Sunday, July 15, 2007

Losing Your Parent In Adulthood

This post is for my good friends - Ginny and Glenda whose devotion to their fathers inspired me and for Leah, Carissa and Lia who take wonderful care of their own dads in the best ways that they can.
I came face to face with mortality this week -several times over, in fact.

Last Monday, I received a text message saying that the father of a high school classmate had passed away after a long illness. The following day, I went to the hospital to visit the father of another very good friend from high school. Yesterday, I received an email from another from a childhood friend, saying that her dad’s health had just turned from bad to worse.

At midlife you suddenly become very aware of your mortality when you notice that the death of persons very close to you – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents – become more frequent. My sage of an eight-year old put it perfectly yesterday when he said, “You seem to be going to wakes every two weeks now.”

The birth of our children and the death of our parents are miles apart on the journey that is life but they are major events that transform us forever. When you lose a parent, that part of your past is gone forever. When that parent is ill for a long-time, prior to his/her passing, we find the roles reversed, as we become parent and our parent, in all his/her vulnerability, becomes the child.
Alexandra Kennedy, a psychotherapist who specializes in adult grief, wrote the book “Losing A Paren.” after her father’s death. She writes -- “The generation of adults referred to as the "sandwich generation" is simultaneously raising children and caring for aging and dying parents. Many also have full-time jobs. The pressures are immense as these adults, already emotionally overwhelmed, try to attend to the competing needs of parents and children. No matter what they do, someone seems to feel hurt, left out, or resentful. Tied down with responsibilities at home, many members of this generation experience a lack of freedom to respond to their dying parents as they would want to.”
Kennedy explains that a parent’s illness or decline can place a tremendous strain on family life, demanding an exhausting expenditure of time, attention, and money. She stresses that the whole feeling of uncertainty and anxiety is both emotionally and physically, and financially draining.
As a people, we are blessed to have very strong family support systems, and though grief is not as freely discussed, there is more room and openness now for the bereaved to share their feelings in support groups or through one on one sessions with a counselor, priest or pastor. However, because as a people we were not raised to be vocal about what we want and need, many, who belong to the current sandwich generation find themselves taxed and burdened after the death of a parent. It is normal to be drained after a loss – emotionally, physically, and sometimes even financially – but there are steps that one can undertake to get back into the stream of things as one begins the journey towards healing. Here are some things that you can do for yourself as you move on after the loss of your parent :
• Be patient and kind to yourself. The supermom or superdad is a myth. Especially during a time of loss or illness, you do the best you can and leave the rest to God and other family members.
• Grief recovery takes time. Allow yourself to feel vulnerable and go with the flow of your pain for as long as you need to. At one of our recent Griefshare workshops, I was apalled by the story of one of our attendees. This young woman had lost both her parents in a span of three days. A cousin had told her, “I am giving you three months to recover.” Goodness! The woman had just lost her entire history and two beloved parents and she was expected to get back on her feet in the blink of an eye!? There is no set time table for grief and no one can tell you when you should be over your loss. For as long as you remain functional and do not harm yourself or your loved ones go ahead and do your grief work well.
• Take time each day to retreat to a quiet place where you can re-group, meditate, pray, journal, cry or just be with your thoughts. In grief work moments of solitude are essential. Afterward these times of quiet, it becomes easier to get back to the duties of daily living.
• Share your feelings with your children and listen to their concerns about the situation, you, and their grandparents. Children can be wise beyond their years and there is much that we can learn from them about ourselves if we take the time to listen.
• Be as open and express your feelings to as your spouse or partner. I was touched when my friend paid tribute to her husband whom she says was extremely supportive in every sense during her father’s illness. Make your spouse or partner understand that grief takes time, and tell them what you want and need from them.
• In situations where you cannot be with your dying parent, Kennedy suggests that you be creative – write a letter, meditate or pray, talk to your parent through your heart. In your time alone, work on healing the unresolved issues in your relationship.
• Support your other parent in the best way that you can without burning out. Delegate other responsibilities to your children, your siblings and find other possibilities for emotional support of need be eg. Seeking counseling, joining a support group. This is a time when family dynamics are expected to shift, when major family changes are slowly set into place.
• Do something special and pro-active each year to remember your parent with love. Reaching out of one’s grief to help others is one of the best ways to heal. I remember one mentor of mine who was very close to her father who, during his lifetime, was very passionate about basketball. On the anniversary of her father’s death, she, together with her brothers would organize a basketball camp for the street children in their community, the highlight of which would be a tournament in memory of their dad.
One of the key things in grief recovery, whether it be the loss of a parent, a child or a loved one is for the bereaved to be able to move from the wrenching feelings of longing and loneliness for the presence of our departed loved one, into a place where we are able to remember them with joy. “Death is not the end of love”, Mitch Albom wrote in “The Five People That You Meet In Heaven”, simply because, we carry the memory of our loved ones forever safely in our hearts.

This article appeared in my ROOTS and WINGS column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 15, 2007

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