Dear Carol: After three months on hospice care, my 87-year-old dad died from cancer. That was two month ago. Mom had been married more than 56 years and, understandably, his loss has devastated her. Dad had been Mom’s main caregiver for nearly 20 years because of her past cancer and ongoing vascular dementia.
What frustrates me is that Mom isn’t making any progress in coping with dad’s death. We talk a lot about how we miss him, but she always follows the conversation by saying, “He’s not gone.” On better days, she’ll say, “I can’t believe he’s gone,” but mostly she says, “He’s not gone,” like saying that will make it true. I don’t know what to do to help her. I’m sure that if she doesn’t accept his death, her health will only get worse. How do I help her focus on her own life? — KE.
Dear KE: My condolences to you on your dad’s passing. It’s hard on most of us when a parent dies, and so often we adult children are not allowed time to grieve our own loss because we are so wrapped up in consoling the remaining parent.
Yet, our role is to comfort even if our efforts sometimes seem futile. You’re trying hard to fulfill that role, but you can only do so much. Your mom closely mirrors what my mom went through. Though Mom lived five months after Dad’s death, throughout that time she continued to say, “I can’t believe he’s gone.” She, too, had mild memory problems, but not severe enough to have forgotten that dad had passed.
With the wisdom of hindsight, I’ve grown to believe that for her this was a form of denial that was necessary for even minimum survival. Acceptance is one of the best ways to move forward after the death of someone we love. Even for a person who has no cognitive impairment, though, there’s usually a time when the brain knows that the person is no longer physically with them but the heart can’t accept it, so denial is their refuge.
You can imagine how hard this is with cognitive impairment. Most of us eventually move forward into acceptance which helps clear the way for emotional recovery, but some may not be able to do the same. Your mom’s in poor health, she’s of advanced age and she’s lost her life mate.
You can help her by continuing to reminisce with her. You can help by simply letting her talk about her feelings. You could also ask her clergy person or the hospice chaplain to talk with her. All of this should be at least temporarily comforting.
Additionally, you could talk with her doctor to see if an antidepressant could help. Sadly, though, in the end, you may have to accept that your mom won’t move forward. Her health will then likely decline as her heart struggles to take her to be with your dad.
This is hard for you, I know. I’m truly sorry.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on the website.