Settling In and Letting Go

I’m happy to report that my Aunt Bo is getting settled in her new home. To clarify: her body and belongings are settled there, but her heart and mind are still processing the change. This move (into assisted living) is likely to be the last move she’ll make before she leaves this earth, and something about the finality of it has made for a hard adjustment.

Her move was planned for February 25th—the day after my birthday. So, after getting home from my birthday dinner, my family went next door to say our goodbyes. Bill kept it light—deliberately being cheerful for Bo’s sake, but our daughters and I cried. Obviously, we knew we’d see her often, but it would never be quite the same . . . she’d never again be right next door, in a house that holds so many memories.

Bo’s daughter and son-in-law were all set to move her, but her son-in-law came down with the flu, which meant everything had to be postponed. A few days later, he still wasn’t feeling great, so they asked if I could go along to give them a hand.

Could I?

Are you kidding? I was thrilled to be included! I’d get to see Bo in her new environment and help get her things put into place and hopefully make her feel at home.

Aunt Bo’s new place is lovely. The view of the Delaware River from her window, with boats and birds passing by, is absolutely idyllic. The people who work at the residence are warm and gracious: it’s obvious that for many of them, this line of work is a calling, and they went out of their way to make Bo feel welcome.  All-in-all, the move—the physical transition—could not have gone better. But now, the emotional transition continues, and that’s much trickier.

As I’ve visited my aunt each week since her move, I’ve seen her display a variety of moods. I’ve seen sorrow, anger, fear and depression. In asking questions to try to help her deal with her feelings, it has occurred to me that she is in the process of grief. I’m sure she’s grieving the life she had, but I also believe she is mourning the loss of herself—of the woman she was. She knows she’ll never again be the version of herself that raised a family, managed a medical practice, or cared for her best friend (her sister, my mother-in-law) during the prolonged illness at the end of her life.

Now, Bo’s independent, capable self has to find a way to yield to the reality that she needs the help of others to meet her most basic needs. She must yield control of all but the simplest decisions. (For example: she may no longer take so much as a Tylenol without asking a nurse, and she isn’t allowed to possess a pair of scissors or anything else deemed dangerous.) For a strong, capable woman, this is not an easy surrender to make.

You’d think that by the age of 90, letting go of things would come more easily. By that age, a person has had to let go of so much. It actually seems to me that life is one long stream of surrender. We let go of the safety of our mother’s womb to enter the bright, noisy, and often scary outside world. We let go of the carefree things of childhood in order to experience the freedom of steering our own destinies. We give up some of that freedom if/when we have children. When our children leave the nest, we are forced to surrender yet again. In between these stages, we have to let go of relationships, homes and jobs. And then, before we know it, we are making concessions to old age.  

Although Bo’s transition has been influenced by her difficulties with sight, hearing and mobility—and my own eventual transition will not look exactly like hers—I know that I will experience it in some form, and to some extent.

It is a scary thought, and I’m not looking forward to it.  

But when something looks scary, it helps me to be able to watch someone else do it first. So I feel fortunate to be an insider in Aunt Bo’s process. I am grateful to have a front-row seat from which to watch the way she is navigating these difficult waters.

And she is navigating them.  

I’m hearing her make fewer complaints. I’m seeing her making friends. And I’m seeing her sense of humor returning, which I take as a sign of acceptance and peace. When I was with her yesterday she made a sassy comment to me that had me doubled over with laughter. She has a gift for making people laugh and when the fullness of her joy returns, I know she will be a great blessing to those around her.

I’m happy to be watching this transition because I don’t want to fear my own. I want to see Aunt Bo fully embrace—and thrive during—this final season of her life.

Because if she can do it, I know I’ll be able to do it, too.

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Tags: Aging, Assisted Living, Grief, Loss, Surrender