This is part 2 of this short series of Maintaining Family Bonds in the wake of a loved one’s death. In this article we will be talking about “facing the challenges of who will care for mom or dad.” In the upcoming weeks we will continue with our discussion concerning “passing down the legacy” and “what happens when you are now alone.” If you missed part 1, you can find it through this link: HERE.
Last week, I asked you to consider the scenario that mom and dad were now both dead and the “glue” that holds the family together has obviously gone with them. But this week, I wanted to back up to that period between their deaths. That period when one parent is grieving the death of their long time companion and facing major changes and alterations to their life that they had possibly never imagined. That period when you find that the role of parenting has suddenly shifted to you, the children, and then the wonder begins concerning who is going to be the one to step up and be the caretaker in these final days, months, or even years before this surviving parent joins their mate in Heaven. This is a challenging and stressful time for everyone involved.
In order to establish some clarity, let’s look at this situation a couple of different ways. First, if mom is the one left behind, think about the hole that is left in her life. If she is older, the generation she is from valued their marital bond. There is a strong possibility that there were certain things she handled around the house and certain things dad handled. Now that dad is gone, she is faced with the daunting task of learning to handle the things dad handled: car upkeep and maintenance, outside yard work, home repairs, etc. In some instances dad may have handled all of the financial responsibilities as well. Second, if dad is the one left behind, there is a strong possibility that there are things that mom did around the house that he has no clue about: grocery shopping, cooking, maybe even bills, etc. In each of these scenarios the established order in the household has been shattered by the sudden absence of their closest confidant and companion.
Grief, coupled with the stress of figuring out a new life order, and joined by the intense loneliness they feel by remaining in a house they shared with their mate for probably decades, a house that bears the memories of a life well lived around nearly every corner, and you have a recipe for a complicated walk that could bring even the strongest person to their knees.
But what can we do? As the ones left behind, the children in this scenario, how can we help our surviving parent face and even conquer the confusing world that they find themselves in?
In order to address this I have to come at it from experience. My father-in-law lived almost six years after my mother-in-law’s death. He was a strong man, had always worked hard, and had loved his wife dearly. But now that she was gone, he found himself facing some of the issues I mentioned above. There were four kids. All grown. All with their own families. And each one stepped up in their own way to help him through the new life he found himself in. We quickly found that he had not shopped at a grocery store in years and that housework was not his strength. We also found that cooking for himself presented a challenge as well since he had not had to do so for so long. Plus, he lived in their home of nearly 50 years, that his wife had filled with thousands of memories, and every night he faced those memories alone. He never really displayed his grief. At least not in the way I encourage people to. But I know that inside he was in terrible pain and he was terribly lonely.
The two daughters, my wife and her sister, stepped up to handle the shopping and cooking education, while the two brothers stepped up to handle the house and yard and cars. In this situation the family unit performed like one, and did their best to provide for his needs. However, as the years passed and his health began to falter, the kids found that there were more and more days when they would either have to be there with him, taking him to an appointment or cleaning his house, or they would be on constant phone duty. The most complicated items for him to grasp: cooking and keeping his medicine straight. Near the time of his death, I must admit that every time the phone rang I was concerned that it would be THAT phone call.
Right up through the end, the family worked together, each one taking ownership of certain areas of his life and helping him through his struggles. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. In many instances our new, less family-centric culture, has created situations where mom and dad may be far separated from the rest of the family. There are even situations when there are no children, or the parents had outlived their children. In these instances we must look at extended family, if there are any, to take the reigns, or think about relocating mom or dad to where the children live now. Each of these scenarios poses its own difficult challenges and can have an undesired effect on the one we are supporting. So what is the answer?
When dealing with so many things around grief and those surviving the death of a loved one it is hard to have one set, “do this” type of plan. Every situation is unique. Every family is unique. But if I could provide some basic guidance:
1. Consider what mom or dad want. It is helpful to sit them down and talk with them about what they want. Be understanding. Be flexible. But most of all, listen.
2. Find out the areas that will be new to them. You may already know some of these areas. Even if you think you do, ask the questions anyway. Odds are you didn’t know everything you thought you did.
3. Help them with these areas. Once you have discovered the areas that will be new to them, figure out how to help them. Take them to the grocery store and show them around. Most grocery stores will help shoppers learn their store and some may even have a print out of the aisles and items on each aisle. Arrange for a yard guy to come by, or ask a neighbor if they would do it when they do their own yard.
4. Stay in touch. Loneliness can be overwhelming in any situation of grief. However, with the loss of a loved one that has shared almost every moment of every day for decades, loneliness can be unbearable. Personal visits are the best, but if not possible, make the call.
5. Establish a “spy network.” This sounds a lot more deceptive than it really is. Get to know their neighbors and ask them if they wouldn’t mind checking on mom or dad every once in awhile. This can provide you some comfort knowing that there are people nearby in the event of an emergency. Also, make sure they all have your contact information.
6. Plan ahead. Nothing causes one to look at their own mortality more than the death of their beloved spouse. Knowing the decisions that had to be made when the first parent died, take that information and go ahead and make some of the decisions for the remaining parent; with their input of course.
The important thing to remember is that, especially with elderly surviving parents, the time for you to step up and give back to them all of the love and devotion they showed to you throughout the years has come. Be there for them and make this transition less of a challenge by knowing they have support in their corner.
At Caldwell & Cowan Funeral Home we have walked with people through the challenges that they face in the years of grief that can follow the death of a loved one. We offer grief support groups every Thursday evening (except the 5th) at the old Caldwell & Cowan Funeral Home on Floyd Street from 6:00-7:30 PM. All of our services are free and open to the public at large regardless of which funeral home or cemetery you used. For more information please call, 770-786-7062, and ask to speak with Dr. Adam Cooper, our Director of Bereavement Services.