The death of a parent is one of those inevitabilities we know we will face. Like most painful things, we try to avoid even thinking about it. You can’t avoid grief, but there are ways to create meaning from loss and even find something beautiful in the process.
We asked counsellor and grief expert, Tara Caffelle (author of Grief: A Love Story), how to navigate this tricky terrain.
SDTC: How can we prepare for the death of a parent?
TC: Talk about it ahead of time. Not turning our heads. Hi! Spoiler alert! We’re all going to die at some point, so let’s start talking about it a little bit more. If we can actually face it head on, it doesn’t make it happen. I would encourage people to get on the same page in terms of advanced care planning with their parents. What kind of medical care would they like? How would they like to be cared for? Would they like crazy-expensive measures to be taken if they’re injured or ill? Really talk about those details.
Get ready. I think being empowered means you know where the papers are, you know where the keys to things are, you know where the accounts are. My mother, bless her, has given me an envelope and said, “Okay. I’ve planned our funeral. If we’re not at home, you need to call this number. Our bodies will be brought to wherever you are, and you can deal with it there.” I know what it’s like to be an executor of an estate. It’s not fun. I just felt incredibly loved that she did that. It was really a gift.
Make space for grief. It is an inevitability. It’s never going to get easier or be predictable. So make space for grief however it comes to you. There may be some preemptive grief. Say your parent has a major stroke before they actually die. We get to have this moment of grieving who they used to be; maybe they can’t walk as well now, or they can’t care for themselves the same way. Be open to the experience. When grief gets really hard, it’s because we’re not allowing it. We’re pretending it’s not going to hurt, or somehow denying it, and marching on. Just stop and let it be. Grief is here for a reason.
What if our relationship w/ our parent sucks?
I hear from a lot of people who – after parent has passed – didn’t get to say what they wanted to say. Or they felt estranged. I think if we know it’s coming, and our parent is ill and slipping away, we have to say what we need to say. To have the courage to have these conversations, to make some sort of peace. Just so you know you have tried.
If a parent dies, and you didn’t know it was coming, I kind of know this from my own spiritual work – that is okay. All gets forgiven when we die. If our parents have left, all that they have now for us is love. They are no longer disappointed, or hopeful we choose a different path. It’s all forgiven and forgotten. Just forgive, let it go, and swim in light and love. Because after we die, that’s all there is.
What if it’s our partner’s parent who is dying?
Be mindful of what’s happening and hold the space. That can be a hard thing to do because it’s not solution focused. We can’t just make it better. We can certainly offer help and provide support, but most of it is just being there and listening.
Blow off some steam. Sometimes it doesn’t mean we sit there crying; sometimes it means we have a laugh about it. I remember my mother-in-law was in the hospital with colon cancer. She was getting surgery for comfort, but at that point it was too late. We pulled into the hospital parking lot and my ex turned to me and said, “I think we should tell them to pull the plug,” and I said, “But she’s not on life support, honey!” He said, “I know, but wouldn’t that be hilarious?” We had a huge laugh in the car. It wasn’t funny, but if we didn’t laugh we would have lost ourselves.
Face the facts. We don’t get to fall apart at the same time. We gotta take turns falling apart. We both can’t have a tantrum at the same time. Somebody’s gotta hold the shit together so we can get through something. Be the voice of reason, the voice of comedy, the voice of help. But hold the balloon to the ground.
Why is it so hard to think about our parents dying?
When we think of our parents leaving us, abandoning us essentially, and leaving the world – it’s a sore spot. It brings it home in a very real way to think that the people you’ve depended on will be gone one day. There’s also a sandwich piece; if we have young children at home, we’re caring for them, worrying about them, bringing them up. And we’re also caring for our parents, sometimes in a very parental way as well. It switches over at some point. We’re driving them to their appointments, worry that they’re eating enough and taking their medication. It presents a lot of stress.
Why are we so squeamish around grief?
We’re not in a society that talks about death and grief very much. We have bodies that are whisked off to hospitals and funeral homes; we don’t have to see them or be with them anymore, like we did 100 years ago. It’s not what we’re used to.
It’s traumatic and scary, and a lot of people would rather not deal with it if they don’t have to. It’s easier to choose the unconscious route – drink alcohol to not feel what you’re feeling, or to shop, or run away from it, or avoid talking about it. I think if people knew the magic of just feeling what you feel, and having space to feel what you feel, it helps to show the gifts in it. Our feelings just want to be felt. When we feel them, then they can go.
What do you wish people knew about the grieving process?
I wish we all knew there are huge gifts in grief for us. My ex-husband took his own life. I was his executor. In the days that followed him leaving us, the first thing that hit me was how grateful I was to be in that process. That he trusted me enough to take care of his life, that I got to have these amazing conversations about him with people that loved him and missed him.
There are gifts in every kind of grief – from losing a job to losing a parent. If we just sit with it for a moment, we get to see what it has for us. There are thousands of lessons in every death, for all the people that knew that person. It’s also not about us at all, but we’re allowed to learn from it, and we’re allowed to be with that experience. That is what it means to be human.