zen habits : breathe

Finding Happiness in the Midst of Grief  

‘People come and go in your life but they never leave your dreams. Once they are in your subconscious, they are immortal.’ ~Patricia Hampl

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Tammy Strobel of RowdyKittens.

On January 14, 2012, I received a life changing phone call. I was still half asleep when I picked up the phone. It was my mom. She told me that my step-dad, Mahlon, was in the hospital. In the early morning hours my mom found Mahlon laying on the floor, beside their bed. She had a feeling that Mahlon had a stroke; his speech was mumbled, he couldn’t move the left side of his body and she said he’d already been airlifted to a hospital in Chico, California.

When my mom explained the situation, I felt terrified. I was terrified because deep in my core I knew that we were going to lose Mahlon. He already had a lot of compounding health problems — including Parkinson’s disease and the beginning stages of dementia — and a stroke would only complicate his fragile state.

I never imagined that Mahlon would be severely disabled as a result of the strokes, or that I would spend the first part of 2012 traveling between Oregon and California to help take care of him. Luckily, I had the time to help take care of my dad and be a support system for my mom.

Only six months later, on Sunday, June 10, 2012, I found myself in a hospital room with my mom and Mahlon. My mom and I sat on the opposite sides of my dad’s hospital-bed giving him hugs and kisses. We told him how much we loved him and that it was okay to let go. Holding Mahlon’s hand as he took his last breath was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

The last six months of Mahlon’s life were filled with heart wrenching experiences, for Mahlon, our family and me. But unexpectedly these experiences helped me find happiness. These insights have led me to a few key observations, including:

Uncertainty is part of life. During the first part of the year, I spent a lot of time thinking about the uncertainty of Mahlon’s recovery. I wanted to control the outcome of his healing process even though I knew that wasn’t possible. So I decided to focus on what I could control. I decided to stop focusing on outcomes and to spend as much time with him as possible, telling him stories, and reflecting on positive memories.

Savor your memories. I always thought that I’d have more time with Mahlon; more time to watch Westerns, to enjoy the holidays, and to savor the little things. I can’t make new memories with Mahlon, but I can honor the ones I carry with me. For instance, I keep thinking about a trip I took with my parents last summer. We spent a few weeks in Lake Tahoe and it was wonderful. The weather was perfect and I had the opportunity to just sit and talk with Mahlon. We laughed, ate cherry ice cream cones, and he even did a little kayaking with me on the lake.

Give back. Over one-hundred people attended Mahlon’s memorial service and shared stories about his life. I was struck, yet again, by his strong community ties. He lived in Red Bluff, California for over forty years and volunteered with the local Lion’s Club for thirty-five years. His Lion’s buddies showed up to the service in their bright yellow vests and talked about Mahlon’s dedication to his family and his community. It was an incredible tribute.

Practice gratitude. My mom recently said that, “Losing Mahlon felt like a bullet going through her heart.” And I have to admit, the ups and downs of grief doesn’t always make me happy. Yet, I’m filled with a sense of gratitude because I had a dad I could count on. He was always there to listen, to give me hugs, and to remind me that relationships are more important than stuff, a fancy career, or lots of money. So when I start feeling sad, I pick up my journal and create a gratitude list. Practicing gratitude is one way that I’m coping with this loss.

Finding Happiness through Grief. Watching Mahlon’s health decline and subsequently losing him has made me rethink how and where I live my life. Recently, my husband and I decided to move back to Northern California to be closer to family, which make both of us happier. Life is too short to be so far from the people I love.

More than anything, I’m happy that Mahlon was my dad. He was part of my life for over twenty years and I’m incredibly grateful that I got to spend so much time with him and that he taught me so many valuable lessons. One that I constantly remember is this . . .

Pay attention to the people in your life because relationships are the only true wealth. Tell your loved ones how much they mean to you. Write a letter, make a phone call, or send an email. Don’t wait. Show your love today.

Tammy Strobel is a writer, photographer, and blogs regularly at RowdyKittens.com. Her new book is called, “You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap).” 



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