Friday, December 7, 2018

Thanksgiving 2018

What they say is true: holiday season after you've lost a loved one is tough.  Grief is a funny thing: reminders of the person seem to pop up at unexpected times.  During the holidays, it's a consuming sense that holidays will never be the same.  Mama Hop loved to cook, host, and entertain - especially during the holidays.  It's hard to accept that this will never happen again. 
 Fortunately, Travis has a sweet family who welcomed us with open arms.   So we all piled in the car and geared up for a 9 hour road trip to see Travis' family.   While visiting many a truck stop bathroom in rural Nebraska with 4 additional females are not my idea of a good time, we made it!
 We arrived to find that YaYa, Papa, and Cousin Abby had gone all out in decorating for Christmas.  They even set up YaYa's prized snow village collection.  The girls were delighted.
 In addition to providing a festive atmosphere, YaYa spent all day preparing a delicious Thanksgiving meal while Papa fried a delicious turkey.  The grand kids sat at the customary "kids table" in the kitchen while the rest of us enjoyed a feast in the dining room.  But no one began their meal until Leanne had a chance to lead us in prayer.
 After we stuffed ourselves with all of the delicacies a traditional thanksgiving entails, the girls changed into their matching Christmas pajamas and we shifted into Christmas mode.
 YaYa gets the girls matching pajamas every Christmas.  This year, she was kind enough to include Leanne in this tradition.
 And while Travis' family have always been generous with thoughtful Christmas gifts, they went above and beyond to include Leanne and to make sure that she had plenty of gifts, based on her interests, to bring smile after smile to her face.  
 Leanne received a Starbucks gift card and ornament and this made her so happy, I didn't have many pictures to post that weren't entirely blurry from Leanne's giddy dancing. 
 Then, there was this adorable apron that YaYa and Papa brought back for Leanne from Italy.
 A daily word search calendar and Tic Tacs?!  Could these people have found a faster way to get to Leanne's heart?  I doubt it.  They hit the ball out of the park and Leanne's delight was evident.
 Our girls really enjoyed their gifts, too.  Josie got several singing animals.  Merryn and Biddy both got American Girl dolls.  Biddy got a whole container of lip gloss from Cousin Abby and she was over the moon!
 Speaking of sweet Cousin Abby, she also gifted Merryn with knitting supplies and she patiently taught her to knit.  Merryn was entranced with this new hobby.
 Overall, Thanksgiving was tough, but the overarching sentiment conveyed was generosity, kindness, and love.  Travis' family welcomed Leanne as though she has belonged all along.  And we could not be more appreciative for their love and support.  Talk about filling our hearts with gratitude.
Happy Thanksgiving 2018!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Fun Visual Aid to Make Mornings Easier

Greetings!  In preparation to make a presentation on "Visual Aids in the Home," I came across a creative idea, adapted it for our purposes, and shared it on Instagram.  It got so much positive feedback that I decided to share it on the blog.

Blog followers know that we use many visual aids around the house to help Josie and Leanne understand plans and expectations, to support proper completion of a task, and most importantly, to promote independence.  Here are a couple of past posts on the topic:

 It's quite simple.  1.  Purchase a pill box 2.  Label it with the desired tasks 3. Fill it with a reward

This pill box came from The Dollar Tree. It cost - you guessed it - one dollar.
 After measuring the pill box, a table was made using Microsoft Publisher to create a label to fit  each opening.  Each label features a different step of Josie's morning routine.  Labels were printed, laminated, and adhered to the top of each door on the pill box.  
 Inside the openings, I placed a single M&M.  When Josie completes each task, she earns an M&M.  It's a way of providing frequent reinforcement to keep Josie moving in the morning.  If seven M&M's prevent protests, flopping, raised voices, mom's back breaking, tears, and A.M. wine consumption, then it's totally worth it.  Am I right?!
The pill box doesn't have to be filled with sugar.  Candy can be substituted with any small object that will be reinforcing for a child.  Heck, if your child is motivated by peas, by all means - try it!  Or the child can earn "tokens" towards a larger reward of his/her choosing (prize from the "prize bag," dance party, ipad time, etc).  This is known as a token economy.  

There are countless ways to make a visual aid to serve this purpose.  The pill box is advantageous because it's inexpensive, easy, compact, portable, and perfect for a child who requires frequent reinforcements.  

It's also easy to fade.  After the child successfully completes the task for a 1:1 reward, you can have the child complete 2 tasks for a reward, then 3 tasks for a reward, and so on...

Click HERE to download the labels we use.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

How is Leanne Doing?

Here's a real Confession of the Chromosomally Enhanced: The one component of my life that has caused me the most anxiety in adulthood is the anticipation of my mom's death and the impact that would have on Leanne.
I stressed about the day something would happen to my mom and I would have to drive to another state and uproot Leanne from everything and everyone she's ever known and bring her here to our home to adjust to a whole new life.  How would she handle it?  Would it destroy her?  Would she act out in protest?  How would it impact our family?  
One of the blessings that emerged from our hellish summer was the fact that Leanne ended up moving in with us before something happened to my mom.  My mom was incredibly ill and hospitalized for much of May, June, July, and August.  Leanne moved into our guest room and she adapted beautifully.  She genuinely loves being here for several reasons: 1. She loves her nieces 2.  She loves to help  3.  She loves to be on the go.  There are plenty of opportunities for Leanne to nurture, assist, and stay busy with our little circus here.
Every morning, Leanne gets up and at 'em (the process of adjusting her daily routine is worthy of a whole other blog post) and she helps get the girls dressed, fed, and out the door.  In the evening, she usually relaxes and watches TV in her room (she likes to have her down time) and then she joins us for dinner and frequently helps the girls with bath time and bedtime.  Then, she goes back to her business (The Disney Channel) but she comes upstairs to say goodnight to Travis and I.  We have the most fun conversations - just the three of us.

Four days per week, Leanne goes to GiGi's Playhouse and participates in GiGi's U.  She's working on employment skills, computer skills, money counting, literacy, nutrition, fitness and social skills while having plenty of opportunities to interact with other adults with special needs as well as those without.  Over the summer, Leanne volunteered at Vacation Bible School on the music team.  She continues to volunteer at the church every Wednesday evening; she loves her role taking care of babies in the church nursery.  On the weekends, Leanne enjoys attending her nieces soccer games, neighborhood gatherings, and simply running errands.
Since Mama Hop's passing, we've been focused on being as consistent with our routine as possible.  Individuals with special needs thrive on consistency.  If they know what's happening and what to expect, life is familiar and comfortable.  
We've had to work through a few kinks (seriously goofy things like Leanne using a mere drop of shampoo because "I don't want to run out!"  So we got out a tiny medicine cup and showed her how much shampoo she needs to be using and we reassured her that we will happily replenish her supply of shampoo when she does run out) and I'm sure there will be more little hiccups down the road.  But overall, Leanne is doing incredibly well.  She's so helpful that I wonder how I ever functioned without her.  More importantly, she's so joyful and vibrant.  As the big sister, she has truly set the tone for me on how to proceed through the grief process.  She tells me that she misses mom but she loves it here with us.  By living in the moment and focusing on today, she guides me forward and prevents me from getting swallowed by grief.  For that, I am forever grateful.

This was the original closing paragraph of this blog post.  Everything mentioned is true, but the last 2 weeks have demonstrated that not every story ends with a Full House-esque life lesson lecture and a warm hug from Danny Tanner...

Even families who opt to share snippets of their lives publicly on blogs and social media are entitled to keep some things personal.  In the past, I've blogged about the concern of oversharing (click HERE).  Leanne has had her struggles and I genuinely believe they are more about her health and her adjustment to an entirely different role in our family than they are about grief.  And some of her challenges feel too personal to delve into on the internet.

Since I left for college, Leanne has been an only-child.  Mama Hop was a nurturer and she loved taking care of people.  She was lovingly indulgent in Leanne and she admitted it.  So one can imagine how much things changed for Leanne when she became the sixth member of our household and was thrown into the mix with 3 small children.  Leanne was accustomed to being waited on.  I'll never forget the day I was driving and Leanne informed me that she didn't have breakfast.  I said, "Why not?"  She said, "Because no one gave me anything."  

So Leanne has had a crash course in speaking up and in being self-sufficient.  I've had to tell her that just because Mom did this for you, doesn't mean you can't do it for yourself.  It's time to learn.  She now knows how to thaw and microwave her own breakfast sandwich.  And on days when she takes too long to get ready, she may only have time to grab a boring granola bar on our way out the door.  

You should have seen the appalled look on her face when I suggested that she could retrieve her own clothes from the dryer and hang them up! Clean clothes magically appeared in Leanne's closet when she lived with Mom.  But now, she takes great pride in helping with the laundry.

But she has moments of opposition.  All females can relate to hormonal mood swings that make us a little less agreeable during a certain time of the month.  Leanne is no different.  They say that individuals with Down syndrome are always happy...well, not always.  While Leanne has an overall outlook on life that is far more positive than most people I know, she is human and she experiences a wide range of emotions.

The honest to Goodness truth is that most of the time, Leanne does remarkably well, all things considered.  The one thing that we can promise is unconditional love and a willingness to work with her to help her find her way through this adjustment.  The pride I have in her is unlike any emotion I've ever experienced.  When followers leave comments complimenting Leanne or telling us how much you enjoy watching her do her thing, my heart just soars.  That's my big sister!  She is the coolest!  

Leanne blogs to Mom

My dad loved the blog.  When he died, it made me sad to think that he wouldn't be reading the blog and following up with an email or a phone call, laughing about the children's latest antics.  Someone told me that my dad is, most certainly, still an active blog reader.  It's actually quite reassuring to think that our parents can still read the blog and follow along on our adventures from Heaven.  When I asked Leanne if she wanted to blog today, she excitedly accepted the offer.  And she wrote directly to Mama Hop:
 i miss you wish you my  brthday june 4 
and in  haven
with you  
she my dreams 
mom say pray for mom 
i love you 
see you  haven when  
i   in haven get old
i happy 
with sister 
help at church
i felt down steps didnt hurt caieful

love you
Rough translation: Leanne realized today that Mom will miss her birthday.  But she's in heaven with Jesus and she comes to Leanne in her dreams every night and tells Leanne that she loves her and she encourages Leanne to pray.  Leanne will see Mom in heaven; but not until she gets old (LOL!).  She wants mom to know that she's happy here for now with her sister, nieces, and "brother."  She likes to help out at church - except for that little incident when she tripped on the stairs last week.  But don't worry, Mom.  She didn't get hurt.  She's careful.  She loves you, Mom.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Helping Individuals With Special Needs Navigate Grief

My mom died in the middle of the night.  The next morning, Travis took the girls to school so I could have some time alone with Leanne to deliver the news.  I took her on a walk because I didn't want a negative memory to be associated with a particular spot in my home.  We started out by talking and Mom came up in the conversation quite naturally.  When I told Leanne that she had died the night before, Leanne buried her face in my shoulder and cried, really hard, for about 30 seconds.  Then she looked up at me and said "Elizabeth, can I ask you a question?"  I said, "Of course.  You can ask me anything."  She said, "Can we have chili for dinner?"  

What in the ?!?!  I let out some sort of a shocked snort and I stumbled, "Uh, yeah.  Sure.  I guess so."  She replied, "That would make me feel better."  We kept on walking and we stopped at the park and decided to swing.  I let Leanne swing freely until she opted to stop.  Then we went home.

Travis returned from dropping the girls off, and found me and said "I just went to give Leanne a hug and she asked me if we could have chili for dinner" and he kind of laughed.  I said, "I know.  I don't get it."

Later, when we were cleaning out Mama Hop's unit at the retirement community, we found one food item in the cabinet: a single can of chili.

Leanne's journey through grief has been oddly serene.  She rarely cries.  She talks about Mom and says "She's in a better place - she's in heaven.  I pray for her."  Prayer is one resource Leanne turns to many times throughout the day.  She is very devout; incredibly strong in her faith.

One of the first things I did upon Mama Hop's passing is to order Leanne a framed picture of her and my mom; something tangible that she could have with a smiling reminder of her happy days with mom.  She immediately requested that Travis hang it in her room, right next to her TV.
 Every day, Leanne checks the mail.  She looks forward to opening sympathy cards. 
I gave her a binder with page protectors and she saves each and every card in the binder.
 Leanne joined Merryn and I in sending thank you notes for the flowers and memorial donations.
Participating in these activities does not upset Leanne at all.  In fact, she seems to enjoy offering words of comfort to others.
People with Down syndrome tend to be very concrete thinkers.  Everything is literal; abstract concepts are hard.  Leanne doesn't dwell on the past.  She doesn't worry about the future.  She lives in the moment.  

I don't force her to have conversations about Mom but I don't dodge the subject either.  She tells me that she loves mom and misses her, but that mom is watching us from heaven.  She talks about other people with have lost (Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, pets) and she points to the sky and says that they're up there.  She knows that while we can't be with them right now, that they are still with us.  She says "Mom is in my heart."

The following are some resources that have helped us:
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst - This is a sweet children's book that delivers the message that even when we are separated from loved ones, we are still connected by love. 

The Memory Box by Joanna Rowland - This is a book that addresses death through the eyes of a child with sensitivity and it offers ideas of how we can preserve the memory of our loved ones by keeping mementos and photos in a special place.

The following document was given to me by the incredibly kind and compassionate social worker at the hospice house where my mother passed.  It is a wealth of guidance.  It can also be found on the "Resources" tab of the blog.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Little Glass Plate

"In the midst of darkness, light persists." 
- Mahatma Gandhi

When we realized how dire Mama Hop's condition was; when the doctor told us it was time to look into hospice care, panic set in.  Every thought that raced through my mind led back to Leanne.  Should she see mom like this or should her last memory be a more healthy version of mom?  Should I prepare her that death is imminent or is it unfair to cause premature stress and grieving?

I grabbed my mom's "Mental Wellness in Adults with Down Syndrome" and I scanned the index for a chapter that may address this.  I began googling things like "Down syndrome and grieving" and "Loss of a parent Down syndrome" hoping that I'd find a step by step guide that told me exactly what to do.  I stumbled upon a listing for a seminar on the topic that occurred back in May.  There was an email address to register for the webinar and I decided to go for a shot in the dark and sent a desperate email.

Within hours, I received a response telling me that the woman who conducted this seminar is on maternity leave but that my email had been passed along to her and she was happy to help.  She wanted my phone number.

Are you kidding me?!  A total stranger from the East Coast who just gave birth and has no obligation to answer an email, yet alone help a stranger was willing to take my hand and guide me through this process?!  

"For we walk by faith, not by sight ."(2 Corinthians 5:7).

That day, I received a call from Melissa Levin who gave me the following "homework": Find an activity that your mom and sister enjoyed doing together and have them do it.

I scanned my brain and mosaic glass work immediately came to mind.  Several years ago, after my mom retired from teaching, she attended mosaic art school in Ravenna, Italy.  She came back home and mosaiced (is this a legitimate verb?  Probably not.  Just go with it.) everything in sight: from bowling balls to my kitchen table.  It was an obsession! In Leanne's current day program, she cuts glass and creates beautiful works of art.  I immediately called her supervisor and told her that while I realized she was incredibly busy with the year's biggest fundraiser happening the next day, is there any way we could create a glass project for my mom and sister to complete together?  She stopped what she was doing and set aside a package to take to my mom.

That night, when Travis returned from his business trip, Leanne and I left the girls in his care and went to see Mom.  We picked up her favorites: crab dip and Pinot Grigio and we gathered around a small bedside table.
 Together, Mom and Leanne delicately glued glass beads to a small plate.  The beads were comprised of various shades of their mutual favorite color: green.  
 That night was a gift.  When we returned the next morning, Mom was no longer able to lift her head up off of her pillow.  She had rallied to give that last burst of energy to Leanne.  It was a beautiful evening; a memory that is forever preserved in this tiny glass plate.  Which leads me to another piece of advice offered by Ms. Levin: Ensure that Leanne has a tangible object that calls to mind a positive memory of our mom; something she can hold when she wants to reminisce and feel closer to her mom.
I am reduced to tears when I consider how many people went above and beyond to make that night possible for us.  This past summer was a heartbreaking journey; witnessing someone you love endure hardship, suffering, and pain is torture.  But as heavy as the weight was, and as dark as the journey got, moments of light illuminated our path.  Those moments help steer us back to the important focus: the beauty that exists and the blessings that remain.

Leanne says that Mom visits her every night in her dreams.  She tells Leanne that she loves her and she encourages her to keep praying.  Leanne says "Mom is in a better place" and she maintains faith in the fact that they will be reunited someday.  For now, Leanne does not dwell on the past, nor does she worry about the future.  She exists in the moment and she exudes faith and love.  

She is a light.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Best Gift To Give Someone Who Is Grieving

My high school theology class had a unit on death and bereavement and these two things stuck with me: 
1.  Reach out to the grieving individual upon hearing of the death, but it's even more important to reach out to the individual 2+ weeks later.  This is because all of the activity surrounding the death has subsided and the quiet sets in...loneliness appears.  Life goes on for everyone else but the grief remains for the individual who lost a loved one.  This is when they need the most support.  
2.  The most wonderful gift you can give someone who is grieving is to share a story about their loved one.  Reminisce about the time you spent with the departed individual.  What was your favorite memory of that person?  How did he/she touch your life?  What did you learn from him/her?
Now that I've lost my mother, I can testify that these things are true.  The initial period after the death is a whirlwind.  You cannot fully process during this time.  You are a shell of a human in a state of shock.  Then life goes on...for everyone else.

Loneliness hurts.  You can be surrounded by people, but no one "gets it;" that pain that you're biting your lip to bear.  There's a fear of forgetting; forgetting the way her voice sounded, forgetting the way her hand felt in mine, forgetting all of those little quirks that made her who she was.

What helps?  When people who knew the departed person share stories about the person, you feel less alone.  Someone else knew my mother and also feels the void of her absence.  And that story that you share with me about a time my mom did something hilarious or kind...the story of how you first met...the story of what you learned from her...that keeps my mom present.

I've clung to my mom's childhood best friend during the past few weeks.  She helped take care of my mom while my mom was sick and we became very connected during that time.  She drove for hours to be with my mom upon hearing of her stroke.  She pulled Lydia aside and kept her entertained while I wept my way through a hospice meeting.  And she sat with me and shared stories of the ornery antics that she and my mom orchestrated during their teenage years.  She knew my mom long before I did.  And I hang on to every word that she says about my mom because I want to preserve every part of her that remains here on earth.  You have no idea how much I cherish a silly story about knocking the nun's statue off the shelf and carefully balancing the broken pieces atop one another, praying that you wouldn't get caught.  Then watching it wobble precariously every time someone got too close...or knowing it was my mom who drew the mustache on the poster of the annoying roommate in college, even though she would never admit it.

During my mom's funeral, another dear friend delivered the most incredible eulogy where he shared his stories of his friendship with my mom over the years.  They were teachers together and he started with the first day that my mom walked into the teachers' lounge and said something like, "Well, I have a student who is on all fours, barking like a dog, refusing to get up.  If this is an indication of how this school year is going to go, I'm in trouble."  I've asked him to send me the rest of the eulogy because it was authentic, hilarious, beautiful, and perfect and I want to have it forever.

Never have I been more grateful for this blog.  Mama Hop lives on here at Confessions of the Chromosomally Enhanced.  And it's apparent that the opportunity to get to "know" her through these words, pictures, and videos impacted many individuals that we've never even met.  I know this because messages from these individuals have come pouring in and just like the stories from my mom's friends, these stories provide comfort and happiness.  They help stave off the loneliness.  They provide reassurance that Mama Hop will not be forgotten.

The outpouring of support, the acts of kindness, the messages of love where you share your own story of loss: these things provide strength and offer a promise of healing.  Please accept our sincere gratitude.

One more thing...

 IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: CCE has not and will not become a grief blog.  Here in our world, humor sustains us.  It always has.  Just ask Mama Hop.  So I won't close this post without sharing a funny little story...

In 2012, my mom planned her own funeral.  She purchased a burial plot, picked the casket, etc...It seems like a morbid thing to do but it actually helps immensely!  Anyway, the funeral director was a lovely woman who was very kind and patient in walking me through everything.  She sent me email after email with bullets of things that I needed to decide/do.  Then, she would call and gently follow up, knowing I was trying to care for 3 children and my sister, while packing and planning for a long trip for the funeral. 

So we scheduled the family visitation for 8am and the public visitation for 9am following by the funeral and burial.  Then I got another one of these emails with another bulleted list.  One particular bullet made me laugh so hard...
Hey Guys!  Wine tasting at the funeral home - 8am sharp!  Come thirsty!  

Oh Mama Hop and her Pinot Grigio!  You've gotta love her!  Family did, indeed, have a wine toast in honor of Mama Hop, but we waited until later in the day.  And I'll never be able to see Pinot Grigio again without thinking of Mama Hop and smiling.