I lost my mom unexpectedly five months ago. My dad lost his wife of 39 years, just one month shy of 40 years together. They were raising my 16-year-old niece. I told my dad that I would take care of him. So my husband and I moved in to take care of the cooking and cleaning and to help continuing to raise my niece.
There are times when I have to remind my dad to eat or take his medicine. I just feel like I'm not doing enough to help with his grieving. Is there anything else I can do for him?
At a Loss for Words in Tennessee
Dear at a Loss for Words,
Here are some things you can do for your father. You can cook for him except not as expertly as your mom did. You can take him clothes shopping except not as knowledgeably as your mom did. You can remind him of appointments except not as lovingly as your mom did. You can help him get to his appointments though not taking the same shortcuts your mom did. You can talk with him in the evenings but not in the same delightful way your mom did. You can play cards with him except maybe your mom let him win on purpose or maybe she was merciless or maybe they played strip poker and you'll never know. You can help him care for your niece but you won't know when to let her stay up and when to make her go to bed like your mom did. You can take your niece shopping for clothes but you won't know which styles and departments and sizes work best for her like your mom did. You can help your niece with her homework but you won't know her favorite subjects like your mom did.
Other things you can do: You can reassure your dad that he doesn't have to take care of everything. You can tell him you are glad to be there with him. You can tell him that you are proud of him. You can tell him you are glad to be his daughter. You can tell him you won't abandon him.
Those are some things you can do. Here are some things you cannot do for your father. You cannot stop him from feeling what he is feeling and neither could your mom. You cannot bring your mother back and neither can anyone else. You cannot know what your dad wants or needs unless he tells you and neither could your mom although at times he probably thought she could or should or would one day learn to if she just had a little more time. You cannot give him the strength he has lost during his grieving and neither can anyone else. You cannot change the past and neither could your mom. You cannot change him and neither could your mom although at times she probably thought she could if she just had a little more time to work on it. You cannot replace your mother and this he knows more abjectly than anything else he knows.
You are there together. That is the main thing. You have lost someone but you and your father and your niece and your husband are together in a house and you are safe. You are caring for each other and that is more than many people have.
You are doing everything you can. What you cannot do is not your concern. The things you cannot do are not things to grieve about or feel sorry about. They are things that are beyond the reach of human beings. We humans live in a finite and narrow realm in which we can play jazz piano and open pop tops but not change the past or alter the orbit of Jupiter. We live in a world in which everyone dies eventually and none of us can stop that. We live in a world in which, knowing our frailty and the certainty of our mortality, we look out for each other. That is what you are doing. That is all you can do.
Remember that you, too, are grieving. You have moved and are grieving your mother's death and so you, too, will not be at your best. So the one additional thing I can think of to add to this list is to suggest that where possible you bring people into your family circle who are not grieving but full of joy, and this joy may be contagious, and there is no reason to be ashamed that some people are full of joy while others are grieving, because we take turns harboring such felicities and such burdens, and so we count on some people to be feeling joy when others are grieving for otherwise all the joy in the world would be dampened and disappear, because someone is always grieving somewhere. So that is the one other thing you can do: Do not limit the household to simply those who are grieving. Open it up to those who have not lost anyone dear to them lately, and let some of their joy come into the house, to level things out and remind everyone that life goes on, and joy comes and goes, as grief comes and goes.