Bereavement leave, one year late
Mom’s death occurred at a difficult time for me – not that it ever would have been a “good” time for her to pass away. But professionally, I was a wreck: Our office had lost four total staff members in the preceding several months, and I was also transitioning from one position to another, which was intended to be a promotion. Unsurprisingly, it took months for the transition to be made official. So I was trying to do my old job as well as the new one, the volume of work was as high as I had ever experienced because we were so short-staffed, and I was trying to prove myself worthy of a promotion without actually knowing exactly what that promotion would be. So let’s just say I was experiencing a tremendous amount of work-related stress.
Some may remember that she also took a very bad turn while Patrick and I were away on a vacation to celebrate my 50th birthday. We arrived at our rental on Bald Head Island, N.C., on Sunday, I got a worrisome call from the Alz center on Monday and on Tuesday, a nurse told me she might not make it through the night. We sped back to Columbus on Wednesday to find Mom stable but showing obvious signs of labored breathing. I spent most of Thursday, my 50th birthday, at Mom’s bedside until about 5 p.m., when I got a massage that Patrick had scheduled for me. That evening, I wrote the first draft of Mom’s obituary.
This year, Patrick and I entertained thoughts of returning to Bald Head Island to try again for a birthday vacation. We thought we would fly instead of drive to save time and have a shorter trip. While I was looking at flight options and finding no good options, I began to cry – not because of the frustrations with scheduling, but because I realized I didn’t really want to go. And not wanting to go to Bald Head is a very unfamiliar feeling. My interpretation of my emotional response is that I anticipated that I would be reliving much of that period of time as I approach the first anniversary of Mom’s death. And the early departure from vacation was disappointing and upsetting and frightening because I thought Mom might die before I got home. So, for now, no October visits to the island. We now have our eye on a spring trip.
I am thinking a lot about that difficult week last year, from the Tuesday (Oct. 20) I realized we needed to get home to the next Tuesday, Oct. 27, when Mom died. I don’t care that it all occurred around my 50th birthday – that created an interesting symmetry to my caregiving life. Mom was diagnosed a couple of weeks after my 40th birthday and died five days after my 50th birthday. Ten years, and 20 percent of my life – for some reason, I find meaning in that timing.
But I do regret how bad I was at taking care of myself. I finished my vacation time watching over Mom and spent two days of the following week by her side and the third just collecting myself on the day after she died. I went back to work two days after her death, at that time thinking that keeping busy would be better than being alone at home. (My brother and sister had the same experience – they missed very little work and had to travel two weekends in a row. And when Patrick’s dad died in 2013 and he struggled with taking time off of work because he would miss an important meeting, I said to him: Nothing is more important than your dad’s death. And your colleagues will understand that.) We had the memorial service on Saturday, and I returned to work on the following Monday. And it was clear to me that day, and for many days after, that I should not be at work, that I needed time to grieve and to rest. But I didn’t. I was so desperately busy – all of us in my office were swamped – and I just felt I would be consumed with guilt if I took more time off. Guilt would be worse than grief, I reasoned.
Today, one year later, we are at full staff and I’m no longer uncertain about my role in the office. That makes taking time off easier, of course. But I also have a different perspective about self-care and don’t intend to deny myself R&R again when I clearly need a break. It’s better for my health and will make me a better worker and colleague. In lieu of traveling, Patrick and I are taking a staycation today through next Tuesday. My birthday falls in the middle, but even better than that is committing to six days of letting our wants and needs dictate how we spend our time. Patrick is studying for a licensing exam and I might do some deep house cleaning. Or, I might not. It has lifted my spirits in a way I didn’t expect to schedule this time off and decline to set any expectations for myself. It’s not really bereavement time, exactly, but it is definitely put-Emily-first time. Better late than never.