A Memoir on Death, Dementia, and Coming Home
Thousands of Canadians across the country are wrestling with the problem of how to care for their parents who are diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s and other diseases that reduce their parents’ ability to care for themselves.
Ottawa author Heather Menzies faced exactly this situation with her Mum. In this honest and insightful memoir, Enter Mourning: A Memoir on Death, Dementia, and Coming Home, Heather describes her experience, how it matured her, and her realization that there were more ways to communicate with her mother than speaking.
The book received critical acclaim and earned a spot on the Globe and Mail’s “Best Books” list of 2009. Unfortunately, the publisher, Key Porter Books, closed its doors in January 2011; the book remains available (see below).
Reviews and Honours
The Globe and Mail newspaper included Enter Mourning in its annual “100 of the Best Books” in 2009.
“Ms. Menzies’ Hope.” Article by Wen Zheng Li, Chief of Canada Bureau, People’s Daily. January 29, 2010. Read article in Chinese and English.
“Your brother just called from the hospital. Your mother’s – “
I still can’t remember what word she used next.
Over the past three years, I had struggled to understand, to accept and to be there for Mum as dementia stripped her ability to remember, to navigate her car, to dress herself, and, finally, to speak in whole sentences.
For care-giving family members, there’s often a choice to be made: to enter fully into the experience of what an aging parent/spouse with dementia is going through, or to stay on the fringes, being dutiful.
At some point, taking care of my aging mother stopped being an imposition, or even a series of tasks I managed with some semblance of grace, and became an experience that changed my life. It opened me not just to the unknown but to unknowing as a way of living, simultaneously letting go and letting in.
Ready to sew some voluptuous new fabric, I trawl the pale thread off the spool, channel it smoothly through the loop and begin the tricky descent that will lodge it invisible between the shiny chrome disks furnishing tension in my sewing machine. Then the world seems to tilt, and I’m not sure where the line goes next as a wave of grief engulfs me, the fact of Mum being dead nearly four years seemingly gone in the flash of my forgetfulness. I start again, wondering if Mum herself did the same thing, …
Was Mum on the verge of something awful too? Was she getting Alzheimer’s? The prospect terrified me: the mad woman in the attic, the door locked and me alone in there with her, trapped and unable even to scream. That’s what I was afraid of, so afraid that I couldn’t look Alzheimer’s in the eye.
I didn’t even contact the Alzheimer’s Society until after Mum was dead. At the time, too, the fear was for myself: wanting to protect myself against Mum, and the possibility of her hitting out at me.
That’s what defined the disease in my ignorant mind, not the sad unravelling of a daily existence: the difficulty in remembering your own telephone number, the names of old friends and family suddenly beyond one’s reach.
Clearing away the personal baggage, unresolved resentments, unexpressed regrets is as necessary as clearing out the family home.
For me, grieving a death begins well before the last breath; at least, it can. It begins at the point of contact, where and when you cross into the fullness of the experience, not just the circumstances of what’s happening. Mourning commences when you begin to pay attention, starting perhaps with what blocks the way. …
Mum’s crumbling capability with words, matched perhaps by my crumbling expectations, was also a medium of transmutation, bringing both of us into a new way of relating to each other.
An old way too, in the sense that we were tapping the primal root of what human communication is all about: the bedrock rhythms of expression and connection, as the common root word for “communication,” “communion” and “community,” meaning “to share with” suggests.
It’s so important to face facts and to shoulder responsibilities such as arranging for power of attorney for financial affairs, for medical care and for personal care. It’s so important to have some “advance-care directives” in place, a living will to guide medical decision making when dementia has robbed the person of the necessary cognitive ability to decide for him or herself. It’s also part of the journey, its own place and time for mourning.
Another day, we were sitting there quietly, the only sound being her clock on the wall near her bed, and she said, “See that shiny thing going back and forth?”
I could tell she meant the pendulum of the clock reflected in the mirror on the wall opposite us. Yes, I said, and was about to name it as I was still in the habit of doing. But Mum spoke first.
“Isn’t it lovely?” she said.
The word pendulum lodged in my throat, suddenly utterly irrelevant.
…“Why does it hurt?” she kept asking, sotto voce so as not to appear complaining, not to make a fuss. I bent over the side of the ambulence gurney, holding one of her hands in one of mine, and used the other to stroke the hair back from her face. I told her that she’d fallen; she might have fractured her hip. Where? she asked. My face close, I told her: back in her room at the residence.
She nodded and lay still for a while, then asked again, “Why does it hurt so much?” And once again I told her, my hand holding hers, she giving it a squeeze and I squeezing back.
Mum didn’t just fade away and die that week. Her vital signs indicated that she’d “stabilized,” though at such a low level of function that she was barely there. It was like she’d gotten snagged on a branch nearly at the bottom of a cliff. She wasn’t coming back up; there was no hope of that. But she wasn’t dying either.
Now what? They wanted to discharge her, preferably to a nursing home. I drew a big, ragged breath, trying to get my bearings in the world beyond Mum’s hospital ward, including the rest of the family….
In the end, palliative care. Pure love and shared presence.
It strikes me that I am being born again. Or rather, there are two things going on. I feel as though I’m serving almost as a midwife here, soothing Mum’s journey toward death and acting as her trusted navigator. And in making that journey so close to her skin, so close to death, I am being born into a new sense of myself and my own aliveness: on the other side of the fear of death, on the other side of my insecurity, of my fear of living fully.
….When Norma and I arrived half an hour later, the bars on the bed were down; no danger of Mum falling out of bed now. Seeing them down, Mum so obviously beyond the need of their protection anymore, I burst into tears, flung myself against her body, and howled.
But not for long. In fact, I felt amazingly calm, serene almost.
Heather Menzies is available for speaking engagements on the themes of Enter Mourning: A Memoir on Death, Dementia and Coming Home as well as those of previous books. For information about booking Heather. Speech to the British Columbia Nurses' Union 2011 Annual...
What readers are saying about Enter Mourning
It has broken my heart and made my heart sing at the same time.
I recently heard that “we read to know we are not alone” and that’s a bit how I felt when I read your book.
Thank you for the book! It was/is wonderful and loving and very brave and so important.
I have just closed the back cover and I feel a deep pull to reach out to you tonight…
Until I read your book, I didn’t know someone could understand all the feelings I felt, the experiences I had and the depth of the connection I had with my Mom while she went from living to dying.
Heather Menzies’s chronicle of her own coming to terms with her mother’s dementia is a very personal and complex story that reveals as much about her own struggles to cope with her busy life as about the need to constantly reassess her relationship with her mother and her four siblings.
You’ve written a wonderful, generous book that dares to be intimate and broad all at the same time.
I must tell you how moved I was by your absolutely magnificent book: “Enter Mourning”. I re-lived … the struggle, the difficulties, of watching my mother’s health slowly erode way from Parkinson’s.
Your descriptions were heart-rending, honest, beautifully-expressed. I also very much “enjoyed” the inter-relationship with your siblings. (I have 4 brothers)… I will buy this book for a friend, and keep it as a very special read.
The author is a talented and gifted writer who provides the reader with an inside look at a very personal, challenging and rewarding journey.
The entire audience at the Alzheimer Society of Ottawa and Renfrew County’s seminar “STOP The Rising Tide of Dementia” listened intently to Heather Menzies as she spoke about the social impact of dementia. The power of her presentation was drawn from her own personal perspective as a daughter whose mother had Alzheimer’s disease.
She was brave in sharing the feelings of denial, resentment, and guilt that she had as barriers to action before facing the reality of what was happening to her mother so she could really be there for her mother.
Heather was inspirational in encouraging families and those who work in dementia care to take action now in order to slow down and stop the crippling effect of Alzheimer’s disease on families.
Boomer-aged children, the bulk of the caregivers already providing care to aging parents with Alzheimer’s disease, looks to be the ones to provide even more of the care as the demand for publicly funded services far outstrips the supply.
How to Order
Copies of Enter Mourning are available through Heather Menzies’ publicist, Peter Moore, firstname.lastname@example.org. Place your order via Paypal.
Buschkek Books is also distributing the book. Contact email@example.com for more information.
Need a speaker on the themes in Enter Morning?
Heather will speak with your group.
BC Nurses Union
You can read Heather’s speech to the British Columbia Nurses’ Union AGM in 2011.
End of Life Care of the Older Adult with Dementia
Heather Menzies spoke at the 2nd annual End of Life Care of the Older Adult with Dementia even in 2010. The response was positive: 85% of attendees evaluated her speech as good to excellent. Comments included:
- “My favourite talk; greatly appreciate the sharing of Heather’s personal journey. Very powerful.”
- “Great spiritual speaker and great insight to view as of care to end of life scenaries.”
- “She really was excellent.”
- “A wonderful first hand look at dying gracefully.”
- “Good to have personal experiences about taking care of someone with dementia and how the health care staff could improve and how families can help.”
- “Personal story very powerful.”
- “Thank you for sharing.”