Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Kindred Spirits in Caregiving, Grief and Beyond
On this day, December 21, 1937, Walt Disney’s first full-length feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. I wish I could say that I navigated caregiving and grief like Snow White, the graceful princess who happily sang her way through taking care of the seven dwarfs to a happy ending. I do believe that at times I was that person to Ben and my dad. I was very much their cheerleader and the person who tried to keep them entertained. I was also the nurturing person who managed the details of their care, the way that Snow White kept her household together, except that I seriously lack her stellar housekeeping skills! Alas, I have always related more to the dwarfs!
One of my first blog posts addressed how, as a caregiver, I often felt like all seven of the dwarfs within a single day. In the earlier stages of grief, I also had drastic ups and downs and could feel like any and all of the dwarfs within moments. Now, more than three years after losing Ben to ALS and almost five years after losing my dad, I still feel a kinship with those seven cuties. Here’s how.
During my caregiving days, as Ben’s ALS progressed, he often required assistance throughout the night. I am a NYC public school teacher, and there were days that I could barely keep my eyes open at work, and a classroom is a place where you need to be on your toes. My dad also called many times in the middle of the night if he didn’t feel well, and I would travel about 45 minutes either to his home or to meet him at the Emergency Room late at night or early in the morning.
In the early phases of grief, there were many sleepless nights for so many reasons- recalling good and bad memories, anxiously contemplating the future and feeling the loneliness and the loss.
Now, I continue to have sleepless nights, though less consistently. I worry about being alone for the rest of my life, feel anxiety about dating, and sometimes I simply get caught up in memories and my mind gets the best of me. It’s also exhausting to deal with the ups and downs of emotions while adjusting to a new lifestyle, trying not to revert to staying by myself and becoming too comfortable alone.
When juggling Ben’s needs, I did not necessarily know what to do or how to help him, and, indeed, I did feel Dopey. The medical jargon was also confusing to me at times. Simple things just seemed out of reach for me because I became so overwhelmed or was just so tired. I broke things, dropped things, locked myself out of the apartment, and a bevy of other Dopey things.
For the first couple of years after I lost Ben to ALS, I found it very difficult to be caught between the past and the present. Sometimes I found myself buying something because Ben would have wanted it. When I got home, I was only reminded that he was no longer here, and then I felt Dopey, and more sad.
There are still times when, in the middle of nowhere, something will trigger great sadness and I will break into tears. People are generally understanding, but I still feel kind of Dopey.
Trying to step back into a social life, reaching out to old friends and new people has me feeling awkward and yes, a little Dopey. I feel most Dopey since I have delved into online dating. I feel like I never do the right thing, take things personally from people who don’t even really know me, and like there are codes and strategies that I am too Dopey to understand!
When I was a caregiver, asking for help and not even knowing exactly what to ask for was embarrassing. Having to explain to professionals, or even friends, some things I would have preferred not to discuss, or even know about, was definitely cause for me to feel Bashful!
Throughout the early days of grief and even now, it’s been embarrassing to have a setback or to feel overwhelmed with sadness or tears, especially when I have felt that people are judging how I’m grieving, how long I’m grieving, and what I am doing to continue living and reshape my life.
As I’ve stepped back into life, I have had to overcome my general shyness to create a new social life. I have reached out to old friends and made some new ones. I have also joined some online dating sites in an effort to find love again. It’s very difficult for me. And, it’s been very disheartening, amplifying the feeling that Ben is the only person who would ever really “get” me. But, despite embarrassment and vulnerability, I press on.
I also feel Bashful about things that are not going as well as I would like them to go, like online dating. I don’t feel like my life is where I want it to be, though I am proud of myself for taking many steps forward, but I am self-conscious and sometimes want to withdraw and stay by myself.
Staying cheerful, positive and focused when my dad and Ben were Grumpy was difficult. They were understandably Grumpy, but their taking it out on me sometimes only made for more Grumpiness! When I had been through all of the scenarios that I just described, sometimes in a single day, it was pretty easy to be Grumpy!
Now, it’s usually the setbacks that have me feeling Grumpy. The events dim my mood, like when I went to the Georgia Aquarium and my immediate reaction as I walked through that magnificent facility was anger that Ben did not live to join me and have that experience. Sadness and devastation were familiar to me, but the anger was new and it left me feeling Grumpy. I am also Grumpy when I receive unsolicited advice and judgments about how I should handle my life and how I should feel.
To anyone who has seen that side of me, during caregiving and as I’ve traveled through and emerged from the other side of grief, I do apologize!
Even in the worst and “grumpiest” days of caregiving, when Ben and my dad were struggling and patience ran thin, there was still happiness, albeit bittersweet at times. Sharing good times, making each other laugh, seeing Ben or my dad enjoy something, and successfully meeting their needs, were all positive and joyful experiences that definitely made me Happy!
In the early days of grief, you could call me Happy in those moments when I was lost in good memories or I woke up without dreading the day and the thing that would trigger my sadness.
Now, you can color me Happy when I realize that I am not just going through motions, and I actually am enjoying the present without feeling guilt. I realized this holiday season that I have once again found my genuine smile. I enjoy myself and immerse myself in life and activities I love. In the back of my mind is always the feeling that I wish Ben was with me, but I am usually more comfortable with that. I still have my setbacks, but I can be happy again and it feels good.
Well, this might not apply to everyone, but I’ve got allergies, even to my cat, whose name, by the way, is Disney! I love her and would not trade her for anything, so I deal with the allergies! Some of my allergies actually subsided after I lost Ben and my dad, leading my doctors and me to think that stress exacerbated my problems.
As their caregiver, although Ben and my dad did have medical care, when either of them didn’t feel well, sometimes it was up to me to figure out what might help. Sometimes, what we thought could be symptoms of a big problem would just go away. Sometimes I had to seek more advice or help. This is as close to a Doc as I will ever be!
Call me Doc as I have diagnosed my experience with grief. Am I doing ok? Will people think I’m doing ok? Do I care if people think I’m doing ok? Should I care? Where should I be right now in this process? Am I “normal”?
Even now, as I feel that I have stepped back into life, and I’ve even felt that I found my smile and childlike enthusiasm for the holiday season again, I assess my progress in coping with grief and my emergence from the very dark days. I read posts from the days when I just started the blog in 2016 and analyze what has and has not changed, what triggers setbacks and what’s healthy or potentially troubling.
I am happy to say that I feel that, overall, I’m doing well. This Doc rests assured that healing happens.
How about you? Are you more Snow White or one or more of the dwarfs? Please share in the comments section below. If you don’t see the comment box, just click on the title of this post.
December 22, 2018 @ 4:03 pm
Your writing is so creative and well thought out. Understanding Disney characters and having a special place in my heart for Disneyland (sorry, I’m a snob) I understand your analogies.
My cousin and her husband live in CA and frequent Disneyland. They are members of something that lets them stay at the resorts and have had yearly passes for as long as I can remember. Her husband died of cancer this July, and I spent about two months with them during and after his passing. She kept talking about how she wanted to escape to “her happy place”. When she finally went with her friend three months after Neil’s death she found herself wanting to come home, not ready to be there without him, and not with the right person for a trip there without Neil. It wasn’t the place of respite, happiness, and comfort it had always been before.
She and I are “sister cousins”, she’s eight months older than I am and we were raised together for most of our lives. We’ve both been caregivers for family and have helped each other through those times. I’ve been able to help her extensively as she’s not the hands-on type nor natured to care. She knows that trusts my judgment and advice, listens and then acts boldly. I admire her courage and strength, clarity and ability to think with logic in emotional situations. She’s generous.
Kelli and I have a trip to Disneyland planned in May 2019. She and Neil were to have gone, had paid for the room at the Grand Hotel for a week, a special group gathering she’s a member of, the pass was paid, so instead of canceling we are going. We will meet our special friend who is a server at Uva Bar, take each day as it comes, mourn and celebrate Neil, recall our times there together. It will allow me to remind her that I need to mourn my mom who died two years ago on New Year’s Day. Every time I go there I stop in the perfume shop in New Orleans Square and ask for a spritz of Shalimar because mom loved it and always bought her bottle there. I have lovely childhood memories of visits to Disneyland with my mom, sister and, dad and feel grateful that we lived in California and was able to go there often before it changed and became what it is today.
I hope when we are there we can talk, open up and learn that our happy place is inside and not a place. If we believe that we have to go to a place or be with certain people to be happy we are eventually going to be horribly disappointed. I know that from many experiences. It’s not easy to keep that in mind, it’s a constant effort. But I’m reminded when I’m at a place like Disneyland and I find I’m terribly unhappy and disappointed because my expectations of wanting to feel the way I did when I was a kid aren’t realized that life moves on and nothing remains the same and I must grow up. I’m not Peter Pan, I’m Wendy. I’ve embraced the song, Let It Go. It says so much. Disney finally wrote a song for the adults, if they only listen to the words.
December 22, 2018 @ 7:41 pm
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I have been reluctant to return to Walt Disney World because I know it won’t be the same and I don’t want to feel that pain. One of the things that was really helpful during our last visit together was that I arranged for surprises that were new memories- frankly, I thought that not being able to do some of the things we used to love would be upsetting to both of us and that trying to recreate too many memories would not be the best idea. I miss being there and hope that I will be able to create new memories there and even honor Ben while I’m there. I hope that you and your cousin have a good and valuable experience at Disneyland. Sometimes we do have to “let it go” and sometimes we have to immerse ourselves in magical memories. It’s a hard balance. Please let me know how your visit goes.
Sending all good wishes, Abby