Processing grief: my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease

Picture of Dr. Jen Kerns

Dr. Jen Kerns

On my weekly life coaching call yesterday I started by talking to my coach about stress, time scarcity and buffering with sugar, but halfway through the call I suddenly realized how much Mom is affecting me emotionally (not just stressing me out, especially as we are now 5 days way from her move, but actually creating sadness that I have not been allowing), and I cried for the first time in months. I have definitely been avoiding those feelings as I try to take care of business and be clinical like the physician I am, but stuffing down my grief is just worsening my buffering which thereby worsens how I feel generally. My weight is up 7 or 8 pounds since Jan and I keep overeating and keep eating sugar and drinking alcohol to to feel better. Today I want to schedule time to feel sad feelings and think about Mom, starting now:

She is here in body, but her spirit, who she was, is mostly gone and I hadn’t realized how much I miss my mommy until I got coached yesterday. Though she never really had the verbal capacity to get deep on emotional issues, she loved me unconditionally and would do anything for me. She supported me by letting me know she was there even as she never tried to make my decisions for me. She blossomed after her divorce and became more social, dating a lot and meeting new friends as she went mountain biking, on singles cruises with girlfriends, and to wine tastings and cheese tastings. She sold her townhouse and moved to San Diego for me when I separated from my first husband, with the intention to put all of her proceeds from her home sale into my house to help me save it (luckily for both of us it wasn’t quite enough and I sold the house in 2005 right before the huge market crash, making money off it and preserving her money as well!). She was always giving and could be taken advantage of for some time by various boyfriends because of that generosity, but she always ultimately left those relationships knowing that she deserved better. She was strong: she tolerated my bipolar father up until he cheated on her, and then she drew the line. She was spunky, and an adorable happy drunk after just a glass of wine. She was talented, sewing her own wedding dress, my prom dress, my own first wedding dress, and countless Halloween costumes for my brother and me. She was creative and made costumes for us at summer camp too. She never made me feel less than for my weight and never once hurt my feelings my entire life. She was beautiful. It’s hard seeing her this way, with an unshaven beard and ashy legs as she neglects her body, unwashed hair until, once a week, I trick her into disrobing and taking a shower. She hoards glasses of water (there are five in her bedroom right now) and will make 10 sandwiches if I leave enough bread for it. She doesn’t know that she is my mom or that Graham is her grandson.

She is a shell of her former self. I have sadness for the loss of my mom. I have extra sadness because I know how being a mom is the most important thing in my world, and the idea of me forgetting who my own son is and the thought of having him see me as a shell of my former self and being burdened with these feelings toward me is just devastating. So I have sadness on behalf of her as well, because I know this would make her incredibly sad if she had the awareness. I have sadness and guilt for how most (not all, but most) of my day-to-day thoughts about her are resentful, are feeling burdened by the responsibility of minding her. I often resent her presence in my kitchen when she stands there hovering as I do chores, and just want her to go away, which is exactly how I have been treating my feelings of grief and sadness about her: stuffing them away. Avoiding. It feels so uncomfortable to feel the sadness. It’s much easier to be busy with tasks, or to feel annoyed or angry. Anger is easier to bear than grief – it feels more powerful. I literally feel something repulsive in my body when she is in the kitchen wandering about aimlessly and I’m busy working on various tasks. I think that repulsion feeling is just me contracting as I try to avoid the sadness that she instills in me… repelling the feelings away. These are the last 5 days that I will be with my mom before she moves in with my brother and sister in-law. Please let me have the strength and open heart to allow feelings of sadness and love, to stop avoiding her and stop trying to push down and avoid my feelings. Let me practice loving kindness toward her and toward myself this week.

PS –
Being mindful and allowing feelings: This is the first time I have ever intentionally allowed and felt the sensations of sadness and grief in my body. Allowing emotions to be there instead of eating them away can be tough to do, but processing an emotion can help it move through you instead of being stuffed down and popping up over and over. And one of the best ways to process an emotion and allow it to be there is to just do a body scan, and describe in words the physical sensations that you’re feeling. This can help you see it more objectively as simply a collection of sensations rather than some horrible thing that will kill you or overwhelm you, and can make it a bit easier to allow.
Grief and sadness feel like a tightness and pressure in my upper chest (the “broken heart” feeling), and extreme tightness in my throat, and waves of tightness that rush into my head from my closed-up throat as I cry. The location of the physical sensations are surprising similar to my feelings of extreme frustration I get when Graham misbehaves intentionally (neck and head), though that feels more like a constant pressure in my head and this feels much more contracted in my throat. The sadness also creates a feeling of drained energy from my body, as if my arms and legs are too heavy to lift.




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