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Survivors of Grief

For most of my life, I thought grief was connected solely to death: how one feels after the loss of a loved one.  It was not until I visited a psychiatrist when I was 60 years old that I understood grief is a reaction to loss which doesn’t necessarily include death.  I sought the advice of a psychiatrist about 6 months after I had left my 22 year marriage.  Although verbally, emotionally and financially abusive for years the relationship had only been violent on one night – and that was the catalyst to spur my leaving immediately.  I left behind, and thus effectively lost, my relationship, my home, most of my belongings, and (temporarily) my retirement dream.

I told the psychiatrist I doubted my mental state. I wondered if I was suffering from depression, or anxiety, or PTSD.  After asking some questions and listening to me for about 45 minutes, he said, “You have shown signs of PTSD, but it sounds to me like you’ve built a network to help you through your symptoms. You are doing all of the right things. You’ve researched on your own, you’ve gone for therapy, you’ve reached out to people, you’re getting exercise and eating well and you’re taking care of your mother. I see no signs of depression. What you need to do now is give yourself a break.  Be kind to yourself.  You are grieving.”  Prior to hearing these words, I hadn’t thought of my condition as ‘grieving’ per se.

Grief can be caused by the death of a loved one.  It can also be the result of loss of physical ability, way of life, familiar surroundings, or hope for the future.  Following the end of an abusive relationship, a lot of business is left unfinished, including: unsettled disputes, the possible discrediting of your character, and unanswered questions. You’re left hanging, unable to complete your relationship with your abuser and feeling stuck in the pain of your grief.  It is grieving.  It’s best to recognize it for what it is.

There is no “average” or “normal” time frame for moving through grief.  Every person is different.  So, how does one stop grieving?  The grieving never really stops.  Who is to say it should?  It just fades as new memories replace the old ones.  You don’t “move on” from the loss, you move forward with it.  Whether it’s a loved one who has passed away, a divorce or other circumstances; every family holiday can revive those feelings of loss. We all have our “baggage”, events in our life, typically those that had a negative impact, which we carry with us.   A new home, a new job, new friends, new relationships all help.  With time new memories start to replace the old. 

Sometimes, particularly if you feel stuck in overwhelming grief, you have to force the issue.  You may need to seek out your own way by creating some form of “ritual” for closure: a divorce party, a symbolic burning of old papers and photographs, or whatever you can think of.  Sometimes it takes consciously focusing on the present and future rather than the past.  Sometimes it takes consciously remembering the good in the past – those golden moments – rather than the bad or sad.  Sometimes it takes expressing to others how you feel.  Sometimes it takes listening to others as they express their grief just to acknowledge that they’ve been heard and understood.  Sometimes it takes thought or prayer to be thankful for where you are now and who and what is in your life.  Be kind to yourself. 

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Remembering Mom Part 3 – How to Help Your Dementia Loved One

Realizing your parent or any loved one may have dementia is a tough one.  I live with the regretful feeling that I should have recognized it sooner.  At the time I was absorbed with my own life drama, but that’s no excuse.  My hope is that what I learned as a daughter, observer and eventual full-time caregiver will help someone else in their journey.

  1. Learn to differentiate between memory loss and dementia.  All of us can be forgetful at times – more so when we age.  Dementia includes such behaviours such as confusion with what season or year it is, forgetting important events, and taking much longer to do familiar things.
  2. Develop your awareness.  This may sound basic, but I realized that I could no longer view my mother as independent.  In much the same way one consciously and subconsciously is in tune with what their baby or child is up to, one must again tap into that mindset.  If you’ve never been a parent yourself, this might take some effort; but it can be accomplished.
  3. Involve experts.  Most cities have an Alzheimer’s Society and most areas will have social services that offer assistance, direct you to help, or at minimum give you tips on daily living.  In the beginning, when I could leave Mom alone for a few hours, I picked up excellent suggestions like pull the fuse to the oven and microwave.  As time and her illness progressed, I was referred to a Day Program where I could take Mom for 4 hours twice a week. 
  4. Demonstrate your patience.  At the onset of Mom’s illness, I did not recognize her behaviour as an illness.  I shamefully admit that I was less than patient.  In fact, I often expressed my annoyance and even argued with her.  It wasn’t until she started asking questions like “Is my sister Annie dead?” and “How old am I?” that I realized how far from reality her mind had travelled.  It was only then that my empathetic nature kicked in and I was able to let go of my anger and impatience.  I wasn’t mad at her.  I was mad at the disease and the situation.  I was heartbroken late one night when I was working away at the computer and she appeared from her bedroom and asked, “Are my parents dead?”  She was 92 at the time.
  5. Take behaviours in stride and come up with practical solutions.  Here are some examples of what I encountered.  Issue:  I noticed Mom took longer to get dressed.  I ventured into her room while she was getting dressed and saw that she was opening and closing dresser drawers.  She apparently had no clue in which drawer she kept her underwear or what was in any of the drawers.  Solution:  I labeled the drawers.  Then I labeled the kitchen cupboards and closet doors as well. Issue:  A few days later, I meandered into her room to find that she had 7 or 8 outfits laid upon the bed.  She had no idea what the weather/season was, so she couldn’t make a decision.  Solution:  I started helping her make the decision by telling her the activity of the day and making a couple of suggestions, still giving her the choice – much like one might do with a young child.  Issue:  At bedtime, I watched her go back and forth repeatedly from her bedroom to the bathroom.  Only because she had the habit of tapping her toothbrush on the sink to shake off excess water before putting it away did I know she had brushed her teeth.  On this night, I listened and discovered that she had brushed her teeth on each trip.  So I light-heartedly asked, “How many times do you brush your teeth at night?”  She replied, “Just once.”  Solution:  I made up a yellow sticky note that read “I’ve already brushed my teeth tonight” and started putting it on the mirror right after she left the bathroom the first time.
  6. Write things down!  I found myself repeating situations and past events.  So, I started to write little histories for her.  I wrote to her about how my Dad, her parents and siblings had passed away.  Knowing how detail-oriented and organized her personality was, I itemized each with a description and year.  I also wrote about happy memories explaining the lives of my brother, myself and cousins.  I made her a scrapbook of pictures of her life with a little narrative beside each picture.  I’m so thankful I did this because I would often catch her reviewing the letters and papers.  At first she reminisced and later she regarded them almost as if they were about someone else and would ask questions.
  7. Find or build your own support network.  You can’t do it alone.  We need a village to raise a child, and we need a village to care for our elderly.  Seek out others who have loved ones afflicted with dementia and support each other.  Recently wonderful solutions are being designed internationally for long-term care facilities.  When the time came for me to place Mom in a long-term care facility, I did my research and found a wonderful home and was able to confidently let the experts take control.  The decision to place her into a home was difficult and I’m grateful that I had a support network of family, friends and professionals to ease the transition.

May you never have to deal with this, and if you do, may your path be with courage and grace. Bless you.

Autumn Years

I’ll admit to looking at pictures of my highschool classmates on Facebook and comparing hair colour, wrinkles and weight – not in a jealous or mean way, but as an inspiration to stay vibrant.  There are those who look like they’ve given up and there are those who are out mountain climbing, cycling and travelling the world.  It’s the latter I look to for motivation.

Sadly this past week one of my Aquafit ‘gang’ passed away.  There are about 20 of us, I’d say aged 50 – 80 who haunt the local pool every weekday afternoon for laps and a 45 minute class.  The ones who aren’t yet retired are teachers, professors or medical professionals who have a flexible schedule – most are retired.  The time isn’t just about exercise; it’s a social time.  We chat about the latest news, family outings and health issues.  We know who’s there to regain mobility after surgery, who’s battling diabetes and who’s coping with arthritis.  We have a unique camaraderie.  There’s a core group of about 8 who’ve been doing this for 12 years.  It’s one of those members who passed away suddenly after a very brief illness.  He only knew he had cancer for a few weeks.  I didn’t know him for very long, but I’ve spent the last year jogging, paddling with water weights, kicking with noodles and doing jumping jacks with him and his wife.  He had a sparkle in his eye and would purposely splash the ladies knowing full well they didn’t want to get their hair wet.  We lovingly called him the ‘splasher’.

His death has got me thinking about life, especially in the autumn years.  I look around at most of my neighbours whose physical activity seems to focus on mowing the lawn and tending the garden and whose social activity ranges from family gatherings to absolutely nothing.  I compare them to the Aquafit gang who daily come to the pool with stories of having friends over for dinner, craft meetings, antique hunting, country outings, the latest charity fund raisers, local bluegrass festivals, the downtown market, apple picking, river walks – you name it, they do it.

Life can be short.  It doesn’t matter how healthy we are, our number can be up at any moment.  Thank your Maker for each and every day.  You can sit around and wait for it, or you can live life.  Smell the roses.  Talk to your neighbours.  Join a group.  Go for a walk.  Enjoy.   

We Are One

There are two times in my life when I truly felt like the border between Canada and the United States didn’t exist: first when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and second when the World Trade Center was attacked. I remember each as though it was yesterday.

I was a young schoolgirl when someone knocked at the door of our classroom and whispered into our teacher’s ear. She stood at the front with her eyes to the floor gathering her thoughts for a moment and then said, “Someone shot the President”. She didn’t say the President of The United States, she just said the ‘president’. I remember feeling that JFK was ‘our’ President.

On September 11, 2001, I was working as a consultant from my home office. Another consultant and I were in the middle of a conference call with an American client when they suddenly interjected into our presentation with, “Something terrible has happened and we have to go” and they disconnected the call. We turned on the TV to see the horrible images of a plane hitting the first tower. It was only a few moments that we wondered if this could be an accident when the news broke of a second plane. This was no accident. This was war. We were horrified. We were one.

In the days and weeks that followed, the border between the United States and Canada didn’t exist. We were one. We were family. We did what families do. We felt the pain, we commiserated with each other, we pitched in to help. We watched the news for hours on end to watch evil take over as other planes were hijacked. We accepted hundreds of planes to still the air over North America and offered refuge to each of their passengers. There was no divide between us. We were one.

Canada accepted 238 planes that day in Vancouver, Halifax, and other cities. Gander, Newfoundland, a community of less than 10,000 accepted 37 planes with 6700 people. Their story has since been made famous via the celebration Come From Away now playing throughout the U.S. and Canada as well as London, England and Melbourne, Australia. We were one.

In the last few years, the border has begun to slowly reappear. Politics have tried to play havoc with our relationship. I now know that he is your president, not ours. Many Canadians cautiously watch as he blunders through each day ripping through previous logical progress in trade, climate change solutions and women’s rights. In spite of that, deep in our hearts, we know that whatever happens in the United States, Canadians will be affected.

Today we remember. We remember the devastation of 9/11. We remember the heroes. We remember those who died and those who carried on. We are one.

Margaret Atwood Says It’s Time to Bother

Canadian poet and author of fiction, children’s fiction and best-selling novels, Margaret Atwood is most recently best known as the creator of The Handmaid’s Tale – original book published in 1983 and transformed in the popular Hulu TV series (2017 – present) of the same name.  She is deeply involved in the development of the series and even made a cameo appearance in an episode.

Ms Atwood says the book, the movie, the series follow one axiom: “You can’t put anything in that doesn’t have a precedent in human history”. Her sequel, The Testaments will hit bookstores today.  She wrote The Testaments for two reasons:  one because people kept asking questions about the ending of her book The Handmaid’s Tale; and two because she sees women’s rights under threat.

For those of you who have not yet read the book or seen the TV series, the Handmaid’s Tale story is that of a young wife and mother caught up in the dystopian Republic of Gilead – formerly the United States.  When environmental toxins made most of the population infertile, right-wing religious extremists created a state wherein fertile women by law became ‘baby machines’ each serving the head of a totalitarian household.  Some have found the series slow-moving, but for three seasons I have been riveted to my livingroom chair.  There have been times when I have been enthralled and moments I’ve had to look away from horrific scenes, but I thirst for the next season.

Although Margaret Atwood says that Trump is not a Gileadian figure, she does say, “We are probably close to it in some States”.  She says there are other figures in the United States and around the world who want to rollback women’s rights.  She also said that in 1999 she wouldn’t have bothered to write a sequel, but now it’s time to bother.  I guess so:  Protesters have dressed in Handmaid’s Tale garb to protest numerous women’s rights issues, most recently the abortion law in Alabama.

Gee, I wonder how many American Republicans, Canadian Conservatives and right-wing politicians world wide have read The Handmaid’s Tale or will read The Testaments.  I would bet not.

She The North: Bianca Andreescu Makes Canada Proud

I never thought I’d be blogging so much about tennis, but when two stars shine so brightly it’s hard to ignore. On Saturday, Bianca Andreescu won the U.S. Open beating Serena Williams who was aiming for a 24th straight win. For Bianca the win places her 5th in world tennis – pretty amazing for someone who ranked 152nd at the start of the season.

These two women are beacons of light for women everywhere. Not only is Serena a persistent rock star in the sports world, but she also is the Purple Purse Ambassador shining the light on financial abuse and domestic violence of women.

Born to immigrant parents, Bianca is the rising star and as such has shown both tenacity and grace. She is keenly aware of the feelings of others, showing compassion to Serena at the Canadian Roger’s Cup this summer. In true Canadian fashion, she apologized to the mostly American crowd on Saturday, “I know you guys wanted Serena Williams to win, so I’m so sorry”. How charming is that?

I hope little girls everywhere are watching these two women and learning that a positive attitude and hard work brings success and happiness. Kudos to both.

Back to School – Make it Easier for Your Child

It’s Back-to-School time again.  Even though I know the September Equinox is the official end of summer, I’m always a little sad this time of year as I remember myself as a youth interpreting it as the end of sunshine, outdoors, freedom and frolic. 

Last Friday I watched the Canadian Show Nature of Things’ episode The Power of Play.  The show introduced a variety of scholars conducting research on play:  Gordon Burghardt, University of Tennessee; Stuart Brown, known as the grandfather of play; Vancouver researcher Mariana Brussoni; and Norwegian psychologist Ellen Sandseter among others.  Watching the show, particularly at this time of year, got me to thinking about all of the children and teens making the switch from their summer months off into the daily routine of school.

Some young people may not have had exciting summers and are looking forward to returning to the schedule of classes.  I’ll bet though there are others who had summers filled with family vacations, camp, and day trips or just hanging with their friends.  They might be anxious about the transition from variety to mundane. 

Historically, schools have been orderly, methodical, and consistent.  They were created by organized, formal, authorities to churn out results.  Students are told what to do and when to do it.  There is little freedom.  Although recently pedagogy practice has evolved to include more interaction and less direction, many classrooms are still ‘old school’ and certainly not conducive to all personality types or learning styles.

Consider the individual who is naturally energetic, spontaneous and adventurous.  Likely their attention span isn’t very long.  I’m not talking about ADD or ADHD; I’m talking about the brain that needs stimulation and lots of activity.  Fitting into this structured environment might be a challenge at best.  At worst, he/she is likely to find him/herself in the principle’s office on a regular basis.  I was one of those kids.

Play is serious business.  Researchers have discovered that play (spontaneous, often repetitive actions for no particular reason and solely for amusement) is a necessary part of prefrontal cortex development where planning, decision making and impulse control occur.  Play helps to develop perception of others’ emotions and there is a relationship between play and ability to cope.  Furthermore, risky play (thrilling but not really dangerous) helps young children extend their limits and try different ways of doing things to achieve success.

So, parents and grandparents, this school season make sure the children in your life have sufficient time to be silly.  Let them have a play break after school before they must sit down to do their homework.  Encourage them to spend some time outdoors climbing trees and exploring nature.  Allow them to have some rough and tumble activity.  You might have to hold your breath or look the other way from time to time, but I’m sure they will be healthier and happier for it. 

Serena Williams Shines the Light on Abuse

Serena Williams is the ambassador for the Allstate Foundation’s Purple Purse program that focuses on the issue of abuse via financial control.  “One in four women will experience domestic violence,” she says, “and this is to help woman and communities throughout America find a way (out of) abuse through financial education and empowerment. That’s my big message.’’ 

Now is the time for more women to tell their stories.  The women’s movement has stagnated around #MeToo and #TimesUp focusing on sexual assault in the workplace.  While these are imperative aspects of women’s issues, the scope of woman abuse from partners has seemingly taken the back burner.  Thank you, Serena, for shining the light back onto the issue of domestic abuse.

You may ask, “Is this really that important?”  You’re darn right it is especially when you consider:

  • Many women in North America (20% in Canada, 25% in the U.S.) have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and 70% of spousal violence is not reported to the police so the statistics are likely much higher.  99% of all domestic violence includes financial control.  Does this mean that therefore financial control necessarily leads to domestic violence?  No, but restricting spending, preventing financial account access, excluding from financial decisions and causing debt are all considered financial abuse.
  • Violence against women costs taxpayers and the government billions of dollars every year: Canadians collectively spend $7.4 billion to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence.  In 2016, the McKinsey Global Institute reported in the U.S. violence against women costs about $4.9 billion in direct costs alone.
  • It has a profound effect on children:  Help organizations in both Canada and the U.S. claim children who witness violence in the home have twice the rate of psychiatric disorders as children from non-violent homes and are more likely to become violent in their adult relationships.

Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation launched the No More campaign in 2013 to break the stigma and it brought the issue to public attention with TV ads and they continue to work with many agencies.

Bringing these matters to the public eye is important.  Calling someone out on being controlling is important.  Total intolerance of abuse is important.  But isn’t that just putting a band-aid on the problem?  The issue is extremely complex.  If we have any hope of truly changing the issue of men dominating women in the home, in the workplace, or anywhere; we need to look at the root cause. How are our societies raising our children?  We need to model effective behaviour every day.

We’re not going to erase the Disney images of sweet little princesses needing the knight in shining amour riding on the white horse, but perhaps we can limit that exposure and present gender neutral/equal alternatives in child play.  We need to have meaningful discussions with our children and teenagers about what they see and hear.  A good start might be to talk about how wonderful it is that Serena Williams is setting such a great example by being the Ambassador for the Purple Purse.

Recognizing Abuse

Some people ask why I blog.  The simple answer is that I want to share what happened to me so that other women might be helped – to start anew, to pick up the pieces, to leave an abusive relationship, to perhaps even recognize that they are in an abusive relationship and above all to stay safe.  I wrote the following several years ago after leaving an abusive relationship:

It was a weeknight in October with a thunderstorm threatening.   As I parked the car in the parking lot of the Abused Women’s Centre, the clouds opened up and it started to rain.  I had hesitated about one minute too long.  I was here at the behest of good friends, not because I thought I needed any help or counselling.  Feeling invincible and determined, I thought I could make a run for it; but as I dodged people and umbrellas along the busy downtown street, the heavens burst apart and dumped relentless buckets of water on me.

I arrived at the centre in totally soaked clothes sticking to my skin and hair completely flattened by rain.  I stood in reception and asked if there were any towels.  Helpful women scurried around and brought me towels, a baby blanket and a hair dryer.  Still feeling invincible, I went to the bathroom, stripped down and wrapped myself in my temporary donations.  A woman came, collected my clothes, and told me they’d be in the dryer. I apprehensively walked down the hall and into the meeting room with several women. As she saw me draped in towels, one of the counsellors said, “You deserve the prize for having the most moxie!”

The information session’s purpose seemed to be threefold – to inform:

  1. The services offered,
  2. The definition of abuse, and
  3. How to implement a safety plan.

I was keenly aware of my attire being an attention-getter. There might be times when I would relish being the centre of attention, but this was certainly not one. So I just sat silently hoping the others’ interest would be diverted to the leader rather than me. “Services provided by our Centre….blah, blah, blah.” 

I wasn’t really listening. In my typical fashion, I was skimming ahead in the written pamphlet. Third or fourth page in was a wheel diagram called the Abuse Wheel (adapted from the original Duluth Model  https://www.theduluthmodel.org/wheels/).

I looked at it. It made sense. I was still looking at it as an observer, gathering information. And, with my teaching and curriculum design background, I was reading it as an editor. I hadn’t truly taken it in, personalized it or reflected upon it. I was more concerned that each of us would be asked questions that I wasn’t prepared to answer. I didn’t want to share. I didn’t even want anyone to know who I was. Thankfully, our anonymity was respected. No questions were asked.

We were asked to look at the Abuse Wheel and check off anything that related to us and our relationship with our abuser. I took a second, closer look. “Humiliating you in front of others.” Check. Frank had always tried to. “Name calling”. Check. Frank used to call me ‘tubby’ or ‘plumpy’, because I had asked him to stop calling me ‘fatso’. I continued reviewing the chart. “Controlling what you do”. Check. Yup, that was Frank. “Controlling how you look”. Check. When he didn’t like what I was wearing, he’d tell me I looked like a farmer. To him, that was an insult. “Controlling who you see or communicate with”. Check. Frank didn’t like me spending time with girlfriends. In fact, whenever I spoke with Katherine on the phone, he would say, “I don’t know why you call her. You hardly ever see her and she never calls you.” I continued on.

Preventing you from physical care.” Check.  In the last two years, in spite of the fact that I had one tooth that bothered me, he wouldn’t let me go to the dentist.  I felt a well of emotion rise within me. “Slapping, hitting, punching, pushing”. Check. Until recently, this hadn’t been an issue, but that horrible night flashed through my head. I stared at the booklet in front of me afraid to make eye contact with anyone. My mouth became dry and I felt a lump in my throat. Tears started welling up in my eyes.  Through the blur I continued reading. “Using threatening looks”. Check. “Destroying your property”. Check. The tears started to run down my face. “Forcing you to watch pornography”. Check. My innermost secrets and the darkest part of my life stared back at me from the page.

I could barely swallow. I could barely breathe. I felt naked. I wanted to cry out loud. How did they know how he treated me? I wanted to scream, “That fucking bastard!”  I wanted to kill him. Instead, I just sat there.  It was as if time had frozen. I don’t even know if the presenter was still talking. Maybe the room was quiet.  Maybe others were asking questions – I’m not sure.  I have no idea how long I sat there looking at that Abuse Wheel.

Epiphany:  “Oh, my God, I am an abused woman. It wasn’t just that one night of domestic violence. I have been an abused woman for years.”

My head was whirling. I felt so stupid. How could this be? Suddenly I was cold. I wanted to be invisible. At first, I wanted the earth to open and swallow me up.  I wanted Scotty to beam me up and transport me to a happy place. I wanted to travel back in time. I wanted to push the ‘redo’ button. Suddenly I noticed that no one was talking. I finally had the courage to look up. I wasn’t the only one crying. 

I drove home with more questions in my head than answers. How did this happen? How could I not have realized Frank was so controlling and abusive? Was I an enabler? Was I to blame? Did others know? What will the rest of my life be like? What got me here?

The only way I could figure out what to do next was to understand how and why this had happened.  The only way to do that was to commence an analytical review of my life.  Maybe then I would discern the causes and not repeat my errors.  As part of my search to discover how I had become a victim of abuse, I delved into my past. Was there something about my heritage, my childhood or my personality that contributed? I needed to understand myself. I needed answers. And so began my mission. 

Women Supporting Women – what real stars do

This week Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu took the Rogers Cup against Serena Williams who retired from the final with an injury. It’s not how Bianca wanted to win and Serena was clearly unhappy. Watch what happened. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20kt-wAXQOQ

The headlines read that this is the first time a Canadian has won the Rogers Cup in 50 years. But that’s not what most of us will remember. More important is the demonstration of one woman supporting another. Basically Bianca told Serena how much she admired her and asked her if it was her back. When Serena nodded confirmation, Bianca said, “That sucks” and hugged her.

Both women are champions and wonderful role models. In this case, one for knowing her limitations and bowing out gracefully and the other for showing respect and empathy. To me, it doesn’t really matter who got the cup. Congratulations to two classy ladies!