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.

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 in ways that we don’t expect, and ways for which we are not prepared, not that we are ever prepared for death.

We expect that our parents will die someday, and probably before us. Yet we don’t know how we are going to react until the time comes and reality knocks us off our hinges. Some parents die 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 rally, lose ground, 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. My mother passed after several years of dementia, and in significant ways we lost her before then. My dad was in his 90s and had a number of physical problems that added up, so his death wasn’t unexpected or tragic. As he wasn’t communicative about his feelings during his life, he also didn’t open up when he was dying, which I hoped would happen. Over his last few months, he was confused and anxious, and not the person I had known my entire life.

And yet, perhaps his few words, which we didn’t understand, were speaking about the world he was entering, the threshold he was crossing. I wanted him to let loose, be illogical, be metaphorical and talk about seeing angels, butterflies, or the fabled light, even if he described it in a clinical way. I wanted mom, who had been a painter, to talk about the colors, shapes, and textures of what she was seeing. I wanted her to draw what she could not find the words to describe.

I thought I would have the chance to talk with them about their dreams and ambitions during their last days — their proudest moments, their fears, and what they wish they had done differently. I wanted them to teach me how to die, as they had taught me how to live. I wanted them to say if I made them proud. I wanted them to summarize their lives and then breathe their last breath. This didn’t happen.

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

What 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?

For us, their children, it was hard to watch them physically decline every week. We tried to calm their distress and anxiety, as well as deal with the late night phone calls wanting us to do something for which there was nothing we could do. It felt like we could only put 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 what it had taken them a lifetime to learn. Perhaps, on the inside, they never lost touch with who they were.

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