In our lifetimes, we will all have different crosses to bear. The way we handle them and the way we survive those challenges will make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others. It can make the cross-bearing event a nightmare or we can turn it into something positive.
One of the crosses I have carried in my life is losing my parents within three months of each other, when they were only 63 and 67. I have been skeptical to write too much about their passings, as I don’t want to always seem morbid or a downer, but one of the ways I can work through my grief and help others is by sharing what I have learned.
Whether you have one parent still living, both parents, or your grandparents, I hope you can take some of my words to heart.
At age 38 I found myself with none of the above relatives. My last surviving grandparent passed away in 2005. My mom had ovarian cancer and I held her hand as she took her last breath in August 2011. Three months later I received a phone call and my father’s neighbor proceeded to tell me that my healthy, active, go-getter of a dad had died peacefully in his sleep. We later found out it was a blockage in his heart.
Obviously, this is not quite how I had pictured things would go. I thought my parents would be around to teach my children where they came from, share their traditions, attend their birthday parties and maybe even their weddings. I yearn for more “roots” to show my children. My kids probably won’t remember much at all about the amazing Nana and Poppop who spent countless hours with them while they were young. But I am going to do my best to share stories and traditions so they feel that their Nana and Poppop are still always with them.
We have a great relationship with my in-laws and my extended family and I intend to keep it that way and stay actively involved in their lives as we include them in ours.
I want to tell all of you who still have your parents around to embrace it.
Here Is What I’ve Learned:
1. Listen to their stories –
You father rambling on about walking five miles in the snow to school may seem drab, but one day you will want to know. You will want to know what his life was like as a child and the things he experienced. Was he involved in the war? What kind of child was he in school? When did his family get their first television or cell phone? Was your mom a cheerleader or a student council member? What kinds of rules did they have to follow at school? What types of games did they play outside? So many tidbits that don’t seem important are now the things I wish I knew more about. As my children grow I wish I could tell them these stories.
I also yearn to hear stories about how my parents raised me! I wish I could get advice to raise my own kids. What did my parents do when I threw tantrums like my kids do? Did we have “the talk” and when? When did my mom take me to buy my first bra? Did my parents know that first time I tried beer and how did they handle it? How did they teach me to ride my bike or drive my car?
2. Wills, Legal Issues, and Tough Questions –
Make sure your parents have a will. (Get one yourself while you are at it.) Find out where they keep it. You will need the original. Find out if they have a lawyer, accountant or financial adviser and get contact info for all of these people. Where is the deed to their house? Do they have a safe or lockbox somewhere? If they attend church, the people there will be extremely helpful one day in planning a funeral, so be sure you are familiar with the church. Have they talked with you about end of life decisions or medical treatments? Where do they want to be buried? Do they want a traditional funeral, burial, or visitation? Do they already have cemetery plots somewhere? Do they wish to be cremated? If so, where would they like their ashes kept?
As far as burial, my parents both wished to be cremated and have their ashes buried up north where they were born. In addition, both had always chatted about having their ashes spread in various places they both loved. We were able to do both! The bulk of their ashes are buried, but for each parent we kept a tiny urn only about four inches high. We have taken these ashes to their favorite beach, a special spot out west, and their favorite sporting event. We had a little ceremony of our own while we spread ashes. It was beautiful, touching, uplifting, and simply wonderful to know we have them all around us. I also still have some ashes remaining in the urns which I can keep at my home. It is nice to have that little reminder that they are close by since their burial spot is so far away.
3. Family History –
Ask both parents where they were born, where their parents were born, and so on. In what religion were they raised? What customs and traditions did they share? What is their ethnicity?
It is helpful to know family history as far as health as well. Did anyone have cancer, heart problems, depression, alcoholism, diseases or other conditions of which you need to be aware?
4. Antiques, Valuables & Junk –
Another downfall of losing both of my parents so close together was that when it came time to go through belongings, there was no one to ask about the value of things. I don’t necessarily mean monetary value either. For example, when we went through my moms jewelry, it was so tough to tell if a necklace was a gift from one of her students, or an heirloom from Great Grandma. There were so many items that we struggled on what to do with them. Of course we would love to keep everything, but there is always just too much. My parents were extremely organized and always got rid of things that weren’t being used, but it still took my sister and me over a year to go through the entire house and empty it. You can also do an Estate Sale, which makes the job much easier, but there were too many things that we wanted to keep and did not want someone else making those decisions for us.
So I guess what I am trying to say is get your parents to talk about the items in their home now while they are healthy. Do they have a favorite chair that they want you to keep? Did they save their first bible and want you to have it? Do they think the yearbooks and magazines they have saved for years and years should be trashed? What does your mom want you to do with her wedding dress? What about all the photos? Is the dining room table a valuable antique? If there are answers you can get now or any items you can get rid of now, do it. You are so emotionally exhausted after a death that it is tough to think about things rationally.
5. Write them letters –
You may remember this blog I wrote shortly after my father died. It is a great reminder to let your parents know how much they mean to you right now. Don’t wait until a parent is in the hospital to share how much you love them because many times it will be too late. And like my dad, I had just seen him two days before he died and was able to say I love you when he left to drive back to Charlotte, but if I had known then that I would never see him again, there are SO many more things I would have said. But why wait? A letter is a terrific way to do this. Father’s Day is right around the corner and a perfect excuse to start a letter to your dad today.
6. Take pictures –
I remember one of my best friends coming to meet my new baby daughter when she was born. I was so busy taking pictures of my baby that I did not take any of my friend. My friend died very unexpectedly just a few weeks later and it absolutely broke my heart that I had not captured photos of our last visit together. The same happened with my Dad. As I mentioned above, he drove to town just two days before his death and we surprised my children at school. I wanted to take photos of the kids with him because they were so excited to have him there but then I changed my mind because I did not want to embarrass them in front of their friends in the cafeteria by having mom snap photos! I can’t tell you how much I regret that now. So please learn from my mistakes. Don’t wait for a special occasion to take pictures of your children (and you) with your parents and loved ones. Once they are gone, pictures are one of the most valuable memories you will have.
7. Don’t let them drive you crazy –
I can vividly remember my words – “Why does my mom ALWAYS have to call right when we sit down for dinner??? It is so annoying!” Do you know that I would give my right arm just to have that phone ring one time with her on the other end today? I know parents drive you crazy. I know they stick their nose into things that are none of their business. I know they nit-pick every little thing you do and scrutinize the way you raise your kids. But they do it because they love you, and guess what? You are going to do the same thing to your children one day.
I do realize that there are family disputes that go much deeper than an annoying phone call, but if possible, bury the hatchet, close up those old wounds, make amends and move on. Once your parents are gone, you will want to know that you did everything in your power to make your relationship a good one.
8. The Sibling Factor –
Address sibling roles and responsibility issues while your parents are alive and healthy. My friend Tracy explained it perfectly: “Each member of a family typically plays a part or role in the family. A younger sister may be the one that naturally leads, takes charge and communicates to other family about it. An older brother may not be emotionally equipped to be ‘in the moment’ with an ill/dying parent, a middle sibling may be a doer —the one you give the pages and pages of prescriptions and send to navigate the pharmacy and fill the pill box, or stock a parent’s house with groceries. It will be different for every family, especially when demographics play a role. When you begin to tackle these tough moments and each sibling steps into the appropriate role, there is always potential for conflict. If siblings don’t get along while the parents are alive, they mostly likely won’t get along when parents are aging/declining/ill/dying. Each of those four areas–aging, illness, decline and dying–present unique circumstances—and each merit a conversation. Siblings may not like each other, and may never like each other, but there is usually a mutual love for the parents, which could help facilitate tough conversations. Have the tough conversations as a family first without spouses, then again with spouses present. Put things in writing for clarity. Appreciate and respect your sibling for the adult they are, and try to behave as an adult. If a family is still treating the youngest sibling as ‘the baby’ they may want to re-think that if ‘the baby’ is 40!”
9. Soak in the tastes, smells, sounds and sights –
As I wrote in a previous blog, my very favorite things I saved from my parents’ house are my mom’s favorite bottle of perfume and my dad’s aftershave. I keep them on my dresser and when I feel the need to be close to them I close my eyes and take a smell from each. I can almost feel their arms around me in an embrace.
Take note of the way your parents’ house smells, the way your mom’s cooking tastes (get those recipes now!), the way your dad’s face feels with a five o’clock shadow, the sound your parents’ grandfather clock makes every hour, and the way their eyes sparkle when they see their grandkids. These are the senses that will trigger memories and make you smile after they are long gone.
10. Be there –
One thing I can almost guarantee you – you will more than likely regret things you did not do rather than things you did. So when I say “be there” I am saying spend time with your parents. When one of them is having surgery – be there. When one of them moves into a new home or assisted living – be there. When one starts chemotherapy – be there. When a parent receives an honor at work, church or a from a group – be there.
As with all things mom-related, it is a balancing act. When my mom went through that dreadful summer of operations, chemo, radiation, Hospice, and a total of 44 days in the hospital in Charlotte, I had a lot of internal struggles. Did my kids need me at home? Did my husband need me with him? Did my dad need me to help with things back at the house? Did my mom need me by her side in the hospital? Did my business partner need me back at work? Did I need to run away and spend time alone in this midst of this nightmare? It wasn’t easy knowing where to go or what to do. I ended up just going with my heart. When I felt that yearning to be with my mom, I was there. When I had been in Charlotte quite a while and yearned for that hug from my children and husband, I came home. It was a huge balancing act and even though work needs you, your children need you, and friends need you … go where you heart leads you. You never want to regret not being there.
If you hung with me through this entire blog, I thank you! I know it was a lot of information and probably extremely overwhelming. If you have other advice to add, please comment below.
I know a lot of these things are difficult to discuss, but use me as your excuse! Call your dad or mom and say that you read a blog today and it inspired you to ask them some questions, tell them a few things, come visit, etc. Do what you can and be proud of yourself for the effort you put in. If you take one thing away from today’s blog, just remember … don’t wait.
*Photo by Zoe Zen Photography