Disney

How Disney Pixar’s “Up” Helps Me With Grief

Up Copyright © Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios 2009

Disney Pixar’s film, Up, is so beautiful, so poignant, and so adult in its messages on life, love, loss, grief and the memories that sustain us. Although I suspect that most readers of my blog are fans of Disney, even if you do not share my passion or are not a lover of animation, I highly recommend that you watch this film. I also recommend that you have tissues nearby when you do.

I relate so strongly to this clip, in which Carl looks at his deceased wife Ellie’s scrapbook. I, too, am surrounded by the blanket, towel, calendars and framed photos, as well as nostalgic items that keep Ben with me.  As you see at the end of the clip, Ellie wrote “Thanks for the adventure. Now go and have a new one.” Although I have begun the process, I have had a hard time turning the page of my scrapbook and filling the blank pages with adventures that do not contain Ben.

Just as Carl does throughout the film, I look at and talk to Ben’s chair, I ask him questions, I do things that he would have done and buy things that he would have liked. That has kept him close to me. Carrying Ben in my heart is positive and comforting amidst the sadness and unsettling feeling of experiencing life without him. Lately, however, I find that I am feeling a lot of anger. I am angry at the things that he is missing, the life he was cheated of, and the time that was taken from us. As I have written in prior posts, summer is always emotional for me because Ben spent his last summer in the hospital, ultimately choosing to separate from the ventilator at the end of August, 2015. Anger is a new phase in my grief. It’s very upsetting and I’m trying to fight it with gratitude for the time that we did have.

Photo collage blanket.

Last summer, I struggled to push myself to make some plans. It was uncomfortable, but I specifically made plans to be with good friends, which was something I did miss when I was a caregiver. It was a good summer and, the truth is, I spent a lot of it talking about Ben.

As this summer approached, I was proactive in planning. I did not feel the same dread of summer because I have come to accept the ebbs and flows of grief and I know that my thoughts will simply drift to the memories of that last summer in the hospital. I knew as I began to make summer arrangements that I would miss Ben and that things would not be the same, but I have been integrating those feelings into my daily life. I have long been wanting to meet and interact with otters and penguins, and I discovered that the Georgia Aquarium had encounter programs with both of these cuties, and even with dolphins, another love. So, I decided to follow my whimsy and make one of my dreams come true. I booked a two-day trip to Atlanta to meet the animals I plaster all over my Facebook page. I went by myself, which, I think, was a statement of independence to myself that I needed to make. This excursion might not seem like much of an adventure, but for me, it was pretty monumental.

This was not my first excursion without Ben.  I went to London in 2016, but London was a place that was special to me way before I knew Ben, and we never went there together. I wished he was there and I had moments of loneliness, but I went to Abbey Road because of his love of the Beatles, truly feeling his presence there, and I took pictures of things that I saw through his eyes, although I’d been to England many times. I did make a dream come true when I went to Washington, DC this past spring to see the cherry blossoms in bloom. It was bittersweet because it was our anniversary and I knew that Ben would have loved visiting the monuments, and I missed him but carried him in my heart, seeing everything through his eyes as if he was walking beside me. I have noted each of these excursions as milestone in my grief and some form of progress, though there was a sadness and loneliness in everything. My adventure in Atlanta was the first time that I felt anger.

As I walked through the Aquarium, which truly immerses you in undersea life in the most wonderous way, I not only missed Ben, but I was angry that he was cheated out of experiences like this. I remember going to the Boston Aquarium by myself and crying when I saw the penguins because it wasn’t the same without him. Nothing was. I had moments of tears at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago last summer thinking about how Ben would have loved the dolphin show. I even bought a tiny snow globe at the aquarium and I placed it on a shelf that I have filled with special things of Ben’s so that, wherever he is, he knows that I am always thinking of him. But at the Georgia Aquarium, as I marveled at the glass tunnel with fish above and to my right and left, I wanted him to be as mesmerized as I by this magnificent place, delighting in the river otters and the sea otters, and giggling with him as the penguins waddled around  and belly-flopped into the water. We would have joked about the turtles, recalling our loving inside jokes. He would have been as thrilled as I was to see all of the animals in the magnificent setting. I noticed how attentive the aquarium was to people with disabilities, with designated viewing areas for people in wheelchairs, and Ben would have loved scooting around the space. This time, I was not just sad, I was infuriated that Ben could not enjoy this and that we could not enjoy it together. I had conversations in my head with Ben, took tons of pictures as he would have done, and looked at everything as if he was with me, but my emotions were different this time. It’s just not fair that ALS cheated him out of so much life.

It was a difficult decision to register for the penguin encounter in Atlanta. Ben and I loved penguins. Our first weekend getaway was to Mystic, Connecticut and we loved the aquarium there. We absolutely adored the penguins, who were a part of the dolphin show.  Penguins became very special to us and we had all kinds of penguin-themed memorabilia. I had arranged to take Ben to a local aquarium for a penguin encounter for his birthday in 2015. I booked an ambulette to take us and even an accessible hotel room in the hotel next door to the aquarium. The aquarium was kind enough to make special arrangements to accommodate us because the penguin exhibit was not wheelchair accessible. Unfortunately, the winter weather was brutally cold and Ben was afraid to go outside. Most unfortunate was that we never had another opportunity to make that trip.

Ben in healthier days in Woodstock, Vermont, 2001. We loved it there.

As much as I wanted to be face to face with a penguin, I found myself asking if I should participate, when Ben could not. Would I even be able to enjoy it without him? I decided to register and just go with my emotions. I did not exactly feel guilty about it, but I did not feel entirely comfortable with it either, and this is frustrating.

Through a series of events, I ended up doing the penguin encounter twice. The groups in all of the encounters were small- a couple of families and couples. I wanted to be one of those couples with Ben. Greeting and touching the penguins was exciting- they are adorable and fascinating and I loved seeing the bonds between the animals and their trainers. All I could think of was how much Ben would have loved meeting a penguin. I let myself participate as if I was participating for both of us. I know the clichés about life not being fair and Ben wanting me to be happy. I believe that he was watching. And, I have to believe, as Ellie wrote, that Ben wants me to have new adventures. Unfortunately, this was an adventure that we were supposed to have had together and that made it harder to enjoy with abandon.

When I saw in the gift shop a bag of jellybeans called “Penguin Eggs,” I had to take a picture- as I know Ben would have done- we loved jellybeans, and I know that he would have forever more called jellybeans “penguin eggs.” In my head, I will smile as I do that, too, and I will think of Ben and know that he is watching and smiling. I am determined to fight the anger.

The dolphin encounter was bittersweet. The first dolphin show Ben ever saw was during our first getaway in Connecticut, at the aquarium in Mystic and it was a blast. I had seen other dolphin presentations but seeing this one with Ben was particularly fun because he and I unabashedly let our inner children shine. I did feel his presence during that encounter and I believed that he was watching me. I know that some people do not believe in this, but I do, and it gives me comfort. I shared my joy with him and kept him with me in my heart, so he felt a part of the experience. I made mental notes of how he probably would not have been able to get to the training area and pool because they did not seem to be accessible. Then, I thought about how, just as he did in Walt Disney World, Ben would have focused on what he COULD do rather than what was not possible. He would have been enraptured watching the dolphins in their habitat.

Otters are my thing, but Ben would have been happily teasing me and celebrating my joy. I seem to be able to enjoy things more if I feel like I am sharing with him. Maybe I’m deceiving myself, maybe it’s just a way that I cope with my exasperation and sadness at his absence.

When I watch Up and see Carl and Ellie get old together, I have a hard time recovering from the tears. Before his ALS diagnosis, when Ben saw elderly couples holding hands and strolling along, he would always comment that one day we would look like that. When I watch Carl talking to Ellie after she is gone, greeting her photograph and looking at her chair, I see myself and how I still look at Ben’s chair and talk to him, and greet his picture that is my laptop background. I’m not comfortable with this angry phase that I’m experiencing. I prefer to focus on Ellie’s, “My Adventure Book” and revisit the pages of my book that Ben filled with so many memories and much love- even during the ALS days- and know that those pages will never disappear or be erased. Ben and I never talked about what my future would look like without him. On occasion, he would laugh and say that if I ever met anyone else, that he would haunt me like the Grim Grinning Ghosts at Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion. We never seriously talked about it.  So, I’m on my own trying to carve out a future that gives me joy and honors Ben’s memory. Just like Carl, even though I am struggling with old and new emotions as I move forward, and I need to keep Ben very present, I am filling the pages with new memories.

Up makes me cry a lot, but it is a beautiful film with a lot of hope. The positive perspective it lends to grief and to living with and past a painful loss can help lift you Up!

I also recommend the Georgia Aquarium and its encounter programs. It may not have a castle, but it is a magical place!

My new “Abby” memories from the Georgia Aquarium:

July 6 – Not A Traditional International Kissing Day

ALS,Walt Disney World

A PhotoPass photographer caught this moment in front of the Castle at Walt Disney World. It was actually the first time we returned after Ben’s ALS diagnosis in 2010

Once again, I am faced with the conflicting emotions of joy that school is over for the year, and sadness over the memories of the summer of 2015, Ben’s last summer. We spent it in the hospital, where he ultimately succumbed to ALS.  Today, July 6, marks the third anniversary of the day that Ben had a respiratory crisis and we ended up in the Emergency Room at Mount Sinai Medical Center.  As I write this post, I am cuddled up with Ben’s favorite Disney throw, with Sully and Mike from Monster’s, Inc and personalized with his name. I covered myself with it last night, too. On these kinds of anniversaries, I refer back to my blog post from last year year. I can’t say that much has changed- it remains a somber day when I prefer to be by myself with my thoughts and our photos, and maybe watching Monsters, Inc., which always gave him such delight.

For me, this is simply the date when everything changed. I woke up this morning thinking about how I woke up on this date three years ago and Ben said he could not breathe. I think of how we waited for the ambulance, not knowing what would happen. How ironic it is that today is International Kissing Day, because on that day he was connected to a ventilator and his mouth was covered with the Bipap mask. For the next few weeks, before he agreed to a tracheostomy, our way of kissing was to blink our eyes tight and then I would throw him a kiss- he couldn’t use his arms or hands to throw one back.

I remember that despite the frenzy of an Emergency Room, it did not occur to me that I could lose Ben at that time. I was kept very busy as the health care proxy and the only family member present. I emailed and texted his family and our friends and answered a lot of questions. I tried to stifle resentments towards family who had lots of questions, suggestions and judgments but had never been there for him as his ALS was progressing. I was surrounded by people but felt very alone. I talked to Ben but had difficulty reading his lips through the mask. And, he slept a lot, leaving me to my own thoughts about what would happen next. I shared all of this in last year’s post.

I did not make any plans for today, not knowing how I would feel, but allowing myself to be okay with anything I chose to do. I have learned that I cannot predetermine what’s right for me in these circumstances. I don’t want to hear that I should keep living, or I should make plans to distract myself, or that Ben would want me to be happy. Sure, it’s all true, but it doesn’t matter. Today, my head is swirling and I just want to think about Ben, and that day.  It’s an odd feeling that nobody else would even remember this date, and I wouldn’t expect them to. That does, however, underscore that when this crisis hit, it was just Ben and me. And, as awful as it was, I was there for Ben, he knew he could rely on me, and there was a lot of love and trust. We may not have been a real Disney prince and princess, but the profound love and caring that we expressed throughout his experience with ALS gave special meaning to the lyrics of So This is Love, from the original, animated Cinderella.

Yesterday, I went for a walk in Central Park. I love walks through the Park, despite the heat, because I have my music in my ears and I can let my thoughts flow. I have my route, and I headed for Belvedere Castle, from which you can look down and see lots of turtles. Ben and I loved turtles and a turtle was his icon in the original messaging program that we used. I was shaken to find that the Castle was under scaffolding and closed to visitors. It was so important for me to see those turtles yesterday because of today’s anniversary.  Not knowing what to do, I proceeded on my walk and was lured to a little gazebo that was right on the water. I had never walked there before but I was drawn to it. There I saw several little turtles! I do look for signs that Ben is with me, and this was my sign. I took many pictures and just watched them for a while, talking to Ben in my head and knowing that we would have been so happy to have discovered them, at the same time feeling that he was with me. Further on in my walk, I found the fountain that I never seem to be able to find when I’m looking for it. I tossed some coins and made wishes (see my post on wishes), shedding a few tears. I try my Disney best to be optimistic even when I’m sad. Sure enough, when I walked to the water by the fountain, I saw more turtles and even some fishies. I have never seen so many turtles at the Park, and I believe that they carried the message that Ben is watching over me and that even as I keep moving forward, he will maintain a presence.

This date may always be a difficult day. In my mind, it will always be thought of as the day that everything changed. I see all kinds of social media posts about International Kissing Day and I think that it was the first day when I couldn’t kiss Ben.

I do notice that the intense and debilitating grief has shifted. I know that today’s fog will lift, and that I will also remember days in the hospital that, despite the devastation and horrible decisions, were filled with kisses and with love, music and even laughter. Just not today.

 

Independence Day- On ALS and Independence

Today, here in America, we celebrate Independence Day. In our challenging political climate, I cannot help but reflect on how our independence seems so fragile. I think about my dad on holidays such as these, and how he, the proud Marine, lamented that less and less families displayed a flag. As much as I miss him, I am relieved that he is not living through these times because I firmly believe that it would make him physically ill. He would be worried about my future, but at least now he is watching over me.

I also can’t help but think of independence as it relates to ALS.

ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that ultimately results in the loss of voluntary muscle action. Patients are affected differently in terms of progression, but people may lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe in any order of events. Ben’s initial symptoms were weakness in his legs and lack of balance. Next, he struggled with the use of his arms and hands, then his ability to chew and swallow. His speech was impaired though he did not lose it until he had a tracheostomy, and he got a feeding tube at the same time.

Imagine the loss of all of those abilities that we take for granted. The Project ALS Don’t Talk-a-Thon underscores the physical speech while calling attention to its dramatic impact of a loss of self-expression on our psyches. People with ALS cannot independently take care of daily life activities. That is a physical and emotional struggle. I was always struck by Ben’s sense of humor and determination to devise strategies for managing on his own. He was quick to purchase things like adaptive zipper pulls and computer accessories that allowed him to function at least somewhat independently. He loved his scooter and electric wheelchair because they gave him the freedom to get around and be outside. As he lost dexterity in his hands, it became more difficult for him to steer, but he could be out and about.  He tried hard to avoid, for as long as possible, his loss of independence.

As Ben’s caregiver, as he became increasingly dependent on me, I, too, lost independence. This was an emotional battle for both of us. Even within couples and families, each person maintains a certain level of independence. Ben and I lost that independence, albeit in different ways. I could no longer take time for myself. And, I witnessed Ben’s struggle and was consumed with trying to accommodate his efforts to maintain some level of independence. Ben and I were dependent on each other in this world in which our relationship was shifting beyond our control and we desperately wanted to maintain some semblance of who we were at our core, before ALS. After I lost Ben, I was frequently told that it was good that I could now reclaim my freedom. Only now, nearly three years later, am I becoming more comfortable with my independence. Still, I blog and maintain my deep connection to people who are experiencing ALS, as patients or caregivers. My experience left me with some battle scars, but it also left me with a tremendous appreciation of and perspective on independence.

Walt Disney said that “Mickey Mouse is, to me, a symbol of independence.” This was said in the context of the success that it brought him and his company, and the freedom to pursue his dreams. “Independence” is vital to our existence in many literal and figurative ways. On Independence Day, we honor this country and its founding principles. Let’s be grateful for independence. Let’s fight to preserve those values that are currently under attack and being chipped away and could potentially impact on the medical care and research that strives to help make ALS more manageable and, ultimately, to eradicate this cruel disease. In my practical way, I contribute, through donations and the raising of awareness about ALS. In my Disney way, I continue to wish for and dream about a cure for ALS and all other diseases.

ALS,Grief

I always picture Ben like this, in his chair at his desk.

Happy and Hopeful Independence Day.

Walt Disney World
July 2014

 

 

“The Incredibles 2” – Insights Into Super Powers Of Caregiving

ALS, The Incredibles,Caregiving,Caregivers,Walt Disney World

In honor of Ben’s love of this film, here’s a pic of him with one of his best buddies during our visit to Walt Disney World in 2014.

With every Disney film release come thoughts of Ben, but a film like The Incredibles 2 is particularly bittersweet because of Ben’s love of the original film. Mr. Incredible was one of his top three Disney buddies, along with Buzz Lightyear and Sully. Because of this, and since it was our tradition, t was especially important to me to see the film on opening day.

Of course, I had my little cry in the theater as the film began. There are times when I literally feel Ben beside me, which I know some people find strange, but at this film I didn’t feel his presence. I did, however, profoundly feel his absence. I was angry that he did not have the chance to see this movie. I don’t usually feel angry, though I do often feel frustrated that he was cheated of so much of life. There are certainly more profound life moments that he is missing and will miss that I should probably be more angry about, but sometimes the little moments make a tremendous impact.

This blog is a clear reflection of the way I look to each Disney film for enlightenment, hopefully a quote that will carry me forward or give me perspective. I like to be able to share these thoughts with other caregivers with the intention that they will validate, inspire or comfort. The Incredibles 2 did not disappoint. The film actually has a lot of messages about inclusion, diversity, fighting for justice, family and love. There were audible expressions of agreement when Dicker said, “Politicians don’t understand people who do good things. That makes them nervous.“

Interestingly, the quote that resonated with me was very appropriate for caregivers, and for an opening weekend that included Father’s Day. Edna Moda told Mr. Incredible, Done properly, parenting is a heroic act. Done properly.”  I was so fortunate to have had two devoted and loving parents. As a public school teacher, over the years I have seen many children who are not parented properly, in fact, they are barely parented at all.  Good parenting is indeed a heroic, selfless act of love. The same came be said for good caregiving.

As a caregiver, I often questioned my abilities, especially when I was struggling with exhaustion, sadness and patience with Ben when he was stubborn and demanding. But, like any other caregiver, I put my emotions and feelings aside, or, at least on hold, and trudged on because the immediate needs of caregiving are not negotiable. Phone calls abruptly ended, activities were thrown to the side, chores ignored (well, I can’t say I minded that very much) as I attempted to create order amidst chaos, calm when he was panicked, and peace amidst the devastation of watching Ben deteriorate and suffer, physically and/or emotionally. Like all caregivers, I also ran interference among medical professionals and other related staff, as well as family and friends. I provided spirit boosts and levity and also administered difficult doses of reality, as tactfully as possible.

It certainly wasn’t my goal as a caregiver to be heroic and I don’t think that caregivers generally perceive themselves as heroes. We probably spend more time following Dory’s advice to “just keep swimming.” As a crybaby, I’ve never seen myself as heroic- at any point in my life- which is why, I think, I was puzzled when people told me that I was brave. Ben was brave, I was along for the ride, trying to be helpful and, a good deal of the time, not sure if I was much of a success. My insecurities made me feel much less than a superhero. However, I can attest that I definitely earned the Wonder Woman t-shirt Ben got me after I managed to grab him and keep him from falling off the bed!

In the film we are introduced to new super hero, Voyd, who asks Mrs. Incredible/Elastigirl, “How do you balance the superhero stuff with the life stuff?” Indeed, that’s a very important consideration for caregivers. For me, I constantly struggled with balancing the responsibilities of caregiving against a full-time job, daily life chores, relationships with friends and family, the emotional strain of losing the life Ben and I had, and knowing that ultimately, I was going to lose Ben. In retrospect, I think the balancing act IS the superhero stuff.

Young Dash tells his dad, Mr. Incredible, that he wants to fight bad guys because “It defines me.” I can say that caregiving defined me for several years and I found that it is a significant part of who I am and how I see myself. I have written about how I floundered when I was no longer a caregiver, until I found myself again through blogging, volunteering and trying to support other caregivers. Although I would rather not have discovered this through the illness and loss of my dad and Ben, I feel like I have identified caregiving as my super power. Unfortunately, I was not able to defeat cancer or ALS, but my dad and Ben always felt cared and advocated for and loved, and that is incredibly powerful. I did not see it while I was actively caregiving, but time and distance have provided valuable perspective.

Mr. Incredible at Walt Disney World’s parade, 2014.

Mr. Incredible summed up well the life of a caregiver when he said: “How do I do it? By rolling with the punches, baby!” I can picture Ben smiling and nodding, because, in actuality, both he and I rolled with the punches. I am still in awe of how well he rolled with the severe punches dealt to him by ALS. I guess we were both super heroes, albeit without the cute costumes.

I highly recommend The Incredibles 2. It’s quite fun and fantastic and offers unexpected words of wisdom for caregivers and everyone else. Post your thoughts! I look forward to reading them.

ALS, Caregiving, The Incredibles, Disney, Pixar, Caregiving, Grief

Ben as Mr. Incredible- Part of a birthday collage that I made for Ben. When it came to battling ALS, Ben was indeed a super hero!

How Donald Duck’s Birthday Triggered My Reflection On Grief

Happy Birthday, Donald Duck!

Donald Duck’s birthday prompted me to revisit the post I wrote on this momentous occasion last year. At the time, with summer vacation right around the corner, I was propelled into the heartbreaking memories of debating with Ben how his caregiving would be done when school let out, and having those arguments negated because the summer of 2015 was spent at the hospital, where Ben ultimately succumbed to ALS. Those difficult memories have cropped up again as summer approaches. Since I read last year’s post, I have been reflecting on how my grief has shifted over these three years.

In 2016, as the first summer without Ben approached, I felt overwhelmed by the devastation of reliving every moment of time leading up to and including Ben’s time spent in the hospital, in which the end of summer coinciding with the end of his life. Of course, firsts are always difficult. I was consumed with worry about how I would feel during my first summer in many years without any caregiving responsibilities and without school as a distraction. Caregiving was pretty much the only thing on my mind, so I compiled my journal of Disney quotes and started writing this blog, which was actually very helpful as I sorted through the experience. It gave me a sense of purpose to think that maybe my words and experiences would help other caregivers. This, in itself, was an enlightenment. Although I wished that Ben had never had ALS and needed me as a caregiver, I found that I am a caregiver at heart and I am most content caring for and helping others. Unfortunately, sometimes this has proven to be a convenient way to avoid taking care of myself, but that’s a whole other blog! Since going to the theater is my favorite activity, I got tickets for all of the Broadway shows I had been wanting to see. I was excited at the prospect of seeing the shows, but, once there, I found that I could not truly enjoy myself. I missed Ben. I felt guilty about doing things that I couldn’t do when I was taking care of him. I had a lot of guilt about living my life when he was no longer here and we couldn’t not enjoy our life together. Although I had the freedom to do things, I did not feel the zest of “reclaiming” of my life that people told me I should feel. I wanted Ben to be here. I socialized more, but Ben was really the only thing I wanted to talk about. After outings, I often returned home in tears because home was so lonely without Ben. I went through motions, trying to convince myself that I was doing fine, but fighting myself often led to feeling worse. The fact was that embracing my life felt daunting, wrong, and somewhat impossible.

I spent that first summer dreading and planning how to spend the first anniversary of the day Ben left this world. I decided to make a video tribute to Ben for the blog and I pored over our photographs and videos. It kept me very busy and made me feel good to do this for him, for us. I bought a couple of computer programs to help me with the task, taking pride in the knowledge that Ben would have appreciated my mastery of the software. The anniversary day came with many tears and my keeping a low profile, except for sharing the video with friends, family and some of the special people who took care of Ben. I remember that the day after that anniversary was almost worse than the actual day. I spent so much time bracing myself for that anniversary, anticipating the sadness, making a plan to honor Ben. The next day, I was lost and I was miserable. I was unsure of how to act. Would people not want to hear about Ben and my grief anymore because that one-year marker had passed? What was appropriate in terms of talking about him? What was “healthy?” I knew enough to ignore the people who told me what I “should” or “had to” do, but I didn’t have any answers of my own. I’m a person who wears my heart on my sleeve, and I just had to let my life unfold, understanding that there would be good and bad days ahead.

The second year passed- I became more immersed in supporting other caregivers, particularly those caring for people with ALS, through my blog and various online support groups. I embarked on a certificate program to become a caregiving consultant. I did a lot of reflection and realized that I am most comfortable defining myself as a caregiver, so losing my dad and Ben also signified the loss of much of my identity. In many ways, the second year of grief was harder than the first, because the first year becomes such a fog and the loss is new and raw. In the second year, it seemed like I felt the sadness more intensely. Since I had formed some new routines, when a wave of grief hit me and threw me off course, I had a very hard time getting back on track. There was a constant loneliness, even though I was surrounded by people whom I love and who love me. I assessed everything I did, trying to prove to myself that I was respecting Ben, grieving appropriately, and coping well with life. The truth was that although I was active, going to the theater, seeing friends, writing, volunteering, and I even created a profile for online dating, I was also floundering. I was tiptoeing in the world of the living without really delving into it.

It was during that second year, last June, when I wrote Donald’s birthday post, and I could not shake all of the memories of the summer of 2015, when Ben went into the emergency room and everything changed. I found myself wondering if I was grieving too much, crying too much, dwelling on Ben too much. Still, I was determined to have a productive and positive summer and take grief with me. I made plans to travel to spend time with good friends, something I had not been able to do for several years. I was excited about it, and I did have a wonderful time, but Ben still had a huge presence. I talked about him frequently and kept him close, which sometimes made me miss him even more. I even bought things simply because he would have liked them, bringing them home only to face the obvious truth that he was not really here to enjoy them and then dealing with another setback. But, I have only come to understand in retrospect that I could not venture forth without him.

On the second anniversary of his “leaving,” as he called it, I reposted the video I made the year before. I decided to stay home and keep a low profile. Sadly, as it turned out, I had to attend the funeral of my best friend’s mother, who was often like a surrogate mom to me. It was a day of loss and tears but also of thinking of good times.

This year, heading towards the third anniversary of Ben’s passing, I am facing the summer with less dread. I still think of this time of year in terms of the markers of Ben’s battle with ALS, and I drift back to those memories and give into the bouts of sadness, but as Dory taught me, I just keep swimming. I accept that this time of year will probably always have a tinge of melancholy. However, with more enthusiasm and confidence, I once again made plans that I am looking forward to. I do not feel the same level of guilt about enjoying my life, although I still grapple with the knowledge that adventures would be better if Ben was still here. Some of my plans include things that Ben and I wanted to do together, like a penguin encounter at the Georgia Aquarium. I’m a little wary about it because it stands to be emotional, but I also want to honor our relationship and the things that were special to us. I guess the positive thing is that I am not letting grief or guilt hold me back from living. I am not yet comfortable being on my own, and still often refer to Ben and our life, but I am out in the world having new experiences. Maybe on some level keeping him so close keeps me in our relationship, but I fully believe in my heart that Ben is always watching over me, which gives me comfort. But, I am also creating new wonderful memories. I am not worrying- at least not yet- about how I will spend the third anniversary of Ben’s leaving. I have come to realize that I cannot plan my emotions. The day may be easier or harder than I anticipate. I will let my heart guide me and not fight myself. There will be no right or wrong about what I choose to do or not to do. As I reflect on the past three years, I see that I have learned to coexist with grief as I respectfully give grief its time.

As I reflect on the past three years, I see that I have learned to coexist with grief as I respectfully give grief its time. Click To Tweet

I would not have predicted that Donald Duck’s birthday would provide an opportunity for reflection and insight into my grief, but reading my post from last year and once again poring over our photographs, with a combination of smiles and tears, let’s me know that I am doing ok. I still cry, I still feel sadness, I still miss Ben, and I am okay with that because those feelings speak to the wonderful times that we have over sixteen years.

Donald Duck hangs out in the Mexican pavilion at Epcot but I don’t know how much Spanish he spoke!

The Disney magic must never be underestimated. When we were at Walt Disney World, Ben and I stepped into a carefree fantasy that helped us to, at least momentarily, transcend the challenges of ALS. Our photos, some of which I share here, were so important to Ben as his ALS progressed. He loved to relive the healthy days, but he also examined his physical changes as a result of ALS. The photos were essential to me in the early stages of grief, particularly when I wanted to keep him as close to actually being with me as possible. They remain a treasured and positive part of my dealing with the rough times of missing him. I never lose sight of how lucky we were to have a special love and to share this love of Disney that always shed much needed pixie dust on our lives.  Donald is part of those special memories that comfort me.

So, with gratitude and joy, I say Happy Birthday, Donald Duck.