In a 2008 television interview with my parents about my mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I told the reporter, “it’s like we’re losing her in slow motion.” Lately, it seems like I have been surrounded by loss. Several friends have recently lost parents after long battles with cancer, and, of course, most recently, friends from church lost their daughter very suddenly in a car accident. All of this has me thinking about the grieving process and the way that Alzheimer’s disease complicates it.
The Alzheimer’s grieving process
While working on this post, I came across a poignant post by pastor Anne Robertson about losing her own mother to the disease. She summed up her experience with the Alzheimer’s grieving process this way:
That’s the strange thing about Alzheimer’s…you grieve a person’s death while they stand there in front of you.
Alzheimer’s disease creates such a bizarre and unfair grieving process for families. I feel like I lost my mom a long time ago, but there was no funeral, no obituary, no headstone, no closure. People didn’t deliver meals or flowers. Sure, several people offered to help here and there, helping my parents move houses, or more recently, going with me to visit my mother. But people don’t quite know how to mourn someone who’s still technically alive.
They ask how she’s doing, which is difficult to answer since she’s only always getting worse or, at best, in the same helpless state as the last time they asked. A very few people visit her. Most stopped when she no longer recognized them.
It just happened
My strong, compassionate, opinionated mother just slowly disappeared, without a specific event or day to commemorate her passing. I can’t tell you exactly when she stopped knowing who the person in the mirror was or that I was her daughter or that she was married, because I’m not really sure. It just happened.
Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! – Isaiah 49:15
I can tell you about the day she was diagnosed or the day she decided I was stealing her things when I tried to borrow her coat. I can show you the last photo that she took or tell you about the last time she made scrambled eggs, because I remember those moments vividly. But I can’t tell you when I lost her. It just happened.
Closure and relief
One day, there will be closure. There will be a funeral and flowers and a grave. She will be at peace, and, in a sense, so will we.
I began to remember conversations I’d had with families of Alzheimer’s victims when I would do their funerals. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” I would say. “Oh,” they would answer, “It’s a relief, really. We did our grieving long ago.” I understand now what they mean. -Anne Robertson
Until then, I heal through writing. Not so much through writing about her suffering or her helplessness or her absence. Instead, I celebrate my mother’s life and legacy. I write about the things she knew and loved and taught me to love–God, family and Texas.