“There is love in holding and there is love in letting go.”
Elizabeth Berg, American Novelist
This saying is spot on to me. And I think of this now as it pertains to one of life’s unwanted yet unescapable certainties — the death of one’s parents.
Wow Ieva, this is a heavy subject, unlike most of your other blogs…And I agree. But I am drawn to this topic of late because it feels like people from my parents’ generation who are now in their 90s and 80s are coming to the end of their life’s journey on a more regular basis.
I am here to share with those of you going through this difficult phase of life that there is light at the end of the tunnel for both you and your departed loved one….It can feel so dark and gloomy but after time goes by it does get so much easier and you can find peace after their passing. You may be surprised how much of a parent’s presence still lingers after they have gone—like in funny memories, cherished traditions and things that happen that are signs that they are still there, somewhere, looking after you.
My own parents passed away years ago and I am fortunate to be at a place where I can now think of both my mom and dad with love, appreciation and happiness. That is not to say I never get sad anymore. I do. But rather than feeling like I am draped in a weighted blanket of grief, I feel a whispery touch of melancholy drifting about in the air.
But for someone who is in the fresh throes of dealing with a mother’s or father’s passing, the emotions are raw. It is unnerving and sad. Dealing with death is yucky business.
Some of our parents die quickly, unexpectedly. Some linger with their illness before passing and some die in a difficult, drawn out way.
Which way is a better way to go is debatable but any way totally sucks.
My father was just shy of turning 90 when he passed away in a hospital bed, surrounded by all of his family. We got to say good-bye. We knew he was ready. His health had been waning and after he suffered a stroke my dad had come to terms with his death and actually embraced it –so we all had to too. He died feeling the tremendous love in the room and no pain in his body thanks to wonders of morphine. It could be said that his death was not the worst kind. After all, what could be better than getting to say good-bye to your loved ones with a last kiss and a tender squeeze of your hand?
My mother’s passing was more in the first category of unexpected and unfortunately happened fairly early in her life.
I had just turned 21 and was in college at Penn State, when my pretty much care-free, lovely bubble of a life in Happy Valley popped and splatted to the ground as I saw my father approach me in the hallway of my dorm.
At first I was incredibly surprised to see him as my home was a 3 hour drive from Kennett Square, PA. Then in the next second my emotions changed from surprise to elation that he had come to visit. It was so great to see him.
But then as I ran up to hug him I saw his face more clearly and then I knew something was very wrong.
My father and I stepped into my room from the hallway and he looked at me and then the ceiling and blurted out that my mom had gone to heaven (“aizgājusi Dieva mūžibā”).
Huh? My brain seriously could not process this information.
How was that possible? I had just spent the weekend at home –chatting, laughing and enjoying great home cooked meals…She was only 56 years old. I simply could not believe it.
But be that as it may, my mom was gone. She had died from a heart attack and was never, ever coming back.
I remember I sat numbly in the car the whole ride home– teary, bewildered and totally panic stricken about how I could possible go on with my life without my mom.
And yes, at first I was inconsolable, crying, crying and crying. But then as time passed I became less gutted and drew comfort from my family and friends. I wasn’t in the room when my mom died. I wasn’t able to say good-bye or begin to wrap my head around the thought that I would have to go on without a mom in my life. Her death was unexpected, quick. Why she had to go when she was still “middle-aged”, lord only knows. I am now 58 years old myself and I can’t imagine having died at the age of 56. There is still so much to experience in life…I feel like she was certainly gipped.
I console myself with the fact that at least one of her biggest fears didn’t come true. You see she had mentioned on many occasions she never wanted to be in a position of getting so old and helpless that she would be a burden on anyone. She would say “I prefer the “Eskimo” way…lay me down in a canoe with a bottle of something good and strong and just push me out into a swift ocean current where the waves and cold will lull me into eternal sleep.” At the time I thought she was crazy for thinking such thoughts… now I’m not so sure that it wouldn’t be a bad way to go.
As another saying goes, “Getting old is not for sissies.”
This is so true. What some aging seniors endure yet they “keep on keepin’ on” is unreal. There are friends and family I know that have parents with severe dementia, loss of mobility and a whole list of other ailments. These elderly parents are clearly not their former selves and even though they say they are ready for the journey to a better place are still in the fight and hanging on.
I think perhaps even though they say they are ready to go, there is still a part of them, maybe a youthful fighting spirit deep inside them, that is stubbornly not giving up the chance to live another day. Having a parent in this situation is heart wrenching for all involved.
My husband’s mom is in her mid-80’s and has come to a point in her life where unfortunately she is just not thriving anymore. Her mental and physical decline has been slowly yet consistently gaining ground in the last years. She is now in a very nice memory care facility in Michigan but no matter, she is still waning. We wonder –what happens next? What to do? Well you do what you can.
For my husband, who lives half a country away, he calls his mom almost every day. Like the rest of us she has good days and bad. The good ones happen when she engages in conversation, reminiscing about her past or singing a song or church hymn over the phone. But sometimes she is in a state of mind that doesn’t care to engage very much. But regardless of those days, we hope that she feels like there is a loved one reaching out to her who cares for her and wishes her well.
So how do us grown children of parents that have passed or are on their way to their journey’s end cope?
You find solace and support where you can.
I always draw comfort in knowing that I was totally, unequivocally and absolutely wrong when I initially believed upon hearing of my mom’s death that she was now out of my life forever. So untrue!
There were countless times in my life when my mom “showed up”. Here are a few examples:
- I heard her voice in the back of my head when I was thinking about whether or not to have sex with a particular guy– “No, no, no, not a good idea daughter to sleep with a player!”
- I felt her presence right next to me when a voice in my head told me to back up my car when I was stopped at a red light. It happened just seconds before a huge truck came blazing through the intersection crossing lanes to turn and almost rammed into my car.
- I saw my mom in my dreams on a bunch of occasions, giving me comfort just by being with me for a while…
And to this day I get to see her incredibly beautiful shade of brown eyes whenever I look at my youngest son’s face.
She of course is also in me, physically, as I have what my sister calls our mom’s “tipsy gene” tendency to get snookered rather quickly when indulging in an alcoholic beverage.
I believe your parent’s aura is really all around you. This is palpable when you continue a tradition that you learned from them. I can get quite sentimental about traditions that I share with my family that I clearly remember being traditions that were important to my mother. For instance when baking, she always “blessed” the dough before leaving it to rise. She would press down on the top of the dough ball and make a little cross with a finger and then sprinkle over it with a dusting of flour. I do this for each ball of dough I make and it brings me joy.
However, if I can be so bold as to offer advice, there is such a thing as going overboard on sentimental stuff and it may be best to just keep things simple.
For instance, here is a cautionary tale:
If I may toot my own horn, I have become quite the chef during this pandemic and have taken great comfort in making food. So I was ecstatic when my sister shared with me an old chili recipe that she found. When I looked at the paper I realized it was my mother’s handwriting. She rarely wrote down a recipe so when I saw this handwritten gem I was over the moon.
I had seen on Pinterest where you could make a cute kitchen towel by getting a special permanent marker and writing a family recipe on this special cloth fabric. You could then frame it and put it on display in your kitchen. What a great idea! So I painstakingly attempted to write the chili recipe using a calligraphy pen onto the cloth. But as I stink at crafts, and basically have no business even attempting anything remotely complicated from Pinterest, it was to no avail. It looked uneven and sloppy no matter how many times I tried or how many glasses of vino I drank to steady my non-surgical grip on the pen. I was practically in tears that I wasn’t able to permanently place my mom’s recipe on this towel.
Ring! Ring! It’s my sister calling. I am crying that I have been working for hours on making a cool memento from mom’s chili recipe and I can’t get it right. Blah, blah, blah.
“What chili recipe?”
“The one you gave me that was mom’s.” (sheesh)
“That isn’t mom’s recipe.”
“What do you mean that’s not mom’s recipe? It is in her handwriting!”
“No. Sorry. I don’t know who wrote that recipe but it isn’t mom’s. I have hers on a special index card.”
All that wasted time, cloth, ink and wine.
Although I wasn’t able to make some strange woman’s recipe into a kitchen towel masterpiece, I learned that I didn’t need to go to such lengths to remember something of my mom’s.
When I finally got a copy of the real chili recipe that was my mother’s I was happy just to have it as part of my recipe collection. Plus, to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure if I really loved my mother’s chili recipe that much…
But that is not the case for my husband Norm and his affection and devotion to making his mother’s Latvian rye bread recipe. He makes loaves of that bread at least once every 3 months. And it is deeelicious.
He has an index card of the recipe written by his mom, when she visited 22 years ago after the birth of our second son. She always made her rye bread when she visited but this time, my husband asked her to write down the steps.
It occurred to me recently that the index card with the recipe was truly an heirloom—my mother-in-law’s yummy legacy left for our family to carry on the tradition of Latvian bread-making.
The index card is dated 09/1999 and although splotchy, wrinkled and practically illegible, (even though my husband traced his mom’s now smeared handwriting) it is truly a piece of art, a work of love, a priceless memento.
So I wanted my husband to have this piece of his mom– in remembrance of happier times when she was a lively and thriving grandmother coming to visit her family in California.
No, it is not enshrined in some fancy Pinterest idea of a display case, but it is now nicely displayed in a simple thick acrylic block frame that sits on his work desk.
As we all grow older and start thinking more about what it means to reach the end of the road, I think the topic doesn’t have to be so heavy and disagreeable. I for one truly believe we all go to a better place. And I like knowing that if I want to find something that reminds me of a loved one or feel closer to that person that has passed; all I have to do is remember. 🙂
The Tide Recedes
The tide recedes, but leaves behind
Bright seashells on the sand.
The sun goes down but gentle warmth
Still lingers on the land.
The music stops and yet it lingers on
In sweet refrain.
For every joy that passes
Something beautiful remains.
M D Hughes