One day you’re leisurely sleeping off a hangover until noon, going back for a nap after a burger and coke, and what seems like the next, you’re praying the kids don’t bother you before 7 on a Saturday after a Mardi Gras ball where you made the poor decision to have that last glass of wine.
In college, you could sleep anywhere– the backseat on car trips, hard floors with eight girls crammed in a single hotel room– and now your neck goes out if you sneeze wrong.
Carelessly paying off a speeding ticket– a few points won’t hurt…flash forward to being in the passenger seat with a 15-year-old at the wheel as you frantically press for a passenger side brake pedal that isn’t there and realize your premium is about to triple.
How did we get here?
Life experiences come at us hard now. Milestones, anniversaries, graduations.
But nothing says, “you’re a grown-up now,” like the loss of a parent. Or, in my case, two in-laws six years apart.
Having now been through twice what many have yet to face, I share some personal experiences for practical application when it comes to the inevitability of aging, sick, or dying parents.
If you’re physically closer, you’re going to be physically involved. Regardless of the number of siblings, the ones in town will face the minutiae of details related to care and the heavy burden of that support. If this is important to you, act early to find comfort for your parents close by or to find strong support where they are. If you’re lucky enough to have siblings where your parents are, listen, love, and support their day-to-day interactions in place of questions or criticism.
Parenting in Grief
Our families were uniquely entwined. When my mother-in-law died, my husband lost his mother, my mother lost her best friend, and my children lost a grandparent. I juggled travel plans of relatives, hosting meals in our home, funeral arrangements, and church communication. The business of death kept me mercifully busy. I was so busy taking care of my people that there was not a lot of time for my own grief, which meant it hit later, and hard. I was grateful for a husband who was ready to comfort me and friends who didn’t assume everything was “back to normal.”
You Can’t Hide Death
Our culture hides death behind a shroud of whispers and secrecy. In both of our cases, there was a dramatic end that lasted, in his mother’s case, three weeks, and in his father’s, about two. It was hard to say no to our children who wanted to see their grandparents. Later as the very difficult end dragged out, family and friends opted to say goodbye in person rather than return for an as-yet-unscheduled funeral. We had to let go of our control, our pride, and our privacy.
I vacillated over whether this was right or not; our loved ones didn’t look or act like themselves at the end. I didn’t want that to be the enduring memory. In the end, this served us well; the fact that the children had borne witness to those last days eased the surprise of death, and the connections with family and friends fueled us for the difficult days ahead.
Grief begins before death. So does healing. The days leading up to death aren’t pretty, but they can be powerful and critical for moving forward.
Death is Trauma
Nothing was dramatic or unexpected about the loss of his parents at 70 and 78; just deeply sad. Still, there was a void afterward— like an actual black hole of time. A year later, my husband realized he had forgotten much of the four-plus months following his mother’s death. Our first Christmas in a new house. A New Year welcoming a fresh start. Mardi Gras parties. Our toddler’s milestones. New clients at work. Nothing in that time frame was safe from the fact that his brain was healing as much as his heart was.
Hospice is a God-send
Hospice care is as much for the family caregivers as it is for the patient. They saved us. It is not just about end-of-life care. It’s so much more. And they’re available far earlier than most people reach out. Don’t wait until you need end-of-life care when Hospice caregivers can usher you into that phase with their loving expertise.
Lean into Your Beliefs
For our religious family, when we embraced the inevitable, our faith was enriched. We leaned on clergy friends and the comfortable environment of our church. We looked for our God in the dark moments and the quiet ones. And we found what we needed. I hope you have that or something like it when you need it.
Take shortcuts for school lunches and evening meals. Ask your children for increased involvement around the house. Accept help from the friends and family who offer. You aren’t “fine” if you can’t figure out what to cook for dinner because there’s nothing in the house, and you have no energy to change that. If someone offers a meal, take it. Be gracious; say thank you; and eat the dang casserole.
Most importantly, have the hard conversations ahead of time.
A good time to talk about these things is when a parent brings up a friend or family member who is fighting an illness or nearing the end. It’s easy to redirect the conversation when they’re thinking about it in regard to someone else they care about. Chances are your loved one has already considered formalities like estate planning and health care surrogacy. But there’s so much more. When would your parents want you to call in palliative care? Has he or she thought about the funeral, the obituary, who he or she might want to see in the days leading up, what’s to be done with the house and belongings, what he or she hopes for the spouse left behind? The days after a death, when everyone is sad, is no time to plan a “celebration” of life.
The greatest gift we can offer our loved ones is respecting their wishes to the end and loving them in the kindest way possible.