I speak to national and local groups about loss, grief and recovery. Last week I spoke to a group of Elder Network volunteers in my community. It was a small group, a dozen people gathered around a central table. The hour-long talk was about anticipatory grief, something everyone goes through, and something many fail to recognize.
My talk began with a summary of the nine years I spent caring for my mother, who suffered from progressive dementia. The stress of caregiving increased as my mother’s dementia progressed. “Each day, I wondered if this would be the day she died,” I explained. I also talked about losing four family members, including my daughter, in 2007.
Everything was going well and then, without any warning, tears filled my eyes. “I’m going to cry,” I announced, and I did. Oh dear. The director brought me some tissues. I wiped my eyes, and continued my talk, noticing at the same time, that several volunteers had cried with me. Had the unexpected tears ruined my talk? Was my message lost?
Apparently my worries were unfounded, for the group gave me a loud round of applause. On the way out, several attendees commented on the power and value of my presentation. The next day, others emailed their reviews to the staff. One wrote, “I’m so glad I went.” Another admitted, “I needed that talk. My anticipatory grief journey is just beginning.”
Unexpected tears can distract speakers like you and me, but they also let people know you speak from the heart. As the Elder Network director noted, “Feelings just are.” Still, it was embarrassing to lose it in the middle of a talk that had been going well. My mother had been gone for a decade. Five years had passed since I suffered multiple losses. So why did I cry?
I think not practicing my talk aloud was the main reason. Before I give a talk, I usually practice it aloud several times to check the length and word flow. But the biggest benefit of practicing talks aloud is that it prepares me for pain. Somehow, and I’m not sure how, hearing the words makes my story believable and prepares me for telling it. Because I was busy, and had given the talk before, I didn’t practice it aloud for this group. And that was my mistake.
Fatigue may have prompted my unexpected tears. The week was packed with appointments, tax preparations, and family invents that required travel. I also have two books in production, and was swamped with detail work—proofreading, submitting corrections, and getting legal permissions.
The next week I delivered some of the books I’ve written to the Elder Network office, including books on Alzheimer’s disease, aging, and grief recovery. To my surprise, staff members appeared to welcome me. One asked me to autograph my books. “We’ll include an article about your books in the next issue of our newsletter,” my contact person assured me.
Unexpected tears in the middle of a talk reminded me—yet again—of the power of loss. As time passed, I adjusted to life without my mother, daughter, father-in-law, brother, and former son-in-law. But I still have empty places inside of me, places that remember the deceased and yearn for them to be with me again. Tears are reminders of love and love keeps me going.
Harriet Hodgson 2012