Anticipating a Parent’s Death

By Helen Fitzgerald, CT

When a parent becomes ill and is dying, the adult child can be a forgotten mourner. Friends, colleagues, and even other family members may assume the adult child has broken close ties with his/her parents, married, moved away, and therefore is not so affected by the illness or death of a parent. Not true. The illness and perhaps the death of a parent is extremely painful at any age.

In earlier years, parents came to live with their children when they became too ill to safely live alone. This was an accepted fact. Now, times are different. Lifestyles are different. In many families, everyone works. Today, the “stay-at-home” mom, who would have been the natural person to care for the ailing parent, is less common. With much trepidation and guilt, ill and aging parents are often placed in a facility such as a nursing home. Nursing homes vary widely as to the services offered as well as the quality of care, and finding a suitable one isn’t always easy. Coming from the rural midwest, my siblings and I lucked out: the staff knew our parents personally.

Whether ailing parents are brought into the child’s home or placed in a nursing home, there are huge requirements and expectations of the adult child — not only emotionally, but physically and financially as well. When parents reach this juncture in life there are many issues the adult child must deal with as he/she begins the journey through grief.
Grief is what you experience whenever you suffer a loss. “Loss” is the key word here: loss of function, loss of control, loss of independence. Grief is not only experienced when a loved one has died, but can begin earlier than that, before death. There is a term for this grief. It’s called “anticipatory” grief.

Your parent is often sharing this grief with you. When he/she becomes ill or as a disease progresses, that parent may lose more and more of his/her functioning and independence. This leads to role changes as well. You become the parent, now making decisions that your own parent used to make. You may no longer feel comfortable confiding in your parent as you have in the past — now, you may not want to cause concern or worry. My father was 80 years old and ailing when my son suffered a very serious car accident. My first impulse was to call daddy, but sadly, I realized it was not fair of me to put that on a man who could do nothing to help, unlike the good old days when he would offer comfort and advice. For you, it could be that mom can no longer cook Thanksgiving dinner or dad can no longer manage his affairs. Instead of your mom changing your diapers, you must now change hers.

These are tiny deaths all building up to the big one, the final death of the body. With each of these losses there is a grieving time. When your parent dies the final death, you may sense a period of relief and feel more ready to move on with your life. You may be ready to pick up on the other aspects of dealing with the death of your parent, such as loneliness, feelings of being an orphan, and the fact that you are now the “older generation.”

© 2003. American Hospice Foundation. All Rights Reserved.