Robert Briggs was an accomplished author, poet and jazz lover. But it was four words scribbled almost illegibly on a piece of paper that gave his wife the courage to face the effects of his debilitating dementia: “Wife, just let go.”
Briggs had a habit of writing notes and slipping them inside his books. Diana Saltoon-Briggs found the note on a discarded envelope she had nearly tossed out.
He had written the prophetic note while in late-stage Alzheimer’s. He had “steadily lost the ability to converse,” she says, and his relationships with others were no longer the same. But he retained his love of poetry and his ability to reflect upon and celebrate aging.
Saltoon-Briggs found this note after her husband died in 2015. It turned out to be his gift to her and led her to write a book using the moniker.
“Wife, Just Let Go: Zen, Alzheimer’s and Love” offers support and encouragement to others on the Alzheimer’s journey.
It is the story of enduring love, and includes poems and passages written during the heartbreaking journey through Alzheimer’s, caregiving and death.
The book also includes many useful resources based upon her actual experience.
In her blog, dianasaltoon.blogspot.com, she describes her important relationship with Briggs. They both loved literature, poetry and jazz. In fact, she considers “Wife, Just Let Go” as co-authored because it includes several of his essays and poetry.
An author and book publisher, Briggs’s most well-known was “Ruined Time,” a cultural autobiography of the Great Depression, World War II and the 1950s. He served in the Korean War.
Their first inkling that he had dementia came when they noticed he seemed less engaged with others. Medical tests confirmed the diagnosis.
Bob and Diana endured many difficulties together during his disease, including a bad fall, an encouraging clinical trial, and two surgeries. Using VA funds, she was able to receive eight hours a week of respite care, so she could run errands, take walks, and rejuvenate and energize herself.
“Robert taught me that the most important part a wife or other caregiver can give someone with Alzheimer’s is holding their memory bank,” she says. “So, I would discuss our mutual memories, our love of music, all he’s written and things we have done together.”
But most importantly, Saltoon-Briggs says, was “placing a great faith on love carrying us forward over our journey together. It decreased some of the anger and frustration that comes with Alzheimer’s and it is important not to have too much disruption.”
Their love was “unconditional and all-encompassing,” she says, and was the foundation of their companionship and friendship, “a deep, deep love that continues even in death. As we grew together over 38 years, and with our ups and downs, we converged.”
Saltoon-Briggs has traveled extensively, studied yoga and is a member of Zen communities in Oregon and New York. She feels fortunate her husband had similar interests in spirituality and they were constantly exploring their consciousness and awareness as both writers and poets.
During his disease, Saltoon-Briggs would play music she knew her husband loved, creating a comforting home atmosphere. She emphasized harmony, respect, purity and tranquility — principles of Chado, the Japanese way of tea.
“Those principles carried me through,” she says. “Harmony is the greatest treasure among all human beings. I kept him as engaged as I could with the human dignity he deserves.”
Saltoon-Briggs is a lay Buddhist teacher, but believes her advice to caregivers is universal. She doesn’t see grief as a predictable process.
“Grief has no time limits,” she says. “It can happen any moment when something triggers an emotional response. If you shift your thinking to the person you miss so desperately, their essence is the same as yours. You are never separated. It is the true essence of being.”
To process her grief, she follows a morning ritual: She lights incense and talks to Robert “wherever he is, whatever he is,” Saltoon-Briggs says. “I wish him joy, ease, peace, well-being, clarity, equanimity and abundance, lacking nothing.”
Doing this keeps him present in her consciousness.
“All tears are expressions of profound love,” she says. “Grieving washes and cleanses and expresses incredible love.”
During her book tours in Oregon and California, she was asked three common questions.
First, she was asked about caregiving and how to cope with it. “I advise to not do it alone,” Saltoon-Briggs says. “But do not think of a caregiver as a babysitter. A caregiver should energize the person with Alzheimer’s, so tell the caregiver what tasks she should do, not just feeding and grooming, but taking the person for a short walk.”
That takes effort because Alzheimer’s people want to retreat and stay in bed, she adds.
“Your tone of voice is so important, what you say is so important,” she says. “Be in their eyes. This is not just a job.”
The next question is how she manages her grief.
Here, she speaks to her Zen meditation practices.
The third common question revolves around spirituality.
For this, Saltoon-Briggs encourages becoming more spiritually connected as we age.
“There is no death,” she says. “We are moving on. We all share the same energy. We are all integrated with everything in nature. Be in stillness in the huge spaciousness in which we live. Everything changes. The only permanence in life is change.”
She wrote the book as a way to help others through the process.
“I’d like to live and find a way to share those last years of my life by aiding and benefitting even one person,” Saltoon-Briggs says. “Then I would feel I have lived a useful existence.”