When Parents Die

When Parents Die

My friend Cindy, whose mother died about 5 years ago, met me for lunch a week or two ago, and she loaned me this book, When Parents Die ~ A Guide for Adults, by Edward Myers. The book is specifically written for adult children who lose their parents, whether it be a long, slow decline, a shocking sudden death, or anything in between.

I’ve read a few books about death, dying, and grief since I lost my mom last June, and this is the one that has thus far proved the most comforting. I’m not sure if that’s because more time has passed, so I’m more easily comforted, or if the specific tone he takes just struck a chord with me. Myers offers comfort that there are many different ways of grieving, that it seldom works the same for two different people, and that you will eventually be O.K., even if it doesn’t feel like that is possible. He talks about different reactions to grief and bereavement, and differentiates between the two. He also talks about the difference between being sad and being depressed, at the same time saying that either or both are completely normal when faced with such a huge loss, and reassures you that most people do eventually come out of both. He also gives warning signs for depression that needs attention, vs. depression that is more likely to fade with time. Discussing the slow decline, he writes:

A sudden death overwhelms you with shock and disbelief, but the fact of the death is there; sooner or later you have to deal with it. In contrast, a slow decline leaves you with an ambiguous situation. You feel hope, despair, sadness, elation, fear, bewilderment, and any number of emotions, one after another, sometimes several at once, as your parent’s illness progresses. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to feel. Particularly when a disease has an erratic course – bad days and good days, crises and resolutions – the emotional effects can be dizzying. The ups and downs are wearisome. For many people, the early months of intense feelings give way to a kind of numbness. It’s too late for blind optimism but too early for grief.

That’s it. That’s exactly how I felt. My mom’s situation was a weird combination of a slow decline and a sudden death. She was clearly getting worse, day by day and week by week, but while we were alarmed and scared, we held out great hope that once the anti-depressants she was on really took effect, she would start eating again and getting up and moving, and would turn a corner for the better. It was horrible, and exhausting, and something I wish we hadn’t all had to go through.

One part that I found especially encouraging was where he said that it is common to be haunted by the hard times, and that many people fear that this is all that they will remember of their parent.  Time, he said, will heal this, and you will indeed begin to remember the good times.  This has been my greatest challenge thus far.  When I think of my mom, I think of my horrible last visit, what I wish I had done differently, how sick she was, and how I didn’t realize it.  I replay the conversation we had in my mind.  I don’t want this to be how I remember her.  I want to remember the many years we had, together and apart, good and bad.  Because those last few weeks were not in any way the sum of her, or of our relationship.  So I’m working on that.  And it’s reassuring to read that time will help me.

When Parents Die has chapters devoted to the long, slow decline, to the shock of a sudden death, to how your relationships with those around you may change, and how we as Americans tend to neglect and suppress our grief, causing people to think you might not be coping well if you still break down crying months or years after the loss of your parent.  He reassures you that this is indeed normal for many people, and that it’s OK.  He also has more practical chapters detailing things like funerals, estates, counseling, therapy, support groups, and other resources to help you through this difficult time.

If you’ve recently lost a parent, or if someone you know and care about has recently lost a parent, I would recommend this book to you.  To quote from the back of the book, “It is reassuring to be reminded that grief temporarily intensifies other emotions and to be encouraged to be gentle with ourselves.”  Well said.

10 thoughts on “When Parents Die

  1. My father had a very difficult relationship with his parents; he constantly wishes he’d been able to tell his fundamentalist father why he turned agnostic before my grandpa suddenly died at age 49.

    My dad’s relationship to his mother was strained; this stood in sharp relief to *my* relationship to grandma, who personified unconditional love more than anyone I’ve ever known. After she died, rather quickly in a few short weeks, she was the one I most wanted to talk to about her passing.

    Finality became much more real for me, then, rather than an abstraction.

  2. Grieving sucks. It’s strangely comforting that we are all going to go through at one time or another..sad that we don’t reach out more to others about it. I’m glad you keep reaching out J.

  3. This sounds like a very helpful book. Not long ago, I saw a male relative of mine tear up when he spoke of his mother, who died in 1969, 40 years ago now. He was about 31 when she died. I’m sure he doesn’t cry every day about the death of his mother, but it was clear that a vein of very real sadness was still present, all these years later.

  4. My dad was deteriorating but he got better, so in his final stage, it didn’t cross my mind that it would be the end. So his death was shocking, and I was a mess. Even though I was in my 20s when he died, and he was only in his mid-50s, I still felt like a 7 year old and my world was thrown upside down. It took me a while to mature and get some sense back in my life.

    I’m so glad you’re dealing with this so well, J. I’m so glad that you have friends and literature to support you in most trying times. I’ll love to read it soon. Thanks for the post.


  5. “When I think of my mom, I think of my horrible last visit, what I wish I had done differently, how sick she was, and how I didn’t realize it.” That resonates a lot with me.

  6. There is a lot of wisdom here. Once I began to focus on my husband’s good and vigorous times and put away the agonizing last hospital days I was able to change my disruptive sleep patterns. That last month or two was so atypical of his life and not the part he wants me to concentrate on. The other fifty-plus years with him now give me comfort and honor him in the right way, I think.

  7. Weird. Just about 5 minutes ago I was reliving my last moments with my sister. It kills me that I think my last words to her were “This sucks.” I guess I know she would think it is funny but still, I wish I could have said something better.

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