Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s disease

Lessons from a Goddess of Compassion: Live With Joy, Even While Grieving

White Tara- Dianne Gray Fort Meyers, Florida www.goddessonearth.com

Dianne Gray, the President of the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation and founder of Hospice and Healthcare Communications has known grief. When Dianne was only nine years old, her father died of a sudden heart attack at age 39. Years later, following several miscarriages, she gave birth to a son only to have him diagnosed at age four with a rare neurological disorder, NBIA Disorders. Her son Austin suffered profoundly throughout his life and died at age 14, leading Dianne back to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ teachings.

The renown psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, wrote her seminal book on grieving “On Death and Dying” in 1969. She believed we process grief in five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Her theory was meant to apply to those dying, but I believe (and others concur) these universal stages can refer to any loss: a loved one, a marriage, one’s health, a home, a pet.

I met Dianne two years ago during a photo session with her good friend, writer and activist, Kathy Eldon. Serendipitously, we reconnected in Florida two months ago.

White Tara_smACompassion and generosity flow through Dianne like a gentle river. Over the course of a two-hour breakfast, she imparted several important lessons: the first of which was how to let go of feelings of guilt.

Let me explain. In January, my family had come to realize we could no longer care at home for my mother, who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. This is a painful decision many loving families may have to make, but it also comes with a healthy dose of guilt.

Dianne saw it from a different perspective. With my mother’s day-to-day needs now being taken care of by the nursing home staff, she counseled, I could give her what no was else could – a daughter’s love. I could hold her hand, stroke her hair, caress her face, gaze into her eyes with love. This, I could do whole-heartedly.

Dianne further asked what I was getting by holding onto the guilt, suggesting that it was a barrier to being fully present with my mother while she was still alive. Guilt, she said, can be an emotional placeholder, beckoning us to live in the past, not the present. About my decision to place my mother in a care facility, she asked “Did you do everything you could, at that time, with the information you had?”

I thought about it for a minute, while taking a large sip of orange juice. She was right, there was no reason to carry around the heavy burden of guilt because I truly love my mother to the best of my ability — and continue to make the best care decisions I can each and every time we cross a new bridge together.

The guilt began to recede.

Dianne also shared the philosophy she lives by: live life to the fullest. While I couldn’t change my mother’s condition, I could still experience life with exuberance. One thing led to another and the next day we were creating a White Tara portrait for Goddess on Earth at Lover’s Key State Park, a barrier island near Fort Myers. I was in ecstasy.

White Tara, the Tibetan Goddess of Compassion was a natural choice for Dianne to embody. This Goddess is often depicted with seven eyes, one on each hand and foot, and three on the face (the third eye being on the forehead). With her extraordinary vision, White Tara perceives human’s suffering and her compassion encompasses all.

We photographed during a lull in a deluge of fierce thunderstorms. Two dolphins, a manatee, a double rainbow and a flying pelican visited us. Without a doubt, we were in the midst of a magical day.

To accompany her White Tara portrait, Dianne wrote;

Being in the presence of profound suffering for a protracted period of time, such as that endured by both my son and in a different way, my healthy daughter, has gifted me with an additional “eye for seeing, heart for feeling and a soul for loving unconditionally” the unspoken pain of others. We all have this ability — and hopefully as we observe suffering both seen and unseen, we will remember the essence of White Tara, the beautiful gift of shared compassion. On a lighter note— it’s no surprise that my favorite color is white. It is to me, all things Light with infinite possibilities for shared Love.

After I left Florida’s warm waters behind, I made a promise to myself. While I will still mourn for my mother, I will also ask myself often, “Am I loving her enough? Am I living my life with joy? Am I seeing the beauty and magic that surrounds me?” If my answer is yes – and I hope it will be more often than not -my guilt will be lessened, my depression less pronounced. My heart will remain open and I will look forward to tomorrow, even while I grieve.
White Tara- Dianne Gray Fort Meyers, Florida www.goddessonearth.com

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My Mother’s Journey with Alzheimer’s: A Family Portrait

Greta and Herb Levart Meng Po / Goddess on Earth www.Goddessonearth.com

I haven’t seen the film “Still Alice” because my mother has Alzheimer’s disease.

While she slips away into the advanced stages of this ferocious illness, I can’t watch anything that illustrates the journey my family is on. Nonetheless, I applaud one outcome from the film; it is illuminating this “neglected epidemic”.

Maria Shriver in her recent piece “Help Me Wipe Out Alzhemer’s Now” shared these terrifying statistics:

“Every 67 seconds, another one of us develops Alzheimer’s. Women in their 60’s are about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as breast cancer. With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, there will be 13.5 million of us with Alzheimer’s by 2050.”

And there is more: Alzheimer’s is “the most expensive disease in the nation and the only leading cause of death in the U.S. with no way to prevent, stop or even slow its progression” according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Now, add the enormous repercussions it has on the loved one’s families. If you really wrap your mind around this, it can take your breath away. That I can attest to.

First let me share a few of my tangible moments of beauty and grace while navigating this barbed path. I felt great joy watching my mother dance along the Hudson River as I photographed her as a Goddess; shared laughs when she emerged from her bedroom in an especially creative combination of clothes; experienced true love when her face lit up as I entered a room; let tears run down my cheeks as her kisses caressed the back of my hand; and believed my heart grew when I murmured “I love you” in her ear, moments before she fell asleep in her nursing home bed.

Alzheimer’s is having a crushing impact on my family as well. We see savings dwindle from paying for her constant care; careers put on hold to manage her daily medications, physical demands, and energetic wanderings (that often led to a visit with the local police); grandchildren no longer remembering her as the determined, fiercely positive woman she once was; and perhaps worst of all, her beloved husband of sixty-seven years, now guilt ridden and lonely because he can no longer care for her at their home for over half a century.

Greta and Herb Levart Meng Po / Goddess on Earth www.Goddessonearth.com

Five years ago, I photographed my mother (and father) for Goddess on Earth as Meng Po, the Chinese Goddess of Forgetfulness. This sacred myth tells us that as a soul prepares to be reborn, the Goddess Meng Po serves her tea of forgetfulness. Instantly cleared of the knowledge of past lives, Meng Po allows the soul to be made anew and the cycle of life continues.

My mother’s memory wasn’t purged in an instant but in a slow, relentless march toward oblivion. To accompany her Meng Po portrait she had written;

My memory is not what it used to be. I do forget and I do not remember everything. But my life is rich with daily, weekly, yearly experiences with my husband, my children, my grandchildren and my friends.”

Today, she would not even be able to write her own name. But she is still Greta.

Greta and Herb Levart Meng Po / Goddess on Earth www.Goddessonearth.com

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