Relationships

TRANSFORMING VICTIMIZATION: TRUE STORIES

TRANSFORMING VICTIMIZATION: TRUE STORY NUMBER 3

The first two stories in this series were written by people I know personally. You can read story number 1 and story number 2 if you missed them. Following is a story from one of our newsletter members. Sheri Spirt shares her story about the passing of her grandmother. We live in a culture that does little to prepare us for death and dying. As she shares her story, let us allow her message to help each of us as we experience the death of a family member.

IN MEMORY OF BETTY SITZER

BY SHERI SPIRT

As a psychiatrist, I have been a witness to the gamut of difficult life circumstances, but none can compare with the pain of loss, particularly the loss of a loved one. What I find, however, to be most important in healing, is how an individual actually handles the grief process. It often concerns me when a patient does not wish to talk about the deceased, but rather almost pretend they are still alive. The healthiest approach is to mourn, especially with support of family members and friends, the loss, and recount the wonderful memories. In a way, this keepís the loved one alive, in oneís heart anyway. In the Jewish religion, the tradition of sitting Shiva was actually established for just this purpose. I recently had to experience this pain, after the loss of my Grandmother, whose death, to date, is the most significant loss in my life. To help me I found that writing her wonderful story and recapping all of my memories of her was the most therapeutic thing I could do. This is her story. I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoy remembering.

When I was asked to recite a eulogy in honor of my Grandmother at her funeral, I thought I would never be able to get through the first sentence. My grandmother and I had an exceedingly close and special relationship, although this had been more so in the last 8 years of her life after a routine of daily phone calls was established.

I began calling my grandmother every morning about 8 years ago, which was about the same time I got my first puppy. I believe the phone call routine started as my grandmother seemed to be the only relative interested in my excitement about my new puppyís progress and learning. I got into the habit, while eating my breakfast in the morning before I left to go to my office, of calling Grandma to report. In the beginning she would tell me how Ď"I made her day" by calling and now she knew she would have a good day. I had to call everyday for fear I would be the reason she would have a bad one. And so, the routine began. My Grandmother over the following 8 years became not only my best friend and confidant, but my teacher, and prime support system. Through these phone calls I came to both know and understand my grandmother. Through her I got to know myself better than I ever would have had in therapy.

I was Grandmotherís first grandchild, born to her oldest daughter. In the beginning our phone conversations centered around the importance of family, my desire for my own family, and my difficulties in the romantic arena. At this point, my Grandmother was in her late 80ís and I was in my late 30ís. My second engagement had just ended, thankfully I may say, but my biological clock had almost ticked out.

My mother had remarried when I was 21, having divorced my father when I was 12. Her second husband was a religious man and my mother adopted the traditions of the Orthodox Jewish. Marriage and children being such an important construct and I being childless, I had become what I perceived to be almost an embarrassment to my mother. My Grandmother, however, understood my sensitivity and would approach the subject ever so gingerly. With all my younger cousins having already married, my step-siblings married, and me with two failed engagements under my belt, I felt like a failure.

Grandma would begin one of her information gathering conversations with, "So, whatís new?" She was never the type to come straight out and ask, "So, are you dating anyone?" And, my answer would usually be, "Grandma, nothingís new, everythingís the same."

She might then say something like, "Do you go out with your girlfriendís?" She would tell me her story, of how she met Grandpa Harry, when everyone told her to go away to the country. She would ask me when I go on trips, "Is there the opportunity to meet someone?" She would say, "Go out, you never know." To my Grandmother life was a multitude of opportunities. On another occasion she tried to casually mention to me about the advertisements she read in the Jewish papers about available men. When I told her, "Grandma I have a schizophrenic patient that advertises in one of those papers," her response was, "O.K. I wonít press you." She was a very sensitive person and would not push her views too hard. When she sensed I was getting upset, she would quickly change the topic.

Over time, I guess because I sensed my Grandmotherís consideration of me, I started telling her about the men I was dating and the men I was meeting. In her heart, she knew of the beauty of love and family and wanted me to be happy. She understood how lonely I was. She was always positive and never allowed for negative. There was no such thing as, "I give up, Iíll never meet anyone." When Grandma heard I was socializing and going out, she would comment, "Youíll meet someone, youíll see." And over the years of our talks I did meet several men. One I initially thought could turn into something serious, but unfortunately it had a sour ending.

At the very end of Grandmaís life, though, it was funny. When I visited her in the hospital, I asked her why she thought I still had not met anyone. She answered, "Your problem is your whole life is that dog." Although I do not agree with her on that one, it did get me thinking, especially when the following day a financial planner sent me a two page article about preparing a trust for a dog.

My dog was a significant bonding factor in our relationship. Shanie, a 5 pound, toy Maltese, you see, was my first puppy. No one else in my family had experience with a dog, except for Grandma, who had Blackie as a young girl. Grandmother was Ďa dog person,í as I am. From the day she met Shanie, she loved him and, I believe, almost as much as I do. In every phone conversation she would ask me "Howís Shanie?" As her memory began to fail, my test was always the same," Grandma, what is my dogís name? Is he big or small? What color is he?" Up until 3 days before her death, when the morphine obtunded her consciousness, she answered the questions correctly. Funny, on one occasion she actually confused my dogís name with her own daughter, but I never told anyone that.

Often, I would tell her how much I loved Shanie and she would always respond with, "I love him too, you canít help it." Over the years I got into the habit of sending her pictures of Shanie in the mail. One year I had a coffee mug made with a picture of the dog on it and the words Shanie loves Grandma. Incidentally, I had one made for myself with the words I love Shanie. We would both have our morning coffee together out of our Shanie mugs, while talking on the telephone.

My Grandmother would always tell me what a smart dog Shanie was. I remember when I found a dog vest in a pool store and decided to teach him to swim. In my house in Long Island I have a pool in the backyard which Shanie never liked to go near. I decided, though, it would be good for him not to be so afraid of water and it would help cool him off, as he insisted on staying outside with me under the lounge chair in the summer. With the vest on he actually learned to doggie paddle. So excited, I kept calling my Grandmother to inform her of his progress. When he started swimming on his own, and when he made a lap across the pool, she was as excited as I was. Again, she reiterated, "He is such a smart dog." She always wanted to know what Shanie was doing.

After Grandma died, I began to wonder if Shanie was really just a transitional object for the both of us. I did know she loved him, however I wonder if a lot of her voiced affectations for him was in respect for me, knowing I was childless and loved this creature so very much, as if he were my own child, and thus out of respect for me she treated him as such as well. She was just that type of woman. Even when she would invite me to go out to dinner with her and Grandpa, she would always tell me to bring Shanie.

She was so appreciative of everything I did for her. When I would bring her those super size boxes of Cheerios, her favorite cereal, from one of those wholesale warehouse places, she would say, "Where did you get such a big box? This is wonderful, thank you very much." Any present you ever got her, "it was beautiful", although especially if it was turquoise, her favorite color. Aware of her preferences for food; breads well baked, meat lean, coffee strong and bitter; no matter what you actually gave her, "it was delicious". I donít ever remember her complaining about anything I brought her. Every picture I sent she would say, "Where did you get such a picture?" or dress I bought her; "Where did you get such a dress?" Even as she lay in pain in the hospital bed, one day she felt well enough to watch a movie with me. It turned out to be the last movie she ever saw. We watched March of the Penguins, and for weeks she would say, "Where did you get such a movie? It was beautiful."

Part of our conversations were actually educational for her. Grandmother was a big television watcher and, aside from one soap opera she watched for years, would primarily watch the news, documentaries, and educational programs. To my Grandmother if it was on television, it was gospel. On occasion, she would ask me about some medical procedure, be it in vitro fertilization (I suppose to comfort me in my childless panic), or some unusual dog trick she saw. "I saw it on the television," she would say. My Grandmother was aware of the 50 year old women having babies, the new plastic surgical procedures, and all about online dating. She knew so much trivia from watching Jeopardy for 40 years it was a shame she was never a contestant herself. I would often elaborate on things for her. I actually once explained to her about conception, and cell division, and corrected her myth that if a man loves you more you will have a boy. She would listen like the most enthusiastic of students, always saying, "Oh, thatís very interesting." As her health deteriorated, I would explain to her how each medication she was taking worked and what it was supposed to do.

We spoke about family, relationships, conflicts, disappointments, struggles, and all else involved in being a member of a family. Her understanding of people was astonishing. Her goal was always for peace. To my Grandmother, no matter what, family was family. She accepted people for who they were; their strengths and their weaknesses. In this way she protected herself from disappointment and she tried to teach me the same thing. For many years I would often tell her of various situations where I was hurt by another family member. Her answer was always "to take it from who it comes." I remember when she was in the hospital and I had been greatly disappointed by my brother; her answer was "What can you do, thatís who he is, heíll never change," and she never tried to change anyone.

If you did something that she thought was not right, or that upset her or someone else, she would quietly tell you, without raising her voice. She never held a grudge in all the years I knew her. My parents being divorced, as I matured my relationship with my father grew distant, however, my Grandmother often would ask me how my father was doing and would encourage me to call. She would emphasize the importance for children to speak with their parents regularly. She would stress that there will come a time when they are no longer on earth, and then "it will be too late". With me she would say every morning "are you coming over today?" When I told her I had to work and I just saw her 2 days ago, her response was, "not enough." Now that she is no longer here, I have come to understand exactly what she meant. I am so glad I had the relationship with her when I could, and my memories will be forever.

I was always in the habit of listening to music, especially when I went to the gym, as a means to relaxing after a hard day at work. Towards the end of her life I often found myself listening to the soundtrack from Wicked, and when the song For Good came on, the tears would spontaneously flow. I guess I knew she was dying.

"Iíve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow

If we let them
And we help them in return

Well, I donít know if I believe thatís true
But I know Iím who I am today
Because I knew you

It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime

So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you

Youíll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have rewritten mine
By being my friend"

Betty died peacefully with all her children around her on January 26, 2006. In the end she died a very rich woman, not because of actual dollars accumulated, but because of what she left. Wonderful respectful children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. A name that is revered and glorified. Her self esteem was shaped not by money, but by righteousness and goodness. There is no price tag for that. May she rest in peace.

Sheri Spirt, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City

 

Recommended Reading:

1. The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James & Russell Friedman

2. Good Grief by Granger E. Westberg

3. Necessary Losses by Judith Viorst

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