As our parents age, we must come to terms with the idea of losing them. I do not care how well prepared you think you are, it will most likely be hard. You can not help but worry about the parent left behind. What must they be going through?
Today at work, a nurse practitioner and I were talking and the subject of death came up. She had lost her husband less than a year ago, after almost 30 years of marriage. She still misses him. While I can give you my observations about grief, I thought I would let her tell of her experience. Though she is not elderly by any means, perhaps, her words can help you understand some of what your parent is going through.
“It’s still hard. People don’t understand. He was my best friend. How do you put a time limit on how long you grieve? It isn’t like there is a magical moment when you wake up and suddenly the hole in your life has filled in.”
“How long were you married,” I asked.
“Twenty-nine years,” she smiled as she answered.
“That’s a long time. You kind of get used to having someone around after that long,” I replied.
She nodded. “I thought I was doing ok and then one day I went to church and I just lost it. I couldn’t go to church for a long time without crying. I just quit going for a while. It’s better now but still….”
Her husband had been a pastor. She had just come from church. I can only imagine how hard it must be for her. Many people turn to their faith to help them through the grieving process but for her, it is making it harder.
“For a long time I just walked around in a fog,” she continued. “I came to work. I guess I did okay. I wanted to just stay home but that wasn’t an option. I have to work.”
“Do you think that working might have helped,” I asked?
“Probably,” she answered. “I don’t know. I just sort of shut down for a while. I was visiting some friends who were well-meaning, trying to help me. They introduced me to their neighbor who had lost her husband the year before. She told that she didn’t feel anything for about six months. She said her grandchildren were over and she cut her hand and realized, it hurt and that was the first pain she had felt in six months.”
“Wow.” I was surprised. I did not realize that grief could actually block out physical pain.
“She was wonderful. She told me to call her anytime. People mean well. My friends are always wanting me to places and my kids are always trying to get me to a movie or out to eat…” She paused, searching for words.
“It’s just too much effort, isn’t it?”
“Yes! You understand!” She smiled.
I laughed. “It ain’t just you. I think it is a curse of the profession. When you get off work, there just isn’t much left to give.”
She nodded in agreement. “I was very fortunate to be able to take off and be with him those last six weeks in ICU. When they got him off the ventilator we got our hopes up. But when they wanted to put in a tracheostomy and PEG-tube, I wouldn’t let them. We had talked about it and I knew he didn’t want that. He was very clear…” Again she paused, searching.
“It was still hard, wasn’t it,” I asked?
“Yes, it was. Even knowing all we know and what the realities are in these situations and seeing all we’ve seen…it is different when it’s your spouse. I mean, we’d talked about it several times. We were both clear on what the other wanted and knowing that helped. But yeah, it was hard,” she acknowledged.
“But you’re at peace with your decision,” I commented.
“Yes. Yes, I really am. I know it was the right decision. I knew it then, but it was still hard.”
And sitting there looking at her you could tell she really was at peace with her decision to not have her husband’s life prolonged by artificial means. She had honored his wishes. And he had left her one final gift. The gift of knowing what he wanted gave her peace.