The Grief of Invisibility

untitledFor as long as I can remember, I’ve been a collector of stories.

For the past five years, I’ve been collecting stories from the elderly who live in a culture so very different from my own. I facilitate a weekly group called “My Life Story” in a retirement community.

I facilitate this group for a few reasons. One, I love sharing stories. Two, it is rich education about a world I know little of. Three, and perhaps the most important reason: I do it because, for sixty minutes every week, I get to shine the spotlight on eight women who sit around a table and tell stories about growing up in the Depression era, the war effort and Victory gardens, radio shows, riding the tram, farm life and Big Band music.

As they tell these stories, they feel a little less invisible.

There are all kinds of grief on the human journey; but, none as painful as the grief of invisibility. Homemakers and humble heroines in their world, these eighty and ninety-year-olds are fading away into the dusty, dark corners of life.

Unheard, unseen, unloved.

In a culture that worships “doing”, they have outlived their usefulness as they totter and tremble through the fragility of old age.

The grief of invisibility is hard to bear. Because these men and women still have breath in their bodies, even if their “aliveness” is questionable.

In our mad rushing-texting-talking-messaging world, their slow pace is annoying. In our busy lives of abbreviated conversations and Cliff-Notes-versions, their repetitive, rambling monologues are maddening. Their world is alien to most of us. And we don’t care to pause, to ask, to acknowledge, to honor.

And so they grieve, in the loneliness of their plush apartments and soulless lives.

They grieve their lost usefulness.

They grieve their failing limbs and senses.

They grieve their lost relevance.

They grieve their fading minds.

We grieve and mourn when they die. Can we resolve to engage with them while they’re still here?

How do I do that, you ask.

By taking a deep breath and biting your tongue when you’re tempted to cut them off.

By putting away your cell phone and looking into their eyes when they speak.

By calling them — not just to confirm a doctor’s appointment or check on a prescription refill but just to say “Hey, Mom. I’m thinking of you and want you to know that I love you.”

By asking for a story from their world and staying interested even if they stray away from the plot.

Not aging is not an option in our world of endless choices. Getting comfortable with aging and the elderly is the only sensible choice we can make.

Strange as it sounds, here’s the truth. Don’t let them grieve their invisibility today. And you won’t grieve as hard when they are really out of sight.

For more stories on my experiences with the elderly, buy my memoir “Losing Amma, Finding Home” at www.umagirish.com

Comments

  1. Beautiful post Uma. I think we all can be more present and patient with the humans around us especially as they age. I remember telling myself when I was visiting my mom in her assisted living home, that as simple and repetitive as the conversations were, I knew I’d miss them when she was gone. I do. A project such as yours is so powerful!

  2. So beautifully written, Uma.

    There is much to grieve in this life…and much to celebrate. Thanks for helping people do both.

    • umagir@gmail.com says:

      Thanks, Randy. Yes, grief and the joys of celebration are two sides of the same coin, really.

  3. R. SRINIVASA MURTHY says:

    Very thoughtful way of looking at the elderly.
    I liked the practical way we could give dignity to the elderly persons.
    Sopecially like the sentences:
    Not aging is not an option in our world of endless choices. Getting comfortable with aging and the elderly is the only sensible choice we can make.
    Thank you for being so positive.

    • umagir@gmail.com says:

      Thank you for writing. I’m glad you enjoyed this post. Yes, we will all get there someday and we need to treat those who are already there with the care and dignity they deserve.

  4. This is truly beautiful. Your culture has given you the gifts of compassion, sensitivity and insight. Thank you for all of us ageing at our own rate. It’s so important that I wish everyon could read it. I would like to share this on my blog at http://www.ginny-brock@blogspot.com

  5. Anica Zivoder says:

    Wow Uma, you really hit the nail on the head in such a nice way. So many elderly do not have any family so imagine the feeling….but to have raised the children and showered them with love..
    how heart breaking this would feel.
    I love your writing and wish your book was available in Canada.

    • umagir@gmail.com says:

      Thanks, Anica, for writing…and for your kind sentiments. My book is now available. If you go to Amazon and click on “7 new copies” you can place an order via Eudora who will ship it to you. Let me know if that worked for you. And do subscribe to my blog if you’d like to receive an update every time I post. You can also sign up for my newsletter, if you wish.

  6. Uma, I just discovered your writing – and it is like a balm. I can’t put it into words. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And blessings to you for sharing the harvest of your experience so lovingly.

    Both of my parents have passed away within the last eighteen months after simultaneous terminal illnesses of 3+ years, a time during which both of my husband’s parents transitioned, as did eight friends. Now, we’re taking care of our dear kitty and cherishing every moment.

    You so eloquently speak to the feeling of being “out of step” – though working pretty well and making music, I still have a “between worlds” feeling that lingers – a long-term altered state. And being in nursing facilities and with elders in general often feels more real than much of relentless, staccato life.

    • umagir@gmail.com says:

      Carol, thanks so much for writing! I am so glad you enjoyed this piece. What a pleasure to connect with you! Thank you for sharing some of your story with me. If you feel called to read my memoir, it’s available via my website and I’ll mail you an autographed copy.

  7. Uma,
    Your writing about the Invisibility of the Elderly Ladies and how you ministered to them, in a group and listened to their wonderful life stories,
    is a renewing message to me as a senior caregiver. I have cooked dinner and provided daily assistance to a 90s+ couple for one year now, and am coming upon my own burnout issues.
    In the beginning, my motivation to work for them and with them was fresh and came from my own purposeful mission. HOwever, the physical difficulty of performing housekeeping, repetitive laundry, daily meals and commuting to their home has weighed me down a lot lately.

    But this description of your classes with the elderly states so well what it is that I wish to provide and do for this couple. and become more fully human myself.
    Thank you for your excellent writing and full heart!

    • umagir@gmail.com says:

      Dear Marie, Thank you for your beautiful comments. What a gift you’ve been to this couple. That said, self-care is just as important. To lighten your load and continue to make a difference in their lives, preserving their stories and therefore their legacy would be an invaluable service. They are so lucky to have you!

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