My father died unexpectedly on Dec. 28, 2013. He had taken a nasty fall about two weeks before, hitting his head on the basement’s cement floor after tripping on the stairs, and he never emerged from his coma. Then he was gone.
Anyone who has experienced a family member’s death knows this: There is no time to grieve that first week. And if that deceased relative happens to be an older parent, helping the surviving spouse navigate the funeral arrangements, the visitors, the phone calls and other overwhelming details will likely fall on the adult child. Here is how I helped my mom cope:
Be an advocate — In a perfect world, the surviving spouse could take some time to grieve after the death of a husband or wife, but funeral planning is unavoidable. And with that comes a multitude of somewhat unpleasant decisions: type of casket, size of flower arrangements, funeral music selections, finding photos for a poster board, scheduling days for the wake and funeral service. My mom wasn’t much in a clear frame of mind to do any of these things, so I stepped in — especially when she was presented with a $15,000 funeral home bill and nearly collapsed in tears. I worked with the funeral director, line item by line item, to get the bill to a more reasonable amount. If I hadn’t spoken up, mom probably wouldn’t have, either. Let your parent fall apart, and take control of the situation for them.
Be a gatekeeper — I was amazed at how frequently the phone rang that first week. Really, it was non-stop. While we truly appreciated the concerned calls, mom just couldn’t repeat the same story of my father’s death over and over. That’s when I appointed myself (or the voice mail) as gatekeeper. She felt guilty for not entertaining every guest, but I knew she needed the rest. If I had to be the ‘bad guy’ for running interference, or for taking a rain check on a visit, then so be it.
Be the parent — Your parent has parented you your entire life; now it’s time to return the favor. My mom couldn’t function if I was a mess, so my job was to be the strong one. I let her cry, and I kept it (mostly) together. I distracted her, kept her on-task, helped her just get through the week. My grief could wait.
Be available in the weeks after — Unfortunately, I had to fly home to Colorado after my father was buried, leaving my mom on her own to handle an unending pile of paperwork and bills. Being available via phone in the weeks following to walk her through red tape, or to just calm her down, was vital. Because once the shock of my father’s death wore off, the reality of my mom’s new life had begun. And she needed me, more than ever.
Helping your parent deal with the death of a spouse, especially in that overwhelming first week, is an important and necessary task. Stay strong, be decisive, and put your own grief on hold to help your parent cope and come to terms with their new life.