How to help a parent cope with the loss of a spouse?
November 23, 2012 7:58 AM   Subscribe

I lost my dear dad unexpectedly Sunday after a series of illnesses. My mom, luckily, is still with us. They were together 54 years and my mom was only 17 when they met. The most important thing to my dad was my mom's well-being and I feel it is now my duty to look after her to the best of my ability. I have no idea how to help her cope with the loss of my father. I want to be there for her as much as possible, but I don't want to smother her. Does anyone have any advice?
posted by entropicamericana to Human Relations (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Obviously, that depends on her health and financial circumstances, but at the very least she is going to need someone to talk to about your father. I don't know how she's fixed for friends and other support, but most people feel they have to wind down talk about a loved one sometime after the funeral - they're expected to "get on with it." My grandmother lost her husband 30 years before she passed away herself, and while she was basically a happy person she would still get choked up about him for the rest of her life sometimes.

Beyond that, I would suggest *asking* her - sit down and try to have an honest talk about her finances, health, etc. Not right now, unless there's a crisis, but maybe a few months from now.

I think it's really hard to smother a parent, unless you're living under the same roof for some reason. I think the overwhelming tendency is to underestimate what they need, and/or find it difficult to provide everything they need, given all the other obligations we have about the time our parents die (if they live a "normal" lifespan." But perhaps the best counter to that is to encourage her to find other relationships besides just you - relatives, friends, interests.

God bless you for caring about your parents. Too many people neglect this.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:08 AM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Beyond the immediate aftermath, spend a lot of time with her, and include her on outings. Her social life is going to be severely curtailed, as she's no longer part of a couple.

More importantly, though, be prepared (and accept) that she will be depending on *someone* to do things for her that your father used to do. Given that she probably went right from her childhood home to her married life, there has always been someone to take care of certain things, and she may have no idea how to begin to look after them. Trying to learn how to do those things may be very difficult, even impossible for her. Your job is to try and find out what is and is not being looked after, and making sure that they get tended to, whether by you or someone else. The finances are a HUGE thing.

There's obviously a period of adjustment, and given the length of time your parents have been together, that will take quite some time. She will probably go through a 'nesting' phase, readjusting the home, getting rid of a lot of stuff, wanting new stuff -- just ride with it and let her do what she needs to do.

I'm speaking from the experience with my own mother, obviously. We worked out a basic arrangement where I go to her place every Wednesday for dinner. She'll have a stack of things she'll want me to go over, or certain errands that need to be done then. Having that predictability, that 'someone will look at this on Wednesday' takes away a lot of the worry. Just a suggestion.

In short, be there for her, pay close attention to what she is and is not saying, and do the best you can. There's no right way to do this.

Sorry for your loss. Don't forget to look after yourself, too.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:51 AM on November 23, 2012 [9 favorites]

bless you...I am over 80 and have a number of friends who have lost long-married spouses. For some, they find support among friends, children, local groups; for others, life is no longer the same, and no matter where they turn, they continue to dwell upon their lost loved one and the past. One positive thing you can do is to make sure needs are being, connections to others etc., for sometimes,they need a push to confront the present realities.
posted by Postroad at 8:53 AM on November 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you're used to sitting across from her to talk, or sitting on the other end of the couch or in another chair, try sitting right next to her now. My mother died a few years ago and I sit right next to my dad a lot, and I know it helps us both.

Other things come gradually but for now making sure she has a chance to lean on you will let both of you know she's not alone.

Also, condolences for your loss, and thank you for asking.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 8:54 AM on November 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

I imagine the biggest shock will be 'being alone in the house'. Someone she's very comfortable with (you, one of your siblings, one of her siblings) should consider staying in the house with her for a while.
posted by Kololo at 8:56 AM on November 23, 2012

My mother's life essentially became a support system for my father as he declined, so that after he died I hoped my mother would find she had more energy and more time to focus on looking after herself and doing more things.

Actually the opposite happened – she'd looked after us, and then after him, but she wasn't motivated in the same way to look after herself. She became more reclusive and eventually declined into dementia herself.

Her situation may not be true of your parents, but remember your mother may find a huge void in what she used to do with her time. In the new year, you may need to nudge her towards getting out, exercising, seeing people and doing new things.

Condolences for the loss of your dad.
posted by zadcat at 8:56 AM on November 23, 2012

I'm so very sorry for your loss.

Don't approach your mother's grief as a state she needs to leave for a happy or "normal" state. Don't try to make her get over her husband. Grief takes time and it greatly differs how much time is required. If you eventually find yourself nudging your mother to a more active social life, please factor in her personality, whether she is an introvert/extrovert, etc. Don't assume anything based on stereotypes: ask your mom what she wants to do.

I would imagine visiting and calling as often as possible is important. It doesn't have to be about grand or deep discussions, just talking about this and that so that your mother doesn't feel so lonely and so you can check on her well-being. Maybe you can spend the occasional weekend with her and take her out to dinner or just cook for her?

Be mindful about signs of depression, anxiety or any other mental health disorder. It's only naturally that her sleep, appetite and energy level will change significantly over the next days and weeks but these are things that can and should be remedied.

Do you have any relatives that live close to your mother? Maybe you can get together and make sure your mother gets visits and calls on a regular basis for at least the next coming months? No reason why you should shoulder all the heaviness by yourself.

How does her financial situation look like? Can she live a healthy life on her pension? If not, and provided that you don't jeopardize your own health, you might want to set up a standing order so she receives extra money each month. Winter times might be critical wrt to heating and food.

Your mother will need stuff fixed around the house and it might be useful to do an inspection to see what's in need of repair. I'm thinking everything from gadgets that need tuning to broken appliances to the house itself. You don't have to fix problems ASAP just note them down and plan their resolution.

If your dad was the one who did the bookkeeping, paid the bills etc, you might want to go through these things with your mother. They will take some time to learn but it could actually end up empowering your mom.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:32 AM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

So sorry for your loss.

In a similar situation, I found that being a sort of "executive assistant" to your parent is a big help: if she's up to it, take her grocery shopping; if not, do the shopping yourself for her. Help respond to the family and friends who offer condolences. As others say, don't leave her to sit there alone week after week, take her out to lunch or dinner, make sure she maintains her previous outside interests and friends. If she's a churchgoer, take her, whether you yourself are a churchgoer or not --- the point is to get her out somewhere. (She may or may not be ready to go places now; she may need a little time, but it's good to have a goal outside the house.)

And finally, take care of YOU, too: it won't do either of you any good if you exhaust yourself so you're to tired to help her.
posted by easily confused at 9:49 AM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

zadcat: "Her situation may not be true of your parents, but remember your mother may find a huge void in what she used to do with her time. In the new year, you may need to nudge her towards getting out, exercising, seeing people and doing new things."

Oh my gosh, yes. This is so true. My mom needed (and still occasionally does need) a bit of encouragement to get out and about. Although my dad's illness and eventually passing was a sad thing, she was essentially in her element - taking charge, taking care of everything, doing-doing-doing, always for someone else. Suddenly, there was no one who needed her anymore, and she was pretty depressed for a while after my dad died.

One thing she's repeatedly mentioned from time to time since then is how hard it is to cook for only herself. To be honest, "I hate making [insert old favorite here] when it's just me!" is sometimes code for "My children should visit me more often so I can cook for them." But sometimes, it really is difficult to cook for only one person if you're used to making certain dishes for two.

So one thing you could do for your mom is help her with that. Go over on a regular schedule and help her cook some old favorites and portion them out into single servings that she can pull out of the freezer. If she's not the cooking type, either cook some stuff yourself and bring it over, or shop with (for?) her.

Right now, if family and friends are asking what they can do to help (as folks often do after someone passes), ask them to fill your mom's freezer with dishes that she can eat by herself.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:51 AM on November 23, 2012

Being alone all the time, losing her companion, doing the tasks the other spouse did, whether it's bill-paying or cooking, and just plain grieving are hard. Visit as often as you can. Lots of listening and hugs, and helping with tasks. The suggestion to sit next to her is good; people need physical contact. Let her talk about him, and about her loss. She's lucky to have you.
posted by theora55 at 11:02 AM on November 23, 2012

I'm so sorry about your loss.

I think at the moment, your mom will need lots of company and emotional support. There is lots of good advice above, the best being to be there for her to talk about your dad and to provide company so she is not so alone.

As for practical things you could do:

Foci For Analysis: If your dad was the one who did the bookkeeping, paid the bills etc, you might want to go through these things with your mother. They will take some time to learn but it could actually end up empowering your mom.

I remember reading once (on Metafilter maybe?) about a man who had received a terminal diagnosis. Before he died, he put together a giant instruction manual of everything that he had usually taken care of around the house (e.g. how to work the VCR, how to maintain the car, etc.). He left this for his wife when he died, and it was not only useful to her in a practical sense but was also a tangible reminder of his love for her--making sure she could take care of herself after he was gone. Perhaps you and your mom could work on putting together something similar--ask her what kinds of things she would like to know how to do. Then the two of you will have a project to work on together, which means you'll be spending lots of time with her on a regular basis and will have lots of opportunities to fondly reminisce with her about your dad. In the end she will have a handy written record she can use as a reference when needed.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:35 AM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you have siblings? Other family? Does your mom attend a place of worship? She has just lost her spouse of many years' standing and it sounds like she (they) got married young enough that she went from living at home to being married. That's less frequent these days, but losing a spouse under those circumstances is especially traumatic. You definitely want to support her in every way you can, but you can't and shouldn't be your mom's only support system. Enlist your siblings (if any), her siblings, other family members, church family and friends to rally around her.

Other posters have touched on making sure her home is in good repair, and finding out exactly what your dad always did for her and walking her through doing this for herself. A few other ideas:

- Make sure you and she know where all financial records and important papers are. Go over bank accounts with her and figure out exactly what money is coming in and from where. If your mom is getting a life insurance settlement or pension payout, it would be a great idea to help her with that paperwork. (My dad got both after my mom died and oh, the paperwork hassles! I know my dad could not have made heads or tails of it.)

- Can you set up automatic bill payments so that she doesn't have to write checks for the electric bill, water, and so on? Unless there is so little money that your mom has to juggle bills, automatic payments save time and money and hassle, especially if mom is forgetful or wrapped up in grieving or settling an estate. I helped my parents set up auto payments for all utilities and they found it a godsend.

- Please keep as close an eye as you can on your mom's finances. Sad to say there are those out there who might take cruel advantage of your mom being elderly and sheltered. Watch out for predatory "friends" who need "loans," Internet scams, charity solicitations, crap sold on TV shopping channels, etc. This is where it would be good to have a "village" or at least more than just you watching out for her as con artists tend to prey on isolated people rather than those with networks of caring friends and family.

- Does your mom drive? If not, does she have any way to get around? There are senior transportation services put out by local city/county funds; they vary in quality and service, but if she can't drive and is in danger of being stuck in the house, you might want to investigate if she can get a "senior van" type of transport to the grocery store or hairdresser or wherever.

Good luck to you and your mom!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:03 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry for your loss.

Listening is going to be key.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:20 PM on November 23, 2012

Ten years ago, I shared my apartment with a younger woman who had an ailing grandmother (she was an orphan, and thus the only relative of her gran). She had a simple rule: she called gran every single day. Sometimes the call would be 20 seconds, and sometimes it would be an hour. By doing this, she always had a clear sense of the relevant issues, and it was an amazing sense of security for her gran.
I copied this when my step-mother, father and grandmother were ailing and then dying, but shared the task with my siblings and cousin. I still called every day, but so did the others, and we negotiated who was responsible for solving the changing issues on a daily basis. It had the extra value of gathering us closer as a family. We found different competences - I dealt with narratives and food (they are closely related), one sis dealt with the healthcare system, another sis with social services and friends, a cousin with bargaining and other outside relations, etc. With our grandmother, who was a belligerent old lady, it quickly centered on my cousin and myself who could manage her tantrums, and the job became a lot tougher, but still - simple rules were our guidance: a daily call, a clear job specification and at times a clear setting of boundaries.
I think one has to accept that at a certain point, an old person is as demanding as a 2-yo. I took a care leave from work, and my cousins promised to support me, (it all went so fast, they didn't have to). I think one has to talk about this openly, both within the family and at work.
posted by mumimor at 2:46 PM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Encourage your mother to find activities outside the house if she is not already active. Bridge club, Bunco, reading with school kids, rocking neonates at a hospital - the world is full of things to do, and some need doing.
posted by Cranberry at 10:53 PM on November 23, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your help and sympathies.

I live in the same town as Mom. My sisters live out of town, but they have been over a lot since Sunday. Dad was in the hospital so much the past year and we've been so busy making arrangements that I don't think it has set in yet for any of us. I'm sure that will change after the funeral. Luckily, Mom has always handled the finances, so she's familiar with that. She drives during the daylight hours, so she still has that independence. She has health issues as well (fibromyalgia and migraines), that keep her more housebound than anyone would like but she isn't frail by any means. I've started doing maintenance around the house (mainly to keep busy) so hopefully her circumstances will be comfortable and secure for many years to come.

I'm really at a loss on how to handle the coming days, weeks, and months after the funeral. I want to make sure she doesn't feel abandoned after the service, but I want to make sure she has her space and independence too. The daily phone call suggestion is a really good idea, and I hope there's still people reading this with ideas.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:34 AM on November 24, 2012

Check out Lotsa Helping Hands - a care-coordination website. It sounds like your mom needs companionship and not casseroles, but this website will still work for that purpose. Set up a Lotsa Helping Hands page, ask your mom what she really needs right now (outings? practical help? companionship?), notify all friends, family, neighbors, church family and whoever is in a position to help, tell them to think of whatever concrete offers of help they can make (as opposed to vague "Let me know what I can do" questions) and have them sign up for things like taking your mom out for coffee or brunch, changing the light bulbs, or just visiting her to listen and talk.

This site is great for getting friends and family from "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help" to actually doing something helpful. It also keeps recipients from being inundated with casseroles or brunch invitations when they need someone to do household chores or just want to sit and visit with friends.

Also, does your mom like books and movies? Is she tech-savvy enough for an iPad? She might really love to have an iPad if she doesn't have one, so she can read books on the Kindle app or stream movies when she's not feeling up to going out.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:07 AM on November 24, 2012

One more thing I just thought of - would your mom be open to the idea of a companion pet (if she doesn't have one/more already)? If she likes animals and is not allergic, a dog or cat might be great company for her. An adult cat, already-bonded pair of adult cats, or small-to-medium sized adult dog would be her best bet, and shelters and rescues have them in abundance.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:50 AM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

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