caregiver

Superheroes of Caregiving and Grief: Gratitude and Perspective

Ben and I at Walt Disney World, July 2014

Ben and I at Walt Disney World, July 2014

A little more than a year has passed since Ben left this world, and it’s almost 3 years since I lost my dad. Grief is filled with ebbs and flows of emotion, and I do, at times, unapologetically allow myself to give into the loneliness and memories of the ugliness of cancer and ALS, the messiness- emotional and physical- of caregiving, as well as the profound sadness over my losses. The sadness is magnified around a holiday like Thanksgiving, which reinforces that I’ve lost the family to which I was so close. Thoughts also resurface of Thanksgivings spent in the hospital with my dad or at home with Ben, when he was understandably down about so many things regarding his ALS, including not wanting to eat pureed versions of traditional holiday dishes. And yet, although it was easy to lose sight of it at the time, I did have things for which to be thankful. I still do.

“The more you are in a state of gratitude, the more you will attract things to be grateful for,” said Walt Disney. In theory, I agree with Walt (OK, so no surprise there!) But, when I was watching my loved ones deal with ALS and cancer, and I was struggling with caregiving, and then grief, although I was appreciative of people and things, I can’t say that the state of gratitude was where I lived, or even where I wanted to be. It took too much effort. Ben lived in a state of denial about the progression of the disease, and I lived in a state of anxiety, more relieved than grateful for any day without crises. To me, saying I was in a state of gratitude would have implied a sense of peace and contentedness that I did not have. As time has passed, however, I’ve learned that “being in a state of gratitude” did not mean to naively ignore or diminish the impact of the bad experiences, or to try to “push Sadness into a corner,” like Joy from “Inside Out” (click here for that post.) To be in a state of gratitude gives me the very important power of perspective. There were times that I could not get beyond the chaos and sadness, and that was and is fine and genuine, but I can also shift my perspective to focus on the many aspects of these experiences that were filled with love, compassion and caring, and those do compel gratitude and invite more of these thoughts. That’s also genuine, and it’s a good and humbling feeling.

My dad and I

My dad and I

I feel very fortunate to be able to share some things I’ve discovered in my state, or perspective, of gratitude.

At the top of my gratitude list is gratitude to have been the caregiver for two supremely important people in my life. Caregiving was the most heartbreaking and challenging thing I’ve ever done, but it was also the most important, valuable, loving and rewarding thing I have ever done. I could not save my dad or Ben, and I wish we did not have to take these journeys, but I am so thankful that they knew that I was completely devoted to them, and that I would love them, care for them and provide a sense of security to them until they left this world. It didn’t always feel like it, but it was a gift to be able to feel and express that depth of love in such tragic circumstances. And, I treasure the knowledge that they loved me.

I have said it before, but can never say enough, that I am grateful for my friends, who have shown me such kindness, generosity, compassion and encouragement, while I was caregiving and then, in grief. Their spirit extended to Ben as well. In Ben’s situation, when family didn’t step in -and there were definitely disappointments and dramas- we  could always count on friends. I consider it a precious gift to have these wonderful people in my life and to know that I am loved and that Ben remains in their hearts.

I am grateful that in June I was offered an opportunity to present at the annual memorial service of Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Visiting Doctors Program a public tribute to Ben and to the people from that program and the hospital who were so fantastic to him, and to me. ALS is a rare disease, and although it is difficult for me to speak publicly, I feel it is important to take any occasion to share Ben’s experience and, hopefully, contribute in some way to an overall understanding of what it is to live with ALS and why there must be tireless efforts to find a cure. If you’d like to read my tribute, click here.

I am grateful to find comfort in the arts and in my creative endeavors.  Blogging has been tremendously helpful, and it touches my heart to know that readers find comfort in my words. I’ve gotten back into my craft work with miniatures and into Pets en Voyage, the pet souvenir business Ben and my dad helped me develop and launch. I’ve also created displays of photos and memorabilia around my home, and looking at these things always makes me smile, if sometimes through tears.

I am grateful to Walt Disney for giving us all things Disney. I am simply in awe of his imagination and vision. I am grateful to Disney for amusement, consolation, comfort, life lessons, belief that dreams come true, perspective and incredible memories. And, because I am so grateful, I even named my cat Disney. I am thankful for her every single day for the love, cuddles and laughs that she gives me and for the love she showed to Ben, especially when she visited him in the hospice.

photo-7

I am grateful to be resourceful, and to have sought out support groups and resources that have guided, encouraged and motivated me, and let me know that I am not alone in my feelings.

Walt Disney also said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

I’m grateful that for the first time in a long time, I am cautiously optimistic about starting down a new path to see where it leads as I reshape my life, though there are and there will be setbacks. My memories, and desire to respect Ben and my dad and make them proud, will accompany and guide me on my journey and will always be a part of me, and that gives me great comfort and peace. This would also be a good place to add that I am grateful to have my mom’s child-like wonder and spirit, with an inner child that cannot be contained. It allows me to continue to wish upon stars for dreams to come true. I just keep reminding myself of what I learned from Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” I know I’ll be okay.

Thank you for indulging this reflection and for sharing in my experiences in caregiving and grief. I hope that if you are reading this, and you’re struggling with gratitude and the holidays, that you will be true to your feelings but also consider a perspective that allows you to see and be grateful for love, compassion and good memories to carry you forward. And, take a bit of time (I do realize that time to yourself can be a luxury) to think, write, draw or in some other way acknowledge yourself.

Happy Thanksgiving.

With all good wishes,

Abby

11 Awesome Insights From Dory and Friends About Caregiving (and Life)

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Though she may have “short term remembery loss,” Dory is one wise little Blue Tang! She put into perspective for me a lot about caregiving and life. It’s not all about “just keep swimming!” but you can read about how that quote inspired me by clicking here.

  1. Some of the best help and support you receive will come from unexpected sources.

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,GriefDory felt alone because she thought she would never find her mom and dad and have a family. She finally realized that Nemo and Marlin were also her family.  My friends are my family, too and they provided help and support for which I will always be grateful. So did some of the professionals who took care of Ben, and I will forever love and be grateful to them as well. Becky and Gerald may have seemed like they were not up to the task of helping Dory and her friends, but they also came through in big ways. Don’t automatically judge or dismiss people, especially if they genuinely want to help, because they may be the very people who will listen, assist and offer really good ideas and information. Teamwork happens in many ways. All kinds of people stepped in surprised us in wonderful ways throughout Ben’s illness, and they continue to do so. They have compensated for the people who disappointed us, because, of course, there’s that, too.  Knowing that Ben was in the hearts of many always touched me, and it still does. Never underestimate the power of compassion and always be open to delightful surprises.

2. Be careful of the undertow.

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Caregiving is overwhelming for so many reasons. Aside from the demands of the job, there is an emotional toll of helping someone you love deal with any disability or illness and watching them struggle. The “undertow” can take a caregiver and/or a caree to a place of extreme sadness, depression, loneliness and helplessness.  It’s important to stay connected to the outside world, through your own network of friends and relatives, outside agencies, and social media support groups. Make lists of things and/or people that provide comfort, cheer, or assistance when the undertow starts pulling you down.

3. “I’m OK with crazy”- Hank

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Illnesses are unpredictable and caregiving needs are unpredictable. Our moods are also unpredictable, particularly when we are stressed, exhausted and our Tangled emotions are turning us inside out (what can I say? Disney references work for me!) You have to be ok with crazy when many things are happening at the same time that you have many conflicting emotions. And, you have to be ok with crazy when attempting to handle crises. I remember thinking that crazy was my new normal. Perspective helps! So does humor.

4. Not everything is easy to do, but there is always another way.

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Creativity, resourcefulness and a good sense of humor can help to determine new approaches and perspectives on how to deal with issues. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

5. “News flash! Nobody’s fine!” – Hank

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

In the most planned and organized day, there will be crises. They can be physical issues but they can also be emotional fallout. Caregivers and carees are not always at their best, though we would like to be. It seems to me that our default answer to “how is everything? “ is “fine” and I’ve found that most people kind of want that answer because they don’t know how to handle anything else.  It’s ok to admit that things aren’t fine. That admission should not invite any judgment. And, it doesn’t mean that things won’t be fine again, even in a matter of moments. Remember, Dory taught us that we’re ok with crazy!

6. An octopus may have 3 hearts, but it doesn’t mean it’s nice.

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Yes, it’s a fun fact, but it also lends perspective to our expectations of people around us. Ben and I were very fortunate to have lovely people around us, but we also learned that not everybody has a big heart, and having three probably would not have helped them either. Also, professionals are there to help, but, like all humans, there are more and less helpful and invested people. We were surprised in good and not so good ways.

7. Let someone know you love, care about and value them.

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Marlin often gotten frustrated with Dory, but he realized that in her innocence, she was fearless and she got him to do “crazy things” like jump jellyfish and outsmart sharks to help find Nemo. His approach to problem solving became asking himself what Dory would do.

In the film, Marlin apologizes to Dory for not having told her how much she did for him. That’s not a regret anyone wants to have. Take any opportunity to share kind and loving moments and memories.  The frustrations and resentments will ebb and flow, but the appreciation and love we have for each other should always flow.

8. “What is so great about plans?”- Dory

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

We certainly need to have plans in place, and even back-up plans, but when you’re dealing with illnesses and caregivers, you’re also dealing with human beings and unpredictable factors.  For example, I prepared to go to work every day, but there were days that I had to stay home at the last minute for a variety of reasons. I remember that on some of those days, my feeling Ben’s very loving appreciation and his feeling my unwavering devotion, made for beautiful days. You know you have to be prepared for anything, but expect the unexpected in good ways, too.

9. You can do whatever you put your mind to.

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Dory may have suffered from “short-term remembery loss,” but she dove in and figured out what she needed to do to find her parents. She enlisted her friends to help her and remained determined. She didn’t give much thought to consequences, which did create some problems for her along the way. But, she forged ahead. Caregiving can be very overwhelming at times, in terms of the actual tasks and in thinking about the future. But, I always come back to Christopher Robin’s wise advice to Winnie-the-Pooh: you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

10. Never underestimate the power of a cuddle party!

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

A little bit of whimsy, sweetness, and cuteness can lighten any moment. For Ben and me, that came in the form of generally anything Disney. My huge collection of Disney toys to cuddle didn’t hurt either! They comfort me now in grief, too.

11. Sigourney Weaver rocks! You need someone like her on your side!

Finding Dory,Disney,ALS,Caregiving,Caregiver,Grief

Whether standing up to aliens or lending her voice to stand up for our marine life, she is a star! Sometimes I felt like that person for Ben, and at other times I felt completely inept. But I’m going to always keep reaching to be a rock star (well, maybe more of a Broadway show tunes or Disney star!)

All photos: Finding Dory, Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures, 2016

Chicken Little Has a Big Message!

ALS, Caregiving,Disney,Grief

Chicken Little (2005)
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

On this day, November 4, in 2005, Walt Disney Pictures released “Chicken Little.”  I think it’s a cute movie that also has good messages about acceptance, believing in yourself and never giving up in fighting for what you believe in.

This quote felt like a caregiver’s cheer. As a caregiver, there were so many times that I felt that the sky was falling around me.  There was, of course, Ben’s actual physical deterioration as his ALS progressed. My increasing caregiving responsibilities were stressful, as was watching Ben struggle, knowing that it wasn’t going to get better but trying to deny it. The emotional toll that took on him was devastating to witness. My giving up was not an option, because Ben needed my help! And, if he wasn’t giving up, even as ALS took away his ability to walk, use his hands, swallow and ultimately, talk, then neither was I!

To be honest, the idea that “every day is a new day” could often be scary. Every day posed the possibility of a new problem. At the same time, every day did present an opportunity for things to be okay, or stable. We hoped for that and there were many good days.  Good days could be times when we had a lot of laughs, or Ben was comfortable, or I was able to transfer him easily and without pain (to either of us), or I made a tasty pureed meal in the food processor. Good days were days without frustration, resentment and sadness. Good days were days that we both felt that I was in control of all that needed to be done.

What did I do when I felt like the sky was falling? Sometimes I gave in to the emotions and cried and that did somehow leave me feeling better and calmer. At other times, I needed to take little “mind breaks.” Computer games and surfing the web often proved to be a good distraction. Watching movies, especially Disney ones, also allowed me to escape while still being present. Writing, whether in my journal, or in my book of Disney inspirations, also helped me to focus and sometimes to work out my feelings. I do find that a nice cup of tea also helps me to slow down and regroup.Emails and texts to my friends helped ease loneliness and reassured me that I had a network of support. I couldn’t go out very often, so keeping up with friends in this way allowed me to feel connected to the world. Sometimes I just sat on the sofa with Disney, my cat, while Ben watched TV in the other room. I needed space and there isn’t much in our tiny NYC apartment. And, if Ben was comfortably settled, a bubble bath was a really great retreat.

In grief, I find that this quote also resonates.  The pain and loneliness can be awful and the idea of shaping a new life can seem impossible, but I never give up and indeed, after a little more than a year, I feel like I’ve cautiously stepped back into life. I certainly have my setbacks, but I know that every day is a new day, and some are better than others. I try to acknowledge every baby step I take as I heal. Indeed, it was a leap forward to go to London and celebrate my birthday last month. It has been a hugely comforting realization that Ben and all of my memories- the carefree, loving ones as well as the ALS and caregiving ones- will always be a part of me.  The future is still daunting, and the present is still lonely and sad, but I have more pleasant days and feel more optimistic now.

I suggest to other caregivers that it’s very important to identify things that make you feel better when it seems that the sky is falling. A network of support is also crucial.  Make a list now, before an emotional crisis, of people and places that you can turn to. Maybe some of my ideas will help you. I wish I knew about the Twitter chat support groups while Ben was still here. I find them useful now, too. If there are things that help you, please share them in the comments. For now, listen to the little chicken’s message!

Keep The Faith

The Rescuers (1977) 
Walt Disney Productions

Faith. It’s just so important. Whatever it means to you- religious or otherwise-it doesn’t matter.  As Rufus explained to Penny in this scene of Walt Disney Production’s The Rescuers, faith is not something tangible, and it’s hard to explain, but it’s that feeling that things will be ok. We all need, and want, to feel that, and sometimes it takes a real effort.

When Ben and my dad were ill, I had faith that they were getting good care and that they knew what was best for themselves. Every day I had faith that we could get through even a challenging day. On some days that took a lot of energy and it took my Disney-est thoughts to keep the faith.

I had to have faith in myself, that I was a good caregiver and could patiently provide the comfort, compassion and care that they needed throughout their illnesses without falling apart. Faith in myself was something I had a hard time with. I still do. I look back and I do believe that I handled things as well as I could, with love and compassion. As I recall and write about my caregiving experience and the situations I had to tackle, I feel my faith in myself growing stronger. I hope that all caregivers take the opportunity to write, talk, creatively express yourselves, and think about all you do and all that is expected of you in this role. Let this bolster your faith in yourselves, the people you care for, and the support networks around you.

Now, I have faith that Ben is in a place where he can breathe, walk, run, eat, talk and play the keyboard and guitar as much as he wants.  I have faith that he is hanging out with my dad and they are watching over me. And, on most days, I have faith that I will forge a new life while always honoring and respecting their memory.

Ten Things I Learned About Caregiving From Mary Poppins

Since today, October 1, marks the 81st birthday of Julie Andrews, I will devote this post to Mary Poppins, the consummate nanny who taught me many things about caregiving. “Mary Poppins” was the first movie I saw in a theater and it remains a favorite, as does Julie Andrews.

A kind yet stern and always magical nanny, Mary Poppins added whimsy to life while addressing all of its practicalities and mishaps. She got Jane and Michael Banks to use their imaginations and see beyond the confines of their nursery.  They were safe in her care, learned the importance of rules but also how to challenge them, and, because she knew just how to step in, they built and strengthened relationship with their father. She knew how to meet the needs of the Banks family better than they did. Now that’s what I call a great caregiver!

Here are ten lessons about caregiving that I learned from Mary Poppins:

  1. “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun.”

Mary Poppins 3

There were days where there was nothing fun in the actual tasks required in Ben’s care due to ALS. But, those silly moments that made us laugh amidst the sadness are the ones that still stand out.

  1. “Worrying won’t help anyone.”

Mary Poppins 4

Even as a worrier, I know it’s true. It doesn’t help. But, if it helps you to picture worse case scenarios and create plans if necessary, go for it. Just don’t dwell! Trust Mary Poppins. It doesn’t help.

  1. “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in the most delightful way!” 

Lyrics to live by! I was there for a reason, and that reason was love and compassion. There’s the sugar. It made the awful, embarrassing tasks “swallowable.”

Click to play:

  1. “Never judge things by their appearance…even carpetbags. I’m sure I never do.”

Mary Poppins 7

Because a person needs a caregiver does not mean they become irrelevant. When people would come to see Ben and talk to me as if he wasn’t there, I would redirect them to include him in the conversation, even if I had to explain what he was saying as his speech became more impaired. His brain was still very active. He mattered. I did not let anyone make assumptions about his capabilities or ideas. Always let the person know they matter. Because they do.

The same goes for people who judged our relationship. Whatever people thought of me, or of Ben, and our caregiving situation, we were the only two who were actually in our relationship for sixteen years. In any caregiving situation, particularly within a family, there are dynamics that only those involved can really understand. You can have opinions, but tread gingerly when it comes to offering advice, even if it is requested.

  1. Sometimes a little thing can be quite important.

Mary Poppins 1

A smile, a thank you, a kiss, remembering something special. I’ve written about how Ben and my relationship felt like it shifted from husband and wife to patient and caregiver. It was in little things like holding hands, sharing memories, or “inside jokes” that we were brought back to who we really were as a couple before ALS.

  1. Best foot forward. Spit spot.

Mary Poppins 6

It’s all you can do. And, when you’re dealing with a lot of crises, you can’t take a lot of time to ponder. As I’ve said in prior posts, I often had to “just keep swimming,” even though I belly-flopped, but I always put my best foot (or fin?) forward!

  1. Let’s go fly a kite

All at once you’re lighter than air
You can dance on the breeze
Over houses and trees
With your fist holding tight
To the string of your kite

Mary Poppins 5

OK, we couldn’t really do that. But, we had to maintain a sense of fantasy and whimsy that could take us outside of our reality, at least for a few moments. The trips we took to Walt Disney World were always magical, and they took on a special meaning after his diagnosis. Those trips were the kite that took us briefly away from reality. Now, I can look back on those memories with gratitude and a bittersweet delight.

  1. It’s a jolly ‘oliday with Mary

Oh, it’s a jolly ‘oliday with Mary
Mary makes your ‘eart so light!
When the day is gray and ordinary
Mary makes the sun shine bright!
Mary Poppins 2

Ben teased me that I loved to use the word “whimsical.” But, I enjoyed bringing whimsy into his homebound life. I often arrived home with shopping bags of “treats”- new tshirts for his collection, a gadget that I thought might help him, a new ingredient for our culinary adventures into pureed concoctions. It always made him smile and laugh. That made the “sun shine bright” for both of us!

  1. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius

It’s a great word. Covers a lot of territory. It especially made me chuckle to myself when a bevy of not such nice words were going through my head!  Try it.

Click to play:

  1. “Mary Poppins. Practically perfect in every way.”

Mary Poppins 8

I tried, and often beat myself up too much for feeling that I was not a good enough caregiver. It’s a great goal, and always important to remember that we all define “perfect” differently, and that the definition may vary by circumstance. I hope that, at least at times, I was Ben’s Mary Poppins.

All photos: Mary Poppins (1964), Walt Disney Productions.