The Day A Parent Dies

About a million years ago when I was taking Lamaze classes in anticipation of giving birth to my first child, the teacher said, “Be prepared to tell your labor story…. over and over and over. You won’t be able to stop yourself.” I wondered aloud why anyone (let alone everyone as she indicated) would feel the need to do that. She explained that giving birth is among the biggest transitions of your life and as such it will have a profound effect on you. As a result, you will be compelled emotionally to process it, even if the compulsion is somewhat subconscious. The way humans process, she said is by word and often by spoken word, almost as if our minds need to hear us speak the thoughts in order to fully understand them. I doubted she was right about all that but weeks later and even years later I found myself telling people about my 33-hour labor and how my OB/Gyn went to the cafeteria and bought dinner for my husband.

So, if big transitions require the telling and retelling of the story, I think the death of a parent certainly fits that bill. Yet, we don’t. While some may revel in revealing the details of the day a child was born, we don’t love talking about the other end of life. But I hope that will change. I think talking about when parents die is one of the best ways to cope with that huge transition. Nothing is ever the same after a parent dies. Your life is irrevocably altered. It’s worth pondering. So I invite you to tell your story, if you have one. If you’ve suffered the loss of a parent, please feel free to share here. My goal is to help others cope with what we’re all told is a natural part of life — seeing a parent die — and yet I can tell you it hurts. It’s a profound loss and it merits processing.

Here’s the story of the day my mother died. I’m following that up with my “takeaways,”– things I learned since which I wish I knew then. If you share a story here, please also share anything you learned from the experience that you think could help others cope.

“Come right now, Mom had a heart attack and she’s been in intensive care since Tuesday,” my father pleaded. My husband and I were on a camping trip in Florida. There were no cell phones then. I called on Thursday because the next day we were supposed to drive to Miami where my parents were vacationing. We got to the hospital quickly; she was still alive. She lingered in a semi-conscious state for several excruciating days. They had told us she would not recover from this, her fifth heart attack, so we weren’t hopeful, just waiting. We stayed at the hospital around the clock. Per the hospital protocol in those days, we could visit her just four times a day for 15 minutes at a time. Her mouth was taped around a breathing tube so she couldn’t speak but she was awake and could look at me and hold my hand. It was heartbreaking. She was 63, I was 24. On the fifth day after her heart attack we were sitting in the waiting  room in between the visiting times. The nurse walked in and said, “She’s gone. You can come in and say goodbye.” My father went in. I didn’t want to see my dead mother so I stayed in the waiting room thinking about how she was all alone when she died. To this day the thought of that breaks my heart.

What I learned/What I wish I had known:

  1. What I thought was appropriate to say to my mom during those days prior to her death was,”You’ll be okay, Mom, you’re going to be okay.” What I should have said was, “I love you, I will love you forever, you’ve been a wonderful mother. Thank you for my life. Goodbye.” Maybe not in those exact words but you get the idea. My mother had the right to know what was happening to her and I should not have been a part of the conspiracy (one which still exists today, alas) to keep a dying person from knowing what’s happening in order to avoid upsetting them.
  2. I thought that because I was 24 I was a grownup and that an adult was supposed to cope with grief by showing strength and resiliency. Now I know that at 24 or 64, when a parent dies, you are still a child. You don’t grow out of being someone’s child. That death will hurt and you need to take the time to grieve it without being concerned about looking weak. It also doesn’t matter much about the quality of your relationship with that parent. Whether it was perfect or deeply flawed, that loss will hurt. My relationship was in the middle somewhere. I loved my mom but we didn’t wholly understand each other or agree about some things but I think we hadn’t yet had the time to develop a more peer-like relationship because I was so young when she died. Part of what I had to grieve was giving up the thought that we’d ever have that chance.
  3. You are your parent’s advocate. If you see something you don’t feel right about, speak up. I should have insisted on spending more time with my mom at the end. I should have insisted they come and get us when they saw she was nearing the moment of death. I should have at least insisted they tell her she was dying and take that damn tube out long enough for her to speak last words or kiss us goodbye. She was going to die anyway, removing that tube wouldn’t have made anything worse.
  4. I thought it inappropriate to laugh or feel joy or enjoy anything for a while after she died. That’s nonsense. My mother would have wanted me to be happy whenever and however I could.

So, that’s my story. I hope you’ll tell yours if, alas, you’ve lost a parent. I expect some stories will be sad, some will be beautiful, some will have sorrow, some will have joy, but all will help others to cope with this loss. One final thought: Everyone’s parents die, but the relationship lives forever. I still feel the presence of both of my parents, despite the fact neither is alive. I was running this morning, deciding whether this post wherein I’d ask people to share stories about their parents’ deaths, was a good idea.  I looked down at the ground and saw these, side by side.

P1020785

I don’t know what you see when you look at that photo. Maybe you see two rocks. What I saw at that moment was two heart-shaped rocks, one big, like a parent’s, and one small, like a child’s. I came home to write this post, thinking it was what my parents wanted me to do. I still hear from them from time to time. 🙂

I look forward to reading your stories.

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11 thoughts on “The Day A Parent Dies

  1. I wrote the story of my mother’s unexpected death just after her 96th birthday. Even though she was elderly, her passing was highly unexpected. You can read about it here: http://plainandfancygirl.com/2014/08/15/a-grief-observed-missing-mother/

    My takeways: 1) Death is often sudden. Mother had attended church, gone through the drive-through window at the bank, and went out for lunch with a friend a few days before her passing. An infection that was coursing through her body, had its tentacles around her heart quickly, inexorably squeezed the life out of her just 5 days after the onset of symptoms. 2) Treasure each moment as we sisters (her daughters) did during our long visit in June, a month earlier.

    23) I am well past middle age myself. Yet her death has affected me profoundly. Though I have grandchildren myself, I still sometimes feel like a mother-less child. Advanced age is no insulation against grief.

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  2. While I think, after watching my parents die from illnesses, that a sudden death is a gift of sorts, I can also understand that the shock brings with it a whole host of other issues not present when we’ve had time to prepare. Your last line about age being no protection against grief is so right. As the heart knows no age bounds for love, it’s the same for grief. You are very wise. Thanks for sharing.I’m off to read your post on your blog.

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  3. Lovely post, truly. My mother died far too young and astonishingly fast. I blogged about it a lot, but have since made the posts private. It was cathartic and my friends were beautifully supportive throughout. I’m in a space right now where I just can’t think, share, talk about it, that’ll return at some stage. I just wanted to tell you what a great post you wrote.

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  4. Thanks so much. I understand and respect your choice and really appreciate your taking the time to comment anyway. I’m so sorry about your mom. You’re lucky to have the support of loving friends. That really does help. Nothing makes the loss hurt less but support does help you get to the other side.

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  5. What a sad story of your mother’s death. Thankfully things have changed since then, in that you would be allowed to spend more time wither her and be with her at the end (at least here in the UK)! We have relatives staying overnight sometimes when their parent is dying, so they can be with them.

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  6. It was heartbreaking and yes, things have changed (thankfully) but some of the lessons I learned, about communication and advocacy for one’s parents are relevant today. My dad’s death years later was a good one and I will write about that in the future.

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  7. Appreciate your sharing, Debby. Beautifully written from the heart. Both my parents have died and my 101-year-old m-i-l died 2 months ago. Each death brought different feelings of loss depending, I think, on the quality of their lives and their last days, and probably their age. When they die too young or our relationship has unfinished business, there are added feeling of loss. My m-i-l, lived independently alone, was ready to go as she felt she had done and given to all so we felt relief that she died without pain. That filled some of the void, tempering sadness. Mother, in her late 80’s died in a hospital. That was hard, but I flew cross-country, got there in time and treasure our last conversation. And I few out immediately when Dad (always protective) indicated he wasn’t feeling well and perhaps I could come out again (I’d been there the month before). He was on morphine and couldn’t talk sensibly when I got there but I know hearing is the last to go so I could say I loved him and tell him was a wonderful father he was to me. As a professional counselor living far from family, as my parents aged I realized each visit could be my last and made certain to let them know of my love and respect so there was no unfinished business. Loss brings sadness and grief.

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    1. Loss does bring sadness and grief but if you’re lucky, as you were, it also brings memories of the love you were lucky to have lived with. You’re right about never knowing when the last visit happens until it’s too late and absolutely right about working hard not to leave business undone. Thanks so much for your detailed story. I know reading these helps me and I suspect it helps others as well.

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  8. Excellent post Deb. Death is a certainty, but everyone’s grief is carried differently. Your points are valid. We often tend to beat ourselves up with the shouldas and couldas of things we may not have said or done.

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