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Missing My Mother at Christmas: The End of Caregiving

My mother is gone, but nearly a year later I feel she is still with me

spinner image The first holiday season after losing someone can be difficult for former caregivers.
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It was the perfect undershirt: 100 percent cotton, a V-neck and not too clingy.

Finding gifts for her was always hard because only “useful” items would do. I reached for the phone to call her. She was a practical person, not partial to surprises, so I always liked to check my instincts. 

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And then I felt it. In the two seconds between finding the shirt and reaching for the phone, I felt the gut-punch reminder that she was gone.

My mother passed away 11 months ago, but the desire to talk, to tell her the latest and hear her voice, was on a kind of autopilot. That connection was hardwired, the red light on the electronic device indicating it’s connected to the power source, even though it’s off.

For almost two decades, my parents lived four hours away. Like so many long-distance caregivers, I’d look at the calendar and plan a visit, once or sometimes twice a month.

When medical appointments or other mini-crises would pop up, we three sisters would shuffle our weeks around to be there, two of us hoping to ease the load of the sister who lived just 20 minutes away. I was like a homing pigeon, set to make the journey, sometimes with an overnight, other times, with work and kids still at home, doing it in a day.

I didn’t call it caregiving, didn’t think of it as caregiving. I was simply a daughter visiting her parents, checking on their well-being and trying to spend time together as they moved toward the end of their lives. But anyone who has a front-row seat to that seesaw moment when the roles reverse — when a parent becomes dependent on an adult child — can relate to the sorrow that realization brings.

The loneliness factor after caregiving ends

As Alzheimer’s began to consume my father, creating more confusion and frustration, my mother soldiered along on the front lines of caregiving. Her own mental and physical health became compromised, and we three daughters tag-teamed where we could, helping her get treatment and ensuring she stayed on her medication.

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As he moved from independent to assisted living and then the nursing home for his final days, my mother was freed from the difficult parts of caring for a man who was no longer present. When he passed away, her days and schedule were her own, but anxiety and depression would be her battle. We gritted our teeth for that fight. 

Lean in we did, my youngest sister taking the brunt of her almost daily requests, banking, the doctor’s appointments and the grocery store runs. The calls increased and so did the small demands, the need for more Kleenex even though there were five boxes under the sink.

My mother was lonely. And her concrete needs felt to her like legitimate reasons to see us. She didn’t want to be a burden, take up too much time, unable as she was to utter the words, “I need you, I’m lonely, could you come?” 

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Lee Woodruff (second from right) and her sisters, Megan Lucier (left) and Nancy McLoughlin, with their mom, Terry McConaughy (far right).
Courtesy Lee Woodruff

I’ve had many moments over the past year of feeling like my mother was still here, hearing her voice in my head telling me, “Be good to yourself,” or “That’s too much of a drive for you.” There are so many moments I want to share some positive tidbit of news about her grandchildren, something she can crow about to her friends. Each time I experience that, there’s a brief flame of warmth at the expectation of hearing her voice. And each time, it’s abruptly snuffed out.  

I came to think of this experience as something similar to losing a coveted piece of jewelry. I’d worn the same silver bracelet for years, and when it went missing one day, I found myself reaching to touch it for months afterward, expecting it to still be there. That feeling is more acute this month, during the holiday season, than any other time this past year.

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A year of hard firsts

Experts talk about the holidays being a time of highs and lows, a magnifier and amplifier for where we are in our lives. When we’re in a good place, mentally and physically, it’s easier to see and feel the joy in this time of year. For those experiencing loss, a change in circumstances, isolation or loneliness, the holiday season is a reminder of what we might be missing and how we come up short. 

The first year after losing someone, there is a list of firsts: the first Thanksgiving without them at the table, the first birthday or anniversary that passes. The experience of any good memory without that loved one is a year of fresh paper cuts and bruising grief, and it looks different for each one of us.

What I hadn’t counted on this season was missing the actual act of caring for my mother. That feeling would hit me out of the blue when I least expected. Was it the “duty” of caring for her, the dignity of the role, or the reward of feeling needed that I missed? Of course, I loved her, but I was also proud to pay it back for all those years she cared for us, especially as eye-rolling, rule-defying teenagers. It’s impossible to untangle all the emotions that go into caring for another person. Resentment, duty, responsibility and obligation can coexist with love, devotion and gratitude. It’s so different for each one of us. 

In a very short time, we’ll face that first Christmas without her in the world. We will look around the table at the nine grandchildren and now the very first great-grandchild that she never got to meet. One of her daughters will raise a toast to her, our unsung hero in so many ways. She was the quiet force behind us all, the original blueprint for so many aspects of how we all have moved through the world.

The past year has been a chance to take stock of how I showed up as a caregiver. Many long-distance caregivers live with the persistent thought that they are always falling short, never doing enough. My mother never made me feel that way herself. 

I’ve made peace with the fact that I did the best I could. There were times, at the wheel on the drive back from Boston, I would find myself exhausted and overwhelmed, cursing the fact that they hadn’t chosen a place nearer to my sister and me. But those angry moments of caregiving have been largely erased from my memory. That’s a gift of the passage of time. 

My mother thought cardinals were a sign of hope. She would clap her hands together in delight each time she saw a red bird outside her window.

After she died, I found a tiny ceramic replica of the bird and bought one for each sister. Mine sits near the phone on my desk, staring out the window as she used to do, watching them at the feeder. When I feel that phantom limb of an impulse to reach for the phone and talk to her, I look at that little bird.

The sharp stab of realization morphs into love and gratitude. While she may not be present in this world, she is still with me, and with all of us, in the way that love lives on. 

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