Column: Grace overcomes grief, guilt


Commentary by Lorene Burkhart

Several years ago I wrote an article in the Alzheimer’s Association magazine about my mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. I’m repeating some of that article because it’s as timely now as it was when I wrote it.

When someone we love dies the slow death that is Alzheimer’s disease, a little bit of us dies with them. Watching a person we’ve known for years become someone we’ll never know requires every bit of patience, strength and faith we can muster. Our struggle with the brutality of their demise challenges and changes us, and our hearts will never be the same because of it.

My mother, Emma, died almost 20 years ago. But the mother I dearly loved died four years before her heart ceased to beat. I learned that one of the many difficulties faced by those whose loved ones suffer from Alzheimer’s is being deprived of a normal grieving process. In fact, when the end finally comes, no doubt most survivors experience a great sense of relief that the shell has died and the spirit, hopefully, has been restored to dignity.

But wait! We ask ourselves, is relief an appropriate feeling when someone so close to us dies? Along with whatever grief we feel when death finally comes, we also experience guilt over that relief, and the struggle with that emotion keeps true relief at bay. The two five-letter words, grief and guilt, are unavoidable. But I believe they can and should be accompanied by yet another five-letter word, grace. But how do we move from guilt to grace when the grief is sandwiched smack in the middle?

As I watched my mother disappear into the shell that Alzheimer’s had created, I felt frustration and even anger, that she was no longer able to communicate with me, her only daughter. In my sorrow I began to write about her and her life. Here was my grace. I discovered, to my ultimate joy, that the process allowed me to remember who my mother had been in all of her vitality and not what she had become.

In this process I found not only the true relief that had eluded me because of my feelings of guilt, but also comfort. I finished my writing just before her death, and by that time, I was thrilled to have known this remarkable woman who gave birth to me. At last, grace could begin and bring with it the peace of knowing that my dear mother’s troubles in life were over. I threw off the heavy burden of the grief and guilt that came with her passing and rejoiced in the life she had lived.

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