With the awakening of losing my parents one day a real close reality, I set out to talk to Toni who lost her mother nearly three years ago. I remember Toni and how often her time was split between taking care of her own family, foster children and running back and forth to her parent’s home and doctor visit. When I first interviewed Toni, it was for my (5 Things) project and I was at a very different time in my life. I was caring for my mother who was diagnosed nearly three years earlier with Frontal Temporal Degenerative Dementia. I was torn up in side and I told myself that I did not have the same relationship with my mother as Toni did with hers, and there is some truth to that, yes. Since setting my mother up in a nursing home, I have a weight that I carry along with me. It may not always be on the surface with immediate thoughts and tears, but in nightmare forms where I wake up remembering the truth that I don’t have a mama to call when the kids have something exciting going on. I can be honest now that my hurt is very real and I admire Toni's story because it is real and honest. I wanted to sit down with Toni to get her insight into how loosing parent can affect one’s mental health.
Sara: So, first and foremost, how long ago did she pass?
Toni: It was two years ago, June 12.
Sara: Fairly recent then, she was pretty young (especially as we see many individuals living to well into their 90s).
Toni: Yeah, she turned 69 on June 8 and she passed away June 12th. My mom and I were extremely close, and we were extremely alike even to the point of where we looked alike, and we acted alike with the same mannerisms. It's been that way my whole life, not to say that we didn't butt heads as teenagers and stuff like that, all kids and parents do that. Especially in my adult years, she was my go-to person for literally everything, We talked three times a day on the phone (every morning, sometimes in the afternoon and then every night before bed). That was just something we always did, even if we were on vacation or something, and some days it felt like a chore. It's like “oh gotta call my mom”, but more times than not, it was “oh I can't wait to tell my mom this”. For instance, if I had to figure out what should I make for people that are coming over, call my mom. Oh, how am I going to handle Hope (her daughter), call my mom, and she was wise counsel. She was a wonderful friend, a wonderful mom, a person who reflected Jesus in everything that she did. She wasn't perfect. She'd be the first to tell you she wasn't perfect, but she definitely Impacted a lot of people's lives not just mine.
Sara: So, I think something that is interesting to me is your kind of grieving your mother with whom you had a close relationship with. So, I definitely think that that is something that maybe I can't say it was quite the same. I Guess, I can see because you had that very close relationship, how that experience has definitely impacted you. *** (again, I have to add here some reflection from being in a different position on mine and my mother’s relationship. No, our relationship was not like Toni’s and her mother’s relationship, close knit where they talked multiply times a day, but having begun to lose my mother has left a BIG whole in my heart).
Toni: I think when you are out of the immediate grief period, as I talk to more people, friends of hers and things like that. I love it when people tell me stories about my mom. Stories like, “she helped me through this, or she reprimanded me for this, and I didn't know I was getting reprimanded”. Somebody just told me that at the end of their conversation, she went “I think I was just reprimanded” and “I should have been, I was called out for something I was doing, and I should have been called out for it”. That was a God-given skill.
My mom had been sick for quite a few years, she officially died of COPD which is cardiopulmonary disease, this one you're basically are drowning. You're drowning and it took years to drown and she also had asthma, which COPD and asthma go together. She had also been in a car accident, which gave her physical pain up and beyond the COPD. So, there's just lists and lists of things and her will was way stronger than her body. She would have been that one who would have traveled all over, so because of this, this poor woman had her pain and suffering for years there were times that I was angry with God because it's like "huh"? But that was the way it was designed to be and because I had the privilege of helping her through doctor's appointments and making decisions. Should we try this therapy or should we not? It brought our relationship to another stage too, which that's great and because of that I got to spend a lot more of one-on-one times with her. I Would love to embarrass her at doctor's appointments because my mom was a very good person to embarrass because she would either play along with you, which I loved too or she would get embarrassed, which was also cool. So, she once wrote her co-pay check out to the doctor and when she handed it over, I said, “oh, they're accepting your checks now?” She looked back at me and goes “only with two forms of ID”. I love she had that kind of wit and she could play those jokes with me. Yeah, there are good times and when you're in the middle it, sometimes it's like “okay, I to go to another doctor's appointment”. So, another old person doctor’s appointment. Sometimes running the day to day grind, it's tough, but when I look back, I wouldn't trade it for anything. I also heard this phrase and it was so appropriate, that I was caught in the sandwich generation. Where I was still taking care of my own kids and taking care of my parents and I was sandwiched in between. That's the perfect thing. You do feel that way sometimes.
Sara: So, preparing for death, I know that you guys were kind of expecting it but at the same time I'm assuming it was still kind of a shock to you.
Toni: She had wonderful doctors and a wonderful care team, but they were even surprised at how quick she went at the end. Which, looking back that was a blessing, but when you're in the middle it was like, “whoa, we were still planning on having the whole summer”. Her primary care doc had talked to her and my dad, I wasn't at that appointment, she met the qualifications for hospice. There are qualifications you have to meet and that wasn't a shock to her. Her mom was in Hospice, her dad was in Hospice. So, we were familiar with hospice, but that was years and years ago. It has really changed, so that was one of our phone calls and again, we knew.
So, I went over to my mom's house and my dad was outside. I just don't think he could handle that conversation right then and so my mom had all her information out for Hospice because my mom's a folder information person and we went through it. It's almost like you picked the plan that looks good for you and how you want it to go, so we were able to almost disconnect my mom's dying portion to get into that business mode. When it was done, it was like, okay.
The first home care nurse that came over ended up being a friend of mine from high school. I didn't even know she was a nurse, so that was such a blessing because she remembered my mom. She knew it was Mrs. Corindo right away. My mom didn't remember her, but our school was so huge that that's not strange. Even her, when she was evaluating my mom and looking at everything, is just like, “you know you qualify for hospice most definitely but let's talk about if your symptoms start going away” cuz she was still in that teeter-tottering edge. If this goes away then we’ll discontinue hospice care, but you can always come back. So that's where we were and that was at the end of May. So that made all this feel it was okay, you know, you're not going to die tomorrow. All right, this was the beginning of summer. We had summer plans. She was going to watch Emma play soft ball and all that stuff, so we had plans and my dad had plans even though COPD also, robs the brain of oxygen. So, it's almost like they described it to me as if you're a scuba diver and if you come up too fastest, you get disoriented because your oxygen has not regulated and my mom was such a kind woman. I can't remember a time she yelled. She was loud because we're loud Italians, but she never yelled in anger. She would just scream at my dad to the point where my dad called me over a couple of times. I Called the hospice nurse, she's like, yeah, that's just the oxygen, that’s not her anymore. There was a point where she was just being so mean to my dad that I had to take the parent role and say, “that's enough, go sit down”.
Sara: So that's another experience not on here, but something that always stuck with me, I mean going through my particular situation where you know within a year, two years who knows, I am going to be dealing with my mother's death? It's going to be relatively sooner than the normal, the actual death part. It stuck to me with you talking about death certificates and knowing who gets what copy goes where and how many copies to have.
Toni: And you're just supposed to know this?
Sara: Certified copies and are they like Xerox copies?
Toni: And do you really need one? So, um She did die quite quickly. She was only in hospice for five days; the actual hospice and she went in there and we thought she was going to be coming home. I thought she had the flu and they even were like, well she can stay in for a night and then we'll send her home. Within 24 hours of her being in, she wasn't verbal anymore, all the signs of dying were there.
When she died and I was actually home, so I was not with her when she died. My Daughters were and my sister was, and Caleb was, so that was one of the nights they forced me to come home. Which was good. It was good. My sister was actually holding her hand when she died, so that was good. When she actually died and she died at like 1:00 a.m. and Robin knew she had died, but the girls had just fallen asleep. So, she did not want to wake them up. So, she actually just sat there with my mom for two hours and then she called in the nurses and they did everything they had to do. Jeff was on the couch and I was upstairs, and I was listening for my phone and you know being jumpy. He came in and he told me, and it was like “okay, like you know, that's what's going to happen”. So, a husband did what husbands do and he held me.
Sara: Think that's where the number 5 comes in, the immediate and long-term life without your loved one. I mean this is still it.
Toni: Yeah. I choked the day of her funeral. I was so busy with the business of her death and making sure my boys had clothes and the girls had clothes and my dad had clothes and I was keeping myself busy with busy work and ordering the death certificates. The day of the funeral, I stood in front of my own closet and wondered what to wear at my mom's funeral. I'm sure whatever it is, I am probably not going to want to wear again, so I have to make sure it's something I don't like. Immediately, I picked up my phone to call my mom…"what are you wearing to the funeral", that was the first thing that came to my mind? And that was the first time I had to go, “who do I call?” So, that was the downside to having close relationships but um that was the immediate effects of her death. My sister joked and it was kind of funny. She said well, I guess you're the matriarch of the family now, that's a big deal. and the whole Italian family the matriarch and patriarch. To take over the role of my mom in organizing Memorial Day picnics and what are we going to eat for Christmas dinner? You know stuff like that.
Sara: How interesting it is that you are now in this role of, yes you always were there for your parents and for their doctor's appointments, right? Like you're stepping into it by also helping to take care of your dad, her husband, who is dealing with his own medical issues.
Toni: and so yeah, and that's a big deal in the long term because one of the things I said to my mom is "I'll take care of dad" like as she was in the process of dying, cuz you know she did everything for my dad. So, when she was fine, I would keep warning her to stop doing all this for dad Cuz I'm not going to come over here in the morning and fry his egg every morning.
Sara: Could you tell them about the utensil?
Toni: Yes, so my mom had a drawer full of kitchen utensils and I go over there cook for my dad often and so he was like, you gotta take this stuff home. I was like "no dad do you want me to cook when I'm here"? Then I have to have some stuff here. So, I came over to cook something and I went to look for a whisk Can't find it and I know my dad's not whisking anything and so I'm like "what the heck"? I said to my dad, where's the whisk and he goes what's a wisk and I told him. He said, “Oh that's in the garage. I needed it to stir the oil for the car”. "Dad you live in the woods could you grab a stick next time?"
I highly recommend the poignant video on YouTube via the link below. This interview was originally done for a series called, “5 Things” which was another attempt to connect people in our community. The interview here is not the interview in entirety and does not demonstrate the real affects of loosing a parent. I am still doing this form of a series, but in the Point of View version now because getting videos became problematic with a three-year-old who was potty training and had to use the restroom in the middle of the video.
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So here I am, sobbing in the car as I drive home from volunteering with Alpha Grand Rapids. I am tired, I am overwhelmed, I am feeling hopeless and I am sobbing while listening to Rachel Hollis’ “Girl Wash Your Face”. Listen, nothing that Ms. Hollis talked about was anything new to me as I have had class over class of therapeutic techniques and self-care, I go to church, and half of my friends are therapist and the other half that are not, are really great listeners. Nothing that I was hearing was new to me, so why was I crying so uncontrollably?
I was crying because despite being fully equipped with friends, faith and my education, I knew that I needed to change something about my life, or I would not last on this earth much longer. Yup, I said it. With my chronic pain, chronic fatigue caused by narcolepsy and a few other bad habits, I was feeling more and more like I was being chained to the earth. Sure, I was able to volunteer on a weekly basis and I made dinner and took my kids to and from activities, I felt like most days, I was on auto pilot.
So here are a few tips I have for you, which I have formulated as a mental health professional, mother, reader and well, a human being.
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I have chronic pain, which means that on any given day, I am in pain. When I smile at you, I am in pain. When I laugh and enjoy lunch with a friend, I am in pain. When I sit with a client, I am in pain. When I play with my children, I am in pain. I think that you are getting the hint here. Let me give you a picture here. Imagine a tornado, swirling around grabbing as many different things as possible. Perhaps it has a house, a barn, a splinter of wood or any given number of things that a tornado grabs in its path of destruction. Now imagine that tornado isn’t moving anywhere, it’s staying still inside your body and on any given day, you get hit by the house (depression), or maybe the splinter of wood (pain) or the barn (fatigue). You are trying to be the best version of yourself that you can be and on any given day one or more of these things have a hold on you.
With a chronic issue, you will always have something that you have to contend with, but that does not mean that you cannot conquer the world. Mental health management can aid in allow you to find some semblance of control in your life. When I was going through therapy for pain management myself, I was awakened to a lot of things that I thought and did that made my chronic issues worse. Here are a few things that pain management therapy can do.
For anyone who has ever dealt with low self-confidence, please hold on with me as I walk through the journey of explaining the title to this post.
If you were like me a few years ago, you constantly compared yourself to others. You wonder if you are good enough to do the job as a parent, daughter, wife and for me, therapist. I had terrible performance anxiety during my first in class intensive for my master’s degree. I compared myself to every single student in the room. When I wasn’t in the classroom, I tucked doubt and low self-worth into the back of my brain and allowed it to come out quite often.
Thankfully, I began to grow in my faith, which helped me immensely. My confidence began to grow and the self-doubt that I tucked into my brain became smaller and smaller. I was in therapy twice, which really helped me to identify areas of my life that I was struggling with. Being a boss at home helped even though taking care of my mother through her early journey with dementia was more than difficult. I began to see how strong I was, and I began to compare myself to other less and less.
I am not saying that my journey was easy and that I don’t have moments of doubt, but let’s finally throw the connection to the title in here. So, you compare yourself to others, others that you have no idea about. You tell yourself that she is more beautiful than me because her hair is perfectly coiffed or that he is smarter than me because he has the CEO position. We go through out lives comparing ourselves to others when we have no idea who or what we are really comparing ourselves to. Imagine you are comparing your smarts against one of the kids who benefited from the scandal mentioned above. You are comparing yourself to a lie. You are basing your own worth off of something that doesn’t exist.
Doesn’t this seem a little silly to you. You need to be you, the best version of your self that you could ever be. You know your own truth and your own journey to get to where you are and that has to be the measure by which you compare yourself. There were times when I sat in class and thought, “they are going to be much better counselors than me.” I actually had to thought stop and say to myself, “what are you saying, they are learning and in class just like you.”
You may not be from a rich family, you may not be attending an ivy league school, you may not get the best grades and score a high score on the SATs, but that does not mean that you do not have worth. For me, I know that God has a plan for me. I cannot lie that this is not a motivating factor for my life. I will be writing about “God’s Calling” later on this month, so please check that out if you are interested in how to be more faithful to God’s will. I am a boss lady because I have a divine calling for my life. That does not mean that you don’t have one for yours.
Please don’t compare yourself to others.
Please say to yourself on a daily basis, “I have worth”
When you begin to feel like you cannot accomplish a task, take a deep breath. Tell yourself, “one step at a time.”
If someone tells you that they don’t like your work, they don’t like your cooking, they don’t like “whatever” it is, tell yourself, “that’s okay, what can I learn from this?”
I mean it, “your life has purpose.” Did you see that, I said “your” life, I am not asking you to sit and make a list of “they have, and I don’t”. The scandal I mentioned above can teach us a lot about how to act as parents and how to act as human beings. Hard work and dedication should be the way you get to the top of whatever mountain you choose to climb. Remember this one thing if nothing else sticks, you could be comparing yourself to someone whose parents paid for them to get into school, or someone who cheated to get where they are. You be you.
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Today is International Women's Day, so I had to at least take a moment to recognize how important this day is. So, here I am a woman, a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister and a friend and on my good days, my great days, I know that I am freakin’ superwoman. I am tough, smart, hardworking and dedicated through and through.
The last few days have been dark, not because I am struggling with not having visited my mother in a while or not getting the article published as I had hoped, but because pain, depression and fatigued have been pulling me down. I want to share with my readers the truth about how a woman can be a warrior. For the most part I have control of my depression and the other demons that attack my body, but there are days of doubt, sadness and the inability to get out of bed. The inability to be the woman warrior that I am.
What does it feel like? That feeling of doubting yourself and wanting to give up can be overwhelming. You feel like no matter what you do it’s useless. Even though you know doubt and pain is playing with your mind, you feel like something is pulling you down, a REAL physical entity is taking hold of you. During the normal motherly things, the normal woman things, the normal day to day life things seem near impossible when this force is present. Things that I need to do like be a counselor for my girls at their GEMS group seems painful. This past week, I was so exhausted, I was barely able to make it and when I did make it, I didn't want to be there. What could make depression and pain and fatigue worse, when people are asking how you're doing and the best you can respond with is, “having a bad day”. It takes time, energy and shaking the shame to explain what is really going on. It’s such an intricate thing to explain that you're in pain, that you feel hopeless and sad, and just want to crawl under the covers and not wake up for a while. Remember folks, I am a mental health professional, so this should be easier for me to do. Nope.
I know that I am a woman warrior, that I am wanted and needed. I wake up and I am needed to make the day start for other people, to deal with a struggling kindergartner who doesn’t want to wake up and make sure two older children have what they need. My husband loves me and needs me. I make things run, I'm important and vital to our society. I have dreams and hopes and plans, but this is the real life of a woman whose biggest fight can often be with herself.
So, on this International Women's Day, I had to take a moment to say thank you to the women who are daily warriors, fighting with their mental health and their bodies. I am most certainly not taking any light away from the women around the world who face terrible and harsh inequality, but I need to shine a light on women who put their feet to the ground. This is a “hey I see you” to the women who do what they can and the best way they know how on a daily basis as a woman, wife, girlfriend, employee, business owner, mother, daughter, sister, and even friend. I am thankful to have a husband who understands that I have mental health issues and can respect when I tell him “it’s been a bad day; the depression has hit hard today”.
Please note that I know my faith is HUGE in my daily life and that God has made all things possible. I also know that God has created us to move and improve, to take care of each other and to find inventive ways to do so. I take anti-depressants as well as other medications to make it through the day. Combine this with the love of my husband and I am a fortunate woman, and I know this.
Thank you, women warriors, you freakin’ superwomen, your faithful woman who make the day go around by placing one foot in front of the other.
Thank You to the women in my life:
My own mother who lives a life fighting FTD Dementia
Shelley McDonald (my other mama)
Grandma Maxine Rice (You taught me lessons I WILL NEVER forget)
Toni Szczepanski by dearest and sweetest friend (even though we don’t see each other often, you are a piece of my heart).
Marin Hann, MA., LLPC co-director of Koinonia Counseling Center
Alpha Women’s Center of Grand Rapids
Today instead of giving attention to another post, I am giving attention to Alpha Women's Center to seeks to build up families of all races and economic status. I love and adore this place and the women warriors I get to be with.
Everybody Hurts, a great REM song for sure, but not much fun when you are the one who is hurting. When I say “letting go gracefully” I am not saying that “being graceful” will keep you from the hurt and pain of feeling loss, humiliation, anger or any other negative thing in your life. It does mean, however, that you can take control of your own reactions.
Know there are times when you are powerless
So, here I was a teenage girl, a desperate girl who wanted the attention of a boy. I met said boy at a restaurant and we started a flirtatious conversation. What ended up happening was humiliating, he took my shoe. Yup, took my shoe and left the restaurant with the intention of getting me to go to his home. See, this boy had likely intentions that this teenage girl was not ready for. Thankfully, I never found said boy’s apartment, but I do remember going home to find my mom only to cry in her arms. I am sure you can think of moments when you felt the sting of humiliation, rejection or loss and can imagine how I was feeling. I had no power at that moment, but I could find someone who wouldn’t judge me for what had happened.
What do you mean when you say “graceful”?
When I say, “let go gracefully” what I mean is this. There are people who come in and out of our lives. We have great times where we feel on top of the world and other times when the world seems to be on top of us and that is okay. Everything cannot turn out perfect for us all the time and we are going to find ourselves in some pretty ridiculous or hurtful situations as I mentioned above.
Just because bad things happen does not mean that you are not worthy of holding your head up high. Sure, you want to call and text that lover who was once your entire world. In fact, you could be up against the wall dealing with a cruel and sadistic person, but you can still hold your head high. Being graceful does not mean that we don’t fall apart and cry or get angry, but it does mean that we do not seek out revenge. Why begin to live a life where revenge gives us satisfaction or get stuck in a never-ending cycle of revenge. You may hit a row of terrible losses, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot make it out of the darkness without a sense of dignity. Fighting the urge to “make things right” can be overwhelming, even scream our name over and over again, but it is not our job to “make things right”. Call it a higher power, God, the universe or karma, we can move on with our lives knowing that we don’t have to handle getting revenge. If you have to, tell yourself out loud, “revenge is not mine.”
Be Ready to Learn Honest Things About Yourself
I understand that this is difficult to do. I might not be near as useful if everyone could easily move on. So, seek out help if you need to, that is what graceful people do. They acknowledge that they need help and seek it out. They understand that it is always darkest before the dawn. You will learn things about yourself that will further humiliate you, but on the flip side, you will be enlightened too. Talking to an impartial party can allow you to gain tools and insight you can continue to use throughout your life.
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