By Alexandra Kennedy
Photographs by Steve Northup
Our parents, in their death, offer us the gift of another birth. In receiving that gift, we come to embrace life fully–with all its mystery and humanness, conflict and resolution, joys and sorrows, separations and meetings.
My father lay in a hospital room his body an immobile lump under a sheet. His eyes stared unseeing through a gray film His skin was white, his breathing shallow and irregular. I held his warm hand, tenderly stroking the fingers. He was vulnerable and open, like a child.
His attention seemed focused on an inner struggle, on breaking the last threads that tied him to his body - one he had clearly outgrown. He was struggling toward death, just as my son had struggled toward birth six years before. I breathed in rhythm with Dad's breathing, stroking his forehead, swabbing his mouth with water, talking to him, despite the coma he was in. I felt like a midwife, supporting him through this passage. I reflected back on how my husband had played this role for me during labor - holding my hand, stroking my forehead, and talking to me as I moved through each contraction. I felt as though I were swimming in a vast ocean, struggling to meet each huge wave that swelled over and threatened to submerge me if my attention wandered. I had to flow with the rhythm of these tides. After four hours, I reached the critical transition stage of total cervical dilation. At this point, I felt I had reached my limit; I was exhausted, and the pain was excruciating. Responding to my husband's encouragement, I reached deep down into myself for the strength and courage to go on.
And then I began pushing, pushing past my limitations, past old concepts of who I was. Both a baby and a mother were born that morning. Both of us had let go of the limited space of an old world, had struggled through a long, dark passage and finally emerged.
My father was now struggling through that long passage. He was laboring to free himself of bodily limitations and emerge into pure spirit. Already the room was filled with his presence. His body could contain him no longer, and he flowed all around me. I was filled with love.
There I was at the bedside of my dying father, reflecting on the passage of labor with my son. The two events felt closely linked, though at opposite ends of life's continuum. Just as the birth of our children is a rite of passage, so, too, is the death of our parents. These events change us; we will never be the same.
Caring for Parents and Children
How do we work with these forces of transformation and change? How can we help our parents through their passage while caring for our children? How can we make time for our own grieving? How can we integrate these changes into family life?
I struggled with these questions from the moment I heard my mother's message on my answering machine: "Dad has cancer all through his bones. We just heard from the doctor. Don't call me back because Dad doesn't want anyone to know." I had not been prepared for the intensity of feelings that surged through me. I felt shocked and alone. I wanted more time to resolve and heal the wounds in our relationship, more time for those special father-daughter moments, more time for my son to spend with his grandfather.
My father went on with life, going to work as usual, hiding his illness from everyone. My mother turned to me for support with each new crisis, and every time the phone rang, my body tensed in anticipation of the news. The future seemed frightening, the present highly stressful. My patience was thin; loud noises disturbed me. I felt raw and cried easily. I needed time alone. My emotional state did not seem compatible with my son's naturally rambunctious, energetic nature. In short, my parenting skills disintegrated.
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.
A parent's illness or decline can place a tremendous strain on family life, demanding an exhausting expenditure of time, attention, and money. A debilitating illness may cause physical and personality changes as well. Living with uncertainty throughout this period is emotionally and physically draining. One crisis often follows another, leaving little time to recuperate. Medical, legal, and financial responsibilities create added pressures, as do repeated trips away from home if parents live in another area. Then, with the death of a parent comes the further responsibility of caring for the other parent, while both people are grieving.
During a grandparent's illness or decline, children may become upset by a decrease in attention or a change in routine, by the heightened emotions of the adults around them, or by their own grief. They may be frightened by the turmoil surrounding the illness, or threatened by a new sense of tension in the household.
My son began acting out soon after I received the news of my father's cancer. The more preoccupied I became, the louder he yelled and the more he tested. Still, I kept my father's secret and did not share the news of his illness with my son. The only person I told was my husband. As time passed and the situation with my son escalated, I realized that I could no longer subject my child to my father's rules. My struggle to cope with the stress of his illness could not continue to throw me back into the unhealthy patterns I had learned as a child. Clearly, my parents' method of coping with their crisis was not healthy for my family. My son was sensing, as children do, that the secret was festering inside me.
So I began talking about his grandfather's illness. Seeing no physical changes in his granddaddy, my son responded more to my sadness than to the illness. The days passed, and I told a few close friends as well. I could breathe fully again. And my son calmed down.
Although I knew the road ahead would be hard, I now felt the support of family and friends. Most of all, in acknowledging how big this event was in my life, I felt momentous inner shifts. One of the two people who had given me life was now dying. Suddenly there was no buffer between me and death. I was next. Propelled into a painful evaluation of what really mattered in life, I saw what was important to my father as his life came to a close. He had lived for his work, yet all the accomplishments, money, and medals had become insignificant to him. Only love remained. I felt a new appreciation for my loved ones, and for our precious, simple moments together.
While a parent's dying can strengthen a marriage, it also poses difficulties. Little time is available for nurturing the relationship and, if the parent has come to live with the family, little privacy as well. Disagreements and misunderstandings are common. A partner may feel pushed aside, hurt, and resentful that the dying parent consumes so much time and attention. One partner may be yearning for more emotional support, while the other may be intimidated by the intensity and unpredictability of emotions that well up in grief.
Weekly talks can help couples adjust to a parent's dying and a spouse's grief. Partners need ongoing opportunities to share their feelings and reactions to the stress, to state their personal needs, to assess what is and is not working, and to brainstorm possible solutions. Even if no immediate solutions arise, talking together makes a difference. Communication throughout this difficult period builds intimacy and cooperation.
With so much time and energy devoted to parents and children, little is left for oneself. A person can feel drained to the point of exhaustion. Days come when many adults wonder how they will ever cope. Some admit that they have wished for the parent's death, simply to put an end to this situation. Establishing a means of self-renewal in the midst of family demands becomes a critical task.
One possibility is to create a sanctuary, a private place where you can go to reflect, grieve, and regenerate. (Be aware that grieving can begin before a parent dies; in the months while a parent is dying, feelings may well up unpredictably and with great force.) The sanctuary could be in your home or in nature or wherever you are able to open fully to your grief for 15 minutes to an hour each day. This is a time to learn how to parent yourself, to give yourself nurturance, love, encouragement, and protection. It is also a time to explore and express the feelings and thoughts that are surfacing, to resolve unfinished business with your dying parent as you prepare to say good-bye, and to work on issues arising with other members of your family of origin.
In my sanctuary, I meditated, prayed, wrote in my journal, recorded my dreams, cried, or just sat and looked at my father's picture. The place became a womb that cradled me in my grief, a refuge where I could both embrace the pain and acknowledge the power and impact of this passage in my life.
As I began using the sanctuary every day, I felt better prepared to step into family life and into the world. By focusing full attention on my grief for small interludes each day, I became more present for my loved ones, clients, and friends. I could attend to daily routines and commitments without feeling distracted or overwhelmed. Partaking in daily tasks soon became a source of comfort, a temporary respite from the chaos and unpredictability of my inner life.
My son responded well to this change. He felt less threatened by my vulnerable emotional state. He expressed concern and interest in my father's illness, and began to ask questions. He realized that I, too, could become ill and die, and the two of us discussed the matter in quiet moments before sleep.
Once we are grounded in our grief, we are less likely to overwhelm our children with it. Emotionally available to them, we become capable of addressing their concerns in this often confusing, even frightening time For some children, it is their first experience with the death of a loved one, and they need us more than ever. They need us to explain what is happening in the family, to be responsive to their questions, and to prepare them for the changes to come–in routine, in parental emotional states, in their relationship with the grandparent, and in the progression of the illness.
Within four months of my father's diagnosis, he was declining rapidly in the hospital, two hours away from our home. I visited him as often as I could, although I wanted to be with him more. On the weekends, when my husband and I went together, we gave our son the option of joining us if he wanted to, and we described some of the changes be might see since his previous visit.
On our son's first hospital visit, he was taken aback by his grandfather's expression, the half-open and unseeing eyes, the pallor of his unshaved cheeks, the raspy breathing. "He looks so old," our son said, looking to us for assurance. Seeing that we were not alarmed, he became more accepting of the situation. "Can Granddad hear me if I talk to him?" I told him that we don't know what people experience when they are in a coma, and that a person may very well have some awareness of sound, whereupon he proceeded to explore the equipment in the room and to tell his grandfather all about his day.
By the time we left, he was glad he had visited his grandfather. That night, he drew a picture of the hospital, instructing me to draw Granddad in the bed while he drew the family gathered around. Then he sketched a wavy line near the ceiling. "This is Granddad's spirit," he explained, "looking down on everything."
Before the technological revolution, people died at home, cared for by family members and the family doctor–many of whom were present at birth as well. Death was accepted as part of the cycle of life and children had the opportunity to come to terms with it. They participated in caring for the dying, and they saw dead bodies. Then, as people began dying in hospitals, the situation changed dramatically. No longer was death an integral part of family life.
Dying needs to be brought back into the family–for everyone's benefit. Children who are able to come to terms with death can more fully come to terms with life. And so we must take our children into the rooms of the dying if they express a desire to be there. We must also take time to hear their questions and encourage their investigations. Just as we are entitled to our ideas about death and what happens afterward, so, too, are our children. Their fresh perspectives can be a source of learning for all.
I was not with my father when he died. My desire was to be perfectly in tune with his passing, and in a sense, I was: I was in the midst of my duties as a mother. I was waiting for the dentist to fill the seven cavities that had suddenly appeared in my son's mouth. However, I wanted to be at home, meditating and praying. I had found that I felt closer to Dad in my sanctuary than in the hospital room, especially after he sank into the coma. Closing my eyes, I could access images of him in an inner world and talk to him through my heart.
My mother's phone call informing me that Dad had just died in her arms thrust me into an exceedingly deep level of grief. The finality was frightening: I would never see my father again. My heart felt as though it were splitting open from the pain. I was filled with sorrow and confusion, as well as joy and gratitude. I had never felt so alone–or so grown up. I had become a different woman, a woman without a father. While laboring with my son, I had discovered within me a source of power far beyond anything I had imagined. Upon my father's death, the woman in me stepped out with a new freedom to express that power and to take charge of my parenting and my life.
As a parent is dying, we reach deep inside ourselves for the courage to go on–through our exhaustion, through the crises and stress, and through the grief. With the death of a parent, we grow up. We become initiated into full adulthood. An invisible umbilical cord is severed; there is no safe haven to return to, no one to back us up. With a sobering sense of both the fragility of life and the certainty of death, many adults realize that their existence is now fully in their hands. One woman told me, after the death of her second parent: "I feel a new freedom that is exhilarating but also terrifying. How I live my life now is all up to me."
Our parents, in their death, offer us the gift of another birth. In receiving that gift, we come to embrace life fully–with all its mystery and humanness, conflict and resolution, joys and sorrows, separations and meetings. "When a child is born, a man and woman embrace, or a mother or father dies, the mystery of life reveals itself to us. It is precisely in the moments when we are most human, most in touch with what binds us together, that we discover the hidden depths of life." 1
1. Henry I. M. Nouwen, In Memorium (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1980), p.10.
Alexandra Kennedy is a psychotherapist in private practice in Soquel, California, and author of Your Loved One Lives On Within You
(Berkley, 1997), Losing a Parent (HarperCollins, 1991), and The Infinite Thread(Beyond Words Publishing Co, 2001).
From Mothering magazine, Summer 1992