remain at home while Dad ran errands. 

We figured wrong. We were an hour or more north of Rantoul when we received a call from our neighbor, asking if Mom was supposed to be out of the house at night because she was standing out in their driveway in the snow. Thankfully, our daughter was only a few minutes away at the time and on her way over and luckily located Mom around the same time as our neighbor’s phone call. 

Somehow Mom thought enough to put on a jacket and boots, but when our daughter, her oldest granddaughter, approached her, my mom didn’t know where she was and was asking for her family.

It was after that point that we installed security measures throughout the home, notified the local police and other neighbors so that they were informed of the situation and life spiraled downward for the next couple of years until Mom’s death in September of 2018.

Dementia, whether caused by Alzheimer’s, vascular or other conditions, is like nothing you’ve experienced until it happens to you or a loved one. Although living to 88 is a blessing, you can’t imagine, unless you’ve been there, the feeling that slams you in your gut and collapses your spirit the first time they no longer recognize you or when their husband of 55 years is suddenly just referred to as “the man.” Most days I became recognized as “sister” instead of oldest daughter and sometimes wasn’t recognized at all.

Despite the fact that you ready yourself as much as possible for death, you are never ready. I was never ready. I’m the oldest daughter who made it a point to always be close to our parents. It was something I planned for my entire life. 

I can remember being 5 years old and knowing that my dad lived with his parents until he finally married, after taking care of them until their deaths, and always knowing that I would take a similar path in life; it seemed natural to me. The last few years of Mom’s life, there were days that I was so glad to have chosen this path, to have so much time together, and yet there were days where I would run home in tears as fast as I could, wishing for a way out.

Besides being the first person in my life, Mom was my first best friend, my confidant, the one I could tell a secret to and she’d keep it to herself. She was a pillar of faith, like no one else I’ve ever known, and yet when death neared, she was scared just like a little girl, which stunned me because this isn’t how I thought it would be, and I never dreamed that I would be consulted with making enormous decisions related to hospice, knowing it would lead to mom’s death. She had spent her lifetime protecting me, and now there was nothing I could do to protect her from the inevitable.

In the first month after a death there is so much going on, so much planning and organizing and many friends and family drawing near that it seems more like a dream than a reality. Life immediately goes on around you, and you’re just kind of floating. My husband and I weren’t retired yet, so there was still work to take care of on a daily basis and family needs to attend to. Still, trying to cope with the loss of mom and in trying to keep Dad going, we moved into November of 2018 approaching the holiday season and my husband’s daughters lost her mom as the result of a tragic accident.

That’s the thing about life: some go young, some old, some suddenly, some after long suffering, but we all go. We all know this, it’s a logical fact, and yet we don’t know how we will deal with it, until it happens and each person deals with it differently. Some never fully heal; others it just takes a long time. One thing is certain; we are never the same because of it.

The first months after mom’s death, I was a mess. A lifelong struggle with periods of depression and bipolar episodes added to the intensity of emotions. On the surface, I often looked OK. I still kept up with my daily exercise; I went to work, planned for the holidays and birthdays, planned for our retirement, hung out with friends, went out on the weekends and had many fun moments. However, inside myself, I was struggling. I drank more than usual, I clung to people who were there to help me until I suffocated them, I longed for escape. 

People do strange things when they are engulfed in grief.

Over time, the friends and family quit checking in, the holidays were over and regular life settled back in. The start of 2019 stunned me further with more loss, and the two closest people in my life listened patiently over and over to the same old laments while encouraging me to just move on with my life, which if you’re experiencing grief is one of the comments that people make that can make you angry inside. Soon you realize that grief is indeed innately personal and it’s a long, lonely walk that no one else can accompany you on.

Yet every situation has a turning point, and this is the story of mine. May arrived, we retired. July arrived, our daughter got married. Grief was still affecting my daily life, and emotions ran deep. It was after an untimely outburst, after months of counsel, research and prayer, that something clicked and I knew I had to do something entirely different because the old ways weren’t working anymore. 

I began a guided mindfulness meditation program and incorporated my faith into my meditations and committed to it daily, treating it with the same devotion and passion as my daily exercise.

Something began to change within me. A month after beginning the program, my husband noticed that I had more patience, and I didn’t immediately argue as I did before when presented with a different view. I initially focused on meditations and life coaching that related to loss and grief. Eventually, I moved to guided meditation with focus on the breath. I began meditating on my own without the coaching. December marks six months that I have been meditating daily, and a year and three months since Mom passed.

Healing can come. It’s hard. There are still times that I cry and nights where I lay in the dark, speaking words to the God I can’t see and longing for my mom to pat my hand like she would when she would tell me that it will all be alright. 

There are those times, and there always be. When you love someone you won’t ever just let them go entirely, but there are turning points that lead to necessary growth, and this is mine. If you’re struggling this holiday season, I hope you find yours. 

Linda Kelley of Rantoul writes a column on a periodic basis for the Press.