Grieving for an elderly parent is is a painful process. You are tied to your parents who helped you seperate from dependence and become whole as a person. Yet this tie never really goes away. If it is the second parent, it is even more difficult as this is the last round of an era.
A generation is gone and you are the next generation now.
My mother, lying in a darkened hospital room, was close to death. But as she reached for my hand and looked at me intently, she was fully aware that her youngest daughter was at her side.
"Judy, is it raining?" she asked. "No, Mom, it’s beautiful outside- and it’s even more beautiful where you are going," I answered as confidently as I could despite the tears in my eyes and the quiver in my voice.
She was almost ready to begin her journey home to God. "Will you be my partner?" she asked, her fingers still wrapped around my hand.
Before I could assure her that I would stay with her as long as I could, she was dead. The woman who had given me birth, nurtured me from infancy to adulthood, taught me how to pray and read and cross the street, and protected me from harm was gone.
It had been a long, agonizing 14 months watching my mother go from stubbornly insisting she could continue to live on her own to needing more and more care as a series of small strokes, and finally cancer, took her mind and body. My family and I had been on a forced march, trying to do our best but never feeling adequate to the task.
But with my mother’s death, memories of the months of exhaustion, fear, self-doubt, second-guessing-and, yes, complaining, "When will all this end?"- instantly vanished. I had experienced the death of loved ones before, but never did it hurt like this. I was almost 44 years old, but I felt orphaned.
Working your way through
Ironically, our society shows very little understanding about the unique pain of losing a mother or father, even though close to 12 million Americans bury a parent annually. What a powerful support group we could be if we were organized! Perhaps the following strategies will be a support as you cope with a parent’s death.
Remember, you have every reason to grieve. A parent’s death often leaves adult children with a sense of abandonment and even panic that catches us by surprise. But why are we caught off guard when the death of the "ma-ma" or "da-da" whose name we struggled to utter as tiny tots leaves us reeling or depressed or sleepless?
We may have lived enough years to be an adult but we will always be a child in relation to our parents. Even if we find ourselves "parenting our parents" before their deaths, it is the parent of our youth and childhood that we bury. And, as author R. Scott Sullender says in Losses in Later Life, "The world is a different place after our parents die."
Seldom are we, as adults, ready for a parent’s death. We may be busy building our careers or raising our families; we may be spending our free time traveling or seeking to settle down; we may be living close by or a continent away from our parents. Whatever the circumstances, it is virtually impossible to prepare ourselves emotionally for the loss.
Well-meaning friends and others may seek to console us by saying, "Your mother lived a long, full life" or "Your dad was suffering so much- surely it’s a blessing." But those phrases ring hollow when it is our beloved mother or our dear dad who lies in the casket. Even if we experience a strong sense of relief mixed with our grief, the sorrow is very deep and very real.
Loss of a parent is the single most common form of bereavement in this country. (Yet) the unstated message is that when a parent is middle-aged or elderly, the death is somehow less of a loss than other losses. The message is that grief for a dead parent isn’t entirely appropriate.
– Edward Myers – When Parents Die: A Guide for Adults
No matter what the age of the parent or how the death occurred, the pain for the surviving adult child can be devastating."
– Katherine Fair Donnelly, Author of Recovering From the Loss of a Parent
Find ways to cry and talk. Take advantage of opportunities to share your grief as long as you feel the need. More than likely, many family members will be comfortable hearing you talk about your deceased parent.
Friends, especially those who have not experienced a parent’s death, may be more inclined to ask, for example, how your dad is doing since your mother’s death than about how you are coping. But use this as an opening to express your feelings.
And if friends don’t raise the issue at all, introduce it yourself. Good friends don’t mean to be insensitive; they may need a little reminder that you still want and need to talk. If your eyes get watery, so be it; if tears roll down your cheeks, it’s a sure sign they need to be shed!
You can talk about your deceased parent even with those who didn’t know your mother or father. When it’s June and you’re chatting with your neighbor about this year’s garden, recall how your mother welcomed the arrival of the month that also brought with it her treasured roses. When your father’s favorite baseball player dies and the player’s name comes up in conversation with a co-worker, suggest that he and your dad surely will have a lot to talk about in heaven.
Finally, talk to you parent. Visits to the cemetery can be a great time for a one-way heartfelt conversation. When you look in the mirror and the gray streaks in your hair seem to make you look more and more like your mother, tell her so. When you are sick, thank your parent for the special care he or she always gave you in times of illness. Just saying aloud the words "Mom" and "Dad" (or whatever name you used) is remarkably consoling and healing!
Forgive yourself for being human. Few of us have had trouble-free relationships with our parents. We may look back with pain at harsh words that were spoken, deep rifts that were left untended, missed opportunities to express love.
This uneasiness can be fertile ground for immobilizing guilt after a parent dies and the opportunity for reconciling is lost. But we can be confident that our deceased parent forgives us and, indeed, recognizes his or her role in the situation as well.
We must also forgive ourselves for our imperfect efforts to be responsive as our parent aged, became more dependent, and placed greater expectations upon us. Geographical distance may have made it unrealistic to be the support a parent wanted. Necessary and appropriate limits on our time may have been an issue.
Emotionally, we may not have been able to handle the demands made on us-switching roles with a parent, for instance, or making the extremely difficult decision to place a mother or a father in a nursing home. Once again, we can be consoled that our deceased parent understands and forgives us.
Allow yourself to grieve. Being told that they had a long life does not make it any less painful.