“Half my brain is already in heaven”

Mevrouw Hein
Anton Hein’s mother, as photographed a few years ago.

“I think that half my brain is already in heaven,” my mom said to me the other day.

I knew what she meant, and that she may not be far off.

My mother has dementia, a devastating condition that started to creep up on her a few years ago.

During one of my visits she was frustrated that she could not remember something she had intended to tell me. Plus she’d been trying to change the TV channel with a flash light, and to call someone with the remote control.

You can read up on dementia — as my wife and I have done extensively — but nothing prepares you for the steady rate of decline you see a loved one go through. 1

Instead, you find yourself experiencing the various stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, sadness, resignation, acceptance, and reconstruction. That’s the overall process, but in our experience (‘our’ because Janet’s mother also has dementia) those stages can and do randomly reintroduce themselves.

There are, after all, good days and bad days. There’s hope. There’s disappointment. There’s anger. And there’s acceptance.

And there are questions. Lots of questions — which, in our case, we tend to ask of God. “Why?” “Why her?” “What has she done to deserve this?”

As Christians, we know the answers theologically. In our heads. But as so often, it takes a while longer to accept them in our hearts.

Child-like faith

My mother just turned 84 years old. I have seldom seen her sick. I can remember her having a cold three or four times in my lifetime (I’m nearly 60 myself).

Anton Hein's mother
My mom in 1950, when she was 18 years old.

So she’s ‘had a good run,’ as one of our friends puts it in a reference to Hebrews 12:1-3: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

We often talk about faith, my mom and I. I’ve been a follower of Jesus since the age of 8, and my mother has always been a steady example to me.

One of the best things I learned from her — or perhaps inherit as a character trait — is the ability to have a child-like faith, combined with a BS detector in good working order.

My mom, who has studied the Word of God faithfully, can spot a false teaching from a distance — and address it with a combination of Biblical know-how and down-to-earth common sense.

That is true even today. And while the dementia is gnawing away at her memory and at her ability to think logically, her faith remains intact.

In the middle of all the turmoil this disease brings, that is a comforting thought for both her and us.

She sometimes remembers the words of the Apostle Paul: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Read them in context)

No wonder that she can say — jokingly but also seriously — that half her brain is already in heaven.

Learning to Accept

Dementia is no joking matter, but fortunately, my mom and I still laugh a lot.

She accepts her condition. Doesn’t agree with it, but accepts it — sometimes more graciously than at other times. She’s only human, after all.

family hein photo
Mom, Anja (who died in 1996) and Anton Hein

Her faith — our faith — makes acceptance a lot easier. Not easy, but easier.

I could write a lot more about my mom — and, for instance, about the challenges of taking care of her. But this is not the time nor the place to do so.

What I will say is this: almost no day goes by without me meeting someone else who has a family member with dementia.

Some deal with it well. Some don’t.

But it helps to talk about it. I often share information about the stages of grief with people. This provides them with a framework in which they can place their experiences.

And yes, I talk about heaven as well. Like any other disease, dementia has a way to bring certain questions into the forefront of your mind — questions that have to do with the meaning of life, the realness of faith, the character of God, and of our eternal destination.

I often tell my mom about the conversations I have on these topics. It is wonderful to see how she then revives — remembering Bible verses, sharing insights, at times almost preaching fervently about the goodness of God.

There’s nothing wrong with her brain.

Anton Hein

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  1. Dementia, also known as senility, is a broad category of brain diseases that cause a long term and often gradual decrease in the ability to think and remember that is great enough to affect a person’s daily functioning. Globally, dementia affects 36 million people. At present, there is no cure — Wikipedia entry on dementia, accessed Saturday, July 23, 2016 – 11:43 AM CET