Moving on as the family matriarch

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I’m posting this piece on what would have been the 60th Wedding Anniversary of my beloved parents. May their love continue to live through our family. Miss them still. Rest in peace, Mom and Dad. 

When my father died, not only did I lose that last living parent, but my role as the eldest child and daughter ended. I was still the eldest but now had to steer the ship to shore. I like that analogy since Dad was a sea captain and did his share of navigating the waters.

And with Dad’s death, I became the family matriarch.

A matriarch is a woman who is head and ruler of her family and descendants. Was this me?

It didn’t sink in, my changing role that is, until after Dad’s funeral. That’s when my shared executor powers with my brother started becoming real as we worked to close Dad’s estate and file final papers. But being an executor has nothing to do with the power of a matriarch.

So what kind of power did I have? And what about the other matriarchs in our family before me?

My maternal grandmother was the matriarch of her family in an obvious way. She had a presence and was quite charismatic, at least from my vantage point. My grandfather, by contrast, was a man of few words, but their “voice” was united in a Nana sort of way. And as we all know, behind a great leader (or matriarch), there is another great person. That was my Grandpa. He was the power behind her.

I strive to honour my grandmother and others who are gone but have made an impact on my life. I will carry them with me throughout the remainder of my life.  There is a bittersweet realization to all of this. As an elder and matriarch, it means I’ve lived long enough to have accumulated a priceless fortune of family history. Someday, I will leave this world as well, and I will be a memory for the ones remaining, just as they have been for me. That is my legacy to them.

I remember a quote from the Spiderman movie: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” It reminds me of what my role as matriarch needs to be: to keep our remaining family together in thought and action, to be present to each other even if thousands of miles separate us, and to love because in the end there is no better way to live than through love.

May the souls of all our departed loved ones, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Copyright (c) 2020 all rights reserved, Jackie Kierulf.

 

Working through that “moment”

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Rolling rum balls with my Mom at Christmas.

 

Dear friends,

It’s been some time that I’ve wanted to address this topic and I hope that it is clear enough for your to relate to, as things like this are difficult to put into words.

Jackie

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In spite of time passing and our grief lessening, we regress. Without warning, that deep sadness, and helplessness surfaces. In a way, we are suspended temporarily, from the progress we have made, and return to that desolate feeling of failing to move forward, once again.

Sometimes this “moment” lasts a few seconds, and we resume our new “normal,” but at other times, we are completely overwhelmed and start to fall back. It may begin with a sinking feeling in our stomach. Our chest may tighten as we relive the memories that triggered that particular moment. We may cry. And we may feel great sadness.

The comfort we have found as time evolves is constantly challenged. Because there are always pieces of our loved ones that linger with us in our loss.

It is in these moments that those pieces come alive for us. They will always be a part of us, and that is what I’m learning to accept each time I experience that pain.

That pain is like no other. It is not the pain from a broken bone, which can be brutal, but a heartache so profound it’s consuming. It’s like that part of my life has been ripped out forever. When that pain arrives, I’m desperate to hold on, because, as sad as I am, I feel I’m connecting with “them.” Bittersweet? Yes.

What triggers that pain could be anything: an object, a memory, even a feeling. But that heartache reminds me of how I still miss them so terribly and how I want to remain in that moment, even with the pain it brings.

And that’s okay.

I thought those fleeting lapses of unhappiness would fade as I was able to progress through my grief. I thought there would be a way out – eventually.

But journeying through loss takes a lifetime.

That feeling of being alone, without them, that it comes and goes, is just part of this journey in moving forward.

It’s like watching the tides roll in and out while you stand in the water close to the shore. The water will cover your feet but will leave again, only to return. And that’s how those moments are. They are with us, but they return.

I am grateful for all of this. I have those memories to relive.  We couldn’t do that if we could not regress. And that means I am connected to my loved one, yet again.

We grow in our remembering because it is in remembering that we will find the love we miss.

 

Copyright (c) 2020 all rights reserved, Jackie Kierulf.

 

Christmas grief

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Christmas dinner with my parents, brother and grandparents – 1960s

As we enter the home stretch towards Christmas, it’s been three years without Dad and twice as long without Mom. In the past, the loss of other family members, especially my grandparents, brought sadness, but the loss of a parent is really like no other.

Each year as Christmas day passes, I’m without them again. But I’m thankful for my loving family. And as heartbreaking as it felt, I’m comforted that I was able to spend their last hours with each of them.

I heard that some days would be more difficult, mostly any celebration that they would have shared with us, their birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, even our birthday. And the days leading up to that day would feel far worse than the actual day.  And it was.

But Christmas still tops that list. Christmas has a bittersweet way of anticipating the joy and the sadness in one swift gesture. Christmas is still the hardest, at least for me, and grief will always be slow to overcome each time this season rolls around.

There were so many family traditions that we shared and so many meaningful moments with them.

Decorating the tree brings back these moments. Each small ornament holds a special significance. As I hang it on a branch, I remember how that piece found its’ way to me. Whether it was a small handcrafted angel worked on by my Mom, the fragile felt elves that are almost as old as I am or the pictures of my parents that I mounted in a small frame, their place on our tree keeps them close at heart each Christmas.

Dad did not enjoy crafts, but as his dementia progressed, activities like that were a way of connecting with him. The pine cone that he painted blue and that I sprinkled with glitter hangs near a small picture ornament of my mom and him. We made a wreath out of blue tinsel and it rests on the sideboard.

Other loved ones gifted me with ornaments, and they have also found a place on one of those worn branches.

As I gradually took over the baking, Mom would still make a couple of treats until her illness got worse. For years, we would roll tiny balls of buttery dough, flatten them and top with a dried cherry bit. Early on, those cookies became my job during the holidays, but I still helped Mom prepare her treats. It was my way of connecting with her, while we sliced, diced, cut or rolled. Christmas music would play in the background while we worked away.

The Christmas music still plays during the Christmas preparations. I have a fragile heart sometimes, listening to those tunes. The other day I was playing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and I truly felt I had regressed in my grief journey. Maybe the chords were just a little too melancholy, but the sadness I experienced was overwhelming. For a long moment, I was heartbroken, listening and remembering and wanting so badly for my parents to be here again, even just for an instant to hug me and tell me I would be okay.

But finding my way back to the grief brought me great comfort. I was reminded of how much they loved me. And how much I loved them.

What more could I receive at Christmas than my parents’ gift of love? It wasn’t that I hadn’t processed my grief. My grief is still here because of love.

Christmas will be bittersweet without a loved one. But it’s also a time of feeling grateful for love, for the memories that will always be with us and for the comfort we find with others.

Until we meet again ❤️

May you all have a Blessed Christmas filled with lots of love.

Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now[1]

[1]From “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Lyrics: Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane. Artist: Judy Garland.

Remembering them

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Today we remember them, though they are on our minds more often than not.

It is the first day of the month of remembering. Winter will set in soon, sometimes without warning. There may be a small pause before the first snowfall, but we know it will come eventually.

But for now, not all of the leaves have fallen. They make a crisp sound beneath my feet as I trod upon them.

Those fallen leaves were a gift this year.

In our part of the world, there were more red leaves than I’d seen in some time.  When I looked up the reason for those vibrant red colours, it mentioned something about having abundant dry weather and sunlight.  Red had ruled because of so many warm days. And as it got colder, more golds and yellows painted in the landscape as well.

Change happens in many forms. Change even moves us forward. But change with beauty is comforting and gives us hope.

So even as we approach a change of season with the bleak and dark days of winter ahead, we remember our loved ones during this month. And we pray that they rest in peace.

Not the Camino de Santiago.. but maybe

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My brief fall hikes leave me refreshed and in awe of so much beauty. In the quiet of a carved out path of trees with no end in sight, I breathe in the fresh scent of fallen leaves. I close my eyes and take in the silence.

I’ve found a sweet spot. There is no one ahead or behind me. I’m not sure how long that will last as it’s a warm day, and I’ve already passed some early birds. So every time I take in the peace, they are steps closer to me.

A lone red leaf dances gracefully to the ground.  I see another join the pile as I plow through.  My boots are unforgiving, cutting through the mounds.

I once described the Camino de Santiago as similar to a journey we take with our loved one. In the end, the company and love are what they need. And we need that too.

We need to travel in that silence with them. But what happens along the way is up to us. Their fate is decided.

So, during that journey, that process towards death, being open to what may happen, is a gift.

We may laugh. We may cry. We may be angry, anxious, or afraid. But in the end, they are counting on us to comfort them. And at the end, to let go.

When I start that hike, no matter how short or long it is, I know it will end. What happens during the journey will be up to me. I can rush through the route and choose to ignore what surrounds me and move on forward, or I can take it all in.

I didn’t go on a hike today but visited the cemetery, and after clomping through the grass and the geese droppings to my parent’s grave, I noticed a flash of red. I hadn’t brought flowers as it will soon be time to put up the winter wreath before the snow takes over their resting place. But the roses were as bright as day, with their fallen petals scattered around the marker.

Someone else remembered my mother and father.

I cannot describe how grateful I felt at that moment, approaching the grave and seeing those red petals gracing that spot. It reminded me of how intertwined we all are, though we don’t always see things that way. At that instant, I connected to another living soul who also remembered and mourned my parents.

Someone unnamed joined me today on my Camino. I may never know for sure who that was, but in the silence and of praying and remembering, they were there.

Stuck

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How many times have we felt stuck?  Whether it was from traffic, the mud or even in snow,  no matter how we got there, we usually want to free ourselves and move on. We want the traffic to flow again or wriggle ourselves free out of the muck, snow, or any other situation where we feel hopelessly trapped.

Our grief and pain may also cause us to feel stuck. It may be difficult for us to move forward knowing that things will never be the same, that we will be without someone who was embedded in our life. And as much as we hope, we are not prepared for their parting. None of us are. In fearing death and loss, it is easier to focus on other things, rather than to accept the reality that one day, someone we love will die.

I thought of my Uncle when putting these thoughts together. Even several years after my Aunt Barbara died, he still hadn’t cleared out her possessions from their home. Her clothes hung neatly in the closet with her shoes lined up beneath them.

And although I still grieved her, finding those and other things around the house that they both shared left me feeling uneasy.

At that time in my life, I hadn’t suffered enough loss to understand all of this.

I hadn’t had a great love like my uncle.  I hadn’t lost someone significant. All of those precious people were still in my life and except for the odd funeral mass or the wake of someone who was an acquaintance, the experience of loss wasn’t first-hand.

So, being stuck in grief was uncharted territory, until I started to lose them, one by one.

Now, I understand the need to take the time to reflect on loss. Or to begin to sort a box of “theirs” unpack a box to sort and suddenly feel overwhelmed. It’s like the wind has been sucked out of me.  I no longer want to donate its contents or give them to someone in need. I just want to keep all of their stuff. Forever.

The things that connect us to “them” won’t bring our loved ones back. But in our grief, we sometimes believe that stuff is all that we have left.

Until we realize, “we” are what remains of them. So, we need to become” unstuck.”

Not long after that first trip into the unknown world of grief, I came to learn that grieving and processing the loss is only part of that journey – that evolving out of that grief moves us forward. And we don’t need to do that alone.

Because there is no perfect way to overcome grief, move on, and become unstuck. And although each person has a different way of coping and finding their way back, we need others. More than we think we do.

We come into this world alone, and we leave this world alone, but in-between our beginning and our end, we are gifted with love from others and in turn the capacity to love back.

So, we have that love to carry us through.

It takes time to free ourselves. Some of us are “stuck” for a while. But together, with others, we can free ourselves. We can begin to live again.

And somewhere down the road, it will be our hand that reaches for someone to set them free.

 

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“Sometimes, reaching out and taking someone’s hand is the beginning of a journey.

At other times, it is allowing another to take yours.”
― Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

Preparing

 

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Some of us know the look of death in someone who is going to die.  We know it’s coming on a face we’ve known. We know without needing to thinking about it. We just know.

That’s because we know the look of life. We know the smiles, the twinkling eyes, the joy written on a face, the head that nods in understanding when we need comfort and listening. We also know the look of anger, boredom, frustration, impatience and even regret. All of these faces and more are pieces of our experience, our life which is stamped in our memories.

But the look of death – that changes everything. Even while we hold their hand and they sense we are there with a squeeze of our hand, there’s an expression of resolve in that face, that soon they will no longer be with us.

That separation from us, the living, brings much sadness to ourselves.

All of the things that we take for granted no longer exist for someone dying. Their preparation to leave us takes on a whole new meaning that leaves us grieving long before they are gone.

I remember the Chantilly dusting powder my grandmother used after she showered. The scent permeated the room when she applied the puff to herself. She would take out her hair rollers and brush her hair before donning her make-up: a dash of foundation and blush and then some compact powder. Sometimes when dressed, she’d search through her small cedar jewel box with a beautiful painting of the Last Supper on the lid. They were mostly costume pieces, but there were the most coveted things I knew because they were hers. The jewelry, whether it was a pendant, earrings or bracelet, made for a finished portrait and those eyes of hers lit up like diamonds.

But when Nana became ill and close to death, her eyes didn’t twinkle anymore. They spoke of helplessness, pain, and deep resolve. I think of my Mom and how she changed, too. And my Dad. The connection with them was gone long before they took their last breath.

That look of death, to me, was a gift. It prepared me. I missed them already and letting go was the hardest thing I have ever done. But in separating themselves from us, our loved ones give us permission to let go, too.

We live with a new reality during the death process. We live knowing that when that time is over for someone, our life will still go on. I think of this time as a silver lining because in the deep grief we feel, our loved ones let go with us.

So, as we journey with our loved ones through to their death, perhaps we can find some sense of comfort knowing that keeping them comfortable, refreshed and taking care of them with a gentle spirit will ease the transition from life to death, through our love and respect.