Losing a loved one…still easier than loving a lost one

I was recently asked why the lack of activity in this blog during the month of November. First, I was very grateful that someone commented on this – thank you! I will share with you the reason, because within it I think we can find something useful.

My mother passed away after several years’ bout with dementia. This is a bizarre family of disorders that hurts more than many people are aware. A bad joke I heard many years ago took on a painfully poignant relevance: “Dementia is when you live longer than you think.”

It was very difficult for my family to watch my mother slowly deteriorate before our eyes. The adage, “Healer, heal thyself” came to mind, and I used my training and skill to adjust to this change in the matriarch of our family. I called upon nearly every bit of skill I had developed in order to manage things effectively and still help hold the family together.

I was advised by a friend that it would be easier to cope with by viewing it thusly: “That’s not the same person you’ve known all those years. That person is gone. In her place is someone wonderful and new to get to know.” The notion is that it makes it even tougher to deal with as you take all you know about your loved one, all you’ve learned about them, with all the shared experiences you have had, and attempt to reconcile them with this person in front of you, in the throes of dementia, unable to even recognize family members. That strategy was helpful, and my brother, sister, and I got to know this wonderful woman, if a bit agitated at the world. She did not, in the end, know us at all, as is commonly the case. Taking the advise above, that fact was easier to handle.

If we thought of our mother as a new person, she had some quirks. But if we thought of her as Mom, something was clearly and very painfully wrong. I’ve heard dementia patients referred to as “the lost”, people so out of touch with their former lives that they can no longer relate to them. I dislike the term, though I reluctantly see the point. She did indeed appear to be lost. For someone who works with human psychological and strategic challenges all the time, this was a new frontier, a place where only the most basic of approaches would likely work. Very basic pacing and leading worked, so NLP served me very well there. Simple hypnosis worked to alleviate anxiety, though anything requiring complex thinking was out. It was a bit like doing hypnosis with someone who didn’t speak your language. It is still very much possible, though we may have to use a more simple approach than the verbal techniques we might frequently employ.

It was not all that different from several years prior when my father had suffered a stroke. He was deeply impacted, both phsyiologically and psychologically, by the damage the stroke had done. While hospitalized, his physician advised that he was no longer on an IV, but needed to drink a good deal more water than he was. The nurses reiterated this, threatening to put him back on an IV for fluids if he did not empty the water bottles brought to him.

Reasoning with him was somewhat pointless, as he was depressed about his situation, and had no concern over his fluids. He refused the water, though my mother and I begged his cooperation.

I began using trance language to make him feel thirsty, and soon he had emptied the water bottles he had and was gesturing for more. The nurse was astounded, and thought we had just asked really nicely and he chose to cooperate. Most people are thusly amazed at how the unconsious is so easily influenced. Frankly, my mother, who noticed the unusual language patterns I was using, though was not clear as to why, was more than a little disturbed by it. Subliminal communication typically does scare people when they first learn how effective it can be. Trance language is incredibly effective at motivating us to behave in one way versus another. My mother thought of what I did and the seemingly miraculous results as being akin to voodoo or a form of black magic. All the scientific explanations, the discussion of trance phenomena in everyday life, did little to alleviate that fear.

So now, years later, as my mother was struggling to remember who she, and and anyone around her, was, she was oblivious as I used trance language to help alleviate her anxiety. Without knowing the mechanics of it, just being a great parent, and also a great daughter, my sister did an amazing job as well. She worked with the unconscious forces exerting influence in our mother’s mind, helping to calm her, to cheer her up, and to make Mom’s life more pleasant. Kara had in the past few years been the one among Mom’s three kids to have spent the most time with her. That experience enabled her to observe the gradual decline in cognitive function. I believe this enabled her to continually adjust to the changes taking place before her eyes. For Chad and myself, it was often jolting, as, though we knew it was happening, seeing the dementia’s advance was frequently alarming and for us, abrupt.

Mom only lived about eight years in this state of gradual decline. I’ve known people who have had loved ones endure declines lasting longer, and for them, loving someone who is becoming “lost” (if I can accept that metaphor for just a few minutes longer), is incredibly challenging. My hope is that as we learn more about the various levels of communication, we can not only alleviate our families’ anxiety and stress over such an experience, but even reach the “lost” loved one on whatever level they still can be.

For instance, my sister noted that Mom liked having her lower back rubbed, much as a mother might soothe an anxious child. She did that when Mom started becoming stressed and it quickly changed her state. My sister also realized that Mom wouldn’t know it was one of the days of the week when she visited, so she stopped trying to get her to remember. However Mom never lost her love of chocolate, and perhaps some of you can relate! So Kara made a point of bringing Mom’s favorite sweets with her when she visited. Though Mom no longer knew that Kara was her daughter, any more than she could recall that Chad and I were her sons, she developed a slight ability to remember “the nice lady that brings the treats”. Each of these things enables us to reach someone in a different way than mere facial recognition and conscious conversation.

Mom left this world and we are carrying out her wishes to be cremated and have her ashes scattered before the Black Angel in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She was always a poetic, romantic thinker, and such a wish was not surprising.

One take away from this story is that of reaching someone who doesn’t “speak our language”, or seemingly any language at all. This includes people with physiological maladies, like dementia, purely psychological challenges, or even people with simply very different strategies from our own, people who may seem so different that we have trouble relating to, communicating with, or working with them.

Remember, even if they are very different, they are still conducting internal mental processes. They are still thinking to some degree, and we can connect with them as long as that’s the case. Our verbal communication is our typical “go-to” means of communicating, relating to, or influencing others. But keep in mind that verbal speech is only a very small percentage of the overall communication taking place. Body language, word choices, verbal tone, and the like all exert tremendous influence over the message received. Since most of us interpret these items unconsciously, it helps if we understand how to use unconscious communication effectively.

Perhaps even to the point of becoming unconscious of what we’re doing, ourselves.

Pay Attention…Or Pay Dearly

I travel quite a lot, and as anyone who does that will tell you, it’s much less exciting than it might sound. Some of the most stressful experiences human beings have now take place in airports and on airplanes (and I’m not talking about phobics, here!). Thanks to 9/11, boarding a plane is infinitely more challenging than it used to be. Though once you board, there are several things we all still have to contend with. For instance, you no doubt realize that a multi-million dollar piece of aeronautic engineering can be undone by anything at all that has a power switch on it. As a flight attendant (who no doubt finds this as annoying as the rest of us – maybe worse because they have to enforce this rule) recently announced over a crackly PA, “That includes Kindles, iPads, iPods, cell phones, and anything with an on-off switch, all must be turned to the ‘off’ position.”

I completely respect that this must not be easy for the airline industry or its employees. Most, even those who would argue vehemently about navigational controls being interfered with by small electronics, likely feel a bit silly enforcing the power switch rule.

All that is a preface to make clear that while I may or may not like the rule, I understand it, and realize that it’s inconvenient for everyone. Some Amish sadist, I suspect, was originally behind it, trying to persuade the rest of use to eschew our technology like he did. Then again, how many Amish do you know flying into major airports weekly? I actually apologize to any Amish out there, as they never did anything to me…

What then however if you are predisposed to perceive an object a certain way, behave accordingly, even if it’s something entirely different? That’s where the old advice our teachers gave us comes back to haunt us – “Pay attention!”

Knowing that we were minutes from being asked to turn off our laptops and e-readers, I had stowed mine, and had a really cool and amazingly preserved artifact in my lap, a hardback copy of Joyce’s Ulysses. That’s right, physical ink print on actual paper. Young children stared and pointed, imploring their parents to explain this weird, foreign device. An older passenger glanced wistfully at my book, as though about to say, “I haven’t seen one of those since…” and then really scanned their memories to try and recall when indeed they had last seen such an analog device.

But the really strange part came when the flight attendant glanced quickly at my book and chastised me with her frown and tone: “Sir, I’m going to need you to turn the power butwiton to the ‘off’ position for takeoff.” For a moment genuinely confused (as I knew what it was, and realized that there is no way to in fact “turn it off”, I had to scan for meaning in her words, to discern what she meant – a great reminder of how we do that every day, though most often unconsciously. A moment later, I grasped it, but before I could explain, I turned it sideways to show her where the power switch should be and how I could not find it (with my ostensibly limited tech-savvy), and answered in a tone intended to sound sincere and confused, though it likely came across as much more smart-ass than she deserved, “I’m new to these things…I’m sorry I don’t know how to turn off the power”.

She flashed first confusion, as she herself tried to make sense of the situation, then embarrassment and irritation as she got the joke.

I don’t advocate mocking people this way, and in the interest of karma, I should admit that I got my drink later than most people in my section after that. To me, it was worth it to mark the lesson out clearly – if we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing, and just assume that everything around us is as expected, we will miss important details. Sometimes it’s a matter of a little embarrassment as life, the frequent joker, delivers its punchline, but sometimes it’s much more serious. Sometimes we operate on autopilot so to speak, and fail to notice important details that don’t match our expectations. We spoke about Deletion in an earlier post, and this is a great example – it doesn’t fit our expectations so we just ignore it or delete it from our sensory perception. How many relationships do you imagine have been lost due to such negligence? How many great career opportunities have been missed, how many opportunities to make our loved ones feel, well, loved?

There is a price for every misstep, even though we are learning from every outcome. If we take our partners or our friends for granted, and just assume that’s how it should be, that somehow they should just put up with it, one day they may have had enough, and the price we pay may be our relationships, or our business, potentially profound losses for most of us. If I\we take our customers for granted, just assume that things will run on autopilot without our paying attention to new information, new details, we may lose them. And a business with no customers is…no longer in business.

Details matter. Life is not as fulfilling or successful on autopilot. When we actively participate in our world, we can find new levels of fulfillment previously unimagined. When we just assume that the next day will be like this one, as it was like the day before it, we aren’t really living, but rather existing.

Plus, we will notice the different between a book and a laptop computer, or the difference between a sidewalk and a busy street, other potentially useful skills!