How mindfulness can help soften the blow of bad news.
December can be stressful on a good day. This year it could have been even worse. Just before Christmas I got what initially felt like bad, no terrible, news. After almost three years of suspecting that my mother has more than just a bad hip, sitting in the modern clinic at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, on a Friday morning, when I should have been teaching fifty 7-year-olds how to be mindful, the doctor fed back the results of the recent MRI of her brain. Mum has alcoholic and vascular dementia. Despite the suspicion that this was the case for some months now, I was instantly winded and tears welled up. Then trickled down my face. I had to look away. And breathe.
Even though she was sitting right beside me, breathing, talking, alive, all I could see in my mind were images of the severely damaged parts of her brain, as a result of many mini-strokes over the last few years. Images of neurons that had been starved of blood and oxygen, and so would no longer be able to transmit signals to enable her to walk easily, remember consistently, feel happy or make decisions without confusion and anger. The real evidence before me that she was still there, was blind-sided by imagined images of what was not.
It took two full weeks for the news to sink in. During that time, I didn’t overthink or analyse, research or study. I just got on with daily life, not avoiding the situation but not obsessing either. Unlike the old me, there was a short period of figuring out what next, what needed sorting, fixing. But that soon subsided and I just let the news seep. Then after two weeks the reality began to occupy my attention a little more and I was astounded by what I found. Rather than go through the normal stages of grief at the loss of my old mum - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – I seemed to have skipped straight to acceptance.
I found myself at ease with consciously, mindfully, not judging my mother for the life choices she had made, which had caused the dementia – no exercise or socialising, too many cigarettes, far too much wine and a stubborn refusal to take blood pressure medication, despite being a walking time-bomb. Instead I consciously chose to be compassionate about the hardships she had faced from an early age, which had in part led to these actions.
I was also able to follow my own mindful advice not to strive to put measures in place to prevent further deterioration. Sure, there was a brief temptation to dementia-proof her home and life. But as soon this popped up, I was able to be aware of it, and seek support that would calm that urge and give me permission not to act. Not to fix.
What has become very apparent is that, although I might be dealing with things mindfully, thanks to the nearly five years I have dedicated to having a positive relationship with my thoughts, others are not dealing with the situation at the same pace. My patience is being tested, as I wait for others to realise the old her has partly gone. The science is indisputable. It was hard not to revert to being a child who needs their mother, but I’m trying to give others the time to get their heads around that too.
So I am trying wholeheartedly to practice what I preach and accept. What’s done is done. Brain cells cannot regenerate (yet). You can’t undo a lifetime of physical and mental hardship and neglect. But you can cherish what you had and focus on the good that is still there. And I can learn from her choices and make sure I don’t repeat them; I can endeavour daily to look after my mind, body and soul, to prevent my own children from having to go through this.
So I have consciously tried to bring present moment awareness, day by day, to how I am feeling about my mother’s dementia. I have looked gently to find where in my body is responding to that, and breathe into that place, so that I can prevent my actions from being reactions to fear, anger, sadness or loss. I have decided to trust that I will have the knowledge and strength to deal with things as they unfold, and that people and the universe will be there for me if I falter.
But I guess what I possibly still need to do a little more, if I am completely honest, is let go. Release myself from the desire to do whatever I can to bring my strong, active, spirited mother back. Give myself permission to put some things behind me, for now, and just breathe and enjoy today. I don’t want or need to forget the good times we had for 45 years together, indeed I am actively grateful for those. But I also mustn’t ruminate on my, our, loss. I have to let go.
I am reminded of something a beautiful soul of a 10 year old student of mine once told me. We were talking about mindfulness helping us deal with difficulty and how we freeze, flee or fight in such moments if we don’t remain present and grounded. She explained how that weekend she had received the news that her grandpa had dementia. Deeply saddened by this she had fled to her room and cried. Then remembering what we had practiced in class together, she did a short ‘petal practice’ and calmed down. I can still hear her words as she told us all openly “I realised my old grandpa was gone and the best thing I could do now was be curious and get to know my new grandpa”. Little did I know then how helpful those words, and the other 6 pillars of mindfulness, would be to me today. The unfortunate diagnosis has actually turned out to be a relief from the not knowing for sure what was happening. Now it’s time to get to know my new mum …