The Stethoscope, a Link to Past, Present and Future

Originally shared on Grief Healing

Our elder daughter, mother of our twin grandchildren, died from the injuries she received in a car crash. This was bad enough, but six months later, the twin’s father died from the injuries he received in another crash. 
His death made our grandchildren orphans and the county court, following our daughter’s will, appointed my husband and me as their guardians. The twins (one boy, one girl) were 15 years old when they moved in with us and lived with us for seven years.

At first, the twins treated family meals like a fuel stop; fill up and head out. My husband is a retired physician and we often talked about medical topics. As time passed, however, my grandson became interested in our conversations, listened intently, and asked questions. The twins graduated from high school and left for college, our grandson to the College of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, our granddaughter to Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Both graduated with high honors and Phi Beta Kappa.

Our granddaughter accepted a job with The Salvation Army. Our grandson was interested in becoming a physician, but took a year off to do research in a Mayo Clinic laboratory. He applied to many medical schools and was accepted by the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine, a true feat. Mayo receives 5,000 applications a year and accepts only one percent. He just started medical school and invited us to parents’ weekend. 

We attended a welcoming dinner, luncheon, and the Commitment to Medicine ceremony. Before the ceremony a speaker told the students they were there because of family support, a sentence that brought tears to my eyes. I thought of the profound sorrow we felt, our efforts to become a family, the twin’s achievements, and the other physicians in the family.  

My husband’s father, a specialist in diseases of the chest, was a Mayo Clinic physician and died two days after our daughter died. My husband’s specialties were aviation medicine internal medicine, and public health. Now our grandson was starting his journey. He said the Commitment Pledge to Medicine with others in the class and each student was presented with a stethoscope.  

For me, the stethoscope symbolized a family tradition and the desire to help. While attending the ceremony was an emotional experience, I managed to keep my feelings in check until the end of the day. I helped my disabled husband get into bed and went to bed myself. Instead of snuggling under the covers I suddenly burst into tears. I sobbed for my father-in-law and wished he had lived to see this day. I sobbed for my daughter and knew she would have been proud of her son. I sobbed for my former son-in-law and knew he would have been proud too. And I sobbed for my disabled husband’s resolve and courage. 

I’ve studied grief for years and knew I was having an anniversary reaction, but wasn’t prepared for its intensity. Deborah Serani Psy.D. writes about “The Anniversary Effect” in a Psychology Today website article. “Make sure you take good care of yourself during these times,” she advises. Her care suggestions include checking the calendar well ahead of time, being aware of public trauma, talking with a family member, journaling, blogging, and using creative expression. A Mayo Clinic website article, “Grief: Coping with Reminders After a Loss,” notes that reminders can be anywhere. Unexpected reminders may be linked to something we see, hear, or smell. 

The stethoscope symbolized so many things, among them sorrow, reconciliation, recovery, goal-setting, determination, studiousness, persistence, family pride, and hope. My grandson will be a fine physician and I know he will use his stethoscope compassionately.

Your Caregiving Happiness Jar

The idea of keeping a happiness jar has been bouncing around the Internet for months. I first encountered the idea on Facebook. Other posts supported the idea. “I’ll do it,” I said to myself. “Documenting happiness will be fun.” On January 2, 2015 I put my first piece of paper in a wide-mouth Mason jar. It says: “John on zero gravity machine. Looks like his left leg is starting to work.”

The note doesn’t convey the importance of the message. My husband’s aorta dissected in 2013 and he had three emergency operations. During the last one, 13 hours of life-threatening surgery, he suffered a spinal stroke and it paralyzed his legs. After being in the hospital for eight months he was dismissed to my care. A year and a half later he started rehabilitation and the results are stunning.

Thankfully, I have almost 18 years of caregiving experience to draw upon. I was my mother’s family caregiver for nine years and she had dementia. I was my twin grandchildren’s co-guardian and caregiver for seven years. But being my husband’s caregiver is a different story because I’ve never cared for a disabled person before. Still, there are happy moments to document and savor.

So I am keeping two happiness jars, one about my daily life, and the other about caregiving.  You may wish to keep a caregiving happiness jar too, or may be keeping it already. How do you go about it? The idea comes from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. She offers some tips in a repost of her article, “Happiness Jar” on the Sacred Folly website. Here is a summary of her instructions.

  • Get a large jar or box.
  • Write your happiest moment of the day on a small piece of paper.
  • Stick the paper in the jar.
  • Do this for a year.
  • When the year ends, empty the jar and review your life.

Gilbert has been doing this for a long time and loves it. She considers her happiness jar “the whole point of this life.” A happiness jar is also a way to document your life. Without the jar, you may forget these small, meaningful moments of the day. Unlike Gilbert, I don’t write down the happiest moment of the day, I write down several happy moments, a sort of gratitude journal in a jar.

My approach helps me see the positives of life and makes me aware of my blessings. Right now, the notes in the caregiving happiness jar fall into these categories: 1) my husband’s health, 2) daily life, and 3) our family. Future notes may generate additional categories, but the categories aren’t as important as writing the notes. Though I’ve only been doing this a short time, I’m amazed at the benefits of such a simple task.

I am reminded, yet again, that I have an amazing life.

What’s in my caregiving jar? A note about my husband’s health says “John had an amazing rehab session – left leg almost working on its own.” The note doesn’t say my husband seems to be a miracle in the making. A note about daily life says “John loved his lunch – chicken salad with dried cranberries and almonds and warm peanut butter cookies.” The note doesn’t say I love to cook and especially love cooking for my husband, the care receiver.

Right now, the caregiving jar is smaller than my other jar, but I expect this to change. In the months to come, I think the reverse will be true, and the caregiving jar will be the larger one. Being my husband’s caregiver defines my life, and I’m documenting this life with words. Your situation may be similar to mine. Have you been thinking about keeping a happiness jar? If so, make it a caregiving happiness jar, written proof of your life, what you do in a day, and most important, that caregiving is love in action.