My Journey with Grief | Togeth3r

My Journey with Grief

Written by: Marrissa Sanchez

When I first started 1:1 therapy, my therapist encouraged me to focus on “glimmers” (things that sparked joy) versus “triggers” (things that caused my anxiety to skyrocket). I started sharing ~Sunday glimms~ photo dumps to Instagram as an online scrapbook + journal. One day, one of my friends shared about the importance of sharing posts that were honest and real—not just the highlights and glimmers. I started to share those stories, too. Because along with the glimmers of hope that keep us going, life is also filled with things that are really, really, really hard. This is one of those stories. I’m thankful to all of you for holding space for me to share.

This is my momma. She was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s when I was in college. She was only 56. When this photo was taken, she could no longer walk. She had lost control of her upper body and sometimes fell off of the couch or off of her chair at dinner. She couldn’t talk. She couldn’t eat on her own. She wore diapers. She spent most days napping or watching MTV music videos and driving my dad crazy (in the best way). She didn’t know who I was anymore (although I think she knew) and she definitely experienced hallucinations, but sometimes she would look me in the eyes or laugh at the perfect moment and we could tell she was still in there.

Alzheimer’s is weird because I started grieving the loss of my mother with her diagnosis even though she was still very much alive. It was sad and scary and difficult to watch, but it was also filled with so many small, beautiful moments. Like the time we all got matching heart tattoos, or the times she said completely inappropriate things at doctor’s appointments (which was on-brand, Alzheimer’s diagnosis or not), or the time we bought her favorite beer (Guinness, of course) for Thanksgiving and we let her try it (because why the hell not) and she said “mmmm!,” or how we would still take her to her favorite place in the world twice a year even though she got carsick. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you can’t have the good without the bad and it’s okay to talk about the shitty things, just like my friend said.

My mom and grandma were my reason for turning down parties and dinners and get-togethers during Covid. My mom’s Alzheimer’s put her in the high-risk category. My grandma was elderly and also high-risk. She was 87 years old. She weighed 88 pounds and could eat an entire burger and fries (fries first, always) and a giant piece of chocolate cake in one sitting. She moved in with my parents after my grandpa died. I don’t think I mentioned that my dad cared for my mom full-time. Add my grandma into the mix and he cared for my mom and his mom full-time. He’s an angel on earth.

January 2, 2022

My dad never asks for help. Ever. So when my brother called me saying I needed to help him at my parents’ house because dad was sick, I knew something was wrong. My boyfriend and I were snowboarding and immediately left the mountain and headed home. I packed up my things to stay overnight and headed over, preparing for the worst but having no idea what was to come.

My grandma had a nurse staff to help her shower and get ready in the mornings, and there was talk of getting her into hospice care. “I just have a sinus infection,” my dad insisted. “We all just need to rest and we’ll be fine.” Everyone was convinced my grandma had the flu. She was old and weak and might not pull through, but my parents would be okay with adequate rest and fluids. I was starting a new job the next day, but I work remotely and would be able to stay home with everyone to help. No big deal. Everyone was going to be okay.

January 3, 2022

First day at my new job! I checked on my parents and grandma before my first meeting of the day. It seemed like everyone was on the mend. Sick, but nothing a trip to Urgent Care couldn’t fix, right?

After my meeting ended, I texted my brother (he had gone to work that morning) to see how he felt about contacting the non-emergency line to have an EMT check on mom and grandma. Omicron was rampant, walk-in clinics were overwhelmed, and forget about trying to get an appointment with your actual primary care physician. I couldn’t get my mom to a clinic in her condition so we were weighing our options.

I went downstairs to ask my dad what he thought would be best. He was unresponsive. Not completely unconscious but totally out of it. My mom and grandma were also unresponsive. I texted my brother, told him to come back ASAP, and called 911.

Everyone’s blood oxygen level was really low. Like, scary low. I kept thinking, “could it be Covid?” No. We were vaccinated. We got tested. We had all been so careful—especially over the holidays. Talking to the EMTs was a blur. Names. Birthdays. Medications. Allergies. Symptoms. My dad came to enough to authorize DNRs for all three of them (“Do Not Resuscitate” orders—a DNR  instructs health care providers not to do CPR if a patient’s breathing stops or if the patient’s heart stops beating). The EMTs left as quickly as they came. My family was taken away in two ambulances. You always hear about people in these situations and think to yourself, “OMG, I would be freaking out!” All I could think about was how weird it was that I felt so calm and wondering when the panic would set in.

My brother drove us both to the hospital. He made us stop for burgers on the way. I had no idea how long it had been since I ate something. We got to the hospital and, due to Covid restrictions, weren’t allowed in to see anyone. I was relieved to know that they kept my parents together. The hospital was low on rapid tests. They were reserved for people who “really needed them.” My grandma fell in that category. Her results came back positive. The doctors said she had already sustained significant lung damage and needed to be admitted. My parents were put on oxygen and IVs to stabilize them and were given PCR tests, but, due to short-staffing and lack of beds, were sent home. The ER nurse told me to let them rest and make sure they stayed hydrated. That’s all. Rest and hydration and Vitamin C.

January 4, 2022

Lots of rest. Lots of blood oxygen level testing (thank god my sister, who is in nursing school, told us to get a pulse oximeter). My mom definitely shouldn’t have been sent home from the hospital. We arranged for a video call with her doctor the next morning to try and get her on home oxygen.

We received a call from my grandma’s doctor saying that the damage to her lungs was really bad. The odds of her pulling through were low. She was on oxygen and they were trying to get her to eat and drink, but mostly just trying to keep her comfortable. We did a family FaceTime to check-in with her doctors and convince her to keep her oxygen on. She said it was uncomfortable and she wanted it off. I think we were all hopeful that she would get well enough to be able to come home and get on hospice care.

At 11 that night, we got a call from the hospital saying that my grandma wanted to remove her oxygen. “If we remove it, she’s going to die within the next couple of hours.” She was tired, her body was tired, and she was ready to meet my grandpa in heaven. My brother and I went back to the hospital to say goodbye. We were dressed in full PPE—goggles, N95 masks, gowns, gloves. We brought her my grandpa’s rosary. We called family members so they could say their goodbyes. We talked about our favorite memories with her. We laughed at the fact that the whiteboard in her room said she only spoke Spanish. We stayed with her until the early hours of the morning. Every time one of the nurses came in to check on her, they were shocked that she was still holding on. We told her that it was okay and that she could go when she was ready.

January 5, 2022

I only got a few hours of sleep. I checked my mom’s blood oxygen and it was pretty low. For reference, your blood oxygen level should be at least 90%. My mom’s was in the low 80s and dropping. I didn’t want to have her taken to the ER just to stabilize and get sent home again. We got on the phone with her doctor who was shocked that she was released from the hospital and advised me to call 911 again, fast.

My dad was oddly calm that morning. I think he knew what was coming and wanted to take his time with their morning routine—do something normal, something within his control. He got her dressed. He brushed her hair. Put on her music. By the time the ambulance arrived for the second time that week, his blood oxygen was also extremely low. Again, everything was a blur. The EMTs arrived in full PPE (my parents were also positive for Covid and they were taking precautions). Another DNR authorization. Names. Birthdays. Medications. Allergies. Symptoms. I begged them to keep my parents together at the hospital. They had to carry my mom down the stairs. My dad refused help and walked out of the house on his own, right behind my mom, with the EMTs carrying his oxygen behind him.

I was told to say goodbye to both of my parents in the back of the ambulance. I ran my fingers through my mom’s hair and told her I would see her soon. My dad reminded me to lock the front door. I couldn’t stop laughing. There I was, saying my goodbyes, and the New Yorker in him was reminding me to “lock the fucking house.” 

My brother and I got to the hospital and played the waiting game. My brother went to see my grandma again—my grandma, who was only supposed to live for a couple of hours. It’s still so crazy to everyone that she held on as long as she did. I anxiously sat in the hallway waiting for news from someone. We had access to my mom’s online medical portal and could see as tests were being ordered. My sisters and their boyfriends + my boyfriend were in a family group chat, and we were all furiously texting and asking my sister in nursing school what each test meant.

Shortly after, I got a text from my dad. “Your mom had a heart attack due to the Covid stress. They’re admitting her. They won’t let me stay.” He told me he had to walk over people on the way to the bathroom. The hospital was overwhelmed and running out of beds. This was in January. Everyone had the mindset that Covid was over. People were vaccinated and cases weren’t that high and everyone was ready to go back to living life “normally.” I remember having conversations with people about how they were sick of staying inside. They wanted to go to dinners and bars and parties and concerts again. That the only people who would be affected were individuals who were high-risk. My family. My people. I feel like we got jipped after trying to be so safe for so long.

I drove my dad home. They sent him home on oxygen. His official diagnosis was “Covid with a killer sinus infection.” The man who couldn’t ask for help, who walked himself down the stairs while on oxygen to make sure my mom was okay, sobbed in the back seat of my car.

We got a call from the hospital that it wasn’t looking good for my mom. Her heart was tired. Her lungs were tired. I was told I wasn’t allowed to visit her since I was exposed to Covid. A lot of the rules they had at the hospital didn’t make any sense. I try not to overthink it now. I begged the floor nurse to let me see her and she said, “just this once.” My dad, being Covid-positive, wasn’t allowed to see her. My heart broke for him. I went to the hospital with one of my sisters. We were met at the doors of the ER, again asked to dress in full PPE, and escorted through the hospital.

I held my mom’s hand. I laid my head in her lap. I listened to her tired breathing and her tired heart. We FaceTimed my other sister and my dad. We had someone come say a prayer. I screen-recorded a video that I may never share of my last moments with my momma. We stayed with her for five hours. I stole her clothes (they wanted to throw them away)—her YMCA crewneck and the sweatpants my dad dressed her in that morning. I got home in the early hours of the morning, set my phone to loud just in case, and fell asleep with my face buried in her crewneck.

January 6, 2022

My dad was in the kitchen making chili. He’s the only man I know who could have Covid and a sinus infection and be on oxygen making chili. He didn’t know what to do without my mom and grandma in the house. He set the table for them. Two napkins and a piece of chocolate for grandma; my mom’s special applesauce cup for her meds.

Both of my sisters went to visit my mom. We FaceTimed. My dad always called my mom his girlfriend. Cutie pie Lois. He asked her to hold on for a few days. Maybe he’d be in the clear to see her. Maybe we could bring her home. He seemed really optimistic. Just a few more days until he was two weeks out from his first symptoms. He would be cleared to visit and they could be together again.

20 minutes later, my sister called back. We thought it was good news from the doctor. My dad would be able to see her! We’d be able to bring her home! “I’m sorry, daddy. Her heart just… stopped.” We could hear my other sister sobbing in the background. “This is so fucked up.” My brother rested his head in his hands. My dad turned off the stove. “I don’t feel like eating chili anymore.”

Sometime within all the commotion, my grandma was moved to the room next to my mom. My grandma, who wasn’t expected to live more than a few hours. It had now been a few days. My sisters went to see her and FaceTimed my dad. We told her that mommy left her earthly body and that she could, too, whenever she was ready. She died a few hours later.

I lost my momma and my grandma on the same day and I don’t remember crying. Grief is weird like that. That’s the only way I can describe the last three months. Weird. Sometimes I feel fine. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by extreme sadness and the tears feel like they’ll never stop. Sometimes this all feels like a hazy dream.

My journey with grief has been filled with extremely difficult moments—like a family-only funeral with two caskets, writing two obituaries, or walking into my parents’ house expecting to hear the whir of the stair lift as my dad brings my mom downstairs or the fan in the bathroom as my grandma pees for the 700th time that day and being met with silence. But it’s been filled with beautiful moments, too. Like when my mom’s spirit visited twice in one week (a story for another blog, perhaps?), or when our boyfriends carried her casket to her grave, or when we took Irish car bombs after her funeral, or peaceful cemetery walks, or brunches with my dad, or finding the old memory card to her camera.

The five-step process of grief is bullshit. Sometimes I feel like I’m going through every step and no steps all at once. Grief isn’t something you beat or get over. Grief is something you live with, sit with, become friends with. Grief is sad and painful, but also so beautiful because grieving means that you had the opportunity to know someone and love someone so much it hurts. The best way I can describe my grief is with this Colleen Hoover quote from Ugly Love: “If someone told you they could get rid of all the ugly stuff, but you’d lose all the other stuff, too… would you do it?” My answer will always be no❤️

From the Author:

I currently work for Sesh, which is a mental health platform. I first experienced the power of group support after taking a break from individual therapy to focus on my healing and grief journey. I attended a grief support group and found peace and community in each session. Listening to others share their stories and being able to share my story and speak about my feelings in a safe space with others who could relate was invaluable and provided me with a different level of support than my 1:1 sessions.

Sesh is the easy-to-use mental health platform for online group support led by licensed therapists. Our mission is to revolutionize and destigmatize virtual mental health support by empowering connection and healing through community. We believe that mental health IS health and that mental health care should be accessible and affordable for everyone. We offer groups on anxiety, depression, body positivity, relationship support, goal setting, and more!

Sesh is perfect for those looking to supplement 1:1 therapy, those who aren’t in 1:1 therapy but are looking for support, or those who are just looking to take care of their minds the same way they care for their bodies—all for less than half of one 1:1 session. No matter what you’re going through, there’s a Sesh for you💙