Killed by life

The idea of grieving the living isn’t new to me.  A grief counselor opened it up at an autism conference I attended years ago.  There are crossovers between disability and death – dreams are lost, so are familiar comforts and joys.

Today I bumped into a good article on this topic, from the American Academy of Bereavement.  In a 2015 piece entitled Unconventional Grief: Grieving Someone Alive, AAB shares good insight,

jesus-weptThis form of grief, just like grieving someone who is deceased, does not change the level of attachment to the person. Simply, this person is no longer acting how they were before and have had a dramatic shift in personality… Unlike when someone dies, you are unlikely to experience positive emotions while grieving someone alive. When someone passes, you are surrounded by the comfort of their loved ones and are often able to look at the joy of their life. This rarely happens with unconventional or ambiguous grief. Just like when someone dies, you are likely to be overcome with sadness. However, the reminder of your sadness is constant…

The article focuses on sudden change in an adult, such as drug addiction or the onset of mental illness.  For caregivers of children with developmental disabilities, the loss isn’t so much who the person used to be, but who you dreamed of them becoming.  There’s grief either way.

Read the whole thing.  There are some positive suggestions for the grieving caregiver, including this one which has been so true of living with our son’s autism,

Open yourself up to change. One of the hardest parts of grieving someone alive is that you are forced to accept a changed relationship that you do not want. It may be difficult for you to look on a loved one in a different life, but you may be able to experience a rewarding relationship with them in new ways than before. Focusing on finding joy in your new relationship will help keep your mental state positive rather than gloomy.

Finding joy in Joey-as-Joey, rather than as the Joey of our daydreams, has been an essential care giving tool and its own reward.

And Jesus opened his mouth and taught them, saying:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:2-4)

 

Stop and stare

Today’s e-mail regarding a residential placement for our 23 year old son with autism:

Unfortunately, from speaking to XXXXX there will not be any pre-move meeting to discuss potential dates to move Joey into YYYYY. This is due to being short staff and not having staff in place at YYYYY to best serve Joey safely. According to XXXXX, staffing should be figured out by mid October I was told.

It was only a few weeks ago that we were given a tour of a place, told we had five days to decide, decided, and then received an offer for him to move in.

Now, the whole thing is

a177555_008.jpg

How about a little One Republic while life’s on hold?

Stop and stare
You start to wonder why you’re here not there
And you’d give anything to get what’s fair
But fair ain’t what you really need
Oh, can you see what I see

Loneliness

Just caught some stats from across the pond,

  • Research by Sense has shown that up to 50% of disabled people will be lonely on any given day…
  • A report by Carers UK revealed that 8 out of 10 carers have felt lonely or isolated as a result of looking after a loved one.

That’s right, half of people with special needs experience loneliness in the course of a day.  But on top of that, 80% of those who care for them feel lonely or isolated – and care giving is cited as the source of the emotion.

We get that here.  Care giving wipes out spontaneity, for one thing.  A friend calls and says, “Hey, wanna go down to the bar and watch the game?” and all you can say is “I can’t” or, at best, “Well, I can watch the first quarter but then have to get home.”

Social life withers because the needs of the people in our care keep us pinned down with tasks or plain old being “on watch, just in case.”

When some neighbors invited us to join them around a fire pit on a cool evening, Melissa and I had to take turns. One of us stayed in to watch our son, the other socialized, then we switched. We couldn’t have fun as a couple.

And many folks are uncomfortable coming into a care giving environment, and friends or family who are willing can come only so often without being turned into exhausted, lonely care givers themselves.

Tony Gaines Starz

Tim (right) and his lifetime pal.

We just enjoyed a great weekend.  A childhood friend (of Tim’s) and his wife spent two days here as part of their drive around America.  They didn’t ask much of us – in fact, they were clear that they wanted to see us, not go sightseeing around Sioux Falls.

So we relaxed and shared great memories and ate and laughed and talked about what was on our hearts and minds and… were anything but lonely.  It was wonderful.

Melissa StarzOur son with autism, Joey, was his usual self, staying on the periphery until he was comfortable with the strangers.  You can see the “I’m not sure about this” posture in this picture.  But notice that he’s not detached – he’s looking right into the camera (eye contact is elusive when autism is in the house).  Melissa (middle) is obviously not feeling lonely, stressed or like a caregiver for the moment.  (Note: being a caregiver doesn’t mean you can’t be cute, too.)

The point is that any and all of you who know families in care giving mode – and by that I don’t mean just with autism, but Alzheimer’s, chronic illness, aged parents, disability and just about any situation that can confine one person and others to provide care – have great power to intrude on loneliness and isolation.

YOU are a gift.  Yeah, it’s great when a neighbor clears my driveway in winter.  That saves me some stress and strain.  But even greater is time to laugh and talk and BS about stuff.  All of that human social glue that care giving dries up, you can spill afresh by your time with caregivers and those in our care.

And don’t forget the goatherds.  They get lonely, too.

 

You open your email and…

On behalf of the Placement Committee, I would like to offer a tour at [a special needs group home] to Joey Fountain.

I like to write but all of the descriptions of my reaction to this message get trite. You know, my jaw hit the floor, my eyes popped out of my head kind of stuff.

Joey, our son with autism, is 23 now.  We’ve hoped for and dreaded this opportunity for years.  I can’t blog a whole lot on it at the moment because our thoughts and emotions are bouncing off the walls (man, this is getting cheesier by the keyboard stroke).

[Let me throw in one practical suggestion.  If you are a Google user, Google Docs is a great resource.  My wife started a document with our growing list of questions and stuff to get done as we approach the transition meetings and the move itself.  It auto-saves, so you can’t lose stuff by closing it in an emotional haze.  You can use email to invite in others (you know, your spouse and other care giving ally types), so they can open it on their screen and add to it as well.

If you are awake all night stewing about the issue (as are we), you can just add to the document and your allies will be able to see it when they open the document later.  No need to make copies and then more copies as you revise – you can all be online editing together in real time.]

In Raising a Child with Autism, I shared a lovely little vignette about Melissa raising gardenias and then wrote,

Giving away gardenias hardly compares to the “giveaway” in our future.  Joey is on a waiting list to move into a group residence.  It is uncomfortable to think about looking into his bedroom, just down the hall from ours, and seeing an empty space.  Like Melissa’s gardenias, he’s grown in beautiful ways.  And the time is coming to let him go.

That was composed in reflective calm, when the “waiting list” was just a vague background reality, something that wouldn’t really mean anything until…  until a couple of weeks ago when I opened my email and there it was, specific, real and hulking in the foreground of our lives.

I’m sure Melissa and I will share more here as we walk through this together.  Your prayers and encouragement mean a great deal.

For now, here’s a sweet picture of Joey, taken one 4th of July in Sioux Falls.  We know holidays can be a challenge for caregivers – here’s hoping that your family “fireworks” stay far off in the sky.

Smiling Joey

Worthless and weak

I whined about Mother Nature last night, so I guess I can do the same about God the Father this morning.

Care givers have ample experience with unanswered prayer. Prayer that the diagnosis be wrong; prayer that the condition go away; prayer for resources that don’t come; prayer to “do it right” and fix everything that needs fixin’.

OK, sometimes the prayers are answered. But the great mystery is that so much of what’s good, true and beautiful comes when we are rebuffed,

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:8-10, NLT

So up and at another day, friends. Let’s affirm the reality together, and let the power flow…

Have you seen this man?

Soooooooo…

We went to a wedding over the weekend.  All three of us – our son with autism included.

There was much in our favor.  The couple came from an extended family of friends that our son, Joey,  knows and enjoys.  The atmosphere was happy earthy rather than formal and uptight.  The weather featured a few of the rationed really-nice-days allocated to South Dakota every year.  And there was food to be downed.

As I shared earlier, the rehearsal went really well for our whole family.  And we were going back to the same place with the same folks for the wedding and reception.

Something changed.

Maybe it was the volume of the music in the reception hall.  Maybe it was the bigger crowd of people.  Whatever it was, it brought out Joey’s “best.”

5118Here’s a surveillance photo of the suspect.  Notice that the look isn’t very happy.  That little bucket was full of chex mix for snacking – he pulled it to himself, spilling some and playing tug-o-war with us as we tried to retrieve it.  Calm words about “sharing” failed.  Then he ate all the chex out of the mix and left us with just the pretzel bits.

What you might not be able to tell from this pic is that he’s not in a chair.  He’s on his knees on the floor.  We tried to coax him into a chair but that agitated him.

Then he scooted on his knees out into the middle aisle of the reception hall – just as the wedding party was set to make its entrance.

Joey’s figured out that he’s big enough to physically resist mom, so I had to hunker down on the floor and drag him just enough to clear the aisle until the wedding party made it through.

Then he stood up and started walking around in front of the head table, which of course was when people wanted to be taking pictures of the couple and their gorgeous bridesmaids and groomsmen.

I managed to stay just calm enough to convince Joey that he didn’t have to sit if he went and stood by the windows along the wall.

The long and short of it is that Melissa and I enjoyed our friends’ wedding very much, we all had a nice dinner and drinks (several drinks in reaction to Joey) and then came home and collapsed.

Care giving is a game of home court advantage – you usually wind up losing on the road.

My picture of defiant Joey – actually the whole vibe of trying to handle him – reminded me of this recent movie scene:

 

 

Isolation

The first book signing for Raising a Child With Autism is history, but this isn’t about the book.  It is about the people who stopped to talk at the display table and others who’ve been in touch via the internet.  My prayer list keeps growing with their names and needs.

One man took a break from his job down the street from the bookstore to come in and describe his family’s unique challenges.  They care for a son with autism.

We noticed that people stopped inviting us to stuff.  I think they’re afraid of our kid.  My wife is at home alone with him more and more.  She’s really feeling isolated.

All kinds of care givers suffer in similar situations.  People don’t invite you out or you find it too much of a hassle to go.  Competent babysitters or respite providers are hard to find.  The person in your care is agitated if you go out on your own, but resists going along when invited.

Many Christians will hear a familiar Bible lesson on an upcoming Sunday in Easter season.  It begins with people in isolation,

2012-12-22_09-13-56_966When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…

But the locked door is as powerless against what happens next as, well, our bedroom door when our son Joseph wants to bust in about something.

Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

We weren’t able to attend an Easter service.  I had to work and Melissa had to – did you guess? – be home with Joe.  Yet Easter isn’t less Easter to us, because of the one who burst the isolation of his tomb and, by his Spirit, reaches into the isolation that afflicts the human race.

There’s no easy set of “steps” to make this happen, much as I’d like to bottle and sell such a formula.  But I suppose it begins like most efforts to end isolation, with a conversation,

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

We are blessed this Easter.  Although we couldn’t be in church, we will soon have dinner with friends who love Joey and welcome him into their home.

We are grateful to all who read what we share, who leave messages and otherwise communicate with us.  You have been part of God’s response when we’ve asked, sought and knocked – you help deliver us from isolation.

May God’s peace be always with you.

NO, IT’S NOT BAD PARENTING

Award winning author Norma Gail asked me some probing questions in an interview shared on her blog.

Here’s a bit of it, with some key quotes available for Tweets embedded by the host,

NORMA GAIL:  Autism affects 1-68 children in America. That’s more common than most people probably realize. What are the most basic things you wish people knew about Autism and the families it affects?

Leonidas

Lifted here.  You might find the article amusing, too.

SOMETIMES CARE GIVING STINKS: I think I speak for many families of children with autism who want to scream, “NO, IT’S NOT DUE TO BAD PARENTING.”  It’s a neurological disorder, most likely genetic rather than environmental in origin (although people debate that with some ferocity).  One of the hardest things is that kids with autism are impaired socially and so their parents can invest sacrificial work with little to no emotional connection in response.  We were spared that – Joey is very connected emotionally, albeit in some quirky ways.

There is no “cure” for autism or any one therapy that is useful in all cases.  Families hope for a “silver bullet” that will solve things, and this can leave us open to bad advice, blaming or other traps.

Parents deal with feelings similar to grieving a death.  Various hopes and dreams we hold out for a typical child often have to be given up for a child with autism.  Some kids on the autism spectrum grow up to play sports, perform in the arts, excel in academics or vocational skill, get married and all kinds of other things we think of as making for a “good life.”  But many will never experience some or all of those things.  They have other pleasures – parents have to learn to love those.

Siblings can feel ignored due to all the effort and attention put into caring for the child with autism.  The whole family is impacted.

Allies mean a great deal.  Educators, medical people, community programs, understanding churches (not always easy to find), and just plain caring folks make life better.  There’s a neighbor of ours who routinely keeps going down our sidewalk when clearing his of snow – the time and effort he saves us is a precious gift.

NG: What are some of the greatest challenges faced by parenting a child with a disability?

SCGS: As the book points out, family caregivers – and this applies in situations beyond Autism, such as Alzheimer’s, spousal disability and many other conditions – are trying to fulfill roles beyond the knowledge, skill, energy, patience and finances of a typical individual or family.  We get stretched beyond our limits and, really, beyond any realistic expectation of becoming “good at it.”

In our case, we had to deal with Joey’s “meltdowns.” Kids with autism become frustrated when they can’t understand or be understood by others, and this can lead to a violent outburst.  It’s not the same as a tantrum, in which a kid wants a toy.  It is an all consuming surge of energy in an effort to connect with a world that seems out of touch.  It is heartbreaking to try and contain a beloved child who is putting you in serious danger – Joey would punch, kick, bite and throw objects at us.

There were several years where we didn’t think that Joey or any of us would ever sleep.  The stuff that makes you laugh after the years of raising a baby keeps going when autism is in play.  I sometimes tell people, “Imagine having a combination of newborn and toddler for a couple of decades.”

Parents share war stories of dealing with “the system.”  Some school districts are downright hostile to special needs kids, considering them a financial drain on services for “normal” kids.  Then there are the insurance issues, efforts to see specialists, quests for specialized therapies – it is exhausting and sometimes fruitless.

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Check out the interview.  Leave a comment there on Norma Gail’s blog and you might win a signed copy of Raising a Child With Autism.

Empty cart, not yet empty nest

shopping-cartI couldn’t resist having fun with the sign on this shopping cart.  I Instagramed (is that the verb?) it, with a caption about how I wasn’t getting any children anyway since I was fasting for Ash Wednesday.

Humor is an important ally to the caregiver.  It is a tension cutter.  Much of our humor is dark, but then so are the situations that generate it.

In recent months it’s been harder for Melissa and me to laugh at some of the quirks of Joey’s autism.  His video watching becomes intrusive noise; I don’t think he’s turned up the volume but our annoyed ears seem to think he has.

The chores of his daily routines – chores we do for him, let me be clear, not chores he does – are not a terrible effort yet they are numbing.  Not demanding physically, but draining psychically.

His non-cooperative behaviors get under our skin more.

We have more wistful conversations about being empty nest, about having the house and the time to ourselves for the first time in forever.  And so we wait for Joey’s group home placement, still loving him and wanting all to be well in his life yet feeling the limits of our own aging and of the two decades dominated by autism.

And that’s followed by a mist of fear that we’ll be staring at each other across a great emptiness wondering, OK, now what do we do?

Speaking of aging, I guess that entitles me to repeat stuff I’ve probably said before but can’t remember if I did.  So, let me say (again) that one way to describe raising a child with autism is to ask parents of typical kids to remember the sleepless nights and all the stuff that went with a new baby – the stuff that in hindsight becomes a source of humorous memories.  Now imagine that much of that stuff never developed into self sufficient adulthood and you kept doing it for five years, then ten, then twenty.  Not so funny anymore.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, is what we say on Ash Wednesday.  Indeed, care giving exposes every pathetic evidence of sin and fatal separation from God – every bit of selfishness, the limits of love, the capacity for self pity and resentment, the instinct to blame… all of the ungodly feelings, thoughts and emotions in service of the world, the flesh and the devil.

If we are fortunate, it becomes the great weakness that throws us upon the grace of a loving God, who gives us power to live in ways we never imagined,

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)