Steering Through Change

Almost every summer for the past 18 years, my husband and I have driven north to Oregon to spend time with his parents at their summer cabin. The cabin is remote, situated 4 miles down a dirt road, deep in a pine forest not far from the Deschutes River.

It is so quiet you can hear the wind whooshing through pine needles and so dark at night the stars turn the sky milky white. Dawn creeps in slowly at a chilly 35 degrees. By 10 am you are stripped to shorts and a tee shirt.

There is no Internet, no Facebook, no mail, no interruptions or distractions of any kind. The cell phone, a new addition, is mostly off.

Canoe color sig - Steering Through Change

Part of our summer ritual is a leisurely canoe trip down the Deschutes River. It is the perfect river of relaxation — a slow meandering current that makes paddling optional although some steering is required. Multiple bends in this snaky river transform a 15-minute car-drive into a 4-hour float.

Boating on the Deschutes River, at least this segment of it, invokes a lovely metaphor for the ideal life: no pushing, striving, or struggling required, only a quiet surrender to the gentle flow, with minor adjustments along the way.

Real life more often seems like the Colorado — rapid, with lots of twists and snags.

What is needed, and what I strive to remember, is the quiet mind of the Deschutes while navigating the turbulent rivers of life.

Three summers ago, my in-laws stopped coming to the cabin. Their advancing years made the two-day journey from Whidbey Island impractical. They transferred cabin responsibilities to my husband who began renovating it in preparation for sale. Since the housing market in the area has been slow to recover the 2009 downturn, there has been time to adjust. And while there is much work to do, and less time for play, it is easy to enjoy the solitude of our reduced household.

But this change was only the precursor. Recently, George’s parents were moved to a board-and-care — abruptly, wrenchingly. Possibly this sort of change can never be done incrementally, although we had hoped for more time.

It is a small household, only 3 or 4 other residents — all with severe dementia. The parents are “safe,” we are told. Safe, it seems, like stuff in a storage locker. No air, no movement, no life.

This change has hit me hard because it marks both the end of an era of family visits to their home on Whidbey Island and also because it has transported me back to the time of my own parents’ decline, 18 years ago.

So it is with loss — one connects back to others, reawakening sorrows never completely healed.

Tom and Barb, George’s parents, came into my life when I was newly orphaned by my own parents’ deaths. They provided a ready replacement for my newly vacated family relations.  I loved it — intimacy without the mess of history.

I could tease Tom when he got too grouchy or upset and wickedly share his chocolate obsession. Barb and I could talk about health food, aging and even end-of-life for hours– topics I never broached with my own mom. Nearer her age than her own children, I appreciated her values and her journey.

Perhaps because my husband was with me when my parents were dying and helped me to create my film series Secrets of Life and Death, he has been more conscious and loving with his parents than I had been with mine. From the start, we had this awareness of impermanence, of the sands of time running out, of some day being the last day.

We have entered a period of last days.

Our elders are disappearing before our eyes. Tom is skin and bones. Barb can barely hear and her mind is slipping away. They are the exact opposite of my parents’ pattern — Dad: dementia, Mom: skin and bones, yet the same horse race to the end. You could flip a coin on who will depart first  — not that it will matter. The second one will follow soon enough.

The family dynamics are also similar — a lively squabble among the offspring about of who is doing what and who gets to decide. I counsel cooperation and compromise while watching the bonds of connection strain.

This process tears at my heart as I recall moments long forgotten. Emotions, put to bed almost two decades ago, awaken full of tears — the pain and frustration I felt when my back went out after a week of helping my mom shortly before she died, shame that I moved to the other side of the country when this shift began and was relying on my sisters to pick up the slack, and resentment toward the other siblings who did not seem to be doing their fair share.

It became worse after my parents died — heated arguments over when to hold the memorial service, hurt feelings over photo placements at the chapel, bickering about who appropriated what family treasures, a temporary estrangement from one of my sisters and a permanent one from a brother who died 10 years later.

I try to share my wisdom, the perspective of my experience, hoping to avert some of the disasters that await my husband’s family. Mostly, however, I practice acceptance and flowing with Deschutes, surrendering to the bumps and allowing the currents of my emotions to wash over me. They are honest emotions and true — a measure of my heart.

There is no purpose to struggling with this river, this family, with their decisions and choices. In the end this river will take me where it goes. I open as best I can to both the turbulence and the grace, greeting each bend, each sharp curve with curiosity and compassion rather than fear and regret.

I have learned that it is not, thank goodness, about getting it right. It is always and simply about LOVE.

When I remember love, the river and I flow as one.

This summer, I encourage you to take time for yourself, to enjoy the moments, to experience times of quiet and peace and appreciate the beauty of life. This world is exquisite like a gemstone and temporary as ice in the sun.


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Grief, Loss and Death Expert Dr. Michelle Peticolas, empowers professional women struggling with grief and loss to find peace-of-mind, closure and a life worth living. If you’re ready to shift into a whole new way of being with death and loss, a new way of living your life, get Michelle’s complimentary illustrated guide, Essentials for Grieving Well at


  1. Christine says:

    Hi Michelle,
    I read your article and it was wonderful. I do know how challenging it can be to face the monumental changes that come with our parents’ decline and how the family chooses to cope with this process. Bill’s dad and step mother have been having their share of health concerns and financial challenges, too!
    Much Love,

    • Michelle Peticolas says:

      Hi Christine,
      Yes, of course you understand first hand about dealing with the final phase in a parents life. Much love and care to you and Bill.


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