6 Tips for Preparing for the Inevitable Death of Our Parents

You know I love me some John Mayer, right? I’ve blogged about his balls, if you recall.  And I’ve even had three weird sexual dreams about him, all of which ended tragically. (I’ll be saving those stories for my therapist, thank you very much!)

One of my favorite John Mayer songs explores the heavy issue of mortality, particularly that of our parents. It’s called Stop This Train and it is absolutely heartbreaking and beautiful. Just like life, I suppose. And death.

Here are some of the lyrics:

Don’t know how else to say it, don’t want to see my parents go/ I’m one generation’s length away from fighting life out on my own/ Stop this train, I want to get off and go home again/ I can’t take the speed it’s moving in/ I know I can’t/ But honestly, won’t someone stop this train.

Once in a while, when it’s good, it’ll feel like it should/ And they’re all still around and you’re still safe and sound/ and you don’t miss a thing ’til you cry when you’re driving away in the dark.

(I know. Please pass the Kleenex. Somebody –anybody!)

I always think about what my world will be like when my parents die. As a bereavement counselor for a hospice program, I’ve spent many hours talking with people who are grieving the death of a loved one (usually from cancer). So occasionally I’ll look at my parents and siblings, or turn over in bed in the middle of the night and look at my husband, and think to myself, What a perfect and tragic moment — perfect because I have these people in my life, but tragic because it won’t stay this way.

On a bad day, being at the forefront of death all the time makes me hypersensitive. About once a month, my husband will find me sobbing as I watch a character in a movie die. I scream out, “I don’t want to be a bereavement counselor anymore!”

Of course, he knows I don’t really mean that. I love my work. And on a good day, death strengthens me.

First off, it’s an incredible honor to walk alongside grieving people as they build brave new lives. I learn so much from them. And when my clients thank me profusely after our work together has been completed (one woman tried to slip me a $250 “thank you” tip), I assure them that I have gained as much insight and comfort from them as they have from me.

My work as a bereavement counselor also moves me to constantly evaluate the quality of my life and relationships. When you know that your world is impermanent, you start thinking about how to appreciate it on a deeper level. And you want to make any important changes before it’s too late.

One day I will be just like my clients. I’ll be celebrating Mother’s Day without my own mother. I’ll be thinking of my father on his birthday, missing him. I’ll raise children, watch them grow, and wish that my parents were still around to see me through all of adulthood.

And so I’m left with a long list of important items that I must attend to before my parents inevitably leave this Earth and become an invisible force that I can feel but can’t touch. I’m listing them below because you might want to attend to them too:

  • Speak your mind. “Say what you need to say.” (Side note: That is another John Mayer lyric. I’m obsessed. Clearly.)
  • Work through complications in your relationship. This can be tremendously difficult but it’s worth it. If you think your relationship with the person is complex when they are alive, it’s just as complex (if not more so) when he or she is dead. I’ve listened to countless stories of grieving individuals, so you should trust me on this. Find your peace (whatever that means for you). Don’t delay.
  • Talk to your parents about death — what kind of death they want for themselves, what kind of end-of-life care they prefer, what kind of funeral or service they’d like, etc.
  • Discuss finances related to your parents’ health and death.
  • With great intention, create wonderful memories with your parents. Slow down and spend time together. Work on special projects and scratch off shared items on your bucket list.
  • Get to know your parents as people, not just your caretakers. Learn from their stories. Ask lots of questions.

Of course, most of us can never truly prepare ourselves for our parents’ death. But I think our willingness and courage to try can make a huge difference — not just in our grieving process, but also in our relationships with them, now and when they’re gone.

While we are rarely in control of what we lose, we are always in charge of how we lose. My hope is that we all lose bravely and beautifully. Our parents would want it that way.

Your Turn: How were you prepared (or unprepared) for a parent’s death? How did this affect your grieving process?


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3 Responses to 6 Tips for Preparing for the Inevitable Death of Our Parents

  1. Sheryl says:

    As always, your timing is something else.
    Thank you for sharing such wonderful words of wisdom. The world needs more voices like yours.

  2. Darcy says:

    I was completely unprepared for my mother’s sudden illness and death in 2010. Just two months before my mother learned she had stage IV colon cancer, the mother of a friend of mine died suddenly in her sleep. When I found out about that shocking incident, I called my mom and said, after telling her how much I loved her, “I don’t know what I’d do if you disappeared like that!” Just a few months later, she was dead.

    My mom was a powerhouse – a retired teacher and super community volunteer. She led tours at the Colorado state capitol building on Fridays; she spent Mondays volunteering in the emergency room of Denver Health, the city’s level-1 trauma center. Everyone loved her. She exercised and ate reasonably well, but she didn’t get the tests she needed to keep her health in check as she aged. At first, I was furious with her for not getting the colonoscopy recommended by her doctors years earlier and taking better care of herself. But, as her condition became clear and she decided not to pursue treatment, I did what my mom needed me to do: just be there for her, help her with her medications and nurse visits, and give her the space she needed to cope with her own dying process.

    I had tape recorded interviews with all four of my grandparents before they passed away, and I wanted to do the same with my mom, but she found the idea “morbid.” Instead, I moved into her house and just spent time around her. I think I was so shocked by the process and in such denial that I didn’t ask her all the questions I should have or had the kind of conversations I think we really needed. She didn’t want to talk, either. It was so strange. We had always been close, but suddenly, we had nothing to say to each other. Soon, she was on morphine and having strange hallucinations and drifting far, far away. I’d give anything to go back and change those last few months. I was the only person with her when she died, in hospice, three months after her diagnosis.

    You’re right that it’s so important to ask the questions you want to ask and have the deep, important conversations before your parents are ill and dying. Do it now! That relationship is irreplaceable.

    • Kimberly Eclipse says:

      Hi Darcy. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. First, I’m so sorry to hear about the death of your mother — it’s clear that you loved her deeply and that she was an amazing woman. Powerhouse indeed. Your story illustrates just how precious those last days/ weeks/ months are, and that how you spend them can have a lasting affect on your recollection of the entire ordeal.

      I’m glad that you were at least able to spend lots of time with your mother in her last days. (Not everyone gets to do this, and for those who were, they always talk about how grateful they are for that time.) But I also understand how difficult it is to have conversations about death, especially when a loved one is close to it. It’s interesting that you and your mom were always so close, but when it came to the topic of death there was nothing to say. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. All you want is for your loved one to pull through, or at least not suffer in the final days. So to speak out loud about what’s really happening is often too painful and scary. There is also the fear that talking frankly about it will make it more real and more awful, when actually it (eventually) aids in the emotional healing process for both the dying and the living.

      I’ve started talking to my parents about these things now, while they’re relatively healthy. Admittedly, it’s not easy — there was a lot of resistance and strange nervous laughter when I brought these topics up with my dad (who later had a colon cancer scare himself). But after a while he opened up.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It’s important for people to see themselves in your story, and to learn, be inspired, and be comforted by it.

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