January 6, 2021

I learned a phrase a few of years ago in a conversation with a friend whose husband had Alzheimer’s. In addition to having close relatives with Alzheimer’s, we are also spiritual directors and both deeply involved in parish ministry. The phrase, “compassionate confabulation”, stuck with me and rang true. Confabulation is a symptom of various memory disorders in which made-up stories fill in any gaps in memory. It is often described as “honest lying.” My friend had learned from a support group about compassionate confabulation, made-up stories told compassionately to care for loved ones.

Not long after I moved to Woodstock, I was shopping at Walmart and got a call from my sister Jane.  After a few words of greeting, she asked me if our mother had died. I hesitated (Mom had been dead for 10 years), and then said, “Mom’s in heaven.” Between my hesitation then my answer, Jane somehow knew that our mother was dead. She began to sob, because having forgotten that mom was dead, Jane’s grief was as real as if it had happened right then. And my grief at hearing Jane’s sobs on the phone triggered my own anguish in causing her pain she’d experienced all those years ago, as well my own grief.  In subsequent calls with Jane, if she asked about our parents, I simply replied that they were doing really well, in a good place, just really hard to catch on the phone. Compassionate confabulation.

When Jane died in December, the task fell to me to inform our sister Carol. Since she is in assisted living in Ohio and they are not allowing in-person visits, I needed to do so by phone. I called the facility and asked that an aide be with my sister when I made that call, as I expected that she would be as devastated as me. Carol’s reaction was muted, as if I’d told her about the weather. I doubt that she was able to grasp what I was saying. That was difficult for me, but perhaps for the best.

Since then, I’ve talked with Carol every few days. She often asks if I’ve talked to Jane. I tell her that it is hard for Jane to use the phone, but that she is doing well and in a good place. On two different occasions, she’s told me she’s had a really nice visit with Jane.

I’m grateful that in her reality, she is having nice visits with Jane!  They used to get into heated debates about politics, and the last two visits the three of us were together, I banned watching any news when we were together, since being together was a gift too precious to be fouled by party loyalties.

We might all be better off without the news when it causes bitter discord and heightened anxiety!

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.” (Paul in Colossians 3) “Turning off the news helps.” ~ Anne

During this season of COVID 19, St. Paul’s UCC Woodstock, VA

offers these meditations as a service to the community.

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