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My Journey as a Family Caregiver in the Wake of Grief

Five months after my mother’s death, I’m feeling more at peace

spinner image Terry McConaughy relaxing at her daughter Nancy’s house in Tarrytown, New York; Lee and her mom, Terry; Lee’s sisters Nancy McLoughlin and Megan Lucier with Terry
Clockwise from top left: Terry McConaughy relaxing at her daughter Nancy’s house in Tarrytown, New York; Lee and her mom, Terry; Lee’s sisters Nancy McLoughlin and Megan Lucier with Terry.
Courtesy Lee Woodruff

My attention was drawn to the card kiosk in the bookstore. No matter the occasion, I always gravitated toward the humorous ones.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d gotten in the habit of sending cards to my mother on a regular basis, imagining her delight when she discovered a handwritten envelope in the mailbox at her senior facility.

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As I reached for one of the Mother’s Day cards, it suddenly hit me: My mother was dead. I felt the familiar vertical drop of my heart, like the stomach flip-flop when the car goes over a rise, as I placed the card back on the rack.

Embedded in that one-second realization was the knowledge that I’d never send her another card, never again call with an update on a grandchild or a book I was enjoying. I suddenly longed to hear the familiar rise in her voice when she discovered her eldest daughter on the phone. “Oh, Leeeeeeee,” she would say, drawing out my name with a combination of surprise and delight.

A slowly shrinking circle

My mother passed away shortly after New Year’s Day this year. I wrote about that experience in this column, the slow fade we three sisters witnessed, without a road map of how it would unfold and what we would do.

She was mostly present mentally, her short-term memory cutting in and out, and then, suddenly, her cognition would roar back. She’d stopped using the stove, stopped taking walks, slowly self-censoring her behaviors, removing our need for hard conversations around aides and other assistance, at least temporarily.

Her world was an ever-tightening circle, shrinking and slimming, and still we watched and waited, unsure what event or tragedy would force a change in her independent living situation. It was inevitable that something had to give.

And then, suddenly, there it was. She’d had enough of living what she saw as a vastly diminished life.

Her constant refrain of not wanting to get to 90 suddenly became a manifest destiny. My mother announced she didn’t want to live anymore. And so began her determination to die on her own terms. First, she stopped eating, and then largely stopped all fluids. When hospice was called in, she was mercifully put out of pain and discomfort as her body completed the task of shutting down to die.

As her dying fell amid the holidays, the joy of celebration, a niece’s surprise engagement and the fun of being together comingled with the reality of losing our mother. Sorting through her possessions and sitting by her bedside, I wondered what the three of our lives would look and feel like without the connection of caregiving.

That role would be removed with her death. While some parts of that would be a relief, there was an inexplicable gift in being able to care for my mother. It was the ultimate act of love and reciprocity from a child to a parent.

Later, in the wake of her death, I realized that caring for and loving my parents was one of the ways I’d defined myself, first with my father’s dementia journey and then, after his death, with my mother. What did that make me now? I’d already achieved elder status at my age. Did the term “orphan” apply if you were 62?

My mother popped into my thoughts continually the week after she died, the loss like a low-level thrum in the back of my brain. She had loved birds, cardinals in particular, and suddenly I saw them everywhere, their red bodies in vivid contrast to the snow. I felt comforted with each sighting, imagining her spirit around me, watchful and protective.

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It felt like a season of loss, in so many ways. In this last quarter of my own life, I could catalog the things that were waning: physical strength and health; the loss of friends to illness and injury; the truncated runway of life ahead of us. There was existential loss, too, the pandemic, the warming planet, the sense of chaos in politics and societal discourse. So much felt confusing and sad, shorter and precious.

A cloud lifts

The first month many practical and tactical things that needed to be done kept us above water. There was the reckoning around her will, the settling of finances, clearing out her apartment to sell, and setting a date for a memorial. We daughters were still caregivers of sorts, administering in the aftermath of death, and there was determination and purpose around that. The “doing” still connected us to her as it also moved us further from the central fact of her loss, and then a kind of numbness set in.

Recently, a friend’s daughter woke up with a condition called visual snow syndrome. A fuzzy lens had fallen across her entire field of vision overnight, as if she were looking though a windshield in a blizzard. Horrific as it was, it didn’t completely occlude her sight, but it made everything out of focus, so that she had to work extra hard to see. Losing my mother in those first few weeks and months was like that, senses and emotions deadened by a soft focus until slowly, like a blizzard receding, things started to be clearer.

I began to adjust to her loss, faster than I thought I would, and I didn’t know how to feel about that. On social media and the AARP Family Caregivers Discussion Group on Facebook, many people still actively mourned their parents, months and even years after the loss. Was I somehow “less than”? This self-doubt made me feel even more guilty. I’d read social media posts and talked to people whose lives were forever changed by their mother’s death. Did the fact that my mother lived a long, good life make a difference? Was it easier to reconcile her death because she chose her own ending? There were questions I pushed down, because I knew there were no answers. The rational part of me understood there was no one right way to grieve, but still, I compared myself to others. I frequently sought stories of others who’d lost parents, trying to find myself in the ways they processed grief.

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‘A lifetime of love’

Today, more than five months after her death, I have moved past the hard stuff. It feels strange to write those words, but time has brought perspective. A child should outlive their parents, but that doesn’t make the sense of loss any less intense.

What do I miss as a caregiver? I don’t miss the long drives to Boston and back, often in the same day. I do miss the hugs from my mother, cradling her tiny bird bones as I wrapped my arms around her. I miss the absolute joy in her face when she’d see me, the way it would light up all of her. I don’t miss the physical place she lived, a reminder, with the wheelchairs and walkers and the monthly notices of death, that my mother was failing with each day that passed.

I do miss the sense of being needed, the usefulness and purposefulness of caregiving. There is nothing more nourishing for the soul than to give to someone else, to do something useful and helpful for another person, especially one who spent so many years caring for you.

I’m at peace now, imaging my mother at peace. I will always miss her, always long for more good days with her. But I will also celebrate the part of the human spirit that moves forward, one day at a time. I recognize how lucky I am to have a trove of memories and for my children to have had so much time with her too. Inside my own mind are the movies I can watch when I want, call up like a playlist of greatest hits and tiny moments.

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