When A Parent Dies

When A Parent Dies

Living with bereavement by Alex James

 

Most of us hope that we will live a long and healthy life, ideally coming to an end when we are too old to care and hopefully gently in our sleep. We accept, because we have to, that with age our bodies will deteriorate and that we may become infirm, unable to do the things that we were once able to. If we are well , healthy and have lived a moderately healthy lifestyle we may expect to achieve a ‘ripe old age’ From my personal perspective I say this and think of somewhere around my mid late 90’s. As we grow older we push what we feel is old further from ourselves. Life is a process and in the expected order of life we accept that our elderly relatives, grandparents and parents will die leaving us behind .If our parents are elderly, losing the senses and faculties that give quality to their lives, if we have had to nurse, or be involved in the care of an elderly parent, there may be a sense of relief when life ends. For many though ,the relief may go hand in hand with a deep sense of sudden loneliness. These feelings are rarely shared, because, when ones parents are elderly and one is middle aged and a perhaps a parent oneself, society gives little regard to the loss. It is expected, the norm and order of life. Whilst our parents are alive we are children, when they die no matter our age we are orphaned. Even though throughout our lives there is the unspoken acceptance that our parents will die one day it seems far away in the distance. A 60 year old man whose parents had died recently, said: “I am an orphan now, I feel alone, my roots are gone …..Maybe I am next, I am moved up a notch, I am the old one in the family now. It isn’t that they are gone so much but that I am left behind. The world is changing too quickly and my most stable and familiar are gone. I am relieved for them, my mother was sickly for years and feared dying painfully – it was a blessing that she slipped away gently in her sleep. The deep loss felt by this gentleman after the death of his parents is not at all unusual or unique, but rarely talked about .We somehow expect a person who has a family of his own and whose parents are in their late eighties to relinquish being the child , to let go with ease . I remember the funeral of my father-in-law’s mother, we, the younger generation all being in our twenties and thirties gathered together afterwards in the same social way that we might at a wedding, or other family social event. Some spoke of Nana’s great age, she was ninety three, others recalled memories of her living in a certain house where they had visited, but of this group the thought seemed to be that as nana had lived a long life it was acceptable that she had died .My husband’s parents and their siblings also grouped together, chatting and reminiscing; there were a few tears, but there was, it seemed an acceptance, this was the expected order ,her longevity seemed to make her death easier to bear. On the other hand, perhaps the expectation may have created an unspoken pressure for older children, my husband’s parents, to sit on their grief. How would it affect younger generations if the children of the elderly deceased were to express their loss, their grief, their fear, their sense of being left parentless? What could we offer? Our expectation is that perhaps with age, comes the acceptance of death. During the last century two world wars brought with them tragic loss of young life. Perhaps in those bygone days there was no time to indulge in grief. With so much loss and a need to survive, the focus became getting on with life, moving on. This attitude towards death and loss would have affected our parents and grandparents; they may have grown up to show ‘a stiff upper lip ‘and exhibit ‘backbone’. Perhaps these ways of thinking have influenced our present day behaviour and reaction to death, dying and bereavement. The pressure to be doing well, to say, “I’m ok” and the awkwardness of asking and not knowing what to say, so we say nothing. We are changing, becoming more aware of feelings, the ‘big boys don’t cry ‘and ‘stiff upper lip’ are, thank goodness finally becoming less frequently used, less acceptable statements. Whilst our mother or father is alive no matter their age we have an anchor to our childhood , a place to go to, although there may be little that our aged parents can offer, their presence on the earth confirms that we are not only parents , middle-aged , grandparents, but we are still someone’s child. “I wish people, friends family even could understand how I feel, My dad died young well in his 60’s but mum lived on to her 90’s .When my dad died I was 38, people were more supportive they were interested in how I was, There were some who when they learned his age 62, said oh well he was getting on …..Like it was ok. I wasn’t ready for his death I still needed him there .Now my mum has died I just feel so lost …..She was senile but she was there. I could go to visit her and somehow her being there gave me a sense of security …….this sounds silly I mean I’m almost 70, but no-one seems to be interested even my children it’s like it doesn’t matter because mummy had a good innings as they say and that makes it acceptable .It’s like I’m suddenly faced with my own age my own mortality and it does feel just as painful as when my dad died .” For many children as their parent’s age and deterioration, illness and inability set in there is often a dilemma ‘what to do about mum or dad?’ If there are siblings this might be discussed and the care shared. Some parents have made arrangements for themselves and taken time to plan for their future, for possible care that may be needed. However with spiralling costs of care homes and closures of many council run homes here in the UK, children may be faced with caring for an elderly parent themselves. This a dedicated and exhausting task ,a task of commitment and can be the cause of resentments not only for the carer but from other family members who may have to adjust their lifestyles in order to facilitate an elderly relative. “I promised my father that I would always care for my mother, he died of cancer at the age of 70 .My mother lived alone until she was in her mid-eighties but after a fall I felt that she needed more constant on hand care .my children were at university and we, my husband and I decided to convert a downstairs room for her . I never knew how much it was going to impact my family .At first it was manageable , mother could do some things alone but she became forgetful and confused and it meant we couldn’t leave her .I felt guilty if I went anywhere .It caused so much trouble within the family especially between my husband and I .When mum became incontinent it was so hard ……I had to wash her down sometimes more than four times a day and sometimes she didn’t recognise me and would be quite aggressive .I began to wish her dead ……..it was awful I loved my mother so very much but I didn’t recognise the person she was becoming . Eventually we let her go into a care home where she died. Now I cannot forgive myself ….I let my father down and I wanted my mother to die because I was selfish. It’s all so destructive.” It is not uncommon for the elderly parent to be the cause of many problems within the family. Where there are siblings it isn’t unusual for the death of parent to leave many arguments and unresolved issues in its wake. “My sister hardly ever visited but since our mother died she seems to visit our parents’ house a lot and is always talking about items of furniture that she’d like ….I feel bitter about this because it was me who cared for mother for the last ten years .I made so many sacrifices …..It’s not fair.” “My brother is bullying me over the sale of our parent’s home …..He wants his share of the monies now. I feel like it’s all too soon.” “My elder sister and I have argued since the day my father died we even argued about the funeral arrangements.” Most children have their parents with them throughout their childhood and into adulthood and beyond. The issues raised by death of a parent will differ according to the age of the child and of course the impact can vary depending on how the parent died. When a parent dies suddenly or unexpectedly there are many issues to be addressed, not least the circumstances of death. Sudden death is usually as a result of accident, heart failure, illness, suicide or in rare cases murder. A teenage boy suffered huge trauma when his mother died suddenly and unexpectedly from a brain haemorrhage .Not only was he shocked and traumatised by his mother’s sudden death, but he was overwhelmed with guilt and self-blame. “I feel really guilty, Mum said she had a headache that morning and asked me to bike to the shop to get painkillers. I refused and went out with friends to play football. When I got home mum was in bed really ill. I called a neighbour but by the time he arrived my mum had died .It’s my fault” He was initially unable to accept that his mother’s death couldn’t have been prevented, even if he had been to the shop and bought the pain killers as she had asked. When a child is old enough to understand the circumstances of parental death there is often , in my experience , a reversal of role, just as a parent when a child dies the child looks to themselves for reasons , reproaching themselves for any ‘bad’ behaviour and becomes caught in the should have, would have, could have trap. The feelings that they didn’t save their parent, that they didn’t or couldn’t protect them. It is of the utmost importance that children are given the opportunity to talk honestly and frankly about the experience of the death of their parent. To be heard, even when the thoughts and feelings are scary, and, or uncomfortable to hear, or observe, or when there is temptation to fix or make the child feel better. It is tempting to tell the teen, who feels responsible, because he wouldn’t go to get tablets for his mother, that he isn’t in any way to blame, to hush his words and to try to ease his grief and self-reproach. This however is not useful. We cannot stop this lad from having such thoughts, telling him not to feel guilty will not prevent or ease his private anguish. Allowing him space and time, a safe place to work through his private stuff, will enable him to eventual acceptance, alongside realisation, that his mother’s death was not preventable. Children may also experience a sense of desertion and rejection. The parent didn’t fight hard enough for life, “If he’d loved me he wouldn’t have left me.” “If she’d really cared about my sister and I she’d have fought harder for life.” “Why it didn’t happen to someone else’s mum? What did I do wrong?” “I feel really angry with my dad because he seems to think its ok that he’s going to die.” A mother, who was told she had terminal illness, spent much time discussing her anticipated decline and death with her children. The children observing their mothers bravery felt that just as she and their father appeared to be managing and accepting, so should they. The outward display of ‘doing well ’of accepting all that was to come quietly, enabled everyone, including the mother, to believe that it would be ok. Afterwards there were comments such as “she did ever so well for the kids – so brave, so strong.” Such statements placed the bereaved children under immediate pressure to play the ‘being strong game ’‘to accept’ the death thing that was to take their mother forever ,like it was just another life’s mystery and to embrace it quietly for everyone’s sake ………WHO IS EVERYONE ? Why US of course, the left behind, the observers, the helpers, friends, neighbours, and acquaintances. It’s so much easier for us to believe the children are doing well. One of the children told me: “I was so angry with myself , my dad , the doctor , God , My mum her sister , everyone even my best friend because I wanted it to be her mum .,I wanted to scream at my mum to stop it ,How could she leave me . My dad said don‘t cry in front of mum it upsets her …..We have to be strong .I wanted to die with her. We were pretending it was ok. I cried every night and every morning I thought will she die today. Once I heard dad and mum crying together I went into the room and they stopped and I felt excluded so alone we never talked about it .Mum tried to act like it was some place she was going ……an adventure I felt she left us long before she died .No one knows how it is for me and they don’t want to know.” In this family the children were not allowed to attend the funeral. Whilst the husband/father was surrounded by supportive well-meaning family and friends, the children were farmed out and told to be brave for their dad and not to make a fuss. In the presence of others the children, believing it to be a fitting tribute to how well their mother managed her illness and death, played the parts of ‘doing ever so well’ children. So began their self-denial. In my experience those who are terminally ill alongside working through their own needs, anxieties and fears about illness and death often feel they must make the acceptance of it and manageability easy for their families .They invest time planning and putting affairs in order, and in some cases grasp death by the throat appearing in control until eventually overcome by it. Children can and do feel left out and unacknowledged. Their fear and loss unaddressed, often denied the grieving with the dying parent for all that they will not share .Children’s grief can feel too great, too big and overpowering. It says we fail; we cannot as adults fix everything. It steals away the security we wish our child to have, the belief in us as adults, that we can protect, mend and take away the scary stuff of life It’s distressing to observe the rawness of a child’s grief, too real perhaps? Hence so often, too often, we fail. How foolish we are to believe that by not involving them, by not acknowledging them we make it easier for them to bear. Children see and feel as we do and in so many ways, in my experience, they are more sensitive, they have not yet learnt to close down, or cover up. The child has little life experience to draw upon and in the very young little understanding. Telling a young child that his or her parent has gone to be a bright star ,or to heaven to be with God also says it’s better there, better than being here , better than being your parent .It is vitally important that children be told , regardless of the belief system ,that there are no choices about death , that a mother or father would much prefer to stay with their child than to die , that the child has not been rejected or deserted. “When my dad was ill my mum and dad talked about it a lot. My dad told me he loved me so many times. He talked about his pain too and his fear and sometimes we just cried together. I was 11 when he died and although watching him so ill was sad and distressing I also knew he couldn’t live on and I knew how it really was. I felt part of it and my mum and me and my two brothers comforted each other. Its two years now and we talk about dad a lot and all he went through. I know he couldn’t live on and all he wen t through makes it easier in some ways to accept his death” Clearly the family sharing of the experience of this teenager’s father’s death though painful and traumatic also enabled acceptance. The honesty between the close members of family afforded them the opportunity to communicate, to say things that perhaps might not have been said and importantly for the parent and child to share their grief together. When a parent dies and the child or children are young, there is a need for the remaining parent and or close family members to keep open the channels of communication, and availability of memorabilia, so that as the child grows and develops understanding ,he or she can ask for and receive knowledge of the deceased parent .Time may seem far longer for the young , by this I mean that a year to a child of 11 will present many changes not only in every day or obvious expected ways, but in less noticeable subtle ways too. A child whose parent dies when they are 11 will not only be managing the obvious pain and grief that the death has brought, but alongside it, the massive changes to his/her growth, abilities and understanding. The way that a child of 11 is communicated with and the needs of a child of 11 are very different t to the needs and communication skills that are apparent in the 13 year old. As adults we do not change as quickly in this physical and mental way. When we experience bereavement we can be pretty sure that it will affect us in one way and that our memory of the person and of the death will remain constant. Children are often and rightly given information at the level that we perceive that they are capable of understanding. A child may be told about a parent’s death and given what we believe they need at the time. However, in the succeeding months the child is developing and may need more information as the development proceeds. Whilst working at a secondary school with bereft teens, I worked with many youngsters who were experiencing a need, to revisit and explore their parents death as they grew older .Their needs, comforts they required at the time of the death, were not the same as the needs as they grew older, as time passed they all seemed to say the same thing – “I knew my parent had died, but I didn’t realise then that it is forever.” A year to a child of 11 is an incredibly long time and over a 2 or 3 years the changes that occur to the child are quite phenomenal. A teenager whose mother died when she was 11 told me: “It’s been 3 years since my mum died and I try to remember her but it’s really difficult, There are things I want to ask about mum but we don’t talk about her often and I don’t feel I can ask things When I try to remember her I can’t think of enough memories .I don’t want my auntie to be upset or to think she hasn’t done a good job looking after me .I think she thinks I’m over it but I know I’ll never get over it .In fact sometimes I feel worse than I did and I can’t believe it’s three years since mum died”. Another teenager told me: “It was 5 years ago but I was just a little kid then. I can’t tell the family that I’m grieving what I know I’ve lost now ….they seem to be over it but I feel liked as I’ve got older I’ve woken up to it . My dad’s death has affected everything sometimes I feel so low just thinking about everything I’m missing with him and I struggle to get a picture of him in my head or the sound of his voice .No-one seems to realise how I feel. When dad died I kind of got through but as times passed and I’ve changed I‘ve needed more. My mum has started to rebuild her life and I want her to be happy but I feel like I need to talk more now …..It’s a very lonely place to be” Clearly we need to be aware of the needs of children who are bereaved and to be aware that for them the passage of time isn’t a healer as it might be for the adult, with growth and knowledge it may bring further anguish .My experience of bereaved children is that they are largely unacknowledged. What we may feel is protection can be exclusive and isolating and that their grief may need extensive space and time to revisit as changes occur. Change and lack of power after the death of a parent can also cause the child who may feel that their feelings are selfish, or too demanding, to withdraw and outwardly to appear to be doing, what those around feel, most comfortable with, ‘DOING WELL’ “When my parents died in a car crash I was 13 years old. My elder sister and her partner and their two children came to liv e at home and look after me. At first it was ok but then my sister’s partner started to change things in the house and no-one asked me. I felt like they had moved in on my ,angry that they didn’t seem aware of how I felt Guilty because everyone said they’d done a very unselfish thing coming to look after me so I could stay in the house and at the same school and near my mates. After a couple of months my sister decided to start moving things and brought a lot of her own furniture and things .They did let me keep one or two things that belonged to mum and dad but most of their stuff was taken away. It’s three years since my parents died and I still feel out of place, lost, sometimes feel like my life died when mum and dad died, like that’s another life and now I am existing in one that doesn’t fit .My Sister gets really irritated with me and says I should be grateful, more appreciative but I want to tell her that I feel like an intruder in my own home …..It doesn’t even look the same. Soon I will leave school and get a job …..I feel alone , no-one knows or understands when parents die it changes everything forever and the ripples just go on .I seems that people think after 3 years I should be over it or at least feeling differently but I still feel shocked , sometimes I think it can’t be true . Sometimes I sit very still in a room and try to hear them, the familiar sound of mum in the kitchen or dad watching TV. Then I get distressed because I can’t remember them the sound of them. The other day I thought when dad died I was only about 5 ft. now I’m 6’2 …..if dad were here I’d be taller than him – that’s hard to imagine .” When a parent dies there are many changes in store for the child. Some obvious to all, but others often occurring within the child’s world and not apparent to the remaining parent or caregivers, until the child speaks them. Some children do not speak at all, bearing their grief alone. My observations of grieving children are that they seem to be able to dip in and out of it , one moment immersed in it’s all consuming painful reality and in the next playing a techno game or engrossed in a TV programme. This swift mood change may to some observers seem fickle or may be perceived as lightweight grieving. In my experience this IS simply how grief is and however the individual reacts to their personal loss is acceptable and needs acknowledgement and validation. It’s ok to do it your way. Younger children are capable of decision making, they benefit from being involved and given choices where possible. Allow space, time for them to begin to adjust to a situation that has rocked their very core of security. It is vital that in the rush to give comfort and protection we do not exclude or cause stifled emotions .Gentle acceptance of their individual experience and a willing ,non-judgemental ear for as long as they need it, alongside the security and continuum of life disciplines ,required tasks , education and other boundaries, offer balance .The child’s world is progressive it changes daily. Experiences cause them to develop and grow and for some, traumatic experiences can cause stunting of growth. This is reversible as long as the child has the opportunity within a safe trusting relationship to explore and embrace all that the experience of grief brings to them. A child who has experienced the death of a parent needs ongoing opportunity to address what the death of their parent means, to adjust as they grow to its on-going impact. “I’ve listed my losses since my mum died …..They are huge but they need to be because she was my mum and that’s how it is” My response to this simply – “Yes and for you that’s exactly how it is.”