Help me help my mother
May 8, 2016 7:29 PM   Subscribe

My father died about 6 months ago. Mom's been trying to carry on as best she can, but she's having a hard time and isn't really open to some of the traditional responses.

So, the title's a callback to my last family question, which gives some background. Dad died in late November and it's all pretty difficult for my mother, who for decades had him as basically her partner in all things: their friends were mostly mutual or found through activities which were more his than hers, so she's a bit adrift both purposewise and socially.

She's been trying to keep upbeat but has had a lot of rough patches. Being housebound in a blizzard this winter clearly bummed her out, and Passover (with few options none of which appealed to her, she didn't go to a Seder) brought back a lot of distressing memories, but only this weekend have I really started to worry --- she sounded listless on the phone, pessimistic about ever being happy again, talking a bit about getting things in order for when she dies, etc.

Various data points:
* She's in very good physical health herself, other than some nerve damage to her hands, possibly CTS (this is a bigger issue than it might be otherwise, because knitting was a major leisure activity for her, and now it hurts her hands).
* She works as a teacher, and has not previously spoken much about retiring. This keeps her very active during the year but is soon going to leave her without a clear day-to-day task, once school lets out for the summer.
* She's cut back on some of the activities she and my Dad used to do together: the opera and symphony in particular. I think she may be keeping the theater subscription.
* Neither I nor my brother live an easy distance away for day-to-day in person support. She's in DC, I'm in Louisville, KY, and my brother and his family are in New York.
* She's extremely averse to the possibility of talk therapy and disdainful of the idea that talking through problems can improve them.
* Financially, she's in good shape. Pretty much anything that's likely to be helpful to her would be within her means.

So, my questions are, of course, what can I do here? She's clearly depressed, and I feel incredibly helpless being away when she's suffering (I'm also an academic starting my summer break, so I can pull up stakes and go visit, and will). I How much of this is ordinary Kübler-Ross stuff, and how much of it is something I should worry about? If therapy would help, is there a way I can present it as a constructive and useful option? (I'm in therapy myself, and believe in its salutory effects, but that doesn't mean I'm necessarily convincing).
posted by jackbishop to Human Relations (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is she part of a local congregation, even just nominally? Religious leaders often provide a soft version of what talk therapy is for. If nothing else, they can nudge her towards positive behaviors like making new friends.
posted by SMPA at 7:39 PM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

At the risk of threadsitting, worth mentioning: she is still a member of her congregation, and when I last spoke to her (not this most recent call, where it didn't come up) she'd been attending Saturday morning services on a fairly regular basis. She's also a member of a Jewish book group that meets about once a month for (ostensibly) book discussions and (more generally) good society.
posted by jackbishop at 7:49 PM on May 8, 2016

I worked in grief counseling. General wisdom is that it takes a year to truly mourn -- that gets you through the first cycle of anniversaries and holidays -- and then maybe you can think about how you want to change to deal with things.

Seriously, it's been six months. How long were they married? How long together? I'm a therapist, so I believe in therapy, but I also believe that people need time to mourn and that our society tends to put too much pressure on the bereaved to be ok too soon. Three months, six months, and one year anniversaries tend to be particularly hard, as friends/family can put pressure on the bereaved to be "over it" by then.
posted by lazuli at 7:54 PM on May 8, 2016 [21 favorites]

This sounds normal? Grief is hard and long. Especially when you lose your life partner. Pressuring her to be OK is more for your benefit than hers, and it's likely to make her stop talking to you. Accept that this is where she is and put in the effort to talk to her as frequently as possible. Without judgement or condemnation of where she is.

Six months is like a heartbeat of time. Listen and witness. Don't turn away form her grief or make her hide it to make you more comfortable.

Send her music to listen to. Flowers to smell. Meals to eat. Indulge her senses.

And recognize that every single holiday for the rest of her life is going to hurt. Don't make her hurt alone by making her feel guilty or ashamed of this. Witness and be present for her, even if you can't do so physically.
posted by stoneweaver at 7:58 PM on May 8, 2016 [13 favorites]

My mother was in a similar situation after my father died. What helped her was not therapy so much as a grief support group through the local (small town) hospital. She was reluctant to go until her neighbor, who has been a widow for 20+ years, encouraged her to go and then went with her. It really made a difference for my mother; she went back to all their activities and then some. The congregation may have such a group or know where to find one.
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 8:00 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

She doesn't sound depressed so much as still grieving, and for a long-time marriage, I don't think that's unusual. I think if you are there for her, call her a bit more often (and don't always make it about "checking in on Mom," if you know what I mean) and listen when she wants to talk.
posted by xingcat at 8:04 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing that six months is nothing, and grief is different for everyone--meaning that your experience is not going to be the same as hers.

Try to think about your mother's strengths; she clearly has some, or she wouldn't have made it this far. She has undoubtedly faced challenges that you know nothing about, so don't assume she can't face this one. Check in with her but don't smother her and respect her right to be sad and be depressed after such a huge loss. And when she does want to talk, listen.

My dad died first in our family, and my mother did retreat into herself for a surprisingly long time, given how sick he'd been and how troubled their marriage often was. But then she came out and enjoyed much of the rest of her life in ways I would not have expected.

Also you might think about your own anxiety here; having lost your father, maybe you are more worried about her and hyperaware to any possibility of losing her too? That would be very normal.

The fact that she's still working, involved and socializing are very good signs.
posted by emjaybee at 8:05 PM on May 8, 2016

You might also want to look at whether your reaction of (exaggerated, I know) "OMG MY MOM IS FALLING APART" is coming from your own grief, and look at resources/therapy for yourself. And if you're already pursuing therapy, whether focusing on your mother's reaction is a way for you to avoid focusing on your own grief.
posted by lazuli at 8:11 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

How much of this is ordinary Kübler-Ross stuff, and how much of it is something I should worry about?

Her husband died, that is something to worry about. It is fair if you can't take it on as your problem to solve because of your own loss or because that just isn't possible. But when losing a spouse of many years it is normal and realistic to feel like your life is over and your world is destroyed. It would be a mistake not to worry about this because it is normal or because she saw it coming for a while. It's as bad as can be short of her children dying too. The ordinary nature of it for older people is a big part of how horrible it is.

talking a bit about getting things in order for when she dies

Let her talk about her own death if she tries to, if it's not incessant obsessive repetition that you can't stand to listen to. If there are practical details she wants to plan out, help her get them settled and written out and it will (may) make her feel better. Not that you should have to listen like a therapist but what she wants to say about her own death will probably have something to do with what she is thinking about his.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:19 PM on May 8, 2016

Has she traveled much? Has she been to Israel? Is there somewhere else she wants to go??

This may be a weird suggestion, but stay with me... I think your mom should plan some trips (with your help) for her off time this summer. My grandfather LOVED Alaska, as an example. There are group tours she could go on, these would be curated and safe. She might find a tour group through her synagogue - she doesn't have to travel with strangers. Maybe some teachers she likes are going abroad for the summer?

I've experienced deep loss a few times in my life. Each and every time, the thing that got me on a path to recovery was a new environment, a journey, a change of scenery - this boosted my ability to process my grief and see the light at the end of darker days.

Also, research something called "process groups" in her area. Similar to support groups, but (IME) run by professionals with a 6 or 8 week limit and structured a bit differently than a support group - if she's an academic she might really like this format!

I'm planning on a lot of overnight or 2 day camping trips with some light hiking for me and my 5 year old son this summer. I'm really good at camping. Low effort (my gear is dialed in) high enjoyment (I love being outside! And we have a Dobsonian Telescope this year!) If your mom's in LA, she is welcome to join us. I never go farther than 45 minutes (Malibu Creek State Park) to 2 hours (Red Rock Canyon State Park in the Mojave Desert, where the Natural History Museum has field trips for fossils) outside of LA proper.

I love sleeping on the beach (Thornhill Broome State Park, Malibu) but your mom in KY is closer to Tybee Island near Savannah (gosh how I love Savannah - so many amazing restaurants/history/architecture!) and also the Smokey Mountains in the Carolinas (I think North Carolina? It's been so long since I visited.)

Also, isn't this why folks get into taking cruises?

I'm not being flip. There's a big world outside your mom's doorstep. She needs kind people to lead her outside. I hope you can find her a path out.

Best of luck. I hope these suggestions help, even if the initial idea overwhelms her. Gently help her re-experience the world. This is my best advice.

PS - even a few nights at an expensive hotel rocks and can recharge your daily life, ask me how I know...
posted by jbenben at 8:25 PM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

National Geographic runs incredibly deluxe sounding group tours where all you have to do is sign up. And I found this agency that does interesting sounding Jewish themed group travel too, if that would be more comfortable. On the front page it sounds like it's a service for charter but if you click through to the itineraries you're interested in it sounds like they have group tours you can just sign up for as well.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:41 PM on May 8, 2016

So you probably know about shiva, and probably sat shiva for your dad, but did you know that traditionally Jewish mourning has three stages? Shiva is only the first. Then there's a gradual reincorporation of regular life stuff, but the third stage lasts for the rest of an entire year. It's a really wonderful and structured form of grieving, and one that I've gotten a lot out of despite being just a cultural Jew. I think it also speaks to the extensive experience Jews have with loss and death.

Anyway my point is that your mom sounds totally normal for six months after losing her husband and father to her kids. Could you call her rabbi and have a chat? About available congregational support for your mom during the summer, but also for yourself. (And if you are part of your own congregation, by all means speak to your own rabbi.) it is normal and healthy for someone who has experienced the death of a spouse to want to get their affairs in order for their own death. Being able to talk about it points to some healthy processing and acceptance. Perhaps this is a good time to practice some active listening with your mom and really engage with her desire to talk these things out.

If she has good friends, you could get to know them better (maybe through social media?) and then be able to ask them to do in-person things for her. Like you could send a gift certificate for pretty annual flowers and ask her gardening friend to help your mom plant, or tickets to a show on a night you know one of her friends can accompany her. Also if you become their friend your mom can feel more socially connected both in conversation with you and them.
posted by Mizu at 12:47 AM on May 9, 2016

You're expecting too much at six months. Every moment of the entire first year is so hard.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:49 AM on May 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Having looked at your previous question now: It also looks like your mother was a caregiver for your father for an extended period of time, which likely shaped her day-to-day life in a lot of ways she'll need to eventually learn to fill in other ways. So she's dealing with a gigantic life transition in addition to the grief. The most successful transitions tend to take time -- someone rushing into new activities or a new life just to get out of that limbo period generally makes reactive, rather than thoughtful, decisions. Taking passive time to grieve and process and mentally/emotionally sort through what's important is a good thing.

I would also focus, if you can, on listening to her without trying to cheer her up or offer solutions. There aren't really solutions after a death, and often trying to change someone's feelings about it can make them dig in their heels because they feel they aren't being listened to. If you're worried that she's suicidal, it's also ok to ask her if she's feeling suicidal. People sometimes think that asking about suicide will put it into someone's head, but if someone's not thinking about it, asking about it won't do so, and if they are, asking about it can be an extremely helpful intervention in itself. (This page is geared toward talking to people with mental illness about suicide, but most of the advice still applies.)
posted by lazuli at 6:16 AM on May 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

So, my questions are, of course, what can I do here? She's clearly depressed, and I feel incredibly helpless being away when she's suffering (I'm also an academic starting my summer break, so I can pull up stakes and go visit, and will). I How much of this is ordinary Kübler-Ross stuff, and how much of it is something I should worry about?

Grief can turn into clinical depression, but I think it is a mistake to treat grief after the death of a spouse (or the death of anyone, really) as something that needs to be treated and managed the way that depression does in the life of someone who is dealing with brain chemistry issues rather than a catastrophic loss.

My father and I are coming up on the five year anniversary of my mother's death. One of the most difficult things about grief is not merely the grief itself, but the sense that other people are ready for you to hurry up and stop grieving, move on, get on with your life, stop dwelling on it, focus on silver linings, other fish in the sea!!!! (in my father's case). I'm a little concerned that your concern, even though it is based in love, is going to pressure your mother into silence, or hiding her grief from you. When you can tell that people want you to hurry up and be okay, you can't actually just be better. But you can be quiet, and keep your sorrow to yourself, and fake it. Which actually makes the experience of grief worse, and last longer.

Six months is nothing. Five years is nothing. For some people, twenty years is nothing. We all grieve on different timetables.

Also, I would caution you that treating Kübler-Ross as a sort of timeline can also be counterproductive. There is this idea that you go "denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, DONE!!! GRADUATION!!!", and that just isn't true. Some people stick in denial for years. Some people go through the cycle on a constant loop-- including acceptance. I have gotten to different levels of acceptance, and felt "finished", and then I find myself back in a new area of denial/anger/depression. My cycle often incorporates joy, in the midst of the other ones. But it isn't like Candyland.

Just love your mother, without hoping for an endpoint. You cannot heal her grief. You cannot make it go away. To be honest, you shouldn't want to. The only way to grieve is to go through it. There is no way around. Therapy can certainly be helpful, but it is an aid, not a cure. Death is coming for us all. Sometimes staring at that reality and its impact on our lives, without flinching, for years, makes other people uncomfortable. But their discomfort is only a distraction from the process of coping, healing, loving, remembering, processing, growing.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:57 AM on May 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

I would encourage you to both understand that your mom's grief may be perfectly normal and understand that your worrying about her is normal. I agree with those who have noted that grief takes a long time, but I gently disagree that this is a matter of you expecting too much per se or thinking of yourself. She is hurting and you love her and you want to help; that's very, very human.

I am super not a doctor, but nothing you've said here pings anything for me personally that seems like it calls for intervention; I understand why having her speak about doubts that she can ever be happy again is scary for you, particularly paired with her talking about getting things in order for when she dies. The trick is that both of these things sound like things people sometimes say when they're terribly depressed, but they're also things it seems to me people might say out of simple grief -- well, simple complex grief.

I completely understand your compassion for your mom, and I understand how eager you are for her to show signs that she may one day be herself again. But she may not ever, quite, and that doesn't necessarily mean it's anything anyone else can solve. People are different after a loss like this, I think, and sometimes they're permanently changed by it. If it were me, I would be eager for my surviving parent to be whole again partly because my own grief and my own missing of the other parent would be profound, and having one parent gone entirely and one disappeared into sadness would be doubly difficult. Again, I don't think this is selfish -- I think it's human and loving and it's what your love for your parents is doing with you right now.

My only advice is to talk to her a lot. Be present and pay attention, and hear what she wants to say without measuring it against any hope you have for her to bounce back. She has had not only a tremendous loss, but a tremendous disruption to her daily schedule. Let her be sad with you, let her tell you that. That's the biggest-hearted, most kind, most loving thing you can do for her right now, is to make sure she knows you love her just as much as the sad person she's currently afraid she'll always be as you would if she were happier. (I know you do! I know you do. But she may need to hear it.)

Be good to yourself. This is such a hard thing to get through, and you seem to feel unequal to it, but I don't think you are. Her sadness doesn't mean you're not doing something right or not taking care of her enough. She's sad; that's a very adaptive, functional response to her situation, you know? And while I completely understand why what she's saying worries you, other than making sure she knows how much you treasure her, I'm not sure what you can do to help her feel better. It's above your pay grade, as it were. Talk to her, listen to her, tell her you love her, keep encouraging her to be in touch with her friends and her congregation. (That she still attends services and book club is, I think, good news.)

Best to you and your mom both. What a hard time it must be.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 9:15 AM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

A followup: we spoke again later in the week, and she's feeling less troubled. We get that this will come and go, that the road is hard, and I think my mother, brother, and I are all a bit more aware now of what we'll be facing in the years ahead. Thanks to all for putting perspective on the process.
posted by jackbishop at 1:36 PM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

« Older Should I go back to ordering takeout?   |   Can I still use these? Tampon edition. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.