Grief Current: Breaking Ropes, Hearts
“Grief” is defined as “distress over affliction or loss.” In my case, I was somewhat
confused because I was only defining “loss” in the context of a loved one’s
physical death. But my grandparents with dementia weren’t dead—they were still
there, living, breathing. So how could I be grieving? What, exactly, had been lost?
As I regarded my grandparents’ state of mind, my initial experience was shock,
followed closely by sadness. I then wandered through a patch of irritability
because at the time I lacked the understanding of dementia’s true nature. But
there was another very definite emotional upheaval occurring in me during those
early caregiving days: a true grief experience.
I began to see the loss brought on by dementia is one that occurs in stages. I
picture it like a boat that’s being held to a dock by several ropes; dementia cuts
the ropes one at a time, and even though a few of the original ties are still intact,
you can easily see how the current has pulled at the loose end of the boat,
beckoning the vessel out to sea. Eventually the last rope is cut and the boat is
slowly, steadily moved by an unseen hand toward the horizon until it finally fades
In caring for a loved one with dementia, it becomes painfully clear that as each
proverbial rope is cut, a fresh grief is released in the caregiver, and they are
compelled to watch as their loved one inches farther and farther away.
I came to realize that even though my grandparents were still living, quite a lot
had actually been lost. Visiting them in their Ozark home was one of the first
things to go. Grandpa would never again go into his garden and select a heavy,
ripe, hollow-sounding watermelon for us to cut and eat. Grandma wouldn’t walk
me through her garden showing me her newest blooms anymore, and the long
walks in Grandpa’s woods with him and his dog were over. In those terms, the
loss was palpable.
Caregivers: understand that loss is loss, even if it’s coming in stages! So be
deliberate as you treasure life’s moments. Ask your loved one questions about their childhood or jog their memory with photographs from their youth. Show
them you are going to sit beside them on the dock until the last rope is cut.