When my mom who had dementia died after living with me, all I felt was complete and total relief and happiness. It’s a weird thing to say, I know, when you’ve lost your mom.
But she hated what the disease she had was doing to her brain and her ability to be around people, including her daughters, who she loved truly more than herself. She had spoken to all of us, her daughters, about the fear that she would become unable to care for herself eventually and she wouldn’t recognize us and would become dependent on others to care for her, losing all of her dignity.
She asked us to help her kill herself if it came down to it, if she was going to be placed in a memory care unit.
She lived with me the last couple months before she died and I was the one who met with the hospice team, saw the nurses caring for her, helped her shower and get dressed. She kept asking me “When am I going to la la land?”
Turns out she got a urinary tract infection and per her many years of requests associated with allowing her to go to la la land, we didn’t treat it, so she died a few weeks later.
For me, after she passed, I was able to remember again the mom I’d grown up with. As I put together her memorial service and pulled photos from her life to show on a screen near the refreshments at the gathering, I was already healing and truly happy for her that she had been released from her body and the disease that had crippled her for the last seven or so years.
Apparently, I had grieved AS my mom went through each stage of the dementia over the seven years: diagnosis, moving out of her home, forgetting my children’s names, not knowing what shampoo was for. Over time, I expected less and less of her and sadly watched her retreat into her own, increasingly empty and confusing world.
My youngest sister was a completely different story. She had apparently blocked out what was happening slowly over time with our mom. So when she came to say goodbye to Mom at my house, she was a complete wreck, hardly letting Mom out of her sight.
And after Mom passed, my sister called me for weeks crying; she couldn’t go to work for a month; and she needed constant care. And then, one day, about six months after Mom’s death, she was fine at peace.
My other sister just got angry. Angry at me, at Mom’s care team, at our other sister, at everyone involved. I understand because anger feels a lot less vulnerable and scary than sadness does. Almost a year after our mom passed, she started reaching out again reestablishing connection to the family.
Three VERY different ways and timelines in the ways we dealt with grief.
What I found out is 1) you can never know how someone is going to react until they are in the middle of their sadness, and 2) expecting everyone to go through the five stages of grief in the same way at the same time, is not reality. In fact, someone can go back and forth through the stages, or get stuck for a while at one of the stages like my youngest sister did.
Before the experience with my mom, I thought that the stages of grief (below) were linear and happened pretty quickly; now I know they can be circular and have no timeline.
For friends on the outside of a situation, it can be really difficult to know what to do or say. Your sad friend may be up for a rom-com movie one night and sobbing the next.
Take it from me, offering your friendly ear at whatever stage they are in is a huge help. Let them talk about what they are currently feeling.
Like my friends around me who heard how happy I was that Mom was gone, you may be confused. What your grieving friend says may not make sense to you, but it is not for you to figure out. You can help her by being flexible and following her lead as she lets go of her mom, her job, her marriage in her own way.
She’ll always love you for your willingness to listen as she figures out her own path through the pain.