A Spinning Compass

This afternoon I received a call from the hospice bereavement counselor. She was lovely, and asked all the right questions: about mood changes, support from friends and family and a spiritual community, whether I was eating properly, how I was coping, whether I had any plans for the future. I told her I thought I was doing well, but that I felt rather directionless now.

For so long I’ve been tied to Mom—whether in support mode or as full caregiver—that now I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. I have so many options, so many things I want to do, a wide-open world, that I’m frankly a little overwhelmed.

I explained to her that taking care of Mom gave my days structure, even if it was often too restrictive. I ate at regular times because Mom needed to eat regularly because she couldn’t take her regimen of pills on an empty stomach, and the pills had to be properly spaced. I had to time her breath treatments, and we had our little bedtime rituals so that we could both get a decent night’s sleep.

Now I can get up when I want, go to bed when I want (very early or very late), take naps if I please, eat when I’m hungry and skip meals if I choose. I can waste my day in front of the computer or the television—well, I could if I didn’t have so much blasted client work to catch up on—and I can go out in the evenings or head out to a 10 a.m. matinée, depending on my whim.

I have so many choices now. And so very, very much to do. I need to dig out of a house that is collapsing under its own weight. I need to sort through a lifetime’s accumulation and sort everything to be given away, sold, or trashed, or else kept, reused, and repurposed. I need to repaint and probably recarpet; I need to rearrange old furniture and maybe buy some new pieces. I need to make this home mine.

Overwhelmed. It means to feel like you’re about to drown, the waters whelming over your head. If I was overwhelmed before with all I had to do, I am feeling even more so now. Though I think I’m probably in a small boat, a little coracle, and I’m scanning the night sky for the Dog Star. My compass is spinning, and I’m waiting to find true North. I need that kind of clearheadedness in order to chart a new path.

Categories: Death, Psychology | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “A Spinning Compass

  1. As my doctor once asked me, when I had no idea what to do next, “How do you eat an elephant?”

    I had no idea how to answer.

    “One bite at a time.”

    Have that goal. Maybe one for a year from now.

    Write down the things that need to be done to get there.

    Write down the short term goals.

    Cross them out as you get them done. Make them small. A list of things that need buying. A list of things that need selling. A list of things that need repairing. A list of things that need tossing.

    You can look down to your list and up to your goal, seeing less and less between you and it as you knock he things of your list, seeing actual progress, on paper even if not in your environment.

    Then, at one point, you will at your list and see the amazing amount of things you got done.

    Then, one day soon after, you will look around and see the same.

    And that goal will seem so much closer.

    One bite at a time.

  2. Jenny

    I’m off the week after Christmas – how long will you be up north? I could come down and help you go thru some things if you need the help and want the company. Of course, we’ll get side tracked, but that is part of the “fun” of it!

    • Jenny: my schedule isn’t entirely firmed up yet, but right now I think I’ll be back on the 29th or 30th. I’ll give you a call and see what the situation looks like then. Thanks so much for the offer.

  3. JohnMc

    Mr. Tritt is right, my friend. The same rules apply now as they did when you were taking care of your mom: do things as they need doing. If you stopped to think about all that you had to do every minute of every day for your mom, you might have flipped out. Now you’re facing the other side of that coin. Where before you were completely tied to a schedule that was not your own. Now you are facing a(n almost) completely wide open schedule of your own making. In some ways, far more frightening as it’s a myriad of choices and all your own. Take it one step at a time.

  4. Mr. Tritt? Why I Orta!!! You young wippersnapper. I may be yer elder but ah ain’t old. An I ain’t no Mr. Tritt.

    Just plain Adam will do please (without the just plain part).

  5. Jennie

    Your mother’s needs defined the largest part of the structure of your life in recent years. It takes time to remodel that structure. There is no rush. It is worth being deliberate about.

    As you are coping with the task of trying to sort and separate and prioritize the many, many things that you wish to accomplish and enjoy in your new freedom, you might find it helpful to lump them into these general categories:

    1. Important and urgent (calling plumber about broken pipes flooding house; eat-drink-sleep-breathe-move; deadline-driven client work; inspired writing; social, emotional, physical, and spiritual support, as needed)

    2. Important but not urgent (picking out new and re-arranging old furniture, developing long-range plans, sorting through your mother’s belongings)

    3. Urgent but not important (some social events, taping/watching [some] TV )

    4. Not important and not urgent (some e-mail, web surfing, general time-wasters)

    Obviously, category 1 and category 2 things take priority—and your best hours mentally and physically should, when possible, be devoted to taking care of the things in your life that are important. But that doesn’t mean that you must finish everything that is in those categories before you can go on to something else. And even when you aren’t feeling your best, some of those category one items can still get accomplished. Hungry, lonely, and sad is not the time you want to head out to the grocery store, but it IS the time to call up your friends and ask for dinner company, and dinner to go along with it.

    If you aren’t thinking clearly, you don’t want to work on the most important client work of the year, nor do you want to choose the paint and furniture that you will be spending the next ten years with. Programming the TV to record next week’s favorite lineup, washing dishes, doing laundry, or watching the previous week’s recorded episodes would be fine low-risk activities for that condition. When I am feeling overwhelmed, I find that doing a few small, manageable tasks that contribute to restoring external physical order can really reduce that sensation.

    There really is no rush to sort through your mother’s things. They will be there when you are ready to go through them. It took me years to be able to face the task of really getting rid of most of my mother’s belongings after her death, and there are still things that I know I will eventually let go that I haven’t quite processed to that point yet. Your experience might differ. But it was, for me, the most difficult part of the entire grieving process. If you need more time before you tackle this, that is completely understandable. If there are specific things, memorabilia, that your other family members want that you are willing to let go, but you don’t want to be overwhelmed with the enormity of clearing your mother’s life out of your house just yet, ask them for a list and retrieve only those things.

    Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself time to grieve and re-consolidate your energies. Perhaps you are directionless right now because it is not a time to go out but rather a time to be still.

  6. That’s very, very helpful, Jennie. Many thanks.

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