When a terrible disease ravages someone you love, the mourning process begins long before they finally pass on. Kübler-Ross (1969), in her study on death and dying, described five stages of grief including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But Kübler-Ross was initially focusing on those who were dying, and not so much on those who were dealing with personal loss of any great significance, which she later came to recognize.

These stages are not linear, either, and can occur in any order, if at all. Women tend to experience all five stages more than men. They can be cyclical, too, with two or more occurring in an almost extreme emotional roller coaster. For both the dying and the loved one, getting to the point of acceptance does not always happen at the same time. The dying often reaches the stage of acceptance before their loved ones. But if and when both reach the point of acceptance, where communication and reflection can be experienced, a more dignified death can be found.

I’d add a couple of additional stages, or at least notable elements, to the stages of pre (and post) grieving. That includes fighting to maintain control of the details in their lives. The opposite is the disruptive feeling of vulnerability when control is lost which can lead to related stages of despair and anger.

Another related stage involves trying to make order in one’s life. Especially when the world around you seems to be in chaos, small efforts to create order can take on an outsized importance. Cleaning out cupboards, putting away old records, sorting through old photos, are just a few example of how the person facing loss may attempt to build a sense of order in a life that seems otherwise out of control.

Recently, I heard this statement made by someone who is facing the inevitable loss of his longtime spouse who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve paraphrased it per my own cloudy memory.

I feel like I’m in a carnival outhouse sitting out in a field, and the circus is packing up to leave without me.

While he didn’t elaborate, he was trying to express his feelings regarding the situation he found himself in now. I’ve been thinking about this and cannot help but connect it to my own experiences and ruminations.

First and foremost, there is the overwhelming feeling of vulnerability, of literally having your pants down in a crisis, or a formidable change that is going on around you. You’re stuck. It is hard to move forward without first finishing the primary business at hand. Panic sets in and it is hard to make decisions. Yet you’re also worried about being left behind, and by the act of moving to a new location – mentally, emotionally, and physically – and the unknown that comes with that. But even more so, it is a fear of being left behind by the ominously fast progression of a disease that robs you of the one you love, again mentally, emotionally, and physically.

The carnival/circus represents fetes of apparent magic, gravity-defying acts, seemingly impossible, often nonsensical, frightening in their dangerous distortions of human entertainment, and the funhouse mirrors that twist and distort our vision of reality.

The world around you no longer makes sense and you feel vulnerable, scared, afraid of being left behind, fearing for your loved one and a future you cannot envision without them. It literally scares the shit out of you… And yet you know you have to keep moving to survive. Because that’s your role here.

Of course, the circus could also represent your loved one, the person who was the highlight of your life, with which you shared the literal stage of life, it’s bright lights, music, the comedy and drama of a life fully shared. Either way, it all seems so unfair.

Anger rushes forward. Anger at what fate has thrown you, your loved one, the cruelty of the disease. There is no preferred or better way to die of a disease. Cancer kills the body slowly while eating away at the person. Alzheimers eats away the person while leaving the body to deteriorate at a slower rate, until the parts of the brain that operate the body begin to lose their synaptic connections.

Either way, these diseases are cruel – to the loved one who suffers them, and to the lover who must endure the pain of watching, of frustrating efforts to try and overcome the diseases’ manifestations, the cruel teases of normalcy and strength that suddenly appear and then, as a wisp in the winds, they disappear to the mists that hid the light in their eyes.

Whether you want to or not, you are, and will be… the survivor. The one who will carry the stories forward until they can be shared fully with a new generation. You will be needed by others who will benefit from your wisdom, humor, insights borne of long experience. The fates have determined that your place is here…in this world…where you are still needed.

The journey along side the dying of a loved one is dark and painful. But it also has its moments to be cherished. The fleeting glimpse of a smile, a flash of humor, the small gestures that show you are still connected to this loved one. You have been chosen for the honor of being beside them on this journey to the end of this life. You, however, will stay behind, their partner only until the gates of passage open to the other side. Until death do you part.

It sucks. It hurts so badly, the pain is physical, palpable. Breath… breath… You are still alive. And they will always be with you, and waiting on the other side to greet you when your turn comes, naturally, when the fates determine it to be so. In the meantime, treasure each moment with your loved one as a gift. Soon enough, there will be only memories that you will hold onto tightly, then share with others when the right time comes.

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Sweet Pea, our nearly 15 yr old Borzoi, in a glamour shot from her healthier days.

January 8, 2016, 11:11 pm

Sweet Pea died today. Steve and I took her to the veterinarian this morning after making a difficult choice. She had not been well for awhile, but had begun declining more rapidly in the last month or so. She’d grown more frail, wasn’t eating as much, or sometimes not at all, and could barely make it up and down the stairs. Lenny, in the meantime, had begun to show his own distress by whining and barking to get Sweet Pea, or one of us out of bed to help her go outside, to eat, or whatever was going through his little puppy sized brain. He was driving us all crazy by doing this at all hours of the night. We were growing impatient, exhausted, and frustrated. We knew what it was about. But neither one of us wanted to make the decision. Sweet Pea would tell us, we would say to each other. She would let us know when the time was right.

But sometimes we don’t want to pay attention, to make the difficult choices. Sometimes, we think, that if we just ignore it, life will go on without having to face the painful moment of truth. I know that’s bullshit. I have seen it up close and personal. But it doesn’t make me immune from the desire to shield myself from the reality of her – or anyone else’s – suffering. It hurts too much to acknowledge it.

Last night, after two nights of sleeping down on the coach through the night, Sweet Pea decided she wanted to join us…one more time. Before this, the trek up the stairs would be wobbly but possible. It was the trek down the stairs that scared us all. Her legs barely held her up, and her unsteadiness made it a nerve racking and time consuming experience to get her back down the stairs. So we were grateful that she had not attempted it for the previous two nights. But not tonight.

The spirits had been talking all evening… I’d been seeing 11’s for most of the day. Michael sent me a photo that showed 5:11 in the LED clock on the TV set top sitting on Keith’s cherry cabinet he’d made for them in Needham. And again I’d look up to see 11 elsewhere…clocks, emails, texts. Something was up.

So when Michael texted me again at 9:11 pm, I thought it was simply an acknowledgement of the pattern I’d shared with him. But not long after, I heard shuffling and then a bang, then whimpers in the hallway. I jumped out of bed to see what happened. Sweet Pea had fallen at the top of the stairs, collapsing in front of the bathroom and had her nail caught under the doorframe molding. With some difficulty, I freed her from the doorframe and coaxed her up so she could make it to the bedroom. I went back down and fetched her pillow bed that I’d brought down before to convince her to stay down there. She looked forlornly in my direction, her cataract cloudy eyes trying to see me in the fog. This might be it, I thought. Maybe she’ll die in her sleep like Gemorra did so many years ago.

But the night passed and Lenny’s constant whimpering reminded us of the grim decision we would have to make once daylight came. She could barely stand, let alone make it down the stairs. At first I tried, but gave up, so Steven took on the challenge, pleading with her to try, telling her he’d catch her if she started to fall. She made it and went outside to pee, retaining the last bit of dignity the old girl had left. She even ate a little when she came back in, constantly escorted by the ever whimpering Lenny. But then she made her way to the couch, using her last bit of energy to climb up there. Her breathing was labored and I could see the time had come. I couldn’t make her suffer another day.

She passed peacefully in the vets office. They put out a white blanket for her to lie upon, though she missed it when she reclined after her anesthesia. At one point I thought the anesthesia had done the job, without the final injection. But she was breathing still, though so shallow it was hardly visible. Then the shot in her leg, and within moments she was gone… Gone to the other side, relieved of her pain, greeted happily by a healthy and goofy big Stanley. Given a warm and social greeting by her old master, Keith. I picture them enjoying some romping and fetching games followed by a good round of coach-potatoing together like they did all the time before.

Steven and I gave our last tearful goodbyes…he was really fond of her, she reminded him of several other big white dogs he’d had as furry companions in his life before me. And, with a trim of her tail feathers and an imprint from her paw as a memorial from the vet, we left to toast Sweet Pea over bacon and eggs and…toast.

Although my neighbor referred to her as "Satan's Spawn," Sweet Pea did have her playful side.

Although my neighbor referred to her as “Satan’s Spawn,” Sweet Pea did have her playful side.

Later, after letting my grown daughters know about her passing, I posted a photo and the news on Facebook. I felt somewhat awkward about the outpouring of sympathy. Yes, Sweet Pea was my longest living Borzoi, having made it nearly 15 years. Yes, she had helped me through some difficult life transitions. Yes, she had been “my” dog and furry companion. And yes…even better, she had befriended Steven…a sure sign that he was the good guy I thought him to be. I even imagined Keith sending her back from the cemetery that hot summer’s weekend over 2 years ago when she got loose for 30 hours and nearly died in the 100 degree heat so that she could help me to decide on the merits of Steven’s character. She did not share her inner sweetness with just anyone, and was especially particular when it came to men. There have been only two men I knew her to show deep affection for – Keith and Steven. I guess she knew who were the right men to be trusted in my life.

Stanley (left), Keith (laying down across the couch), and Sweet Pea (on Keith's chest)....aka the Keith sandwich on Russian rye.

Stanley (left), Keith (laying down across the couch), and Sweet Pea (on Keith’s chest)….aka the Keith sandwich on Russian rye.

In the photo above: It’s hard to believe when I look at this picture..my heart both sinks in sadness, yet breaths hope, too. Everyone is gone from this earth but hopefully reunited on the other side. Stanley on Mother’s Day 2011, Keith on 9/1/2012, and Sweet Pea on 1/8/2016. Even the couch – brought back from Fiji – is gone, having been turned over to the dogs, and later dismantled, the leather salvaged for me to use in making books. Maybe I should make some more…

 

Atlas Mill Pond, this tree hugs the edge of the hillside yet thrives in its strength.


Oh dear Keith, I think of you all the time… every… single… day… I ask your advice; I feel supported, if even from afar; I smile at your photo every day. I love you still, and always, for you are a major reason I am who I am today… because of the life we had together. And together, we created two beautiful children… and together…you are in the DNA of our future grandchildren. I will see in them your eyes, your smile, your dimples….even as I look at our daughters and hear your laugh.

But time has had its say, and I find that my identity has evolved. I realized this in sharp focus today, even as I had begun to feel it evolve over the past six months or more.

 

The Heron, usually the Great Blue but sometimes the White, has served as Keith’s animus to me, a reminder of his presence in winged flight. Here they are seen on the Atlas Mill Pond as I try and refocus on the new future life has planned for me.

 
When you first passed away, when you first left me and the girls, left this earth to go to the other side…the spirit world, I could see myself in only one way…lost. I was physically and emotionally in pain from losing you. My world had crumbled, and with it my entire identity had shifted… as half of a partnership that was entirely dependent upon being connected to you. Without you, I felt I was only a shadow of who I was. Because I was a widow…someone who – by definition – had lost a great love.

I still am that person who lost a great love. But I am no longer feeling like the crumbled broken woman whose wounded heart was freshly ripped open by loss. I feel stronger, capable of managing the stress of difficult situations, able to accomplish challenges with confidence rather than apology. I feel strong enough to help others who are facing difficulty, strong enough to stand up for what I know are the right steps to take in my own life in challenging situations. And strong enough to trust when the future is uncertain.

I feel strong enough to help others who are facing difficulty, strong enough to stand up for what I know are the right steps to take in my own life in challenging situations. And strong enough to trust when the future is uncertain.

I am now in a new and loving partnership, looking forward to celebrating our first wedding anniversary with Steven in two months. He is a wonderful and loving partner with whom I can see my life in balance. He provides the kindness I need to come home to, the smile in the morning, a sweet and loving hug in the evening, a supportive companion who makes me laugh when I need to stop taking myself too seriously, and a lover who calls me cutie when I need to feel pretty. And it seems that I have a role to play in his life, trusting in his talents, and supportive of his interests. I find that I can help him learn to move beyond anger and frustration, especially when these feelings seem to overwhelm him, often when accompanied by feelings of helplessness in difficult situations.

Sometimes, I think our roles make up an emotional partnership where I am the one who offers the stable view of life’s challenges and dreams and Steven offers the practical implementation of those dreams. And when conflict and distress threaten to undermine them, Steven’s frustration is balanced by my calmer pragmatism. Our life is built upon the comforting partnership of building our shared dreams. Without him, many of the dreams we share could not see practical fruition. And without me, the dreams we share might not see the supportive belief in their potential of reality.

 

September 27th this year marked the appearance of the Super Moon, a Blood Moon made red by a Full Lunar Eclipse. It created an important counter to the Blue Moon that occurred just a day before Keith passed. The universe speaks volumes while we ponder our own significance.

 
My identity has evolved. I am no longer the broken widow, a survivor of great loss who feels the hollowness and pain of your death, Keith. I know that you are still with me, and I depend upon your guidance from beyond this world. But I find that my heart is larger now than it was before. The hollowness has been filled by the recognition of the great love we shared during our long and loving marriage, a love that still grows in our children and future grandchildren that I will help nurture. My heart has grown larger to encompass a sweet love of a new partner who has joined me in this next and vital stage of my life. And the pain of your absence, Keith, has been replaced by an inner strength and mindfulness that allows me to serve others in a supportive, caring, and unconditional manner, understanding that listening goes beyond hearing the specific words said, to the words not spoken.

My identity has evolved into a woman who can meet life with an elegant strength. I am strong. I am resilient. I am loved. I do love. I do serve. And this is why I am here.

Today is the birthday of several good friends. And I wish them LOTS of happiness as they celebrate another year of life to share with loved ones and good friends.

It also is the inauspicious anniversary of my late husband Keith’s passing at only 54 years old…the same age that I am now. You can read lots elsewhere in this blog (starting at summer of 2012)  about the transition through his rapid decline to death to the journey of grief and resilience that I have undergone. He was my best friend, lover, and husband of 30 years. He was someone I would trust without question, share in heartaches and celebrations, and the journey through parenthood raising our two beautiful daughters Sarah and Anastassia.

Today it has been three years since your passing, Keith. A lot has happened. I have grieved… and still do. But I have also moved forward with many of life’s demands and the promises I made… to you, and to myself… and to others.

I have embraced joy in the form of a future grandchild expected in December. And I’ve embraced building a life filled with happiness and love in my marriage to my second husband, Steven, who understands that you came before him. He honors you and protects me. Sometimes he is quick to get upset, mostly out of frustration, when he feels unsuccessful in protecting my interests, or feels slighted by a family member. He is learning the art of nuance and patience. He is learning that what others say or do is not about him, nor is it meant to impugn him. He is learning to let go of the wounds of his other life before me so that it doesn’t fracture an otherwise beautiful relationship.

And I am learning to feel your presence as a guide, to look around me and examine it through your eyes. This has become especially important as we move forward building a new home on Perry Road. You and I and Steven all came from a tradition of craftsmanship. This included a respect for workmanship, the materials, and the process. Things were carefully planned, constructed in the right order, with attention to detail. When it came to homes, it was about making them last, energy-efficient, and beautiful.

As I look at the workmanship of some of the rough framing crew, I am appalled. It has left me – and especially Steven – stressed. We are determined to keep the project moving forward, but only if the workmanship is up to our standards. It is hard to let go. And some things, I admit, I am willing to let go. For now, after several days of stressful challenges to the contractor, I am willing to see what he will do to keep to his promise to address our concerns.

If not… well. Keith… what would YOU do? I ask myself that… every… single… day…

Yes. It’s been three years. But I still depend upon you to guide me and give me strength to keep moving forward.

with love always,

Mara

Photo: Keith and me in Fiji in 2001 chaperoning students.

We were chaperoning a large group of community college students on a study tour to our old stomping grounds in the South Pacific. Keith felt like he was the "dad" to them all - young and old.

We were chaperoning a large group of community college students on a study tour to our old stomping grounds in the South Pacific. Keith felt like he was the “dad” to them all – young and old.

I wrote this for a blog I started for Mott Community College’s Center for Teaching & Learning… in case you were interested in student success in community colleges via Professional Development for staff and faculty.

Center for Teaching & Learning, Mott Community College

Ultimately, our success in the CTL is measured by how we support those who make student success possible! Ultimately, our success in Mott Community College’s Center for Teaching & Learning is measured by how we support those who make student success possible!

By Mara Jevera Fulmer, Ed.D., MFA

As Faculty Director for Mott Community College’s Center for Teaching & Learning, I  had a bit of a learning curve  in order to fully embrace the role the CTL has on our campus. So I thought that with this entry in our blog I would share both the general idea of CTLs and how we have utilized this center at our community college.

What IS a CTL?

This is a conversation that usually begins when someone asks me where I work. In Summer 2014, I was offered the opportunity to be reassigned to Mott’s Center for Teaching & Learning on a fulltime basis. Previously, I served as the Program Coordinator for Graphic Design and a fulltime professor for the program…

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Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe that I am really living this happy life with a lovely sweet man, and planning a new home. In the space of a blink of an eye – it seems – life has turned around.

In December, Steve and I celebrated our marriage in a small “hillbilly wedding” on the terrace behind the old woodworking shop. Surrounded by family, nervous laughter, and not just a few chattering teeth, we said our “I Do’s” – the Doctor and the Hillbilly – in a loving commitment to sharing our future together.

Married 12/13/14, Steven placed a heart-shaped log as our featured decoration for our wedding.

Married 12/13/14, Steven placed a heart-shaped log as our featured decoration for our wedding.

Although the old shop was supposed to have been renovated prior to our wedding, its aging decrepitness lent a certain rustic charm to the day. After all, we’re building anew, releasing ourselves from the pains of past suffering, yet we acknowledge the scars we may still carry, fading slowly, but undeniably there.

Our day turned out to be auspicious, too, for its date. Honestly, it wasn’t chosen because of the pattern – 12/13/14. It was chosen because that was a day that some key people said they could be there. Fortunately, others who were equally important were able to arrange their schedules in order to support us. Our vows were sweet and honest, helping to tell the story of our meeting, our courtship, and our plans for a future life together. Unlike our first marriages, we were not marrying to raise children together. We are together because we look forward to spending our lives together as companions in our golden years, loving, supportive, sharing laughter, tears, and joy.

Even more amusing, my diploma arrived just after Christmas and ironically it stated that the degree was awarded the same day – 12/13/14. An auspicious day, indeed!

Doctorate in Education, Community College Leadership Issued 12/13/14

Doctorate in Education, Community College Leadership
Issued 12/13/14

Our wedding announcement told our little story in a gently amusing way. Here’s a mash-up of the front and back.

"The Doctor & the Hillbilly"

“The Doctor & the Hillbilly”

The response was appropriate and kind. Close friends and family shared their love and warm wishes. We were touched by the sentiments, especially those from around our generation or older, ones who could relate to building a life anew for a second chapter.

And that’s what it seems to be… a new chapter in life. Never will I forget the first one, my first life with Keith. Never will I forget the love and life we shared. And never does a day go by that I don’t feel his touch deep within my heart.

The old 1840s Farmhouse is being dismantled stick by stick. The pieces will be repurposed in the new house planned for the same location. Building the next chapter of our lives.

The old 1840s Farmhouse is being dismantled stick by stick. The pieces will be repurposed in the new house planned for the same location. Building the next chapter of our lives.

But as I move forward, building a new life with Steven, we take down the old… with plans to rebuild it, adapt it to new experiences yet to come. I pinch myself still. New career opportunities, new husband, new plans to build a life together… and the promise of a future watching our respective children raise their own families, building their own lives. I want to be a part of all that, and so does Steven. Together we can share in that joy. I acknowledge the guardian angels who have guided us towards each other, giving us the opportunity to share a second chance at love… sharing the next stage in life with a loving companion.

The mists rolled over the fields below our property.

The mists rolled over the fields below our property during our wedding, 12/13/14. The only music was the sounds of laughter and the soft ringing of the wind chimes on the hill.

I feel truly blessed.

 

Wedding photos by S.E. Fulmer Photography © 2014.

Live & Learn

naomi_shihab_nye

Gate A-4 By Naomi Shihab Nye:

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well— one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her . What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, shu-bid-uck, habibti? Stani schway, min fadlick, shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be…

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