When we’re young, we learn the happy parts of life fast. Small children have a genuine, real love for everything, and adults make a huge effort to preserve that naive happiness. Real life inevitably starts to break through the shimmering glow, no matter how hard adults try to shield little ones from it.
I think that as soon as you learn what death is, and that everyone dies one day, you start to realize that means your parents aren’t likely to outlive you. No one deals with the idea of our parents mortality the same way as anyone else, and our coping strategies evolve as we grow up. For me, accepting that my parents will likely die within my lifetime involved a lot of rational thought, and a lot of waking up in the middle of the night crying.
In my waking hours it was easy to identify the facts — It’s going to happen, I will be sad, there will be paperwork and legal things to sort out, they could die at any moment, they might suffer an illness, I need to be ready for all outcomes.
In my sleep, I had nightmares about all the What If situations… My Dad rolling his semi-truck, my Mom accidentally overdosing on a prescription, suicide, murdered by a home invader, every horrific possibility has flooded my sleep for decades. I would wake and cry until morning, useless at work the next day with no great excuse aside from “My parents are only humans, and I can’t deal with that”
The reality was not one of the nightmares I had already prepared myself for. After several years of suffering through a mystery disease that killed her from the inside, my Mom’s heart stopped, quietly in her sleep, comfortable at home. Dad snuck out of the house early in the morning, trying to avoid waking her up. He didn’t know yet she would never wake up. When the cleaning lady came to help do the chores that my mother could no longer do, she found my Mom and called the appropriate authorities. The police called my Dad, told him that she was gone, and brought him home from work so that he wouldn’t have to drive while processing the fact that his best friend was dead.
As far as deaths go, it was pretty much ideal — She was no longer in pain. She was at home with Dad and their dog, not in the hospital alone. She passed peacefully asleep. My Dad didn’t have to discover her dead, curled up in her bed.
Despite all the ways we were lucky, it was absolutely devastating to hear Dad struggling to tell me that she was gone. Even though we knew she was sick, even though we had to stand by and watch her wither away to 70lbs, unable to eat most of the time, everyone was stunned when she passed away. All the mental preparation I’d done, knowing it would happen one day, was all for nothing. It still hit me like a tornado.
It hit my Dad even harder. They had been married for over 37 years, through some amazing times and some extremely shitty times. There were times when I was sure they were done, but they stood their ground. They showed me that you don’t give up on people you love just because things got hard. And things were getting really hard in my family.
Dad was still in shock for weeks after Mom died. She had no will, so he became the person in charge of all of the aspects of her life that needed to be dealt with. My sister and I rushed out to be with him, trying to help however we can. We helped him figure out what needed to be done, set up appointments, made sure he ate and slept and took his medications. In his grief, his mind wandered constantly. Mid sentence, he would stop and stare off into space, pulled out of reality into memory, triggered by something he said or saw or smelled that reminded him that his world was crumbling. On top of all this, he still had to do all of the practical work that surrounded her death.
When someone dies, there’s an absolute mountain of things that need to happen. The funeral home needs to be chosen and contacted, the deceased’s will needs to be uncovered, the executor has to be reached, someone needs to deal with their cell phone, bank accounts, car, insurance, clothing, jewelry, all the things that make up a persons life. All of this needs to be done ASAP, usually by people who were very close with the deceased. People who have suffered a horrific blow, who are trying to come to terms with the death of a loved one.
I stayed for over two weeks with him, trying to make sure everything got done — The cell phone cancelled, the bank accounts closed, her car changed into his name, the clothes brought to a donation bin, her urn chosen and her ashes brought home… It was torture. The only way I was able to get through most days was to tell myself that she’s just in the hospital, I’m just running errands for her while she’s stuck in the hospital. Hours of trying to keep it together, to make sure things got done, don’t cry or Dad will break down too…
My Mom always promised me that she would die during the summer, so that no one had to travel through the snow and ice. She kept that promise. It was a relief for our family, the highway between where my sister and I live and where my parents live is treacherous in the winter. In a way, we were lucky that she passed during the COVID-19 pandemic. We had the freedom to plan her celebration of life later, when the pandemic is over and we’re in a better mind space to deal with event planning. As we struggled through this massive list of chores, the same thoughts kept coming to us all — We’re so glad that we don’t have to plan a funeral right now. We’re so happy that we’re not being overrun by visitors yet. It’s a relief that, on top of our grief and our chores and learning what we need to do in this new situation, we don’t have to also find places for cousins and aunts and uncles to sleep or plan an event on short notice.
The absurdity of dealing with paperwork, funeral homes, car titles, bank accounts and everything else in such a time of grief and shock is still blowing my mind. The medical authorities who came when the cleaning lady called were a help, they gave my Dad a list of things that he needed to deal with. Our funeral home director was amazing, he looked after so many little things for us that we had no clue how to start with. Even the bank had a very helpful “Guide for Executors” handbook. As much as these people made this easier, there was no one to tell us how to build up the courage to dig through Mom’s purse, or how to throw it away once we emptied it (it’s sitting on the kitchen floor still, 3 weeks later…) There was no one to help set up appointments, or to advise what order things needed to be done in.
We still have a lot of questions, and it seems that the only way we will be able to answer them is through time, trial and error. Death Coordinator needs to be a thing — Someone to help identify what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, make the phone calls, set the appointments, put it all on auto-pilot and just tell the grieving people tasked with managing the estate where to go and when.
It’s really hard to be there for my sister and my Dad when I don’t want to wake up. It’s difficult to concentrate on my work now that I’m back home, knowing that there are still things to be done. It’s a struggle to let my mind relax enough to start grieving, and to stop trying to keep it busy enough to push that to the back. There’s no way to be ready for the death of your parent, even if you’ve spent most of your life trying to be ready for it.