“Grief is a form of love,” says my friend Maureen “Mo” Ryan.
Four years ago, he mother was a diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a genetic disorder that Ryan describes as “Alzheimer’s plus Parkinson’s.” In short: it’s a fatal, degenerative disease that causes declines in muscle control, mood and cognition. Last year, Ryan’s father died, leaving her to look after her mother’s health and affairs.
At the time we recorded this podcast, Ryan had chosen not to get tested for Huntington’s disease. She has a 50 percent chance of carrying the genetic disorder.
Yet, she’s remarkably focused on what brings joy and how to deal with grief. Below, Ryan offers 12 strategies for coping with grief and coming to terms with death. For such a dark subject, we laugh a lot.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation, but you can listen to the entire exchange by finding “The Big Questions” on iTunes, YouTube or SoundCloud. “The Big Questions” is part of Sun-Times Media Local’s Podcast Network.
1). Ask for help
I didn’t know about Huntington’s disease. I didn’t know about how you interact with someone with dementia. I didn’t know how cancer treatments work. That’s a really hard thing to go through, feeling completely at sea when someone you love is in a crisis.
One thing that I have found, and everyone’s coping strategy is different, it’s very easy to let yourself get caught up in the hamster wheel of doing tasks for people and not just being with people.
2). Give yourself permission to escape
Give yourself space to process, and that will happen in weird ways. You will have methods of escapism that will surprise you. One of my big ones is just playing solitaire on my phone. I can do that for literally hours, but your brain needs a place to go.
Give yourself mental space. Give yourself permission to escape at times, because, otherwise, you really are no good to anybody.
3) See the person, not the disease
My mom is given this tremendously scary diagnosis and yet I see her laughing with her grandchildren. I see the pleasure that she takes in going out to a restaurant. She is super grateful, you know. There is value to her life. There is quality to it. She does enjoy being with her family.
4). The Law of Inversion
A lot of the things that I feared the most about how I would respond to these things, it’s actually kind of made me stronger in those arenas.
All the biggest fears I had were inverted. I think I am a better parent, I think I am a more patient parent. I hope I am a more giving spouse.
Please try to see yourself as a hero and not someone who is falling down on the job. Going through a personal crisis affects you deeply on an emotional level.
On top of that, in a crisis mode, you have to call this doctor. You have to call that pharmacy. You have to make sure this delivery gets made. There’s millions and millions of “admin” things that get dumped on you. What you do is enough.
6). Feel the emotions
Unless you have fully experienced the terrible emotions, the hard things, and experience them on their terms — not on yours — you will not experience the great, fun, enjoyable emotions to the same degree. You don’t get one without the other.
7). Find your people
Loving people is hard. Having loved ones in your life means that you will experience pain. You will experience loss, trauma, fear, and it gives people an excuse to share and to be there for each other. There for me, certainly. The amount of support that I got, it was mind-blowing. It really helped me. It really did.
The universe teaches you what you need to know. And it sends the people into your life that need to teach you that.
8). Get moving
Having a physical outlet is huge. For me, I go to the gym and I lift weights and I have been taking a weight training class for four years now. I take the class because that’s kind of a community for me now.
Think about how you can treat yourself better because if nothing else, you are no use to anyone else if you are not functional, physically or mentally.
9). Do one thing at a time
Very big jobs can get broken down into smaller jobs. And those smaller jobs get done over time. And then the big job will be done. Just do one thing at a time.
10). Identify what your grief process looks like
Grief is an unpredictable beast. And it’s going to be different day to day. But some things will recur. Patterns will recur. Respect that. Respect those grief processes because grief is another form of love. And if you’ve experienced deep love and a deep bond, the grief is going to be very deep and complex. And it’s not something you can control. So figure out what those emotions, or what those dealing or non-dealing modes are for you. It is just unpredictable.
11). Be here now
That intimacy with mortality has changed me a lot regardless. I am kind of living day to day. I don’t really look that far ahead or I try not to.
I’m really, really, really trying to do the things that are meaningful to me — continue to maintain and grow the relationships that matter to me. And so I have a really good sense of what I’ll be thinking about on my deathbed.
12). Just sit
Sometimes when somebody’s sick, all you can do is just sit there and be there. And you know we were going back to that quality of life thing, it is like, “What is the quality of life that I can impart to others?” And really “doing” is such a great distraction. But sometimes just “being” is all that you can do — Just sitting with someone and holding their hand.Tags: Podcast, The Big Questions