Managing Life’s Losses: Journeys Through Grief

Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson September 15, 2011 15:46

Coates with her parents' photo

Grieving for her parents

Faith, family and friends have sustained Carolyn Coates, 68, of Tuolumne, as she grieves the deaths of both her parents.

Her father, Mirl Andersen, died in January. Her mother, Wilma, died seven months earlier at age 88, nearly eight years after being diagnosed with dementia.

While Mirl was Wilma’s main caregiver as she slipped deeper and deeper into the illness, Carolyn and other family members were closely involved in caring for her mother.

It took awhile after Wilma’s diagnosis before Carolyn really understood that she was losing her mother. When that recognition finally hit, it was intensely painful. “She was my best friend and I suddenly realized that I couldn’t ask her for advice anymore.”

Wilma’s long, slow decline was sad and difficult for the entire family, but their deep bonds and strong faith helped them cope with the illness-borne losses as they came.

The pain and confusion wrought by the disease were brought to an end when Wilma died in June 2010. “Even though I miss her physical presence,” says Carolyn reflectively, “it was almost a relief when she was released.”

Shortly after Wilma’s death, Mirl’s health began a downward spiral. While he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer more than five years before, he was told the cancer was so slow-growing that he would “die of old age” long before it was an issue. Shortly after Wilma’s death his PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test numbers began to climb.

Concerned, but determined to support her father in what he valued most, Carolyn helped Mirl attend their big family reunion in Utah in August. Mirl was re-energized. “Then I had a strong feeling that we needed to take another trip soon,” says Carolyn.

In October 2010, Mirl, Carolyn and her husband Gary hit the road, traveling to see a brother in Montana, and other relatives and historical sites in Wyoming, South Dakota and Utah. Mirl felt so good that they discussed planning yet another trip. Less than a month later, they learned that his cancer had spread. At 88, he decided against radiation or chemotherapy.

“I’m not afraid of dying,” he told Carolyn. “I just don’t want the pain.”

After Christmas, he was placed on hospice care, and Carolyn and Gary stayed with him at his home. The weeks they spent together were rich and dear. “We talked a lot about death,” Carolyn says, “and we were able to say that we loved each other.”

Together they took comfort in their faith that there is life after death, and they reminisced about one of their family’s best-loved stories. When Mirl’s father was dying, his final words were, “Give me my hat – Hans and Jim are here.”

“Hans and Jim were two of Grandpa’s brothers,” says Carolyn with a smile.

The story helped when Carolyn was conflicted and not sure how close death was for her dad. “I didn’t want to ask him, and I didn’t want to tell him not to go – that wouldn’t be fair.” Instead, she’d ask, “Dad, have you seen Hans and Jim today?”

Mirl would retort, “No, and I haven’t seen Preston or Joe either!”

He took pleasure in the thought that he might again see two of his own brothers who had recently died.

“It was very open,” Carolyn says, “like the spirit room was right next door…so much more like death is just a part of life. It was so comforting.”

For Carolyn’s family, that was a part of the norm.

“When I was growing up we lived near all of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins,” she says. “When you’re part of an extended family, you see more of life’s realities.”

Carolyn deeply misses her father’s loving, steadfast presence and her mother’s nurturing support and advice, but other family members have provided solace. When Carolyn called Mirl’s sister, Norma, just to tell her that she missed her dad, Aunt Norma’s gentle response was, “I still miss my mom, too.”

“Now I know that 20 years from now it will be okay to miss my dad,” says Carolyn.

What helped Carolyn

  • Her deep faith.
  • Family and friends. She mailed a posthumous newspaper story on Mirl’s life to a long list of them, and was surprised and gratified to learn more about the amazing life he led. “I got so much response,” she says, “that it really filled my bucket.”
  • “Hospice was such a blessing. I thought I knew hospice. I had no idea how wonderful they are.”

Grieving for her husband  

Richardson cuddles with Artichoke

Marilyn Richardson of Copperopolis dreaded going back out into the community after Ed, her husband of 28 years, died last October. “I just don’t like crying in public,” she says.

As a song leader in her church, Marilyn, 61, found tears welling up the first time she stood to sing after Ed’s death. “Someone long ago told me that doing math in your head helps control emotions,” she says. So she sang and did sums in her head.

Ed’s decline into Parkinson’s disease and Lewy Body dementia was a difficult and painful journey. While his symptoms, including short-term memory loss and paranoia, had been manifesting for some time, he managed to pass a mini mental exam administered by his doctor in late 2009.

But his mental abilities were declining. A robust and dedicated athlete 20 years his wife’s senior, Ed could no longer find his way to their old familiar running paths. He wrestled with growing paranoia, and Marilyn and their 19-year-old son Daniel became daily targets for the critical, delusional behaviors triggered by the illness.

With his mother’s encouragement, Daniel decided to join the Marine Corps. Marilyn hired an hourly caregiver so that she could continue her sanity-saving swim routine. She rented a post office box and redirected their mail to circumvent the growing battles over bill paying.

It was not until March 2010 that Ed, a retired electronics technician, was finally diagnosed.

With Parkinson’s, his face showed no emotion, so it was hard to read him. Marilyn studied everything she could find about Parkinson’s and though books described the illness, none gave her explicit information she needed on how to take care of him and handle his behaviors.

They first attended a support group in Modesto through the Alzheimer’s Association. Later, Marilyn joined a family caregiver education and support group offered by the Area 12 Agency on Aging.

“I thought, because he was so healthy, that I could keep him at home,” says Marilyn. But by August 2010 Ed’s body became so rigid with Parkinson’s that it was difficult to get him out of bed. He began falling and ended up in the hospital.

Ed’s five children from his first marriage reacted to the news of their father’s illness with responses ranging from empathy to disbelief and anger. One of the children suspected spousal abuse, Marilyn says, even mentioning it to hospital authorities.

Exhausted and devastated, Marilyn tried to keep her emotions on an even keel and still encouraged his children to stay involved.

Ed was discharged from the hospital, but his behavior became increasingly erratic. He ran away from home, and once tried to jump from a moving car. Realizing she could no longer keep him safe, Marilyn placed him in an assisted living facility in Roseville, close to the rest of his family. For the next five weeks she made the long drive from Copperopolis.

On Oct. 12, Ed’s caregivers at the Roseville facility called to say that he was declining rapidly. Marilyn sat with him for the next 24 hours, holding his hand and reading. He died the next day.

At his memorial service, the minister focused on the many wonderful things in Ed’s life. The eulogy lifted Marilyn’s spirits, reminding her of the good times they’d had in their 28-year marriage.

Since Ed’s death, she has been learning to “reinvent” the way she uses time. Retired from the U.S. Postal Service (she was postmaster in both Copperopolis and Avery), she is president of the Copperopolis Lions Club, and chairs the local friends of the library. She is also active in Jamestown United Methodist Church and with her swim club.

However, weekends are a challenge. “People are gone or busy on the weekends,” she says.

On tough days, her birds force her to get up and get moving – Artichoke, a saucy 25-year old Amazon parrot, and her son’s Jenday conure, a noisy, lively character named Jeffrey – demand attention and affection.

“I tend to beat myself up for not getting more stuff done,” she says. “I have to use a crowbar to get myself out some days.”

But on those days when her mind and body feel totally disconnected, she reminds herself about what she has learned: “I don’t have to do everything at once, or make all my decisions at once.”

“And,” she says, “you can’t grieve 24 hours a day.”

Faith, devotional readings, and books about grief and loss have helped sustain her through the most difficult days since his death. As time passes, she notices good memories have begun to re-emerge and with them an important truth.

“I’m alive,” she says, “and it’s okay for me to be happy.”

 What helped Marilyn:

  • Friends who were there to simply listen.
  • Swimming, baseball and community activities.
  • Ed telling her before disease ravaged his body and mind: “I don’t want to bankrupt you when I die,” and “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”


© 2011 Friends and Neighbors Magazine


Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson September 15, 2011 15:46