By Judy Ball
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, itís beautiful outside- and itís 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
But with my motherís 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 parentís death.
Remember, you have every reason to grieve.
A parentís 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
parentís 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 itís 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.
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 isnít entirely appropriate.
- Edward Myers -
When Parents Die: A Guide for
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
Friends, especially those
who have not experienced a parentís death, may be more inclined to ask,
for example, how your dad is doing since your motherís death than about
how you are coping. But use this as an opening to express your feelings.
And if friends donít raise the issue at
all, introduce it yourself. Good friends donít 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, itís a
sure sign they need to be shed!
You can talk about your deceased parent
even with those who didnít know your mother or father. When itís June and
youíre chatting with your neighbor about this yearís garden, recall how
your mother welcomed the arrival of the month that also brought with it
her treasured roses. When your fatherís favorite baseball player dies and
the playerís 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.
below the surface of our adult facades, there is a little girl or a little
boy that wants daddyís recognition or mommyís embrace more than anything
else in the world. And in the mind of that little girl or little boy, we
may still feel that we have never quite earned either the recognition or
the embrace. This kind of generalized guilt is almost universal with
parents and their adult children. It is there in our grieving.
- R. Scott Sullender "Losses
in Later Life"
|Grow from your experience with this
tragedy. If you have buried
one or both parents, use the experience as a lesson in life. Father Leo
Missine, a professor of gerontology, reminds us that the more we are
involved with our own aged parents, the more we are preparing for our own
Learn from the experience of losing a
parent how to approach your own aging process in a healthy way, how to
rely on friends and family for support in times of crisis, how to be a
better companion in life as well as death, how to express your love for
the special people in your life.
We can turn the losses we have sustained
into gains. We can use them as tools to help us grow in our understanding
of self and our sensitivity to others.
We do not need the wisdom of philosophers
or books to tell us that we cannot go home again, that nothing will ever
be the same after losing a parent. Mom or Dad will not be there to applaud
our adult accomplishments or offer direction at critical crossroads, to
worry about us when we are ill, or telephone "just to say hello." The
dynamics and the history of our family are irrevocably changed. So are we.
We now move to center stage to leave our
mark on the world. But we do not move forward alone. We bring along with
us a rich store of treasures from our childhood and adulthood-
hard-learned lessons and principles, fond and painful memories, family
celebrations and traditions. We bring who we are, thanks to the love,
nurturing, and guidance we received in our formative years from the
parent(s) whose presence we now miss.
Our life has not lost its meaning; indeed,
it has taken on new meaning as we bury part of our past and write a new
chapter in our lives. And, believing in Godís promise of a life hereafter,
we can look forward to a heavenly family reunion.
I was never able to assure my mother that
I would accompany her on the final leg of her journey home. But as I
continue the second half of my lifeís journey, I can feel the power of her
presence. She is my partner!
is a free-lance writer living in Cincinnati. She is the director of
communications for the Ohio province of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
Sources of additional help
Books: Making Peace With Your Parents by Harold Bloomfield,
New York, New York, Ballantine, 1983. Losing a Parent: Passage to a New
Way of Living by Alexandra Kennedy, San Francisco, California, Harper,
1991. The Orphaned Adult by Marc D. Angel, New York, New York,
Human Sciences Press, 1987.