Columnist Jackie Brousseau-Pereira: The importance of storytelling  

Published: 1/21/2021 4:00:07 PM My mom passed away in early December. She had lived with Alzheimer’s disease for at least six years ...

Published: 1/21/2021 4:00:07 PM

My mom passed away in early December. She had lived with Alzheimer’s disease for at least six years — most likely longer before we actually knew. During the last several months of her life, she was at a nursing home in Rhode Island and because of the pandemic, my siblings and I were not able to visit often.

Her death was heartbreaking for my family, particularly because our final hours with her were limited to two people at a time for 30-minute visits in full PPE. It was agonizing not to be able to hold her and have her see our faces as we talked to her and held her hands. I have to believe that my mom knew we were there, despite the circumstances.

In July, I wrote about my family’s experience of taking care of my mom through a series of medical challenges during the COVID pandemic. She never had COVID, but her health and quality of life declined rapidly because of the pandemic. It doesn’t help to be angry at the universe about this, but sometimes it’s hard not to be.

Before March, my siblings and I would see her a few times a month — to visit or take her to a doctor’s appointment. During these times, we’d share stories of our families and we’d encourage her to tell us stories from her childhood. Sometimes, we’d tell her funny stories we remembered about her when we were kids — she liked being the star.

The storytelling was reassuring for all of us. It kept us connected to my mom and it reminded her that she had a very rich and full life, even if she no longer remembered it.

While my mom was in her declining months and we weren’t able to visit her, my brother had the brilliant idea of creating a journal for her. He wrote out many of the details of her life so that the nursing staff and CNAs would know who she was and also so that they could remind her of her life during times when she was scared and lonely.

Now that she’s passed, there are days when I feel adrift or like I’ve lost part of myself. I know this is grief and I also know that my grief is in sort of a limbo right now, because we weren’t able to hold a funeral or memorial service. My siblings and our extended family haven’t been able to gather to remember my mom and share our stories about her life. The best we’ve been able to do is share stories about our beloved mom on our social media accounts.

Stories are part of our DNA. They are how we tell people who we are. We use them to teach our kids lessons. Through our stories, we share our values with others. Stories bring people together and remind us that we are often more alike than different.

Within families, siblings and parents often remember different stories or highlight different details when they share family folklore. It’s amazing to think that my siblings and I grew up in the same home when I hear how we tell our family anecdotes.

Having a family member with Alzheimer’s can mean that you miss the opportunity to hear some of their stories. As I remember it, my mother didn’t tell us many stories of her teenage years or her young adulthood. There are parts of her life that I’ll never get to learn about.

During her last couple of years, my mom’s strongest memories were of her childhood. She was a self-described tomboy whose antics included walking on a rolling barrel, jumping onto the running board of her dad’s moving car, building forts in the woods behind her house with her neighbor, Teddy. She also loved to climb trees. In recent memory, no visit to her primary care doctor was complete without my mom telling Dr. O’Heelan about her tree climbing days. She’d say, “My mom would yell out the window, ‘Yvette, get out of that tree!’ ”

I’m grateful to have these stories to share with my kids who don’t have many memories of my mom before the Alzheimer’s phase of her life. It’s fun to see their surprise when they hear about the things their grandmother did when she was young. They have trouble imagining her as a young person.

Sharing stories can help us deal with our grief and I look forward to the time, hopefully this summer, when my family can all get together and share our stories. In the meantime, I’m trying to remember to tell my kids stories from my younger days so that they can have those as keepsakes.

I’ve been reading Ann Patchett’s book, “Commonwealth.” One line that stays with me comes from a character who, as she spoke about her dying father, says, “You take all the stories with you.”

We do take all of our stories with us when we go, and that’s why we need to share them now.

Jackie Brousseau-Pereira of Easthampton writes a monthly column. She is academic dean and director of first-year seminars in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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Newsrust: Columnist Jackie Brousseau-Pereira: The importance of storytelling  
Columnist Jackie Brousseau-Pereira: The importance of storytelling
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