5 Ways You Can Support Your Dying Parent

Written by on June 21, 2015 in Conscious Living, Conscious Parenting with 2 Comments

By Patricia Seeley, M.S,
Director, The Center of Awareness

Death is a subject most people do not like to hear about, think about or talk about. It seems to be a scary unreality of sorts. Yet before we face our own death, most likely we will face the deaths of our friends and / or family first. When these deaths are unexpected, dealing with them seems that much harder. Why – because we are not prepared.

We live in a constant state of fear and denial about death, so when it happens we are unable to really appreciate what the experience has to offer. After all, death makes life possible and if there was no death – none of us would be here. That in itself makes me give a lot of respect to the dying process.

Death and dying can be a time of deepening of our love and faith and a recommitment to the spiritual beliefs and practices that are useful in guiding us along the way. Death is the only doorway that can help us gain insight into the true nature of all things.

Recently my Mother passed away and as I look back on the experience of her decline into illness and dementia, I can honestly say that I am grateful to have had the opportunity to care for her and witness her final days on this Earth. Of course there was a lot of emotional pain for both of us – including regrets – and for me the jolting realization of my own mortality seemingly not too far in the distant future.

There are two unhealthy attitudes most people have towards death. One is to be frightened because there is the belief that we do not exist after this life. The other is a more flippant or even sarcastic attitude about death – as if it will be easy to handle when it arrives.

My Mom was more frightened of death than flippant about it. She did not want to talk about death and seemed to avoid it at all times. As a child I remember burying family pets, relatives, and people we knew at church but I do not remember Mom ever talking to me about what was going on or asking how I felt.

It was an interesting paradox for me that her unwillingness to confront death led me to question it and think about it every day of my life from the time I was a little girl in elementary school. Even now, as an adult in mid-life, I think about death every single day. This intense focus on death and dying is probably not normal, but it also has made me very dedicated to my spirituality and to living my life on purpose.

When I moved Mom closer to where I lived in February 2014, I had no idea what to expect.  I always thought I was pretty spiritually savvy and could handle most things.  After all, no one knows what the dying process is like in the same way we do not remember what the birth process was like.  Although I do give myself credit for dealing capably with Mom's needs on a daily basis, I now see in retrospect that I want things done a little differently when I am leaving this Earth.    Maybe what I learned will help you with your Mother or Father's passing.  I think that opening our awareness to what is possible so that our choices and actions may be more conscious when we need them to be is very important in the dying process.

Although Mom kept her thoughts and feelings to herself, there were times during her dying process that I wanted to coax some of these feelings out of her. After growing up with her and learning about her childhood and some of her adult experiences (losing my brother to drugs and alcohol and my father’s early unexpected death) I could see that these were things she still felt pain about.

I felt pretty certain she would be “healed” if she could just get it all out before she took her last breath.  On a few rare occasions when she was in one of her unusual mind experiences, she'd say things like, “I know I made mistakes…”  Or “There were things I did not do right…”  But she never would go further than that.

When she became completely dependent on caregivers for her activities of daily living, she would get very upset that she “could not do for herself.”  Having had previous experience caring for her mother, my grandmother, I knew not to make her feel guilty about this.  No one wants to be a burden to anyone else.  “It's ok Mom,” I would say.  “These things just happen.” And I know that gave her some comfort.

Unfortunately, I was wrong on those days when I thought I was doing the right thing by trying to get her to talk about her feelings about dying.  My boyfriend at the time told me that I had to get her to talk about death because “it would be good for her.”  So at times I did urge her and encourage her and push her to talk. But it was not the right thing to do.

Lesson #1: What “should” be done or said in the final days and hours of a parent’s death is very subjective. Your parent gets to decide what is to be said or left unsaid. If during the dying process, your parent is given the opportunity to talk but they do not want to talk – continuing to urge or encourage them to open up is not the right thing to do. Back off – do not make things worse than they have to be.

The great classic, “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” says that the most important thing we can do is be there with the person as they are going through the dying process.  Upsetting them is not wise.

Towards the very end, Mom said a few times that she “knew she had to leave here” but that was as close as she got to admitting she was dying.  She never once used the “D” word and neither did I.

When people are flippant or sarcastic about death, especially their own death, it is a sign of fear. Soygal Rinpoche quotes a Tibetan master who said that is a rare person who is not afraid (at least a little) of dying.

If possible, research now as much as you can on the topic of dying and death. Include your significant other, spouse, and / or children in the process. As you learn more, it will be confirmed for you that preparing for death is one of the most important things you can do in life. When we study death, we learn what is really important in life. Being kind and loving to others and being honest and unselfish will help us live a better life so that we do not experience regret that we did not do these things when we had the time.

Lesson #2: Learn about the grief process and the stages of dying. In the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, there is a clear and detailed explanation of the process of dying, which involves eight stages. Four of these stages correspond to the gradual dissolution of the four elements of our bodies (earth, water, fire, and air). When my Mom’s decline began, it started with her body. She became weaker and required assistance first with talking then with hygiene and other activities of daily living. Then the mind began to get a little forgetful. In the process of these changes, emotions also rang louder. She would get angry that something was happening to her that she could not control. She would get angry at me for “being so nice to her.” “Aren’t you mad that you have to take care of me?” she would snap. And the truth is, I was not mad. She could not help what was happening to her so how could I be mad at her? This was the woman whose body I had come out of!!!  The woman who had carried me into the world. So, even as Mom sat in front of me in a dazed state, with wrinkles on her skin, swollen legs, and bent fingers, I saw her as beautiful. I did not see an old woman going through a difficult time. I saw pure love.   I felt pure love.

When a child is born, it is born of pure love. Yet, that child is also completely dependent upon another person to take care of it for many years. Being an older person who is unable to care for him/herself is the very same thing. I have heard people say they feel sorry for older people whose lives are over because they have nothing left to do and nothing to look forward to. Yet I have never heard one person say they feel sorry for a newborn baby because that baby needs someone to take care of it.

Lesson #3: Realize that being an older person who needs help is the same as being a newborn who needs help. Be as patient, kind and loving to your dying parent as you would your new born child.

When a parent is dying, one of the most important things we can do is to try to understand what their needs are and do what we can to take care of these needs. Parents can often verbalize this while babies cannot.

Doing what your parent wants often requires an act of selflessness – putting aside our needs and feelings so that we can be fully present for our loved one. Whatever has to be done – whatever will make them more comfortable – is always the right thing to do. And this does not have to be hard IF you have taken the time to work on your own emotions first.

During the dying process, people can slip in and out of very strong emotions such as fear, regret, sadness, anger, and clinging to things that once gave them security. It is especially difficult for people who have not done the necessary work, to manage their emotions effectively at this time of transition. Often feelings of overwhelm are strongest. How will you be able to help someone else manage these emotions if you cannot manage your own?

Lesson #4: Meet the person who is dying exactly where they are. Do not expect them to change during the dying process – it is too late. It is also important to remember that it is not appropriate for us to get hysterical, cry, or show other strong emotions in their presence. Take breaks and leave the room when you need to – go outside for fresh air, talk to someone, or work with a hospice chaplain to get your own issues sorted out. If you express upset emotions in the presence of your parent, it will undoubtedly make him or her feel much worse.

Do what you can to provide positive and caring support at all times. I remember with my own Mother, as she began to slip away, I held her hand tightly and asked her if she saw any angels. She often said “yes” and she told me they had their arms outreached to her. I reminded her that they were there to help her to the next place; that she was doing good; and there was nothing to be frightened of. I know Mom heard me because when I said these things, her grip on my hand increased ever so slightly. She was past the speaking stage, but I know she heard me and what I said hopefully made a difference.

As you get older and more people you know begin to depart from this world, you will realize that looking after them is the best preparation for your own death.

Lesson #5: Holding a space of light and love for your parent so that the transition is less difficult is what we are supposed to do. It’s not as hard as you might think it is. The way to make it less difficult is to focus on being a calming influence on the other person.  Say prayers, read poems, light a candle or meditate – these are all good things that will calm your monkey mind and help you be as relaxed and supportive as possible with the few precious moments you have left with your parent.

The death of my beloved Mother was no doubt the most significant experience of my lifetime and I feel blessed to have shared this with her. I wish the same for you.

About Patricia Seeley

Patricia works with seniors of all ages at one of the largest Retirement Communities in Northern California and is also the Educational Director of The Center of Awareness.  She has also worked as a Hospice Chaplain and regularly gives presentations and workshops on managing chronic health conditions, successfully navigating the challenges of mid-life and conscious aging.  She is passionate about lifelong learning and believes that staying interested in exercise, current events and hobbies is the best way to stay emotionally, mentally and physically healthy.  She is a writer specializing in wellness for all ages and has been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines.

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  1. Parbateebachan@hotmail.com' Parbatee bachan says:

    Very interesting and informative reading.I can share some of the emotional insights having lost my mom many years ago.Not having so much info available then it was difficult.Sometimes I felt l could do more.

  2. Bertsaf@yahoo.com' Roberta Phillips says:

    My mother at 94 is going through all these things. The hardest part for me was to recognize and accept her dementia when it first started. I used to get frustrated with her until it finally sank in that she couldn’t help it. Thank you for your post. I know now that I am treating her the right way.

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