Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Death of a Parent

“The journey of walking with a dying parent has no roadmap,” my friend Beth said. “It’s uncharted territory.” Our parents often die before we expect them to, and in ways for which we aren’t prepared, not that we are ever prepared for death.

We know that our parents will die someday, and we expect that this will happen before we die. Yet we don’t know how we are going to react to their passing until the time comes and reality knocks us off our hinges. Some parents die early from a car accident or heart attack, and we have to deal with their sudden loss. Some parents die slowly, with our hopes rising and falling as they lose ground, rally, and then succumb to diseases like cancer. Some parents die from alcoholism, and some die when we are young and needed their advice and support.

But no matter how, when or why, and no matter whether our relationship with them was good, so-so, non-existent or abusive, the death of a parent strikes a bell that resonates deep within us.

The death of parents has been on my mind recently because both of mine died in hospice last year, and I’m sorting through my feelings. My mother passed after several years of dementia, and in significant ways we lost her before she died. My dad was in his 90s and had a number of physical problems that added up, so his death wasn’t unexpected or tragic.

Because she wasn’t speaking much, mom couldn’t tell us what was going on behind her blank face. Yet there were brief openings into her world. One day mom held on to niece Mandy’s arm, rested her head against it, and wouldn’t let go. Another day, mom put an arm around daughter Linda and looked into her eyes for a long time. When words could not be shared, when we had doubts that she knew who we were, there were these moments of connection. There was such a great unknown.

Dad kept pushing to take care of the house by himself until he couldn’t. By the time he agreed to go to assisted living, his body was worn out, and his hip was bothering him so much that he couldn’t sleep. A month later he transitioned into hospice care. Throughout his life he had always been busy on several projects, but his last few months, he just sat, his mind numbed by drugs to keep the pain at bay. Perhaps he felt useless without something to do. Or trapped. He was anxious and not the decisive person I had known my entire life.

What strength enables a person to hang on in discomfort day after day, unable to enjoy much of anything, unable to do much of anything, confused most of the time about what was happening, and with no hope of this ever improving?

I’m not happy with how they died, yet this may be the reality for how most parents go. I wasn’t pleased that they spent their last months feeling vulnerable and lost. If they had lived in a state that had end of life options, would they have chosen a different path? The anguish and turmoil at the end of their lives was expected, but I hoped there would be more moments of clarity.

For us, their children, it was hard to watch them physically decline week by week. We tried to calm their anxiety, as well as deal with late night phone calls wanting us to do something for which there was nothing that could be done. It felt like we were only putting a cool washcloth on their foreheads while a fever burned them away inside.

My parents died in a place other than home, being cared for by kind strangers, and seemingly forgetting who they were and what it had taken them a lifetime to learn. Perhaps, on the inside, they never lost touch.

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