When Grief Like Sea Billows Roll through Your Holidays

When Grief Like Sea Billows Roll through Your Holidays

Losing my mom has made me recognize afresh that I am a child of weakness. My strength indeed is small. The loss of a loved one removes our veneer of self-confidence, our masks of self-sufficiency. C. S. Lewis said that the death of a loved one is like an amputation. So, until we meet again in that heavenly city, I’m a son without a mother—walking with a limp and leaning on Jesus.

When my mother passed away last winter, I discovered the gift of grief.

In the span of a single year, my mother went from a vibrant, constant presence in my life—through phone calls, texts, and when we could, in-person visits—to a swift decline in mental and physical health.

The first sign, for me, was an unexpected call at 5 a.m. one morning. Mom had many skills but being active at 5 a.m. was not one of them. Calls at 10 a.m., lunchtime, or late in the evening were much more likely. I immediately answered, thinking something had to be urgent.

“Mom, is everything okay?” I asked, pretending I had been up for hours while clearing the cobwebs from my mind and the frog from my throat.

“Oh, I’m just calling to see how you are doing,” she said, “but I hope I’m not interrupting dinner for you guys.”

Maybe she’s just confused. Maybe she had a bad night’s sleep, I thought. I didn’t want to believe this was what my sister, Laura, had been gently warning me about. My sister and her husband had recently moved back to Illinois to live near my parents. And in recent weeks, they had told me that Mom had forgotten how to write a check. Well, that’s not that crazy. Who writes checks anymore? I had rationalized at the time.

“Mom, you do know that it’s five o’clock in the morning, right?” I offered.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. You know, I keep getting my times mixed up, with daylight savings and all,” she replied, though we were nowhere near a time change. After talking a bit more, we ended the call. When I told my sister about it, she said these sorts of incidents were becoming more common.

A few days later, I got another call from Mom—this time more bizarre. She insisted that men were in her house, that my father had let them in, and that she’d called the police. My heart sank as a realization began to set in: I think we are losing her.

We clung to one last desperate possibility that it could be Mom’s iron deficiency, something she’d struggled with for much of her life. We were hoping against hope that with a few doctor visits and medical adjustments, Mom might return to her normal self. My sister dutifully begged, cajoled, and shepherded her to doctors and specialists, updating me every time.

My dad quit his job so he could take care of Mom as she slowly lost her memory, until we learned the hard, final, difficult news: The results of her MRI revealed significant dementia.

Dementia is still a mystery, even to the most learned minds. In the season after her diagnosis, we talked with experts and with friends who had endured this journey with their own loved ones. There was no way to predict which course Mom’s health would take. Would she, like the sweet wife of a friend in my small group, slowly decline over nearly a decade? Or would she, like my late mother-in-law, decline quickly?

When you lose a loved one to dementia, you grieve twice—once when they lose their mind, and again when they lose their life.

The early grief is like a weight on the soul. I can’t explain the heaviness you feel in realizing that the one who birthed you, raised you, consoled you when you came home crushed after a bad day at school—the one who stood on the sidelines and cheered at your basketball games, who said everything you wrote was amazing even when it wasn’t; the one who introduced you to Jesus—is slipping away.

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