5 Brief Reflections on the Death of an Elderly Parent
Updated: May 21, 2021
When, at the age of 36, I lost my father, I started to feel as though the world was divided into those who had lost a parent and those who have not. Now in my '50s, I feel the same way. There is still a gulf between those of us who have lost a parent and those of us who have not. My father was 44 when I was born and he was 80 when he died. In other words, at 36 I was, by the standards of today, young to lose a parent. Many people today do not lose a parent until they are in their ‘50s and ‘60s. Whatever your age, if you are facing the loss of a parent, this blog is for you.
1. My experience is that nothing prepares you for this loss. Certainly, at a cognitive level, you know that your parent will die at some point. At an emotional level, it gets more complicated. It’s hard for me to explain how emotionally unprepared I was for losing my dad. But that's OK because now I can look back on all that I have learned since about him and about myself.
2. Which brings me on to the, for me, wholly unanticipated phenomenon whereby the deceased chooses the time of his passing. My father died at about 7.00am on a Monday morning. This had the advantage that we, the family, had the entire week ahead of us in which to make the funeral arrangements and deal with the resulting admin. I don’t think that this was an accident. He knew what he was doing and he wanted it that way. I have heard many stories about people choosing to die alone when their visitors are out of the room. The surviving relatives may be left feeling guilty that they were not at the bedside at the critical moment but, as medical professionals who witness death on a regular basis will tell you, many people chose to die this way.
3. My father knew for at least three months before his death that he was dying. He had accepted it long before I did. Once my father could no longer do the things he wanted to do, ie to be out there in the world, he was, I feel, ready to leave us behind. Do not however underestimate however the pain of watching your parent die. Their death will most often be a process, not an event. They may know and accept what is happening to them long before you do. Or they may suffer emotionally as well as physically and you may find yourself suffering emotionally with them.
4. As a person's death approaches, the dynamics of the family can be played out at high speed. The French film director, Jean-Luc Goddard, said that "The cinema is truth at 24 frames-per-second.". The period leading up to and following the death of a parent can be like a movie. At this time, truths both welcome and unwelcome may emerge with great rapidity and elements of the dying person's life, and your relationship to them, may feel as though they are flashing before your eyes like a movie. And the death of a parent can be a liberation. I have heard from others, even in apparently well-functioning families, that the death of a parent can mean that “I can do what I want now”. We can so easily be enslaved by the past.
5. The death of a member of the older generation may feel like a change in your personal landscape or like a building falling down. And, of course, you may feel the chill wind of your own mortality in its aftermath. Considering my father’s life and death, and my role in those events, has brought me to a realisation that I could do no other at that time and therefore to a place of greater self-awareness and self-forgiveness. More importantly, that process has given me a greater hope and faith in the future.
If issues of this nature are troubling you, counselling may be able to help you. Consider getting in touch with me (email@example.com) or another counsellor via the Counselling Directory (https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/), the BACP (https://www.bacp.co.uk/) or Psychology Today.(https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb). There may also be low-cost or free counselling services available to you via your local branches of Mind and Cruse.