Helping my mother grieve

I lost my father; she lost her husband. Can I lift her sadness?

Published October 15, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)


At 20 years old, I suddenly find myself fatherless, and as the oldest child, the person my mother is leaning on.

My father had dwarfism, with severe respiratory problems and chronic pains that plagued him especially during the last five years of his life. Recently, my mother and he were in Spain on a trip. The universe is unsympathetic, and my mother ended up bringing his urn back home in her backpack. It was a huge shock to all of us, though after talking about his health lately among ourselves we have concluded it shouldn't have been; he was living on borrowed time. The doctors told him years ago that a reasonable life expectancy in his condition was 35 to 40 years old, and he was 54 when he died, and his breathing had gotten worse with every passing week. We also suspect he knew the end was near, though he never said anything or complained of more pain than usual.

We have concluded, however, that if we couldn't have had more time, there was nothing else we would've changed. He died after spending a "second honeymoon" with my mother (the only holiday they ever had without us kids after their honeymoon) in Spain, where it was easier for him to breathe, and after a year of using a power scooter that gave him back his ability to enjoy the outside world without the pain of climbing into the car or walking. He was more active, happier and had more social life than in almost a decade. It was his kind of a way to go.

So, I write to you, not to be consoled in my own grief or to find a way to accept it, but to ask: How can I help my mother, who, after 21 years of marriage, finds herself alone and so lost? She, too, understands that this was inevitable, but right now that does little to console her. They were going to buy a big house, and she has since decided to go for it anyway (my father's wages were very small, more for him to know he's not a charity case, while my mother has relatively high income). I hope the change, albeit quite small, helps her and my brother. She also has a very fulfilling job, where she is appreciated, and a great many friends to help her.  

But she is so very sad. Is there anything I can do, other than the things I already have begun: frequent phone calls, help with the funeral, and in general being there for her? I understand that this is probably "enough," but I've always strived for protecting my parents from heartbreak, going so far as to hide my severe depression and recent abortion. Dad was, despite their quarrels, her crutch, and vice versa. I have never seen her so broken, and it scares me.

So, what else can I do? Is there anything, except time, that will make her feel better?

Thank you for reading this,

Daddy's Girl, Mommy's Little Helper

Dear Daddy's Girl,

If this is the first time you have lost someone then you may be surprised at the power of your feelings and of your inability to fix anything. That is how it is when someone dies. There is an absence and you can't fix it. So you learn to live with the absence.

Your mother is probably very sad and while she is grieving she may feel weak and tired. She may not feel like cooking and cleaning or going out. So if you can help her in those ways, doing some of the chores that she usually does, you will help her by giving her time to heal. Grieving feels heavy and sometimes it is like a weight in the chest. It slows us down. So when others relieve us of work, that helps. Also knowing that our loved ones are around us and that they care helps.

There are things you can do for your mother while she is grieving but the one thing you cannot do is relieve her of her sadness. You can take her out to lunch and go for walks with her, and you can bring her food and help her clean her house. You can take her for a long drive in the country and walk with her, and sit with her and hold her hand. You can be with her during long silences when she may be remembering her husband or may be just resting in the sad peace of her loss.

There are things you can do. But you cannot fix her sadness. Her sadness is real; it is the absence of a loved one.

So I suggest you be around her as much as you can and learn from this. Watch her and be with her and learn what it is like to grieve. Help her and be close to her.

There will probably be a time in your life when you go through something similar. If you watch her and learn, it may help you later, as you remember how she was. You may also learn from her how to accept the help of others while you are grieving.

So do what you can. Be kind. In time the grief will change. It will become less crushing, less intense. She will still be sad but after a while the grief will stop blowing like a steady, deafening gale and will come and go instead like gusts of wind, sometimes light, sometimes heavy.

By Cary Tennis

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Death And Dying Family Fathers Grief Mother Mother And Child Since You Asked