I can't watch my mother die

All she wants is for us to sit there in the hospital room with her, but it's hard not to run

Published June 30, 2011 12:19AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I follow your column off and on, and I appreciate the way you handle questions from all ages and types of people. I am a 56-year-old man, married with a teenage son. I live in the town close to where my parents grew up. I have relatives here that I mostly avoid, even though I was close to some of them when I was younger. My father died about 20 years ago from complications of alcoholism. He was living in another state (unintentional pun), and his family brought him back here to die. I am pretty sure that they expected me to take care of him, but I refused.

He had left us years before, and maintained very little contact. When I told his family I wasn't going to be around to help, this created a lot of hard feelings, and they set me up as a villain, even telling the story to other people, their version of course. I basically wrote them off, but have kept up marginal contact with some of them. I don't really have many friends here and would have left years ago, but my wife and I have good jobs, my wife and son like it here, and my mother is here.

Now my mother, who is 87, is in a nursing home dying of leukemia. She probably will only live another two months. Since I am the only one of her children living here, I have had to assume a lot of the responsibility for her care. My sister and brother both live a day's drive from here. I owe my mother a lot. Besides the fact that she took care of us as a single mother, she also had to help me through an accident I had when I was 10 years old, which involved a number of surgeries; she made sure we were housed and fed, and she pushed us to get educations. My sister has a master's degree and my brother and I both have Ph.D.s. She was a quiet person, and like many women in her generation, she valued family and getting along with others. She also served as baby sitter/daycare-giver for one of my nieces and for my son before he started school. She adores my son. But now she is dying, and getting weaker as the weeks go by. She does not leave her room or bed, even though the staff try to take her to the common areas of the nursing home. At the same time, she doesn't seem sad. She is mostly in good spirits. I would describe her as resigned and content. She loves visitors and flowers, even though she won't leave her room. I don't think she is in pain.

My problem is that I have such a hard time visiting her. All she wants is someone to sit with her, but that is hard for me. I take my son with me sometimes, and it is wonderful to see her face light up. She doesn't say much, but we just sit for a while and then leave. I wish I could go there and spend more time, but it is really hard to do that. It literally drains me of all of my energy. I'm not complaining about her. She makes no demands. I'm not the dying person. I feel I should want to go see her as much as possible now.

The idea of having a funeral makes me sick. I have already made all of the arrangements and paid for it. I had to, so that she would qualify for Medicaid and be able to stay in the nursing home. I went along with her wishes to be cremated. I picked out the urn and wrote the obituary. Everything is prepared. It is common here to have a visitation for about two hours and then a funeral. I cannot stand the idea of the visitation. I don't want to see my relatives from either side or her friends and acquaintances; I don't want to be comforted by them. I guess I am afraid I won't be able to handle it. I don't know what to do.

Lost in an Alien World

Dear Lost,

It is sad to think of the unwanted alcoholic father shunted from one family to the other. He had worn out his welcome. Neither his children nor his siblings nor his parents or uncles or aunts wanted to endure the horror of his incomprehensible and senseless dying. Who can blame them?

You did what you had to do to protect yourself from your alcoholic father. Rather than take in the full and awful truth of your father's fate, your relatives took it out on you. All you were doing was protecting yourself. When the father is an alcoholic, there is no winning. The son who exhausts himself trying to care for his alcoholic father draws himself and his family into a mire of horror and hopelessness. The son who protects himself and his own family from his alcoholic father is branded the bad son. There's no winning.

No wonder you now find it hard to sit silently with your mother while she completes the task of dying. You must be nearly overwhelmed with feeling-memories. I'd guess, since you have a Ph.D., that thinking comes more easily to you than feeling. Recognize that you are using a weaker side, that you won't be at your best, that you won't feel in control and may have to rely on the help of others to get through it. That's OK. Your mother is dying. You don't have to be on top of everything. It's OK. Death is a normal and expected part of life, and this is what it feels like. This is how it is.

You do not have to turn away from your mother in the same way you turned away from your father. You have a chance now to grow stronger through this. You can say goodbye in a large and formal way to both your parents. You can reconcile with the past and with your relatives.

They are not bad people. You loved them when you were younger. You were all put in an untenable situation by the alcoholic in your midst. Each of you did the best you could in a bad situation. Now is your chance to make some sense of it.

These are things you are going to find the courage to do, and you will pass through this and you will be strengthened by it. It will be hard, and you may break down in tears more than once, and you may feel a heaviness come over you that bows you down to the earth, and certain seemingly unbearable memories may return, but it will be healing, and after it is over a weight will lift off you. You may finally grieve for a lot of what you went through with your dad.

This is a critical time for you, spiritually. It is time to move into a new phase. Treat it with reverence, and take all the time you need. If you would like to take time off work, do so. Spend time with your son. When someone is dying, it slows everything down. There is not much else to do. It is a good time to sit quietly with others. There is no horror in it. It is just what comes next.

You may find it useful to think about what is happening when you are being drained of energy. You are being called upon to rely on a different source of energy, to operate in a realm you are not comfortable with, a realm that is not your primary or preferred realm. I suggest you keep at this. It is an opportunity to strengthen an under-exercised faculty, the faculty of simply feeling, of living in the emotional reality of other people, of the certainty of death, the fragility of life, the beauty of it.

It's harder than expected. But out of your discomfort can come true change. So sit in that chair next to your mother until something happens.

This is how the mystics got where they got, isn't it? By sitting in the storm and letting it blow, by remaining still in the burning? I suggest you treat this as a kind of burning toward purification, a sacred rite. You sit there and by sitting there you contrive to pass out of your bounded earthly life into something larger and less bounded. And you honor your mother. In sitting there, you honor your mother the way you would honor a rainfall or a stream. You honor what brought you here.

Citizens of the Dream

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By Cary Tennis

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