A Happy Chappy for my mom

Happy Chappy

My mother began showing signs of dementia when my second child was eight months old. She was visiting from the Seattle area, and I remember she kept asking me, “How old is Sierra now?” The third or fourth time she asked me this within a few hours, I began to wonder what was going on. When I mentioned it to one of my sisters, she didn’t seem concerned; she hadn’t noticed anything unusual. Mom returned home, and it wasn’t until a few months later that others in my family started noticing. One brother or sister at a time started asking, “What’s with Mom?” Eventually we all knew what was going on, but since her illness progressed at a very slow pace it took my father a long time to admit that Mom’s problem was serious. Her journey through Alzheimers lasted longer than many people’s; it was about 15 years before she was moved into a Memory Care facility, and another three years before she had the stroke that led to her death a couple months later.

Losing Mom was a slow and painful journey for all of us seven grown children, and particularly so for our father. Each of us experienced it in our own way, loving her so much and being powerless as we watched her disappear, bit by bit. For me, there were many many times over the years when I so needed my Mom, and yet I knew that she wasn’t able to be that for me. The loss was incremental, hard to put my finger on, and very very sad.

There was one bright spot: In her own unassuming way, Mom had always been a positive, cheerful, smiling person, and in Alzheimers, she was even more so. Toward the end, when she could no longer remember who we were, or other details of reality, it wasn’t uncommon for her to literally dance through the halls of the Memory Care Center, visiting with the other residents, as if blessing them with her sunny presence. She developed an amazing lightness and conduced herself with a remarkable sense of confidence. She knew how sweet and special she was, and was more than happy to share herself with others. She brought many a smile and warm heart to the staff who cared for her. I think about some of the other patients, who struggled with paranoia and confusion, and am so grateful that Mom’s journey at least didn’t go that route.

At one point, when Mom was still at home with Dad, I felt that she needed to be wearing an ID bracelet. I had heard of dementia patients wandering and getting lost, so I ordered one through Walgreens, and had it sent to Mom and Dad’s address. My Dad was still struggling with accepting the fact of Mom’s illness, and I don’t think we talked much about the bracelet, but I do know that he put it on her wrist and she wore it for the rest of her life.

After her death, I asked if I could have the bracelet. My Dad was glad to be rid of it, I think, and gave it to me with relief. Back at home, in Santa Fe, I went to a local nursery and bought the cutest, cheeriest little rose plant I had ever seen – a “Happy Chappy.” I planted the bush with Mom’s bracelet around the center cane. I also scattered a few of her ashes there. A few months later, when I happened to mention it to one of my sisters, she exclaimed that she also has a Happy Chappy and that it’s one of her favorite plants. Every year, when my  Happy Chappy blooms, I think of Mom and her bright disposition (and my sister, and hers). I dig through the mulch and dead leaves and find the bracelet, still there, and remember my sweet Mom.

Happy Chappy is in full bloom right now. You can see one of the flowers above.


A Natural Response

I’ve come to see grief – and all the messy and painful feelings that come with it – as such a natural response to loss. Most losses are unasked-for and unwanted. The initial reaction is usually “No! Turn back the clock – make it go away!” Yet there’s no denying that loss is going to happen. It’s an inevitable and unavoidable part of life. Actually, the very fact that I care deeply about things (or people, or situations, or dreams) sets me up for the possibility of loss. There is a direct relationship between how much I love (or care) and how much I stand to lose. What courage it takes to love, then!

I used to think that in a perfect world, you could love and never lose, but it doesn’t happen that way, and I’m not sure it would be more perfect if it did. You’ve probably heard the saying “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Well, it turns out it’s true. Yes, my gut reaction to loss is going to involve throwing my hands up and trying desperately to stop it with that huge No! – thinking “I can’t handle it!” But the great thing is, I can. I can handle it. And the handling of it connects me to my humanity, my willingness to have loved.

What I can’t do is to be the same afterwards. When I lose someone or something I have really cared about, it changes me – plain and simple. That’s one of the beauties of our ever-changing and evolving lives. The great thing is that I get to make choices as I respond to my loss, as I go through my grief. To the degree that I choose to go through it (not avoiding it by trying to find a way around, over, or under) I can be changed for the better. My life can open up; my capacity to feel and care – even in the face of more loss – can grow, as I experience the value of saying yes to it.

Don’t get me wrong – knowing and even accepting that I have to go through loss doesn’t necessarily make it a whole lot easier. But it can help me stay on track. Most of us don’t say yes to loss or grief in the beginning, and I don’t advocate trying to do this. A natural part of grief is denial; paradoxically, accepting the very fact that I may go in and out of denial is accepting, is going through. This grief is often messy and almost always non-linear. I’m likely to kick and scream at some point, or maybe many points. And still, the very notion of going through can be the boat that keeps me afloat through all kinds of waves and weather.

There’s a line that I love in a lyric by singer-songwriter Kirtana, in Deathbed Song: “…I know that love is worth the wounding…” (http://www.kirtana.com/content/deathbed-song)

In my experience, it is. Loving is worth the wounding. And we can go through.

Blessings through the waves and weather.

A blessing for the hard times

In this time of loss and bewilderment, don’t ask your heart to make sense. Don’t require yourself to behave in recognizable ways. All bets are off when the foundation of your life and your love has gone missing. Let your heart be where it is. Cry and rant, in places and ways that feel right. Curse and moan in the comfort of your own privacy. Give yourself the space you need, and wait for your grief to speak itself. If there is someone who can witness and hold you, ask them for that. If not, give it to yourself. It’s ok to feel crazy; it’s ok to not know how to go on. Now, more than ever, give yourself permission to do what feels authentic. One day, one breath at a time, may be all you can sign up for right now. Sign up for it. And breathe, and cry, and listen to your own heart. You will get through this, and you will recognize yourself on the other side. Your heart may be bigger, you may bear battle scars, but you will always be you. This life-shattering is going to change you; let it.

Blessings along the way through.

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Rocks and Roses – My Memoir

Greetings. I’d like to let you know about my book, Rocks and Roses. It’s a personal memoir about a loss in my own life – actually, it’s about the series of events that brought me into the field of grief work and grief counseling. As the back cover describes, Rocks and Roses is:

“An intimate memoir, recounting a life-altering inner journey. The author’s courageous and unwavering commitment to “showing up, saying yes, and telling the truth” has produced a touching and powerful work that is likely to surprise and move the reader. Catapulting from the heights of love into the searing shock of sudden and unexpected loss, the author navigates the dizzying, shattering roller-coaster of grief, embracing the unknown maze of surrender, and opening to the gift of new life and spiritual transformation. From transformation she moves onward, discovering new ground, continuing growth and a new-found appreciation of the unfolding mystery and challenges of life.”

If you decide to read the book, be prepared for a very personal story. One reader generously offered a review that I’ll share with you here.

I have read quite a few books on grief and loss, but never one quite like Rocks and Roses. I have great respect for Joan Didion, especially her books about the deaths of her husband and daughter. In one respect these Didion works are unvarnished, but in another they carry the mark of being written; you can see the mark and craft of the writer. …your book has a feeling of a story just set down as it happened. …moment to moment …just telling what it was like to be there. This gives it authenticity.

…I felt drawn in compulsively. …I got a vicarious thrill from reading your story. Oh, that’s what it might be like, I would say to myself. You have quite a different way of writing about intimacy. …doesn’t seem staged. You provide no salacious details; feelings overshadow the physical details.

…another aspect that makes (your book) singular: …a group’s sharing in the public, unexpected death of one of its members, as extraordinary, uplifting, and positive. Your account of repeatedly being lifted by the support of others who were there …makes me wonder how I would feel in the same circumstances. …I am struck by your encounters with people who were not (present), but heard about (the event) and were moved by it. I suspect that this deepened your grieving process, almost as if you were a high priestess charged with tending a sacred relic. The reader gets a chance to glimpse an open account of your grieving practices – even some that are highly extraordinary.        –K.T. (Bellevue, Washington) December 4, 2015

Rocks and Roses is available in paperback and Kindle.  To order a paperback copy ($12), go to http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BPH8G4E

To get it on Kindle ($8), go to http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%253Dstripbooks&field-keywords=ishwari+sollohub

There are photos that go with the book, but they aren’t in the book itself. To view the photos, go to the Rocks and Roses page of my website at www.ishwari.org/ishwaris_book_rocks_and_roses

I welcome comments and feedback.


Losing a Beloved Pet

Greetings in the new year of 2016. I hope everyone’s holidays were warm and meaningful, and happy. Even if, even though, especially if, you have suffered a loss and are grieving.

If you have recently lost a pet, I want to send you some very special compassionate caring. Losing a pet can catapult us into some of the deepest grief, and there are a few unique reasons why.

First, the relationship with my animal is sometimes simpler – less complicated – than my relationships with humans. Pet-love can be one of the few places where I give and receive what feels like “unconditional” love. My critter doesn’t argue with me, doesn’t resent me when I fall short of being perfect, doesn’t have any axes to grind with me, doesn’t even have emotional expectations of me. My pet accepts my care, reflects my own love back to me, and offers me their simple loyalty and dependence. Plain and simple. They don’t worry about what I think about them, and therefore their actions are totally sincere and non-manipulative. In their eyes, I am perfect (well, almost). Where else can I get that? Losing a pet can feel like losing the purest form of love.

Second, in many cases, a pet owner faces the excruciating moment of having to decide about euthanizing – putting their friend “to sleep.” This power over life and death can be daunting to say the least, bringing with it doubt, guilt, overwhelm, and helplessness, in addition to grief and loss.

If euthanasia is not involved, it can still be difficult treating an illness or injury, since our pet can’t talk to us, and we can face painful challenges around financial and other choices we have to make. And sudden loss brings its own hardship.

On top of all this, not everyone gets it. It’s easy to feel alone when people say insensitive things. In most cases, people are just trying to be helpful: “You did the right thing – at least they aren’t suffering anymore.” It’s hard for them to see me in pain and they awkwardly try to offer relief. Often they miss the mark. When this happens, not only do I miss my pet, I also feel acutely alone. Unfortunately, there can also be people who REALLY don’t get it, who will say hurtful and even cruel things like “It’s only an animal,” or “You can get another one,” or even “You should just get over it already.” In the field of grief and loss this is called disenfranchisement: situations where one’s feelings are invalidated or made wrong. Being treated this way can cause feelings of anger, isolation, and self-doubt.

Here are a few things that can help with pet loss:

  • Take the time you need to be with your feelings.
  • Take time off work.
  • Don’t listen to anyone who intimates that this bereavement “doesn’t count.”
  • Be as authentic as you can. Don’t pretend like everything’s ok, if it isn’t. Let the people who will understand know that your animal has died and that you are grieving.
  • However, be discerning about who you talk to about your grief. Some people will get it; some won’t. Don’t expect understanding from everyone.
  • Create some ritual or acknowledgment of your pet’s passing: place their collar on an altar; create a gravesite or special outdoor place; invite a few close friends, who knew your pet, for a special meal, or walk, or other activity, in remembrance of your pet; make a donation to an animal shelter in honor of your animal.
  • If you have other pets, watch them for signs of grieving. They might be feeling a sense of loss or confusion, too. Whether you see this or not, you can allow yourself to take comfort in the warm touch of your other animals: hugging, holding, petting and even crying.
  • Find a pet loss support group. Often, just a few meetings can be really helpful. Veterinarians, animal shelters and emergency hospitals may know of current groups in your area.
  • Consider grief counseling if you are having a particularly hard time, or if your grief is causing you concern. Grief has a way of accumulating, and it’s not unusual for the grief from past losses to resurface with the loss of a pet.
  • Take your time getting another pet. There are no “rules” here, but it can be good to allow yourself some time before bringing another animal into your life.

Blessings on you as you go through this time. As with all loss, if you are able to open to and say yes to the grieving process, you may find unexpected (bitter)sweetness and learning, even in the midst of the difficult challenge of losing your dear friend.