How do I prepare for my mother's passing?
March 15, 2010 12:30 PM   Subscribe

How do I prepare for my mother's passing?

They've stopped the chemo and, barring a miracle, it has become a matter of time. Doctor's say that even six months is optimistic. I don't have any family, but her friends have all stepped up to help me out with the finances and so forth. The will is long done: I will be inheriting everything: the house with a mortgage that still needs to be paid, the car which will be immediately sold, three years of income (~$225K before taxes) and all the material stuff.

Her new husband (there was a pre-nup, he will be receiving nothing,) who has been taking care of her will need to find a new place to live. I have been told that, once the inevitable occurs, I am to give him a timespan. He does not speak the language well, has no job or connections and is still waiting for his immigration papers to resolve w/r/t his very recent marriage to my mother. So, that is one thing to consider.

She wants to be cremated, so that is settled. She is still completely cognizant, although very weak and sick, but she will most likely enter a hospice once she cannot stay at home anymore. She's signed the harshest DNR she possibly could: no resucitation under any circumstances and maximum pain relief. We have never been emotionally close and she was always somewhat cold and somewhat distant (I can count the amount of hugs I have received on a hand) if that matters. I can sum up her approach to this entire ordeal by the photo I took of her, wasted away on the couch, hooked up to an oxygen tank with a non-plussed appearance and her two middle fingers brandished to the camera.

I have three elderly grandparents all of whom have home health care, but are all quite on in years. Grandpa Parkinson's has been hitting his brain over the last while and is approaching far-gone but refuses to be put in a home. Grandma had a stroke a little while ago and hasn't entirely recovered her faculties. Other grandma (my mom's mom) is prone to hysterics and possibly mentally ill - a case of family history, her mother got rather paranoid (in the black helicopters sense) right before death and I have bipolar disorder.

So, there we go: loose support network of far-flung family friends who have totally stepped up to help but are all adults with jobs and their own responsibilities. No blood-family outside of my three aging, ailing grandparents. A stepfather (nominally) who has taken care of my mother but will need to be thrown out with about four grand to his name after an amount of time that I am expected to set. I am mentally ill although being treated and I have been raised to put emotions aside to deal but once in a while the illness breaks through and I am rendered into panics and inability-to-leave-the-house. I have personal friends who are also there for me - my best friend mentioned that "for all intents and purposes, you're my little brother now" and that her mother has insisted I start coming to their house for Passover from now on.

I am 25, male, single and live in my own apartment in Brooklyn. My grandparents live in Brooklyn as well. So. I'm going to be an real adult now. What do I need to know about the upcoming, both pragmatically and emotionally?

Feel free to drop email at

You can ask anything at all without worrying you'll set me off or whatnot. I just need as much help as I can get to not screw this up.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I received some wonderful help in this thread from a couple years ago: Losing Parents.

Wishing all the best for you. Feel free to MeMail anytime.
posted by netbros at 12:55 PM on March 15, 2010

My mother died of (various) cancers last August. It was very sudden -- five days after we learned about it. I didn't make it there in time. My brother and father were there when she died.

Here's what I'd recommend:
- Take as much time off work as you can. It was pretty brutal for me in the first week.
- I found the funeral to be surprisingly helpful.
- We waited two weeks for the funeral so various people could attend. I don't recommend waiting that long, if it can be avoided.
- I had trouble grieving in the early days. For me the key was going through my childhood books, many of which she had signed or written in. That opened the floodgates. Facing the grief was better than running from it.
- The grief comes and goes. I still break down (though only for a short period of time) six months later.
- The intensity of the grief ebbs and flows. In the earliest days, eating itself hurt.
- Completely ignore the "stages of grief" stuff. You'll be sad, you'll be angry, you'll be in denial. It's not linear, at least it was not for me.
- It will be helpful to have a bunch of distractions -- movies, video games, books, whatever. You'll need a break.
- I'm going to recommend staying away from drugs/alcohol, tempting as they are.
- Lean on your friends as much as you can.

If I were to summarize, I'd say -- it will hurt, it is meant to hurt, but you will recover. Life goes on, and she will want you to live it.

I wish I had advice about your grandparents. Similar problems are in my near future, and I have no answers.
posted by bitterpants at 12:56 PM on March 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Can you get in-home hospice care for your mother? Some places have it and it's much less disruptive. The local hospice also probably has some support groups that could be helpful to you. What you're going through is a lot to handle on your own and you're young to have to deal with it all.

You mention Passover at a friend's. Are you religious? If you are, perhaps your rabbi can be of help.
posted by mareli at 1:26 PM on March 15, 2010

w/r/t the will - are you the executor? is there an attorney? is anyone likely to contest, or will you just need help with the taxes and whatnot? I recommend somebody professional to help deal with the taxes etc.

w/r/t your mother's husband - do you feel any connection or obligation to him? if they were married less than two years, he will probably not gain anything (immigration status-wise) from being married to her. caregiving is hard, so be kind.

the cremation - check with the health department or 311 or phone book to see if you have a cremation society, which should keep the cost down. a cremation society should advise you of your rights regarding transport, embalming, need for casket and all the shit that makes funerals stupid-expensive and painful.

hospice - we had in-home hospice for Mom, and it was pretty awesome. when she ran out of pain meds (almost, anyway), they sent a guy down on a scooter with a bag of fresh.

other thoughts - have you or your mother considered body donation? my mom, who died of renal cancer and PSP (think demon love child of Parkinsons & Alzheimer's), donated her body to the local medical school and her brain and spinal cord to Indiana University's neurology dept, which has a PSP project. here's the national body donation list, maintained by University of Florida's medical school. it makes you feel good to know that you helped doctors to learn and scientists to figure stuff our.

w/r/t friends - it helps to have one or two on hand. my two best friends from high school, with whom I've been sporadically close in the last 25 years, dropped everything and flew in for a long weekend at the bitter end when I knew it was coming for real. my mom had stopped eating a few days before and was drinking a little and guzzling the liquid oxy they gave her for pain (metaphorically, of course - you administer that shit in drops). they hung out and - I don't even know - washed dishes, walked the dog, reminded me it was time to move my ass down to church for the funeral.

for me, the following year was a fog. I saw her everywhere, and dreamed about her. now I still miss her like crazy - even though I would never say we were close - and frequently still dream about her. It took like a year for the world to return to full color and proper frame refresh rate.

afterwards, be indulgent with yourself in terms of what you do for comfort & entertainment - movies, books, games, whatever, but be sure to spend time with other people. it's not good to get too wrapped up in your head. my husband made me do a bunch of stuff - enrichment classes and whatnot - that I totally bitched about at the time, but which turned out really great and I had a good time. you will not want to move. move.
posted by toodleydoodley at 1:39 PM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

We've had eight major deaths to deal with in my family over the last decade... and it sounds like you're already better prepared than any of them were. Seriously, if nobody else says so, it sounds like you're really on top of things!

That said, I've got to ask... what's your relationship with the new husband? Is there any reason at all not to just hire a visiting hospice nurse, and let your mom stay at home with him watching out for her in the meantime? Heck, if it were me and we were on decent terms, I'd be sorely tempted to offer to let him stay for quite a while afterward, while hiring him to be a daily visitor/helper for the ailing grandparents... help him, them, and yourself all at once?
posted by Pufferish at 1:52 PM on March 15, 2010

These sorts of questions are what a good hospice is for. A hospice social worker should assist you with a variety of the more mundane questions. They're good at Getting Things Done. Most hospices these days are in-home. Her doctor should recommend one or two options, and if you meet with a hospice and aren't happy with them, ask for another referral from the doctor. A good hospice team is worth its weight in gold, and will be invaluable in your mother's final days. Spiritual support is available (for you and your mother), in an entirely non-denominational way. Talk to your hospice team about your own issues -- your current diagnosis and treatment is a necessary detail in assisting your mother and you. The hospice team is there for you just as much as they are for her. Don't hesitate to lean on them.

A detail most don't think about: if your mother has a safe deposit box, have her empty it before she dies. It can be very difficult to get into a safe deposit box after the owner has died.
posted by incessant at 2:19 PM on March 15, 2010

Your Mom has recognized what's coming. Tell her you love her; hug her, give her back or neck rubs is she's like; touch is a powerful communicator. Ask her to tell/re-tell the family stories. Listen to her favorite music with her; if/when she's unable to leave her bed, music may be a comfort. Watch movies with her. You'll never have another chance to have a relationship.

Find out what she wants done with her ashes. Give the husband a lot of time to move. You can't prepare for grief, but the rituals of mourning help you come to acceptance of death, and help everyone come together.

My Mom dies a couple years ago; she was a difficult person, and I'm thankful that we had some pleasant times before she died.
posted by theora55 at 2:45 PM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for your situation and wish you a lot of strength in the coming weeks. I lost my mother to cancer when I was in my late 20s and the pain was absolutely relentless. Here are a few things I wish I had known back then:

- Don't expect any poignant deathbed moments. This may sound silly, but I didn't really have any experience with death beyond what I had seen in movies. I suppose I was waiting for some graceful and meaningful goodbye that never came. Instead it was just a brutal, fitful end involving lots of machines, drugs, and extended periods of unconsciousness that finally segued into permanent unconsciousness.

- I can second what bitterpants wrote. The grief comes and goes. The "breakdowns" can be intense but they become increasingly infrequent. Grief is eventually replaced by a kind of dull sadness. Like toodleydoodley, it took about a year for the haze to lift.

- The memories of the final days may be disproportionately strong. I knew my mother for nearly three decades but whenever I dream of her, she always looks like she did in her final year. When someone asks me about her, I inevitably remember the final weeks. I've found this to be quite frustrating. I hate the idea of my happy memories being overshadowed by a tragic end.

- Accept as much help as is offered you.

I wish you a lot of strength for the future.
posted by Ljubljana at 2:56 PM on March 15, 2010

if they were married less than two years, he will probably not gain anything (immigration status-wise)

DEFINITELY check this out. I was married to a non-citizen, and my memory tells me that if I had died, then he would have received citizenship automatically. Your mother's passing does not affect his status in at all the same way that a divorce would. Talk to a lawyer about this, STAT.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:29 PM on March 15, 2010

Emotionally: your relationship with your mother doesn't sound terribly close. When she dies, you might feel like you're supposed to be okay with that. However, there's no "supposed to feel" about people dying. If you don't feel bad, you're not a bad person. If you feel relieved to have your life back, you're not a bad person. By all means, prod at your feelings to see what you feel and what you don't. But don't try and force yourself to feel something you don't, and don't feel bad if you don't feel the things you're supposed to feel.

A book (non-fiction) in that vein is The Farewell Chronicles: How We Really Respond to Death by Anneli Rufus. Each chapter is devoted to a different emotion people might feel when someone dies.

On the flipside, you might suddenly feel a lot of regret, or be much sadder than you expected to be, and that's all okay, too.

My own father took years to die. I loved him a lot, but in the end, I felt mostly relief that I didn't have to worry about him dying anymore. One of the side effects of people dying slowly is sometimes that you are more prepared for it when it happens. You might have had enough time to come to terms with it, or you might not. I would recommend that you mentally confront her death, rather than try not to think about it -- if it's even necessary for you, and it might not be.

One thing that helped me toward the end was I had decided not to mourn him before he was gone; my mom did a lot of that, and though I understand it wasn't something she could deal with well and I don't judge her for it, I think it made him feel bad and made his final years a lot more unhappy than they had to be. I figured that, insofar as I could control it, it made more sense to be sad when he was gone and it wouldn't detract from his life, rather than be sad when he was still there and it hadn't happened yet. I've found that approach -- don't be upset until the bad thing actually happens -- helps with a lot of stuff in life, since so much of the horribleness is just worrying about it (and my mom has always been a worrier) and it can really shut you down. After enough practice, the actual bad things happening have mostly ceased to phase me; once they happen, then I switch to, "Well, there's no use worrying about things that can't be undone." I had a few sad moments after my dad died and I was comfortable with that, but it was easy to get over.
posted by Nattie at 4:28 PM on March 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I went through a very similar situation with my mother just a few years ago.
What Nattie says is very important. There is no "supposed to feel" in this situation.
You also cannot predict what or how you will feel during the ordeal or afterward. Do not take cues from movies or television about grief, each and every person is different. Do not, for a moment, let anyone "dictate" how you "should" feel by their showing surprise at you lack of or over emotion. Your feelings come from inside and they belong to you.
My mother and I were also distant as you put it. It did not make it easier or more difficult. I did not face some of the difficulties that you face, but I did have a set of my own. My mother's passing left me alone in this country with my wife (she lost her parents just previously). We were suddenly thrust into the "grown-up" position.
Seek help if you feel you need it, from friends and professionals.

You are stronger than you think.
posted by Drasher at 5:04 PM on March 15, 2010

I went through this recently with my dad and it's so hard to say about preparing yourself emotionally. Grief is so subjective and even with knowing what the generals of it were going to be, how it actually played out in my mind has been really surprising. The first 3 months after, I cried once, partied a lot, was the only family member able to speak at the service, traveled and then at month 4 it all hit me. I needed to keep busy, but the emotions caught up with me eventually.

The one good general thing to mention is taking as much care of yourself as possible. My siblings, mother & I have had various health issues crop up in the past months that are probably caused by stress as a reaction to everything we've been through. Like having a cold was the absolute worst cold I've had in years. You kind of have to set aside your emotions and focus on other people (not just the relative you're caring for, but there's the whole issue after somebody's death of dealing with the mourners) during a really intense period. So it's not always easy to remember that you need to take care of yourself.

The legal and financial part of it will keep you busy (and distracted) for awhile. In my situation, the finances were in an estate, so we've mostly had to deal with paying taxes and changing accounts (you have to file a ridiculous amount of paperwork when somebody dies). We've been working with a tax accountant, who's well versed in all the legal requirements.

As for reading, I really liked E from the Eels book about his family, "What the Grandchildren Should Know" and CS Lewis' "A Grief Observed."
posted by green_flash at 5:13 PM on March 15, 2010

if they were married less than two years, he will probably not gain anything (immigration status-wise)

DEFINITELY check this out. I was married to a non-citizen, and my memory tells me that if I had died, then he would have received citizenship automatically. Your mother's passing does not affect his status in at all the same way that a divorce would. Talk to a lawyer about this, STAT.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:29 PM on March 15 [+] [!]

here's some more up to date information on recent changes in that law, known as the "widow penalty".

up until last fall, the law said, basically, if you (petitioning resident) marry a citizen and the citizen dies less than 2 years into your marriage, you (petitioning resident) are back to square one (or worse) in your quest for legal residency. A friend had to look into this when she was concerned about her safety in such a marriage. the law was changed, I believe, because of a large number of petitioning resident spouses becoming widowed as a result of the wars we are currently involved in - basically a situation in which the citizen spouse died in a way that was plainly not the fault of the petitioning spouse, or did not in any way point to the marriage not being legitimate.

so, if you are inclined to extend help to your mother's husband, it's encouraging to know that things may have improved, residency-wise.
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:04 PM on March 15, 2010 have a lot on your plate. When my mom was dying I found in-home hospice to be really helpful. They would come in to care for her before she went to the nursing home and they could answer a lot of end of life medical questions that the family had. I was kind of like you in that I wasn't close to my mother so it was kind of a weird passing. There are some situations when death is a welcome relief and her passing was one of those times so while I wasn't doing the happy dance or anything, knowing that she was no longer very ill and suffering actually brought me a sense of peace. Best of luck to you in this really difficult time. Be sure to reach out for help from friends and medical professionals and your therapist and whoever else you need to see you through such a hard time.
p.s. About the stepdad, if he has a conditional resident card, not a permanent resident card (which he would get after holding a conditional resident card for two years then meeting with immigration with your mother to prove that the marriage is still valid) then he will have some additional hoops to jump through in order to continue with his petition. He may want to consult with an immigration attorney if this is the case.
posted by MsKim at 7:12 PM on March 15, 2010

It seems clear from your post, Anonymous, that the relationship you have with your mother is, and has been, a difficult one, and that it is not likely to fully resolve in the remaining months of her life. That may be increasingly difficult for you, and for her, as you each sense time slipping away.

I urge you to try to maintain a sense of grace, as best you can, to avoid inflaming old differences, or creating new ones, as you go through this process of death with her. She, being the one dying, has the harder role, but you, being slowly left behind, perhaps with unresolved issues, have a role that is no picnic, either.

But maintaining a facade of civility and concern for your mother helps those who are helping her, first hand, a continent away, to do their bit, and that is in both your interests. No one wants to be in the middle of a tense family relationship, or feel that their generosity is begrudged by another close family member. So, be as gracious as you can be to those trying to be of service to your Mother, even if that includes being more gracious to your Mother, herself, in these final days of hers, than you are otherwise inclined to be.
posted by paulsc at 2:51 AM on March 16, 2010

Sorry I have no advice since I"m going through the same thing (mother w/ terminal cancer, father will probably go soon after that, only child and adopted. I don't have a support system beyond my friends and maybe husband but even then I doubt it since he hates my parents and quite frankly it seems that all he's interested in is what I would get in an inheritance).

In short, your mom prepared pretty well, that will help lessen the burden of details. Yes on the ashes part--find out what she wants. And enjoy the time you have. Can you take her somewhere where she always wanted to go? If I could, I would love to take my mom to Hawaii, etc.

Just know that we MeFis are here for you if you need a hug, an ear, or some advice.

Much love and peace during this time.
posted by stormpooper at 6:39 AM on March 16, 2010

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