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It happened quickly. So quickly that Marilyn Thomas could not process the details. She needed another set of ears to hear her. She found that in a mental health counselor.
By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes, firstname.lastname@example.org
It wasn’t exactly a month. It was 29 days. That was all the time Marilyn Thomas had to digest her mother’s diagnosis and death. It was just weeks before Christmas.
Death and holidays can be two triggers for mental health. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) describes triggers as stressors – actions or situations that can lead to adverse emotional reactions. Trauma, such as the death of a loved one can cause a trigger.
Thomas was born and raised in Lima, Ohio. She moved to Indiana 38 years ago, and began working for Pepper Construction six years ago as a project coordinator. She retired this month at the age of 66.
Married to her husband, Bobby, and the mother to two adult children Thomas was sitting at her kitchen table when she got the call.
“Mom called and said she wasn’t feeling well. I called my brother who lives in Dayton and he took her to the hospital. Because of COVID, he had to wait in the parking lot,” said Thomas. When she called the hospital, she learned that her mother had an aggressive tumor. She was told she had six months to live.
It was Dec. 20, 2020. Her mother died on Jan. 18, 2021.
Time passed quickly. Thomas was thrown into a state of shock. She returned to work during a pandemic and nothing felt “normal.” She wasn’t sure how to process every detail in such a short amount of time.
“There were logistics and practicalities – getting the house ready for her to come home and hospice to care for her,” said Thomas. “Then there were the emotions – learning she had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and there was nothing we could to stop it. There was anger, their was grief, there was even guilt – like why didn’t I figure out sooner that she wasn’t well.”
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Thomas is speaking out about the importance of self-care. She made a decision to seek professional help through IU Health’s Employee Assistance Program. For more than 30 years, IU Health’s licensed counselors have served employers throughout the state. Pepper Construction is one of those companies – connecting employees to virtual or on-site, short-term confidential, professional counseling. Employees may seek counseling for a variety of reasons including both personal and professional challenges.
“It was a time when I was rational and irrational,” said Thomas. “I needed a safe and secure place where I could go and word vomit everything I was experiencing without worrying about being politically correct, using the proper English, or offending anyone,” said Thomas. “My mom died but everything else didn’t stop. I was still an employee, a wife, a mom and a grandmother.”
After a couple meetings with an IU Health counselor, Thomas said she began to regain order in her life and make peace with her loss.
“Watching my mother in the bewitching hours going back and forth between this place and a world I couldn’t see was more than I could handle,” said Thomas. As time went on, she focused on the high points - her 84-year-old mother’s sense of humor. Her mom would often tell spam callers to “leave me alone, I’m dying.” Thomas heard often how she looks her mother and now when she looks in the mirror she smiles at the resemblance. Her mom loved blues music. At the repast following her funeral, favorite tunes were played including one by LaShun Pace, “There’s a leak in this old building and my soul’s got to move.”
Throughout her journey, Thomas was told more than once, “You should write a book.” She did just that.
The book, “Twenty-Nine Days & Counting: The loss of a loved one,” is about Thomas’ experience of her mother’s transition from life to death in 29 days, how she came to know her mother in a different way, and how she coped with her loss.
“Each of us lives life differently. The same goes for how each of experiences death and dying. There is one thing that remains the same though – our loved one left us,” said Thomas. “When you are faced with letting go of a loved one, it’s always too soon and it’s never easy, but when you step back to see them from a place of living instead of dying, it just might make it easier for you both.”