How do I prepare myself for my parents’ deaths?
August 17, 2020 12:44 AM   Subscribe

I’m an only child and love my parents very much. Their time isn’t near (I hope), but I know it will come and I can’t bear thinking about it or facing it. How do I mentally prepare myself for this inevitable event? (Reading Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? didn’t exactly help.)
posted by Hooray For Socks! to Human Relations (22 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I am not there yet either. Buddhist philosophy helps a little. Reading "Being Mortal" helped, I think, with the most important thing: Understanding my limitations and getting through the denial a bit. My focus though is on not making every setback or limitation of aging worse for them by my denial or overprotectiveness.

When they die it will be terrible and you can't prepare in some way that will make it not terrible. But you can prepare in a way that means at least your own denial won't have made things worse, and you will have gotten what joy you can out of your lifetime together.
posted by Lady Li at 12:51 AM on August 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

My Dad died of cancer a couple of years ago and whilst we knew it was coming, you still don't feel prepared when it actually happens. For me, the one thing that helped, or at least wasn't another piece of shit on the pile, was the fact that I had been there for him and with him as much as I'd been able to in the previous few years.

In fact during those last years, stupid stuff he would do, that 10 years previously I would have had to have pointed out, causing an argument I forced myself to smile and say nothing and just let him get on with it.

I also made a point of never leaving his house with any sort of cloud hanging over us, would give him a kiss and say see you later, basically thinking would this be an OK memory if this were the last time I ever saw him? I didn't think this every time, but just treat it as a principle to live by.

Obviously this was with the shadow of cancer hanging over him which he'd had diagnosed nearly 20 years before he died, but I found that dealing with it this way, even when the disease hadn't really taken hold, really helped me to come to terms with his death when it finally did happen. I felt a peace that whilst what was happening was fucking horrible, at least I had no regrets and knew that I had done everything I could to make our time together as pleasant as possible.

So, the short answer is that I couldn't prepare myself fully, but just being there and being kind and loving went a long way.
posted by jontyjago at 3:07 AM on August 17, 2020 [13 favorites]

I was aware from eight I'd be alone one day, my parents' passing was very spaced out, one when I was 11, the other in my early 40's. Time together is more important than beliefs or philosophies imo; my parents were from different classes (planets too) and there are things I will never know about my mother.

Had I had more time (difficult when one is 8) I would have been able to find out those things which I know would help me understand my own life's path (my mother was Romany, probably a spy, very unsentimental, definitely fey and an only child of an only child) so, lovingly, ask and learn now.
posted by unearthed at 3:15 AM on August 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

This seems a bit weird maybe but don't prepare?

My dad died earlier this year and it's been a rollercoaster of emotions and all sorts of things you have to deal with and you know what? You'll just cope with it, prepared or not.

Don't worry about stuff that might happen one day. Who knows? You might even die first and then you've been fussing a lot for absolutely no reason.

The only thing I'd like to advice on this subject; don't postpone anything you want to do with your parents. Enjoy their company in the here and now and you'll have fond memories and no regrets.
posted by Kosmob0t at 3:48 AM on August 17, 2020 [6 favorites]

Something that has helped me in my grieving times is to have really leaned into enjoyment and appreciation of the times I have with my loved ones before they died. By really savoring and explicitly enjoying and appreciating the time we do have, I carry that sweetness with me after they've died.
posted by spindrifter at 5:07 AM on August 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

One of my parents died unexpectedly. That hasn't particularly helped me confront the idea that at some point the other parent will die. I get as far as encouraging the practical stuff, wills and powers of attorney and not hoarding and such like. I don't even bother attempting to confront in advance the fact that one day they will simply not exist.

I try to make things work so that I enjoy the time I spend with them. My experience with my other parent is that I didn't regret not spending every possible second with them I could, but I was sad that I would not be able to spend time with them in the future. That will always still be the case, regardless of how I tried to prepare.
posted by plonkee at 5:33 AM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

You might want to investigate the books of Stephen Levine. He and his wife wrote a number of books on dying and grief. I particularly recommend A Year to Live, which features thinking exercises and meditation practices spread out over a year.
posted by chocolatepeanutbuttercup at 6:20 AM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

My mom died three weeks ago, so this is still really fresh for me. I don't think there is anything you can do to prepare yourself. Grief is an inevitable part of life, and it sucks. But we all go through it: if you never experience grief, it's presumably because you either die very young or because you never love anyone, and either way it's tragic. Hopefully you will outlive your parents, because I wouldn't wish the alternative on either them or you, and you're going to feel terrible when they die. But you will get through it, as most people do. In the meantime, the best thing you can do is enjoy their company, be the son or daughter that you want to be, and be happy that you have a good relationship with them. I don't think you should dwell on their inevitable demise. When the time comes, you'll deal with it, but don't let that hopefully-way-down-the-line event overshadow the positive things about your relationship right now.

The one thing that I will say is that I don't think that Gen-X-and-younger people have been encouraged to think very much about the inevitable fact that our parents are going to get older and decline, and I think a lot of us haven't planned for that fact. From a practical standpoint, it might be worth thinking about that. Do you want to live close enough to them that you could help out if they needed you? If not, do you have a plan for how you will be involved and who will take care of them? Have you budgeted for emergency trips to see them if one of them had a prolonged illness? Most people I know don't think about this stuff until it becomes an issue, and I wish we were encouraged to consider it earlier. I don't really have any thoughts on making grief easier, because grief is what it is. But there are other things about the experience of losing a parent that I think can be improved with planning.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:29 AM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Like everyone else, I have to say that I don't think you can really prepare. My mom was sick off and on for a long time, and I thought I was ready, and then suddenly it was a day in the ER when they couldn't fix her anymore, and a couple days in hospice, and that was it. I really thought I was ready and it turns out that you just can't be (at least, I don't think so and that sounds like a common experience).

Love on your folks, spend as much time with them as you can (but make time for you - I spent spring break in Texas with my wife a couple weeks before mom passed and I don't regret it - I needed that time to get through the later. And my wife had been here and seen mom the week before, so that was good), and try not to borrow trouble - try to just be here. I know that's hard, but I spent a lot of time dwelling on "what's it going to be like when she's gone?" and none of it helped.
posted by joycehealy at 7:28 AM on August 17, 2020

I would start thinking of ways to get them to document their life especially the parts pre-digital cameras and social media. Video them talking about their family and growing up, college, how they met, first jobs, whatever. If old family photos aren’t organized and labeled, go through those with them. Compile scrapbooks and write down all the genealogical info and make copies. Get contact info from relatives you haven’t talked to in years.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:32 AM on August 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'm an only child, have lost both my parents, and now I'm the only one in Canada from my "before" family. I do have a husband and kids though.

I lost my dad in 2004. Unexpectedly, but not. He'd been in a nursing home for years, and wasn't well. BUt it was still a shock. But given the circumstances, his death was somewhat of a release/relief. And I still had my mum.
My mum died in 2018. Total shock. She had a cardiac event, crashed her car, spend 10 days in ICU before I let her go. I just can't even believe it happened, and I still think she's going to make me a cup of tea.

One was a sudden gone, and the other I had 10 days to prepare, and both sucked in their own way. But given the chance, I spent 10 days with my mum reading to her, and just grieving at her bedside. I'd prefer that.

To prepare, make sure the logistics are taken care of. The wills. Named beneficiary on any and all funds that can possibly have one. If one passes, make sure the other one updates everything. Ask them about funerals, bodies etc. Just get all that logisical stuff taken care of so that when it does happen, its "easy" to just go through the motions of the first two weeks. Other than that, just spend time as you can (its not like every moment or anything).

My husband's mum is fading away (cancer) and we expect we don't have that much time. I'm encouraging to go spend some time with them now (they are 2 hours away, and he can work from their house) and just spend time with them, one on one, without me or the kids. Its a different dynamic without us. IT will aslo provide some relief for his dad on the day to day.

I'm kind of rambling.. but essentially, spend time, get the logistics in order, and just enjoy all the time you can.
posted by Ftsqg at 7:44 AM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've lost both parents. Learn to not be afraid of grief, it is terrible, it sucks but it is an important part of healing, not just from someone passing, but smaller losses too, they're a good place to practice. Grief is healing, it is saying hey this thing I lost was important to me & my grief is recognizing & "honoring" that loss. To come to realize that' it's OK to be sad & mourn, that it can feel like pounding ocean waves pulling you under, but it passes & you surface & breath & see the sun again & the pain will become manageable, returning occasionally to surprise you when you least expect it & that's OK too.

Knowing what my parents wanted done after they passed helped immensely, so have those hard conversations with them. The rituals surrounding grief are an important part of healing whatever those rituals look like for you & your family honor them. These rituals don't end after the funeral either, my mother used to light a candle every Christmas for my father when he passed. I release a floating lantern every year on my mothers birthday & make donations in her name at Christmas. Maybe talk to your parents about rituals that might be important to them, or think up some of your own.

Have a social structure in place of people you can talk to about them, people to share memories with, one of the worst parts of being in another country now is that I am surrounded by people that love me but none of them knew my mother, I have no one to share my stories with.

Record things you might want to remember about them now. Take photos now, ask them questions now, write up that family tree & write down the stories while they're fresh in your mind.

Make sure they make a will & write down clear instructions. Nothing makes grieving & healing a 100times harder than it needs to be than family tearing themselves up over things. My mother has been dead over 2 years now, she left me one item & the money to ship it in her will, I'm still waiting for my brother to send it to me even though he got everything else she owned & is living in her house because she trusted him & didn't leave a will.

Oh the thing they don't tell you about, having been through the death of both parents. How little bothers me anymore, I am braver than I ever thought I could be. The worst thing I could have imagined happening at that time, happened & the pain was terrible but I survived, I wouldn't wish them dead, would give anything for a few minutes again with my mother, but the feeling of "fuck I survived that much pain, nothing else can hurt me that much again" is a weirdly liberating side effect I didn't expect.
posted by wwax at 7:45 AM on August 17, 2020 [6 favorites]

Know that you'll handle it, as prepared as you are right now. Heading into a possibly terminal illness, it's the fear of the unknown that's the most withering. Things'll pop up in your path like spooks in a funhouse and then are just “there” for the duration, so you cope. You'll focus on the day to day. Remember to care for yourself. EXPECT a few people to be assholes. It won’t be perfect.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:08 AM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I am in a similar position to you (only child, love my parents, worried about the toll it will take on me to lose them) and one thing that I consciously do is talk about my parents a lot and try to introduce them to my close friends. It helps that my dad has a big personality and has kind of become a "character" among my friend group -- newer friends will tell me "I hope I get to meet your dad someday!" I don't want to be the only person of my generation who knows how great my parents are -- I want my friends to know that too, and be able to remember and grieve my parents with me after they pass. Doing this has lessened the fear that I will be totally alone in my grief.
posted by clair-de-lune at 10:06 AM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

This seems a bit weird maybe but don't prepare?

This was kind of my path. I know everyone's is different. I lost my mom two years ago and my dad nine years ago. I miss them, on and off, and it's weird not having parents. Here are a few different categories of things that are worth thinking about

1. Plans - the usual. Do they have wills, durable power of attorney, health care proxies? Do you know what their final wishes are, and their less-than-final wishes (for as they age). It can be a great kindness to be able to help your parents with end-of-life things knowing you are implementing their plans, it can help those times from feeling less hectic and adrift.

2. Other people - do you have siblings and/or other family members you are close to but could be closer to? For me, having a sister who is more or less on the same page with me has been HUGE. My parents weren't super well-connected to the rest of their families so it's been a bit of rebuilding work getting back in with the rest of the family. If your parents are kind of the bottleneck to the rest of the family, work on that. Also do you have other parental-aged people who you are close to? Can be good to have other people in your life who can help with the roles your parents serve. Not that anyone will ever be your parents, but sometimes their absence is lessened if you have other people in your life who, for example, knew you as a kid, or celebrated milestones with you. I've created an unexpected friendship from my dad's old girlfriend from a long time ago. She's still around and even though we were out of touch for decades, she's back in my life and that's been good.

3. Your folks - don't live in a world where you're worried about their absence and instead appreciate their presence. One of the things my mother told me, after my father had died, was that even though her father had died in 1971, he was still with her in a way, he was in her mind, she thought about him and felt interactive with him. She knew how he felt about her and felt okay about that. That's really how I've felt about my folks. We had difficult relationships but I didn't think things were unspoken or left unsaid.

A lot of this depends on how you deal with... emotional stuff generally. I'm not super emotive and I was not super emotive when my folks died. Grief takes a while and if you don't fight it (and have support in your life in whatever form it takes) generally it's a waiting game. Best of luck, however your path goes.
posted by jessamyn at 10:47 AM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Hallie Bateman's What to Do When I'm Gone might be more helpful reading than the Roz Chast. It's step-by-step advice for losing a parent from a parent—Bateman asked her mom for motherly advice on how to move forward after she (someday, hopefully far in the future) dies. If part of your anxiety is "I won't know what to do with myself," this might speak to you.
posted by babelfish at 12:29 PM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

My father died unexpectedly almost ten years ago, when I was in my early 20s. I had recently moved very far away from all my close friends, and none of my new ones had had that experience or were equipped to support me through it. That, somehow, was the hardest part day-to-day: I felt like an alien, totally cut off from everyone and totally unable to explain why. Having a go-to Team You (phrase stolen from Captain Awkward)--and that can mean one or two people--whom you can rely on when shit gets serious might help with the fear of being left totally alone; on a more practical level, having this kind of support will probably help in the immediate (and long-term) aftermath of grief. You really cannot prepare yourself for the loss as such; I think it's going to be more helpful in the long run to focus on having the best relationship possible with your parents in the here and now, while also investing in a wider support network if you don't already have one.

A few years after my father's death, trying to wade through the horseshit that was my mid-20s, I picked up Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. In the second half of the book he relates an experience with a patient struggling to cope following his wife's death. Frankl tells the man, look, there were only ever two options here: one of you, barring some sort of accident, was always going to die before the other. By surviving your wife, you are sparing her the pain and grief of experiencing your own death. The patient was able to go forward in the knowledge that because he bore the pain of their inevitable separation, his wife would never have to. I had not really been looking for guidance on my grief as such when I started the book, but that passage radically changed my perspective on losing my parent, and has stayed with me ever since. The only alternative would have been for me to pre-decease my father, an experience I, despite our differences, would never have wanted for him.

The love you have for your parents makes their eventual death an extremely scary idea, and that's normal and I feel it so hard, I do. But that love is also what will carry you when the time comes, I promise.
posted by peakes at 12:49 PM on August 17, 2020 [6 favorites]

How do I mentally prepare myself for this inevitable event?

By telling yourself that it's completely certain to suck incredibly badly, and then reminding yourself that since there is absolutely nothing a person can possibly do to make something like that suck less, your best option is to practise shoving all of that suck back into the future where it belongs so that it doesn't screw up today as well.

I use this technique every time I catch myself in the act of dreading pretty much anything that I have good reason to believe is going to suck. It works.
posted by flabdablet at 2:13 PM on August 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

This book changed my relationship with death: The Five Invitations, written by the director of the San Francisco Zen Hospice. It really helps one find meaning, beauty, and peace in death.
posted by namesarehard at 3:46 PM on August 17, 2020

I'm also an only child, and both my parents have died. They were divorced but I live in the same city as both and had close day-to-day relationships with them. I also agonized for years about how I would react when they eventually died, and I particularly worried about eulogizing my mother, a dominant and complex woman who I have a very checkered past with. She was the force I reacted against for decades. In fact, hers was the death I dealt with the best. Possibly because I dreaded and focused on it more.

My mom had cancer, but she was in remission after several years of treatments and surgeries. She was feeling better, more energetic and we were planning to travel together. She died very suddenly from a catastrophic stroke, and I barely got to say good-bye in the ER. It was up to me to decide on a Do Not Resuscitate, to face the doctors and convey her wishes. I had to arrange the funeral, the burial, the after-burial lunch. She was a prominent historian and scholar and there were many, many people at the service, and as her only child, I had to speak. I tried to be informal, and talked about her accomplishments, but also her more difficult characteristics. She was very difficult to please, professionally and personally, and when I made that remark there was a rumble of knowing laughter in the church. That was really wonderful, and made me feel I was among a group of people who really know my mom. It was all OK after that.

My dad, on the other hand, has long been a silent and more difficult person. More difficult to me because he was always more mutable. Give me a person with a point of view who defends it vigorously! Not my dad. He could be persuaded by the last person he talked to. It drove me absolutely nuts. Then he got sick, and went into hospice, and it was a many-month slog.

I think because I had a less definable relationship with him, my feelings around his death have been less intense. He had remarried, and his wife was deeply in love and grieving intensely. We collaborated on his funeral, but I didn't speak at the service. I was too emotional, which sounds inconsistent, but I just couldn't put my relationship with him into words. It was just too amorphous, and I left it to his widow to select speakers.

I also don't visit their graves very frequently - they are buried in the same plot they bought before their divorce. Sounds strange, I imagine, but it was an incredible plot in a Civil War era historic cemetery my mom, as a historian, had found on a fluke. I commissioned a sculptor I know to design and fabricate a monument, a granite bench I can sit on when I go visit. It has settled in nicely among all the Civil war monuments and 1918 influenza markers that surround it.

My mom died a decade ago, my dad 2 years ago. It really does get better.
posted by citygirl at 6:56 PM on August 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I just want to strongly second trying to have a videotaped interview with them if they're willing. (also, back up the file of the interview)

It won't help you prepare. You quite possibly won't be able to bear listening to it at all for some time.

Do it anyway, and do it as soon as possible.
posted by Cozybee at 11:02 AM on August 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

If it interests you, I encourage you to do some genealogy work with your parents now. It helps provide a way to capture stories about their lives and the things that shaped them--and in turn shaped you. There were a lot of stories my mum used to tell that I never wrote down because I assumed I'd always remember them, but now, even just a couple years from her death, some of the details fade, and I wish I just had some stories captured in her own words. (She wasn't much of a writer.) Also, in going through her things, I found a video tape with her talking to her parents, and that was such a poignant find. I do wish there was more of that.

Also echoing what others say about getting prepared and having documents and records in order. A friend of mine recently lost her dad quite suddenly, and she and her siblings did not have access to any passwords, or a list of accounts or anything. It compounds the grief to have things feel so out of control following a death.

Have a conversation with your parents about how you're going to miss them when they are gone. Share your anxiety. Ask them how they would like you to remember them and honour them. My dad has dementia now, but I make a point to tell him about the things I have learned from him, and the practices I have adopted in my own life, the little rituals and traditions that I want to keep alive.

I don't have children of my own, but I am struck by the fact that several of my friends with kids talk about being deliberate about "making memories" with them. Is this something we forget to do as we get older? Why not create a list of things to do to "make memories" together while you still have them in your life? Just being conscious or mindful of this might help address the fear of the inevitable.
posted by amusebuche at 10:01 PM on August 21, 2020

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