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It’s likely that when we are losing a loved one or remembering someone dear who is gone, we have conflicting feelings. There’s love and sadness mixed with gratitude and anger. There’s shame, pride, frustration, loneliness, and fear. This strong combination of feelings comes to bear and we try to handle things without our loved one’s help. We can feel deeply alone. We ask "What would they do in this situation?" "What would they say to make me feel better?" And in their absence, we try to find new ways to bring their spirit and ideas back to life. As my mom seeps deeper into advanced dementia, I often have these moments where I feel longing and grief, but pulling on that grief is this upswell of another feeling. It’s gratitude. Grief and gratitude together. Grief that I no longer have my mother to help with the day-to-day ways that I get through life, and gratitude that I had her for so long. All the rich memories... The grief gives way and then I remember that I have a well of deep respect for her. I remember that I can cherish. No regrets pervade this feeling, only pride and love. The tears come on for sure, but there’s this gift, a deep knowing that I wouldn’t want to be anyone else’s daughter. So sadness and love come on together. Grief and gratitude do their dance.

As we approach the holidays, many of us know that chaos will come too. A symphony, sometimes not so sweet, of emotions will come to call. Mixed in with the cranberries, the family meals and the gift-giving can be joyful, fun times, but also anger, sadness, and even guilt and shame. A whirlwind of emotions can sweep us up into the air and when that happens, many of us look for a way to ground ourselves. Sometimes it’s with the twin emotions I want to talk about today: grief and gratitude. Oh life is stranger than fiction my friend, and emotions come in strange little couplets.

How Memories Can Turn From Sad to Grateful

So recently I was happy to take a few days off from work and putter around the house. I’m writing, I’m listening to music, and I’m doing chores. The chores I’ve put off for a long time, still sifting through my mom’s things that I moved from her apartment to mine a year ago. I couldn’t throw away or donate these items. What’s left of her stuff are all the mementos and cherished items that she (and we) enjoyed together.

So concentrated in this cluttered corner of my dining room are her things. And I don’t want to go near them. I’m not at the stage where I feel safe touching them. I know I will cry and get emotional and I don’t particularly want to do that on my days off from work, but I know that I want the house to be tidied as my daughter comes to visit for the holidays. So I’m already conflicted. My mom has advanced dementia so I can’t talk to her about these feelings, so I putter around some more and then finally decide that I feel strong enough to get in there. I open the first box and realize instantly that I’m deluding myself. Here come the feelings, deep feels and I’ve just touched maybe the third item.

Strangely, it’s a fingertip pulse oximeter that brings on the feelings. Yep, it’s a small box that had an oximeter in it—my mom liked to take her oxygen levels. During the height of COVID, we’d read that oxygen levels were an indicator of health, so we got one. After covid when my mom started to have her strokes and moved in with me, I’d take her blood pressure and oxygen every day. So I’ve used the oximeter many times, but had tossed the box aside.

Now looking at the box, I noticed something. It wasn’t the box, it was what was written on the box. In her beautiful, round but failing handwriting she had written:

Jill—don’t open this box or handle it. Covid?

It had the date on it too; the wrong date, a date that didn’t make sense. And then on the other side, it read:

it’s inside this box.

I started crying immediately. Stopped what I was doing, cue the tears. I had only made it 5 minutes into my cleaning.

Photo of a box for a fingertip pulse oximeter with the handwritten message: "It's inside this box"
When a loved one is ill, even simple things like oximeter boxes with their handwritten notes can bring on sadness (and sometimes gratitude). They trigger memories and deep feelings based on years of knowing someone.

You see when my mom had her first stroke, she didn’t know what was happening to her. She had these small hemorrhagic strokes and it made her confused and unsteady but not completely out of it. Perhaps a few days after her first stroke I’d gone to visit her because I hadn’t gotten a call from her in a few days and when I did call her, she hadn’t picked up the phone. Then a neighbor called me to say they had seen her and she wasn’t making any sense. I went straight over and found that she was very confused and frightened—we went to the ER and that was the beginning of her decline.

When I returned to the house some days later, I found all these notes—taped to the mirror in the bathroom, near the light switch in the kitchen, and on this oximeter box—telling me not to touch them, that they had COVID and that she didn’t want me to get sick. Somehow the confusion from her strokes had made her think that she had COVID. All the signs and notes were her way of protecting me, even when she was thrust into her own health crisis. That’s the part that gets me. That’s the part that makes me cry. Behind each one of those notes was a mother trying to protect her child (even when she was going through a crisis herself). Her motherly instinct was so strong and surprisingly intact that even a stroke couldn’t crush it.

I cry because no one will love me the way my mom has, and I am profoundly blessed to have had an amazing, loving relationship with my mom. She has let me know to my core that I am the most important person in the world to her. Even in advanced dementia, she is trying to communicate that to me. When I go to visit her and she catches a first glance of me entering the room, she lights up and smiles this big, beautiful smile. You know those smiles, where even your eyes are smiling. She gives me those smiles. While she doesn’t speak much these days, she will speak up to tell people that I’m her daughter. It’s a profound love that we have, and once the grief and sadness subside, the gratitude comes through in full force. A wave of gratitude starts to come on, sometimes even when I am still crying. I am so intensely grateful that my mom birthed me, mothered me, and helped me become who I am today. This oximeter box is a gift for the holidays. It’s a reminder that I am loved, through strokes, dementia, and eventually death, my mother’s love withstands it all.

Here’s a short poem on my mother’s smile. I get to see her smile nearly every weekend when I visit her in the Assisted Living apartment she now calls home. The aides, nurses, and caregivers talk about her smile. It leaves an impression, it carries through the halls, and then it’s lovingly bestowed on me. This poem is called A Smile Remains.

Abstract, blurry overlapping images of the word "smile" in shades of white and purple.

A Smile Remains

By Jill Hodge

My mom worried her gifts weren’t good enough
They always exceeded
She worried she wasn’t smart enough
She always thought well
She wondered if I was happy
I had my fair share
She asked if I would forgive her
I had long ago
She wanted to know if she was too much trouble
I told her not at all, and then she smiled
Her smiles outlived every question
Every worry
Every stammer
Her worries are gone, she can’t recall
But her smiles remain
They give off light, and I remember

📚Quotes on Grief and Gratitude for Journaling

So during the upcoming holidays, I will have periods of sadness. I will feel her absence as we move along with our holiday traditions, but I won’t feel the sadness without also feeling a deep comfort of love and gratitude. Grief and gratitude will walk together. I remind myself that the gift of love will someday mean that we will grieve as we part ways, but grief can’t take away the knowledge that we have been loved. The knowledge that we have loved. Gratitude is the flipside of grief if we can let it in. I hope we can.

Are you feeling these twin emotions too? If you want to explore these two feelings in more depth, check out these two articles: Grief and Gratitude and Are Grief and Gratitude Mutually Exclusive?

A graphic of a large yellow circle with a quotation mark and the words "Quotes on Grief and Gratitude for Journaling"

It’s time for some reflection on grief and gratitude in your life. Sometimes we are afraid to feel the grief. Perhaps we fear that it will swallow us, especially during the holidays when so many family memories come to the surface, but if we remember that grief is often tied up with gratitude, it makes things more bearable. Maybe even more joyful. For we have known love and joy and good times, and grief can’t take that away from us if we explore our grateful hearts.

I’d like to leave you with three quotes about the dance of grief and gratitude. This week, I hope you will use them as journal writing prompts. Reflect on these three quotes and write about how grief and gratitude play out in your life.

Grief and gratitude are two sides of the same coin, reminding us that even in loss, there is the currency of love. (Rumi)
Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them. (Leo Tolstoy)
Come back. Even as a shadow, even as a dream. (Euripides)

As you venture closer to the holidays, do not be afraid of the sadness you may feel, especially as you mourn the loss of loved ones. Feel how you feel, don’t apologize for it, and try to let in the good feelings too. Let some tears be happy ones if possible, and remember to turn up the music as you do your best to get back to the bright side of the beat. 🌞


Podcast Music: My thanks to all the musicians who make incredible music and have the courage to put it out into the world. All music for my podcast is sourced and licensed for use via Soundstripe.

Songs in this podcast episode: Where Do We Go From Here (Feat. Jessie Villa) by Nu Alkemi$t; Winning Streak by JeesGuy; Sencilla by Cast Of Characters; Pyaar Kee Seemaen by Cast of Characters

Related Episodes: The Loved Ones We Carry (Episode #6); Dealing with Dementia: Caregiver Tips & Journal Prompts (Episode #13)

LTVF Season One Music Playlist: Check out the songs that inspire me, and connect with artists from many genres who add to our collective, human soundtrack.

Listen to Let the Verse Flow on Your Podcast Player of Choice

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