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Grieving the Loss of Your Parent

 

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 task.

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.

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 isnít 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 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.

Just 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 aging.

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.

Take Heart

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!

Judy Ball 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.

 

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