My parents were a few months shy of their 52nd anniversary when my mom died. She’d suffered from several chronic and debilitating conditions for more than 20 years, and the day after Thanksgiving 2015, her body just couldn’t take any more.
Dad was deeply devoted to her and was her caregiver, giving up his post-military retirement career as a consultant and teacher to take care of her full time. It’s been almost two years since she died, and my dad is still dealing with grief; still rather lost.
I live 14 hours away, so I can’t be there for him every day. I try to call frequently, but I sometimes fail, and it never feels like enough. (And yes, I feel guilty.) I’m not a counselor or therapist, but I can share a few things I’ve learned as a daughter trying to walk through this with him.
- His grief isn’t mine. Grief is different for everyone, so how he manifests and processes grief will be different from the way that anyone else does. Any expectations I may have about how long it takes him or what stage he “should be” in are, frankly, unfair. I need to accept where he’s at – and meet him there.
- He needs permission to feel. As a career military man, church leader and caregiver, he was always “the strong one.” So it caught him off guard to find himself sobbing so hard he couldn’t stand up. I can’t tell you how many of those early phone calls ended in him apologizing for crying, for feeling so lonely. I’ve had to tell him over and over that it’s OK to feel what he’s feeling. He loved her, and he misses her so much that it makes sense that his level of grief is equally deep. It’s natural and absolutely nothing to apologize for. I’ve encouraged him to let himself feel those things because trying to stuff them down won’t help him heal.
- I can’t fix it. There’s absolutely nothing I can do to make his grief and depression go away or make the process go faster. I can’t heal his broken heart. And for a problem solver, that can be frustrating. But I have to remember it’s not my job to fix him. It’s my job to love him.
- I can listen. That may seem like a “nothing” solution, but let me tell you, it’s important. Listening is a gift to anyone, but I think it’s an especially precious gift to one who’s grieving. When I listen, I’m giving him my full attention, which matters to one who feels alone. When I listen, I’m communicating that he matters, that he’s valued. And that makes a difference when he feels like he lacks purpose and has nothing to offer anymore. When I listen, I can hear the breakthroughs. Then I can celebrate them with him, encourage him and remind him that he is indeed making progress – and that he’ll make more.
Here’s an example of how some of this is playing out for us now:
A while back, I asked Dad if he’d be interested in traveling again. He’s always loved to travel, but had to give it up when Mom got sick. He said that he might like that. When I asked where he might want to go, he thought about it, then said, “I’d like to go to Ireland. Will you go with me?”
Of course I said yes. And I was thrilled – not just because I’ll get to visit Ireland, which will be awesome. But because it was the first time he could see something positive in his future. He had something to look forward to again.
He had to have knee surgery before we could plan anything. His recovery went well, so not long ago, I asked him if he still wanted to go. He said absolutely. (Yay – progress!) I asked when he would want to go. He got a little flustered and said he didn’t know and couldn’t really figure that out now. (Sigh – not very much progress.) But that’s how it goes. Baby steps – and that’s OK.
What I heard from him on that call was that 1) His enthusiasm for the trip is growing, and 2) He’s not in a place where he can plan. So rather than trying to make him decide or even give him something positive to do, I’m going to respect where he is right now. I’ll offer to take the lead in planning the trip. Not take over and plan things around him, but start the process. Gather some dates and itinerary ideas, then talk about them on our calls. And get his input, so we can plan the trip together.
It doesn’t seem like much. But it’s a little thing I can do to be there for him and maybe help him take a few more baby steps into healing.
Other resources for you:
The isolation that can come with the death of a spouse has a big impact on the health and well-being of seniors. Senior living communities offer new friendships and engaging ways to stay social, as well as ensuring seniors get the care they need.
Mourning the Death of a Spouse – An article that might help you understand what your grieving parent is going through.