by Donna McBride, Program Administrator/PIO and Supervisor for the CASA Unit, Pinal County Juvenile Court, Casa Grande City Councilwoman.

This time last year she was alive. The dementia had started taking over her daily routines, but she was here. The kidney disease was eating away at her, but she was here.

Being a caretaker is never easy. Anyone who has helped take care of someone as they began their final time on earth knows what I am talking about. You feel guilty for being tired. You sometimes are angry for feeling sorry for yourself and angry at the world around you for not seeing how bad it is.

But nothing prepares you for when they are gone. I thought I was ready. I had read lots of articles, and did research on how to deal with the progression. But I didn’t prepare my heart to be broken.

Mama Tess died in late summer, in the middle of a monsoon storm that brought rain. I’m sure she timed it just right. She loved the desert rain and how the skies looked afterwards.

In the months before her death, we would sometimes sit at the window and watch the sunset. She would always marvel at the clouds and how they circled the sky just before darkness.

The holidays are here. I know they will never be the same for me. And I’ve decided not to try to keep things the same, because I know I will only fail. Instead, there will be new traditions as I set one less plate at the table. I’m not sure what those traditions will be. I’ve made a vow to myself not to plan them out. They will just come.

I know people want to help, especially during the holidays. I have been in their shoes –trying to figure out what to say, or do, to ease the pain of that first holiday without someone you love. Honestly, there isn’t anything you can do to make my heart hurt less. That being said, I think I can give some tips on how to help me – or anyone else – get through it.

Whether it has been three months or nine months, it still hurts. Understand there will be many “firsts” during the one-year journey. I turned 60 years old days after Mama Tess died. I had no birthday, and forever after, my birthday will remind me of it, and so will Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s Day and so on. It’s OK. Just please don’t belittle it by thinking I should be over it and moving on.

It’s OK to talk about her. Not mentioning Mama Tess only makes the grief lonelier – like I am the only one hurting. Not talking about her, laughing about some of the crazy things she said or did – even in her more difficult times – doesn’t help.

Mama Tess was a huge football fan. It didn’t matter who was playing, she watched for hours. Even with her dementia, football wasn’t something she forgot. My son Jereme and grandson Colin have adopted the West Virginia Mountaineers in her absence this season. Colin recently told his dad that after he watches the games he “tells Granny Tess all about it.” Kids often make us remember the simple things – like it’s OK to still think of them and even talk to them through our heart.

Understand there will be bad moments. It comes on without warning. Even with my days getting “back to normal,” I will forget and pick up the phone to call her. When I walk by the flower section at the store and grab a bunch for her, it takes my breath away.

The few weeks before Mama Tess passed away, she was in and out of awareness, often sleeping for several days before waking up alert and feisty. One night, as I reached for her plate after dinner, she looked in my eyes and said, “It won’t be long now. What are you going to do without me?”

My response was, “I don’t know mom. I haven’t figured that one out yet.”

Months later, I still don’t have the answer. But this I know – it has been the support and love of family and friends that have gotten me through the darkest of moments. And as I go through the holidays without her, I plan on celebrating with her through the traditions she taught me and the new ones that will find their way to me.