Does he know who I am? Where does he ‘go’ when he looks at me with an empty gaze? I smiled at him, realizing he did not understand what I said to him a moment ago. He suddenly became distracted and began fidgeting, seemingly surprised as he retrieved a small pair of scissors and a pen from his pocket. He turned around and toddled to the security gate, attempting to open the padlock with the scissors. I asked whether I could unlock the gate for him, but he shook his head adamantly. He exchanged the scissors for the pen and continued his efforts. I stood watching, at a loss for words. He motioned with his head and waved the pen at me angrily. “Go!”, he spat at me.
I have counselled several people who have lost loved ones, especially during the past two years. The grieving process takes as long as it takes, and every person deals with loss differently. There is no formula as to what grieving should look like, and one cannot rush a grieving person to finding ‘closure’― I suppose it depends on what one’s definition of ‘closure’ is. The case is never fully closed. The heart forever longs for and remembers the person who has gone, although one adapts to life which has irreversibly changed. Job is an example of how such deep loss was physically expressed (Job 1:20–21), while the posture of his heart remained in worship before God. David is another example of grieving the death of his children in different ways (2 Sam 12:1–22; 18:33), yet honoring God (Ps 86).
But how does one grieve a person who is still alive, who is slowly slipping away from reality?
He is not the same person anymore. The witty jokes, the ability to argue brilliantly, the wise insights, his unique mannerisms … all gone now. Replaced by an obstinate, confused, often aggressive person whom I don’t recognize. Longing for a person who is no longer ‘present’, yet still alive, is new to me, especially it being a close family member. I find myself looking for signs of the person I used to know, but his eyes have gone dim. He seems to be trapped in a different time frame, unable to recognize that he himself has aged since then. He looks fragile, almost defeated, as he sits in his chair staring blankly out in front of him.
I’ve learned not to correct him. One simply plays along and assures him that his mother, who has been deceased for thirty years, has gone out shopping and will be back soon. One simply smiles and agrees that he must go to work tomorrow, although he has been retired for twenty-eight years already. I only nod and smile, saying that I’ve come to visit him when he refers to me as a stranger in his house. I’ve learned that remaining calm, non-confrontational, and creating a predictable routine help in keeping him amicable. I’ve accepted that my expectations of him can no longer be the same, as he can no longer advise me on life and facing challenges.
And then he prayed. I was struck at the core at how perfectly intact he expressed his understanding of God. The words spilled over his lips with confidence, although some were incorrectly pronounced. He ended his prayer with, “Thank you for your grace. We love you, Lord Jesus. We praise you forever.” I felt the tears dripping down my face. It was as though his spirit became alive when he prayed and addressed his heavenly Father. He still remembered that Christ is his Savior, that God loves us, that God provides and cares for us, and that God is worthy to be praised. I was humbled at this honest prayer, bursting forth from a secret place inside of a man who is no longer ‘here’. I’m no expert on Dementia, but I was encouraged that his spirit is still connected with the Holy Spirit, although the physical mind cannot comprehend or express his faith in the way he used to. Perhaps this realization has made it easier for me not to be utterly distraught. I don’t grieve the loss of his spirit, but the wasting away of his physical body. I thought of Moses and the mentioning of his eyes not growing dim in his old age (Deut 34:7). Perhaps I have caught a glimpse of that in a spiritual sense, when I saw a man’s spirit rise within him, expressing his faith and worship with perfect clarity, despite the eyes of his mind having gone dim.
His eyes that once were wise and keen
have hidden in a smokey fog;
where what was known is now unseen
and time and place have come undone.
His voice, his humor, relentless wit
are swallowed up by silent pause.
His fervent prayers are all that’s heard,
while stories will remain untold.
Hands that once could fix and build,
now subject to another’s will;
determined steps once strong and bold,
reduced to childlike staggering.
Dreams and plans from long ago,
have drifted off into the deep.
Nameless places pixilated,
strangely lost and out of reach.
How precious life, and yet too cruel,
unwilling to remain intact.
As everything returns to dust,
so we too reach our journey’s end.
Idalette Müller, 2022.
Short Biography: Idalette ([email protected]) is a part-time co-lecturer at SATS in the Christian Counselling courses; she completed the Higher Certificate in Christian Counseling at SATS in January 2020 with distinction. She earned a degree in music (BMus (Ed), 1992) and honors in Educational Psychology (1993) at TUKS. As a part-time counselor with survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, she is interested in effectively applying music- and art therapeutic techniques in trauma counseling, she is also a motivational speaker, writer, and spokesperson for Human Trafficking Awareness. She is married to Andrew, and they have three children and live in Centurion.