My dad has dementia. The disease affects the frontal and temporal lobes of his brain – areas associated with personality, behavior, memory and language. His diagnosis five years ago this spring turned my family’s world upside down.
The symptoms were initially subtle and harmless. He’d forget where he’d left his car keys (in the microwave!) or that he’d left the dog outside in the rain. He’d get frustrated when he couldn’t articulate his thoughts into complete sentences. He was riding an emotional rollercoaster, fully aware of his prognosis. With me at school and my mom working full-time, he was in constant danger of getting hurt. I spent the summer before my sophomore year as his caretaker and we paid for a nurse to be with him when we couldn’t be. Soon, his in-home care became too expensive and he needed more supervision – it was unsafe for him to stay home. Last summer, he moved into Western Mass Hospital’s locked dementia unit.
I’m an only child and he was a stay-at-home dad; growing up, he was more my partner in crime than a real authority. He’s funny, sweet and generous. He had a temper, but dementia’s robbed him of even that. So I can’t help but question – during a boring committee meeting or a dull classroom discussion – why am I here when he’s there? Am I selfish for staying in school? Am I too ambitious for trying to be a good student, a dedicated Junior Advisor (JA), a passionate member of College Council and a caring daughter? I feel pressured to spend every moment of my time at Williams doing something meaningful – otherwise, I will have cheated my dad.
Grief is hard, especially when you add it to the mix of stressors that come with being a student here. It’s difficult enough to find time to do all of your reading, to go to 12 meetings, to spend time with your entry, to catch up on half a million e-mails much less to deal with the incredible sadness, guilt or empathy that characterizes grief. I vacillate between feeling like I’m doing all that I can and feeling as though I’ll never be able to do right by my dad. One of the most frustrating parts about my struggle with grief has been accepting that the fact that my father has dementia is not fair.
My dad is in the best nursing home in the area – only an hour’s drive away. Our visits make his day. But there have been moments when my sadness for him and my anger at this disease have gotten the best of me. Though my dad is not dying, I am grieving. I am grieving for the dad that I grew up with and for the memories that we are supposed be making.
Whether it’s caused by the death of a loved one, a cruel disease, a chapter in your life coming to a close, or any life event that brings you sorrow … grief is real. Grief is real and it is incessant and it will catch you by surprise. Grief can make you debilitatingly sad, unable to be fully at Williams or even completely yourself.
The only conclusion I’ve drawn is that talking about it helps – and that, when we want to, the College does this very well. I’ve come to know that I am not the only one grieving for somebody or wondering if it’s possible to wrap your mind around grief without being consumed by it. You can work through it with your friends or family. You can see a counselor or attend a support group. You can cry or you can rely on your sense of humor to make it okay for a while. You can suppress it. I’ve done it all. I even got my nose pierced as part of what I call my “rebellion against dementia.” I don’t think it noticed.
Helping to coordinate events like You Are Not Alone and my experience as both a JA and as a member of this community have taught me that I am not the only one thinking about grief at the College. It’s hard to know what to say to somebody who is experiencing such tremendous sorrow. But I can tell you that listening works wonders. I did some research (read: I typed the words “grief counseling” into the search box on the Williams website) and I was inspired to see that there once was an active program called Life Raft that lent support to those who wanted it. It is a goal of mine to make sure that this resource is genuinely available to and utilized by the students who need it.
My dad is sick, and it breaks my heart every single day. But I know this is a struggle that I need not face alone. I’m relieved to see this campus engaging in conversations about mental health and effortless perfection. Topics like these should continue to be a priority until we create a culture of sharing and asking for help. As one of my frosh says, “You can’t take care of anybody else until you take care of you.” It’s not easy, and it means something unique for everybody. But we need to take care of what’s most important: each other, and ourselves.
Krista Pickett ’13 is an art history major from Chicopee, Mass. She lives in Dennett.