Listening to Dying Parent Could Be Greatest Gift

Dear ElderWise: My parent is dying. I’m dying inside not being able to talk about what’s really important. Can you help?

Dear Reader: I think so.

Author Susan E. Barbour recently wrote about this topic in the Adultspan Journal (Spring 2001). She proposes that adult children can play a vital role in “the painful but potentially rewarding process of comforting and leave-taking of dying parents.”

She explains these communication impasses are underscored by tremendous mixed feelings. Children who are in the prime of their own lives face their parents’ twilight with intense and mixed feelings…Unfortunately, conversations between children and their dying parents are not easy to have.

Some of her more poignant comments include: “Children cannot bear their parents’ approaching deaths, in part because those deaths remind them of their own mortality. I remember when my father cast the first handful of dirt into the burial site of my grandfather, his father: I thought, “he (my father) is next.” The progression of time was marching all the more closely toward me….

“Children, in finding a way to cope with unmanageable grief. May patronize, ignore, or simply not visit aging. Ill parents or those parents who are too forgetful to recognize them or to recall if the children had come the day before.

“Some children become solicitous and overly encouraging of their parents, buffeting reality with potentially errant optimism. “Things will look up or don’t talk like that are well meaning comments that foreclose the possibility of healing that may occur when barriers against pain are faced.

“Parents hope for a way to talk with their children about their experiences and the meaning their lives and deaths hold for them. However, parents may be hesitant to raise a topic that brings pain to their children or that may prompt a rebuff. They often take their cues from how responsive their children are to unspoken communications.

“Most aging American will proceed through the stages of decline and depart their dearest relationships in pain or solitude without the emotional presence of those closest to them.”

Getting through the communication barrier is hard enough. Navigating our interior emotional terrain to identify our personal pain, touch it and comfort it enough to promote more open communication is harder still.

Our deepest fears about our parents’ death reach into our dreams. As Barbour explains, our dreams manifest our scare through “images of trips and departures, of movement from one place to another….” Personally, I’ve had a recurring dream about my mother moving out of the family homestead. In the dream, I keep wishing that she won’t move, but I know it’s inevitable.

I’m reminded of a country singer (I believe it’s Bonnie Rait), who ask her Higher Power to help her through the seasons of her life—she’s built it around her father and she’s now middle aged and her father is moving toward the horizon of this life. Simply put, watching our parents move toward this horizon can spur the greatest angst in our hearts. How we deal with this angst is critical, not only for our parents, but for ourselves.

Our parents, on the other hand, instinctively still want to protect us, while they struggle internally with letting go of hard-won, long-held and cherished degrees of independence. So if they raise the topic of saying goodbye and are met with their child’s emotional rebuff, they are apt to batten down the hatches of this potentially rewarding emotional material.

So how do we get our dying loved ones to talk about life’s most important matters? While the author doesn’t offer specific strategies, she nicely summarizes that by our mere willingness to listen, “peace comes for both our parents and for us.” “Listen” really means Learning In Silence (of) Their Emotional Needs. Some of us adult children can be open to this material. Others ignore, pretend, laugh away or stay away because they cannot….

Sue E. Fabian J.D., M.Ed.
ElderWise Advisor/Advocate

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