When an aging parent dies: the underground river

This week a friend of mine posted on Facebook: “My Dad has been gone for 13 years or thereabouts, just thought of him. I sure hope all of your dads are still alive. I miss him.”  Immediately five friends posted responses. Here’s one example: “(Dad’s) been gone for 11 years now. His boots are by my back door. There’s never a day that I don’t think about or miss him. We never, nor should we ever get over the loss of our parents. We just figure out another way to live without them.”

Then today, I received a call from the daughter of my Dad’s next-door-neighbor at his assisted living community (I’ll post her name if the family gives me permission). Her Mom died in late March at 97 after a rough couple of years. I really miss seeing their Mom – who had a remarkable spirit and great sense of humor – and had written the daughters a note.

One of the things “E” said to me really hit home, “This is a special experience no one knows about until you’ve had it.”

And she’s right. Since my Mom died in 1999, I have often thought of this shared experience as an underground river. When you lose a parent, people suddenly come forth with a deep empathetic response based on their own experience. Not just a few people, but many, people you never thought would express themselves in such emotional terms. These are people who have been in your life all along, but you never knew that they were still feeling their own deep-seated loss.

“E” said that she was surprised that so few families seem to visit at the assisted living community. A friend of mine and senior expert, Marsha Vacca, once told me that people have to sort through “what they will do, what they won’t do, what they can do, and what they can’t do” when it comes to supporting a parent.

Many people are too far away, have too much on their hands or are too financially constrained to be much of a presence. Others choose not to. As “E” said, when a parent gets older, it’s time to get over “smoldering issues” that lie in the past.

There are exceptions. A dear friend’s mother may have given birth to her, but has treated her badly for many years. She is justified in keeping her distance.

“E” also reminded me about the ways that siblings can each make a contribution to an aging parents’ happiness. “We all had our role,” she said. “For example, my sister felt it was important to provide a festive atmosphere for our mother, and she was the one to set out gin and tonics on cocktail napkins.”

Finally, we talked about what people say when your parent dies, and we both admitted that we would write a few sympathy cards over if we had the chance. “He/she lived a good long life” turns out not to be very comforting, even if your parent is 96 or 97. You can never have someone that you love in your life for long enough.

If you’re fortunate, you’ll know that you made a difference in their quality of your aging parent’s life. But you will still feel the urge to stop by for an impromptu visit or pick up the phone to talk to him or her. For a long, long time.

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