I dutifully counted down the days on my Halloween calendar figurine and here we are- today is Halloween. My fourth without Ben. Being home with bronchitis is adding to my melancholy. I did find comfort and joy in using that figurine. It made me smile to think about how Ben loved it and it felt good to honor that tradition. Stuck inside, I won’t see kids dressed up or give my students candy, though that will happen when I return. I will look at our photos and videos, listen to my Walt Disney World Halloween music, and reminisce about how much fun we had at Walt Disney World on Halloween. Halloween was truly magical there- after all, Ben proposed to me on Halloween at Walt Disney World. It was perfect!
I did bake Halloween cookies and make Halloween cards with a photo of Disney. As I’ve said before, baking and decorating cookies is like my therapy. I am able to relax and get lost in the whimsy. I tried hard to embrace my decorations (click here for that post), acknowledging that I was able to begin to embrace the Halloween spirit that, until this year, had left me along with Ben. Now, I’m more of a participant in the holiday, but I don’t feel the gleeful whimsy that I felt with him. I look at footage from Walt Disney World’s Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and although part of me would love to experience it again, I wonder if I will ever again be able to attend that celebration.
Without distractions at school, I’m surrounded by only memories, albeit good ones. Every year, I’ve made a calendar that is a collage of favorite photos from Walt Disney World. It was a very positive process to make these calendars. I made them for Ben when he was here, too, since he loved to be surrounded by our photos. As you can see, October is filled with Halloween memories. I rejoice in them because Halloween is a treasured part of our relationship. At the same time, I grieve for Halloweens and other events, and even non-events, that we won’t have. And, over the past several months, I’ve struggled with anger that he was cheated out of so much life.
The October collage on my calendar.
Understandably, the most poignant memories were during our visits after Ben’s ALS diagnosis. I think about how Ben was embarrassed to meet Buzz Lightyear when he was in the scooter. Ben loved Buzz, but after ALS began to weaken him, he said he didn’t want to meet Buzz because Buzz was a strong super hero. I think he agreed to meet him more for me than for himself, though he thoroughly enjoyed watching Buzz interact with the kids on line and he had a child’s excitement. He was able to walk a bit with his cane at this point, and he wanted to stand with Buzz. We were never much for dressing up for the holiday, but Ben loved the Buzz shirt we found and I wore Minnie Halloween ears. Buzz made such a fuss over Ben’s shirt and he made Ben laugh, which made me so happy. Those are the important and beautiful memories. Ben truly did embrace life while facing death. Yes, some of that was denial, but much of it was inner strength and determination, and I believe it helped him to navigate life with ALS in a positive way.
I’m still proudest of our summertime Halloween- our last but most magical visit to Walt Disney World. Here’s a link to that post. I hope that it offers some inspiration to anyone struggling.
Ben did say that when the time came, he was going to be a grim grinning ghost at the Haunted Mansion. I hope he is and that he is having a ghostly good time.
I wish everyone a Happy, Not So Scary, and Healthy Halloween!
Disney’s Animal Kingdom- 2001. Ben was psyched to meet Baloo!
Disney’s The Jungle Book celebrated the anniversary of its 1967 release just this past week on Thursday, October 18. Of course, I had to re-watch this classic tale of Mowgli, a man-cub who is raised in the jungle, nurtured by some animals and hated by Shere Khan, the tiger who hates man and is determined to kill Mowgli. It is also a sweet tale of Mowgli’s relationship with Bagheera, the wise panther who teaches and watches over him, and Baloo, the big goofy bear who is a great and caring friend. I always smile when I watch this film, because Ben loved Baloo and fancied himself a big,cuddly bear- a description with which I must agree! During my viewing this time, I thought about how much The Jungle Book has to say about a caregiving relationship and how Ben and I confronted ALS.
Bagheera has all the qualities of a good caregiver: patience, the ability to listen and reason, understanding of Mowgli as a man-cub within the jungle environment, willingness to let Mowgli test himself, reliability, intelligence, common sense and loyalty. Who could ask for more in a caregiver? Baloo is a great buddy, and he and Mowgli have a deep friendship and love, but Baloo also needs the guidance of Bagheera. When Baloo resists the reality that Mowgli needs to return to the “man village” and be around people like himself, Bagheera needs to remind Baloo that although he loves his little buddy and thinks of him as a son, he has to see the big picture in caring for Mowgli and that he has to think about what was best for Mowgli and not just for himself. Those are tough choices and I remember them well. Caring for Ben meant never losing sight of what our priorities were. Like Baloo, there were many times when I felt Ben deserved to indulge in any of his whims because I did not know how long he would have that luxury. And, we knew that time was not on his side. Taking him to Walt Disney World for one last visit was a very joyful indulgence. There were also the gut wrenching realities. I remember that after Ben repeatedly said that he wanted to go home from the hospital, I just wanted to honor his wishes and I asked his doctor if it would be possible to bring him home. His doctor, who proved to be my Bagheera, provided the wisdom and the reasoning, and then I had to have those heartbreaking conversations with Ben. There were stressful times when, just like Baloo and Mowgli, we argued and sulked. But, the caring in caregiving never went away and neither did the love.
I suppose that ALS was our Shere Khan. The wolves who raised Mowgli from the time Bagheera found him knew that they could not stand up to Shere Khan. They did not stop loving Mowgli, but they knew that he could not continue to live with them or Shere Khan likely would have killed all of them. Caregiving also comes with these difficult decisions. Sometimes it’s a matter of caregiving becoming so difficult that it poses physical and emotional risks to a caregiver. In Ben’s case, had he not chosen to go to hospice and separate from the vent, he would have had to go to a facility because he could not have lived in our apartment with a tracheostomy, needing 24/7 nursing care. This was not an option we liked but it was one we had to accept. I could relate to the battle in which Shere Khan seriously wounds Baloo- the fight to protect and care for Ben did take a toll on me in many ways, but love and devotion kept me at his side. Just like Shere Khan, ALS was a deadly force, but, unfortunately, in our true story, it was one that we could not outwit or defeat.
I don’t know that I would run to Baloo for help in a crisis, though he might be great comic relief! But, Baloo was protective of Mowgli and he has a good message. As caregivers, we don’t often get to “forget about your worries and your strife” and life seems much more complicated than “the bare necessities.” And yet, it is so important to take the time to cherish and remember the simple and wonderful aspects of our relationships and life prior to caregiving. Try to focus on those things when the stress becomes severe and you start to forget who you were before you were in a caregiving relationship.
As for me, I think I was a combination of Bagheera and Baloo- a dedicated, thoughtful caregiver, acquiring skills and perspective during on the job training, with a sense of humor and incredible klutziness. Importantly, Ben always felt safe and secure with me. How about you? What do you consider the important skills of caregiving? Are you more Bagheera or Baloo?
It’s been a week that I’ve had my old and new Halloween decorations up in my apartment (click here for last week’s post). I was most apprehensive about the Halloween countdown calendar figurine that I gave Ben, and I was prepared to return it to its box if it was too emotional to display it. Ironically, I find great comfort and connection to Ben when I dutifully change the number of days remaining till Halloween. I can see Ben’s smile and I feel like I am doing this for and with him, taking pride in the knowledge that it is a gift that he absolutely loved and that brought him joy at a very unjoyful time.
I’ve been thinking about how is was the first time in the three years since I lost Ben that I was ready to have any Halloween decorations. I cannot explain why, at this point in time, the countdown calendar figurine gives me a sense of connection to Ben in a good way and yet, other things continue to upset or unnerve me, conjuring the memories of the pain of loss. I’m still not ready for some of the items in our collection and I don’t know if I will ever be ready for the things that I brought to decorate Ben’s hospice room. Only time will tell. But, should there be a time limit at which point I should without a doubt be able to cope with all of this?
They say time heals all wounds. When it comes to grief, I think time helps you adjust to and learn to coexist with the grief. The White Rabbit in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland says, “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.” I have felt like that as I have dealt with grief, except that I never knew what date to set or if, in fact, any such date exists. There is always the sense of measuring how long it will take to get past the pain. When loss was very new and raw, I simply wanted just to get to a point where grief became easier. When I wasn’t wondering when I would feel better, or if I should be feeling better than I did at any given time, other people were placing a time stamp on my grief. There are always the people who remind you that it’s time to “move on,” which is one of my least favorite expressions. Those dates have been based on their own experiences and opinions, and sometimes even on their own comfort level with my grief. The thing is, everyone handles grief differently and in their own timeframe.
I have always asked myself if I’ve been handling grief well. I ask myself if I should still have such a hard time celebrating Halloween without Ben. Time has allowed me to joyfully embrace some memories but not others. Should it be different? Have I missed a deadline for grief to subside? I really don’t know. On a day to day basis, although I have bad moments and bad days- especially on milestone dates- I feel like I am functioning just fine. I have always been a person who cries easily, so I cannot measure grief by tears. Still, I constantly question and assess myself. To me, the fact that I made the decision to welcome Halloween this year is a good sign of progress. It seems okay to me that some things are easier than others. I test myself, as I did with Ben’s Halloween countdown figurine and, sure enough, it is actually making me happy. If I’d decided that I was not yet prepared to display any Halloween things, would that have been okay, too? Should I be rushing or worrying that I’m late to coming to terms with my new life and new normal?
How long should grief last? How can we say? Grief began the day Ben was diagnosed with ALS. We grieved our life as we knew it, we grieved the future that we wouldn’t have, we grieved each ability that Ben lost as a result of the disease. After he left this world, I grieved his loss, and I grieved the loss of purpose that I had as his caregiver. This weekend, I was reminded that for at least a year after Ben died, each time I did venture out into the world to socialize, I cried on my way home. I remember that on one of my first outings, I cried on my way to the subway, because in addition to missing Ben, I also realized that being alone and returning home by myself had to be my new normal. It also scared me that no one would even know if I arrived home. It took me more than a year to begin to establish routines. I tiptoed into life, testing the waters to see what felt comfortable, worrying that I was not progressing quickly enough. On Friday night, after attending a Broadway play, I walked to the subway and thought about how I have become more comfortable with my new normal. I don’t experience the same pains and anxiety to return home alone. I don’t love it, and I do hope that one day I will find love again, but I embrace the good and bad days and moments simply as part of life.
I see a lot of comments on support groups from people whose family and friends make them feel like they either haven’t grieved long enough or they’ve grieved for too long. As I see it, there is no such thing as an appropriate time to grieve. That said, I did seek therapy and join grief support groups after the loss of my mom and of Ben, because I felt like I needed support with getting back to living. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to seek help if you feel that you need support to function in a manner that you think is appropriate and that gets you from day to day. It was helpful to me to talk to others who were in a similar circumstance, though it did at times fuel our insecurities to compare our experiences coping with grief.
People have asked me if I often still think of Ben. Yes, I think of him every single day, and I often talk to him and about him. It feels right to me. Some people feel that I shouldn’t still be thinking of him so frequently because it’s dwelling on the past and it keeps me from “moving on.” Frankly, I am not moving on and leaving Ben behind. I am moving forward, continuing to live but having been shaped by my love for and experience caring for Ben. Some widows and widowers share my experience and others say they don’t think about their spouses as much anymore. I’ve heard people make negative comments about those who have lost spouses and have found new love within several months. I am not aware of any formula or correct answer to any of these situations. There should be no judgment, and if there is, please keep it to yourself.
I have not wanted to return to Walt Disney World without Ben, although I do miss it. I still cannot imagine attending the Halloween festivities without him because that was truly our time, even marked by his proposal one Halloween. But, I don’t rule out a return. In fact, I do feel a tug of wanting to go and to feel the connection to Ben at a time other than Halloween. I guess I’m not like the White Rabbit. I’m not setting any dates or deadlines on how I deal with grief and its integration into my life. I have not set a deadline for myself and I will not accept a deadline set by anyone else. There are times that I feel that I’m not where I should be, and at other times I feel like I cannot rush myself, following my emotions and experiencing life on my own terms, and although I’m not always steady on my feet, I’m stepping forward every day. In my opinion, White Rabbits around me can turn off the alarm and relax , because when it comes to coping with grief there is no finish line, because it never completely passes. What’s more important than deadlines that I might have missed is that, in my own time and in my own way, I am more welcoming of the creation of new memories.
I’ve written a lot about how important Halloween was to Ben and me. Our favorite time to visit Walt Disney World was during the fall when we could celebrate my birthday and Halloween. I still hear Ben singing along with the Boo to You parade at Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween party. Most exciting was that Ben proposed to me on Halloween at Walt Disney World, which was absolutely perfect, but now adds a melancholy of the holiday.
Fall has become a strange time for me. The beginning of a school year has the shadow of memories of the anniversary of losing Ben. Fall, which was our favorite season, largely because of Halloween, does not hold the same sense of whimsy. I don’t feel the same dread of seeing Halloween decorations and candy assortments that I did for the past few years. I do tend to think about how Ben and I would have been thrilled to see Halloween invade the shops, and how I would have been taking photos to text to him, once ALS had progressed and he was homebound. I have lacked the enthusiasm for the holiday that I used to have, but I found that this year, I missed feeling that enthusiasm.
I have not decorated the apartment for Halloween since Ben has been gone. I have kept our Halloween things in storage. The last time I saw them was when I brought them to Ben’s hospice room. His doctor suggested that bringing things Ben loved to his room would make him more comfortable. Although it was August, celebrating Halloween in the summer was not a new idea for us. After all, we had Halloween at Walt Disney World in July in 2014, thanks to the wonderful Walt Disney World team (click here for that post). Ben did get such a kick out of seeing our Disney decorations in his room. Decorating the room was also a soothing distraction for me- it kept me busy and let me focus on creating smiles rather than dwelling on Ben’s imminent departure from this world. I haven’t wanted to display those decorations since that time, but Halloween remains a Ben and Disney kind of holiday for me. Although I cannot resist peeking at the Halloween section of the Disney web site, I cannot add to our collection without Ben because it almost feels like a betrayal. This year, I considered buying a “Boo to you” mug, because Ben loved that parade so much, but I did not think it would bring me much comfort or joy. Maybe one day, but not yet.
This year, I was looking at a recent catalog from The Vermont Country Store, one of our favorite places. We spent hours there each time we went to Vermont and we frequently ordered online from the store. I have continued to order many things- they have such a fantastic collection of items, from nostalgic to practical to whimsical and fabulous- but I had not ordered any of their wonderful Halloween items. I always feel a combination of joy and sadness as I look through those pages. Choosing Halloween items for our collection was a very special event for Ben and me that is painfully lonely by myself.
As I perused the catalog, I have to say that I perked up when I spotted tiny Halloween Hurdy Gurdy music boxes. One of them played Grim Grinning Ghosts. Ben so loved the Haunted Mansion and the song. He actually used to joke that when he left this world he was going to become one of the Grim Grinning Ghosts at Walt Disney World. He also said he would visit me, and I do believe he does. I’ve written about Ben’s love of music and how much he loved to listen to Disney theme park music. He also loved music boxes and I gave him a couple as gifts over the years. I had to have this little music box. I also discovered a Charlie Brown Halloween bed sheet set. Ben would have loved them. We loved It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and “I got a rock,” was one of his favorite expressions. Once, when I went on a vacation without him, I picked up a tiny rock to bring home to him. My friend questioned it and I said that Ben would understand. Sure enough, when I got home, I placed the rock in front of him and he laughed and exclaimed, “I got a rock!” I decided to order the sheets. Once on a shopping roll, I also ordered two little figurines- retro inspired little girls dressed as cats with pumpkins. I was not sure how I would feel when these things arrived, but I felt like I had made a good decision to order things that would remind me of Ben but that would be brand new.
When the package arrived, I felt nervous. I tried to ignore it for a few hours, but I finally opened the box. First, I saw the music boxes. I played Grim Grinning Ghosts and cried as I turned the crank and listened to the tune, wishing Ben was with me because he would have loved it. I bet he would have figured out a way to make it a ring-tone. It devastates and angers me to think about all that he misses in life, and how much time was taken from us. It may seem silly that a tiny music box would make me feel so sad and lonely at the same time that it conjures such loving memories, but it’s those little shared joys that carry such huge emotion. The Charlie Brown sheet set is adorable, and he would have loved them, too. I have not yet put them on the bed. I stare at them in their package, and I’m almost bracing myself for using them. The little girl figurines are very sweet. My cat, Disney, is always happy to see cats represented since I have so many schnauzer things. I know Ben would approve of them, but they are definitely more of a “me” decoration, which is probably a good thing.
With these new decorations, I began to think about all of the things I have in storage. I still was not prepared for anything that I had brought to the hospice room. I decided to go to storage yesterday to bring back my Mickey Mouse Halloween string of lights- they are similar to Christmas lights but orange Mickey Mouse faces. When I was across the street from the storage facility I started to panic and choke up. I reasoned with myself that if it was too upsetting, I would just leave. I opened the door to my space, grabbed the lights and then I saw the box with our big Disney Halloween snowglobe. At first, I put it in the bag to bring home, but it started to upset me and I put it back on the shelf. Why were the lights okay but the snowglobe wasn’t? I can’t say. I never know what is going to trigger the tears and wave of grief. Since I had made it this far in my quest to retrieve some Halloween things, I decided to open the Halloween box of Disney decorations. I immediately had visions of how things looked in the hospice. I do not know if I will ever be able to enjoy those things without Ben. I did find the box that contained what turned out to be a very special gift that I got for Ben- a Mickey and Minnie Halloween countdown figurine. I had gotten it for Ben as a surprise and I set it up by his desk so he would see it when he woke up one morning. He texted me with such delight. Every morning before I left for school, I would change the number on the figurine, and if I forgot, he would text me to remind me! At that point, ALS had taken too much of his dexterity and he could not change the numbers himself. I thought about how much he loved this little figurine that I’d gotten simply as a way to give him some joy and chuckles when he was homebound. It was something that I intentionally did not bring to the hospice room- I was not going to summon any notion of counting down time. Impulsively, I put it in my bag to bring it back home, and then, I changed my mind, thinking it would be too upsetting. In the end, I took it home, thinking that I would see how I felt once I had displayed it. There were many tears when I took it out of the box, but the memories of how happy it made Ben are very good.
Last night, I put the Halloween lights on and set out the countdown figurine. I will change the day every day, as Ben would want me to do- 31 days till Halloween, in case you’re counting or curious. As I see it, I am keeping a tradition that was important to him and to us. The hard part is not knowing what will be comforting and what will be unnerving, but I channel my inner Dory and “just keep swimming” through the emotions. Halloween will never be the same, but it feels like I’m finding a way to make it mine while I include Ben, too. If, in fact, he is a grim grinning ghost and he comes to visit, I think he will be happy to see it. I hope so.
2012- Main Street on Halloween was one of our favorite things to see.
Yesterday, I went to see New York City Ballet perform Jewels. It’s one of the first ballets I ever saw. I saw my first NYC Ballet, The Nutcracker, at age three and was enthralled by ballet from that young age. I read about Jewels and my mom took me to see it at Lincoln Center. How lucky was I? Going to the theater or ballet is my favorite activity and my most loved way to lose myself and feed my soul. As I walked to Lincoln Center, after making a last-minute decision to get a ticket, I thought about my caregiving days. As Ben’s ALS was progressing and he was nervous about being alone, I could not simply make a quick decision to go to the theater or ballet. It had to be planned in advance and Ben had to negotiate with his daughter to stay with him. I went from being someone who saw everything to someone who barely knew what was on Broadway. It was a choice I made with no regrets, and I can still look back and know that I did the right thing for Ben and for me and for us, but I also admit that I did not take care of myself, physically or emotionally.
As I watched the ballet, I thought about how I can now spend my time as I choose. Even after three years, I’m still not entirely comfortable saying that. I don’t want it to be construed as my having any sense of relief that I am free from a burden. It was hard work that was also loving and meaningful, and unquestionably the most important thing I have ever done, although I did lose a part of myself in the process. After I lost my dad and Ben, returning to the theater and ballet helped me distract myself from grief, sort through feelings, and rediscover myself. There were and there continue to be times when events are not as fulfilling and enjoyable as I wish they would be because I profoundly feel Ben’s absence. But, I have established new normals, new routines and an evolving sense of myself. The arts are the way I take care of myself- I can think, imagine, reflect and just enjoy the magic. I feel fortunate that my passion for the arts has always helped me to heal and grow.
When I think back on my caregiving days, I remember that I constantly struggled with feeling detached from life. I tended to put caring for myself aside, always concerned that worrying about myself was being selfish. Of course, my indulging in arts events seemed so trivial compared to Ben’s battle with ALS. But, as Ben’s needs increased and his denial of that persisted while the devastation clearly affected both of us, I grew more isolated from people and things I loved and I became resentful, angry and frightened. Reconciling those negative feelings and the guilt for feeling them has not been easy.
Throughout my caregiving days, the people around me told me that I HAD TO take time for myself. It really irritated me, because it was stating the obvious but also felt impossible. I could not voice my need to take care of myself. In my mind, since my dad and Ben were ill, they were the ones who mattered. On the occasions that I was able to go out, those things didn’t offer the same satisfaction that they did before, because I never went with Ben, I felt guilty for going out and because I was worried about what was going on at home if I was not there, and lamenting what I missed: the life we had, who we were before illness took over, the things that I, and we, couldn’t do.
It was through our love for Disney films that I discovered my greatest source of self care. Ben and I loved to watch Disney movies, and what I found was that the films were more than simply distracting and entertaining together time. I was seeing the films in a whole different way when I watched them through the eyes of a caregiver. They were shedding light on my caregiving situation. Disney films let me feel understood because they tapped exactly what I was feeling and gave me perspective on a situation that was very daunting. They were simultaneously giving me a much needed break from reality and letting me think through my feelings about my reality. While having someone stay with my husband while I went out was sometimes possible, though less and less ideal, I realized that I was so busy thinking that taking care of myself meant planning a major outing, and dwelling on the negatives like the help that I didn’t have, that I didn’t see that taking time to watch a Disney film was also time to reflect and enjoy my own company right within our apartment!
What turned out to be the most valuable thing I did for myself was that I began keeping a journal of the Disney quotes, films and characters that made an impact on me and I wrote about how they related to my experiences in caregiving. Writing was always a passion of mine, but I stopped writing in my journal because I felt like I kept repeating the same issues without finding solutions. By creating this journal, I unexpectedly combined my love of Disney and writing with my caregiving, and held onto a vital part of myself without having to leave home.
Collecting and writing about Disney things gave me an opportunity to reflect on my experiences in a way that was honest about the not great people and things, but also reminded me of why I continued to be a caregiver: love, dedication, a personal desire and sense of responsibility to do the profoundly meaningful work on behalf of people I loved who needed me. As Cinderella said, “they can’t stop me from dreaming.” And, when I began to think that my quotes and experiences could at some point be a book or blog, I had something positive to think and fantasize about and plan for in my future. It took a year, but I did eventually launch PixieDustForCaregivers.com. It has been an invaluable way to take care of myself, heal and connect with other caregivers.
Sometimes, even very small actions provided a huge dose of self care. For example, the thermos of tea that I drank on my daily 2.5 hour train ride back home after visiting with my dad in hospice became my precious “Abby time” to reflect, listen to meaningful music and read. Yes, my phone was in hand for texts and issues that might arise, but each sip of tea allowed me to take a deep breath and, as Frozen’s Elsa said, “Let it Go!”
A requirement for earning my certification as a caregiving consultant was to create a webinar. Since a significant issue during my caregiving days was the concept of losing myself while caregiving and knowing that I was also going to lose Ben, and I have heard similar anecdotes among other caregivers, I decided to create a webinar exploring this theme. Finding Inspiration and Protecting Your Identity During Caregiving explores ways in which I maintained my identity and tapped important parts of myself, often right at home. There are ideas for finding inspiration, protecting your identity and how to make your plans happen. You can see the webinar by clicking here to view it on Caregiving.com.
Today, I will see the new Broadway show, Pretty Woman. A weekend of the arts always does wonders for my soul. And, as I discovered, so does caregiving. Now, I am so proud to have earned my certification as a caregiving consultant. I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to use it, though I know that I one thing I would like to do is work with children who have a parent or family member with ALS. The important thing to me is that I have learned from my experiences, I continue to learn about myself and I protecting my identity and honoring Ben and my dad.
What are you doing for yourself? Please leave comments with your questions, comments, revelations and/or struggles.