The other day, one of the search terms that led to my blog read: Death of elderly parent expected but still a shock.
There’s all sorts of ways of looking at this but I know exactly what the writer meant. It’s strange but I’m nearly reluctant to write this post as I am acutely aware that the shock involved in sudden deaths, especially of young people, is immense and possibly qualitatively different than the shock involved in losing an elderly parent who has been ‘expected’ to die for maybe years or months.
However, I have known the shock to which this writer is referring and I think it is important to acknowledge and heighten awareness of it.
I’m sure most of us know of people whose parents have been ill and ‘at death’s door’ for a very long time and when we hear the news of their eventual deaths, it comes as no great surprise. Often, the wonder is, How could they have lasted so long?
When that person is YOUR mother or father, however old, their dying is a shock. In fact, I would say that the oftener an elderly parent has diced with death and survived, the more it can seem like they are invincible.
I have vivid recall of a conversation I had with a chaplain on the day before my mother died. He talked of Lazarus and I just said that I thought my mother had probably outdone Lazarus at that stage as she had ‘picked up her bed and walked’ on numerous occasions when she had been ‘written off’ ~ to use a great expression of hers. To the best of my knowledge Lazarus only did this once.
As I see it, the shock in the eventual passing of an elderly parent is all bound up with what seems like gaping finality. This person, who has been around all our lives and who has, if we are fortunate, supported us through thick and thin, known and understood all our foibles and our whole life history, is no longer the breathing, loving mainstay that they were. We now see them in a way that we have never seen them before, lifeless, silent, waxen.
No matter how much we feel prepared for, or visualise this moment, and it can be a long, long moment, it still comes as a major shock to the system.
To my mind, the biggest help is being supported by people who understand the nature of this shock and who don’t try to belittle it in any way.
The world is a different place without the physical presence of a beloved parent, however old he/she is at the time of death. The world seems much less secure and the very foundations of life shudder.
On the positive side, beloved elderly parents tend to leave a strong legacy that is like a well of history, precious moments, wisdom and memories that will help to put our personal worlds back on their axes.