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Death, Grief, and Dementia

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This morning I had to tell Mom that one of her oldest and closest friends (I’ll call her Mary) had passed away. I wasn’t sure how she’d take it. I wasn’t even sure if I should tell her at all. Mom’s short-term memory is so poor that she may likely forget Mary is dead and I can’t keep telling her over and over. It would only bring her renewed grief. And me, too. Mary had become my friend.

I’ve not had much experience with death, or more accurately, the sorrow of death. Three of my grandparents died either before I was born or when I was too young to have any memory of them. Losing my grandmother in 1990 was extremely painful for me. I loved her more than just about anyone in the world. But she had been ailing for about six months prior, and we knew the end was near. The last words she said to me were, “I love you, too, Dolly.” Had she died unexpectedly, without me being able to tell her I loved her one last time, I think I would have taken it harder. But I knew she never wanted to linger, was as frightened of becoming a shell of who she was almost as much as she was frightened of death. So I could find peace in the fact that she had lived a full and happy life—long enough to see two great grandchildren—when the end came.

When my father died in 1996 I felt nothing.

Mom took the news of Mary’s death well. She teared up but she didn’t cry. Her face crumbled, but she didn’t. She’s outlived more than a few close friends, so she’s been here before.

But she did ask the same questions over and over in the course of a few minutes. Were Mary’s children with her? Did she die at home? How old was Mary? When was the last time we had seen her? Did she know she was sick? Had she been in the hospital? Who told me? How old was her other surviving friends? Who of her friends were still alive? Will there be a service?

I don’t know how to predict the impact of her asking the same questions over and over. It may mean the memory of her friend’s death has imprinted, and she’ll remember, at least some of the time. It may mean the opposite. There’s no way to know just yet.

The test will be the first time she and I are out with the group of her friends we see regularly, those with whom we’d always seen Mary. If she asks where Mary is, I’ll have to employ therapeutic fibbing. And I’ll have to ask all her friends to go along with it. I’ll tell Mom that Mary moved up north to live with one of her daughters. Mom will accept that.

I am very saddened about Mary’s passing. Not just that our friend is gone, but that her death was very unexpected, and I’m musing about just how tenuous the mortal coil is. Mary didn’t know she was sick. Mary didn’t appear sick. She was still driving, albeit only in daylight. She still lived alone. She could still walk the distance from her condo to the clubhouse. Her mind and her wit were still sharp as a knife. She was active with all her friends, not just our little circle. She was older, but she was still as vibrant as anyone years younger. But in the course of less than one week, her doctor’s discovered she was terminally ill, she went into hospice, and then she was gone.

I can’t imagine what her daughters are going through. I don’t even want to think about it, because it will make me think about when Mom’s time comes. And I don’t want to contemplate that.

As I was breaking the news to Mom, a bluebird alighted just outside the window on the patio table. Reminding me that I need to fill the feeders. Or maybe it was Mary.

2 comments on “Death, Grief, and Dementia

  1. My mother was diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer s about 5 years ago. My father died 21 years ago and my brother died of a heart attack 6 years ago at the age of 62. Mom still asks me if my father came home from work and still thinks she needs to fix dinner for dad and my brother who was married and hadn’t lived with mom for many years. When I told her that dad was upstairs sleeping and could come to the phone, there was a long silence then she said….”Are you sure?” “Yes”, I said. She then said “No he is not. He is dead.” So much for the therapeutic fibbing. This disease if very challenging for everyone.

    Keep the faith….TJ

    • Francey Jesson

      Yes. Exactly. I was just pondering that eventuality today—that some days she may remember and other days she may not—and figuring out my strategy. And trying to pass that on to all our friends. Thank you for your comment. It helps. Take care.

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