I wrote a post back on December 17th, 2012 about a Thank You Letter which I gave my father for Christmas a few years before he died in 2010. It’s one of those posts that I wrote very much from the heart and I was a little surprised that it received so little attention at the time.
However, over the last few weeks, it has been the most read post on the entire blog by a long shot and that has made me think a lot more about whole idea of writing Thank You letters as Christmas gifts for one’s elderly parents.
I was fortunate that, for some reason, I was inspired to write the letter to my father while he was in good health and able to appreciate it.
However, I would say that it is never, ever too late to write that letter of thanks. Losing elderly parents, to me, is a process which can begin years before they actually die and goes on probably forever after they have died.
I know now that my mother would have appreciated such a letter but I never wrote one to her. I’ve been thinking, though, that this year ~ the 6th Christmas without her here ~ that I will take time to write to her and say everything I would have wanted her to read.
Writing a Thank You letter to a parent can’t be a token gesture. If you feel that no thanks is due, then don’t do it. But, I guess that most of us have lots of things for which we can thank our parents.
So, I would urge anyone who is fortunate enough to have an elderly parent still alive and well to give the gift of time, thought and gratitude in a Thank You letter this Christmas. It is probably the present which will be most treasured by both the giver and the recipient. And if your elderly parents have already passed on, there is still time to write and the right time will come to you, as you are the only person who knows exactly how you are feeling about your parent.
Remember, there’s no set formula ~ be yourself and dig deep!
November 15 was always a very significant day in my parent’s lives as they got married on November 15, 1948.
They both lived to see their 60th anniversary in 2008 and this is now the fourth since Father died. While there were never any major parties or the like, they always marked their Anniversary by exchanging presents and by going on some sort of outing ~ maybe lunch out or a picnic by the sea if the weather was fine.
I’ve struggled with November 15th since Mother died in 2oo9. It’s a date that’s etched in my life calendar because of the ‘ceremony’ that always surrounded it and the recalling of memories of that day that they tied the knot.
I wrote about possible plans for the day last year but in the end I didn’t do much more than write ~ I simply wasn’t able. I just wasn’t emotionally ready.
This year I felt different and I spent some lovely time today in celebrating a marriage that was fundamentally important to giving me life itself.
I was rather surprised to find that November 15th in 1948 fell on a Monday. I don’t know if Monday weddings were more common back then than they are now. I don’t know of any other couple who got married on a Monday!
So, I made my way to Annestown Beach this morning; had the obligatory cup of coffee, a paddle and carved a little memorial in the sand. It all felt so right and the gorse was in full bloom out around there ~ when the gorse is out of bloom, kissing’s out of season.
Today seemed just the right day to buy my snowdrop and hyacinth bulbs ~ always such symbols of hope and inextricably linked to this time of year, especially for Mother.
On the way home, I decided to call into The Majestic Hotel here in Tramore. That’s where Mother and Father had their wedding reception. The hotel has been rebuilt since those days as you can see from the following photos:
Even though the buildings are different, I half expected to see the wedding party arrive into the hotel as I was sitting there sipping my latte.
Tramore Beach that was so special to both Mother and Father and where we shared so, so many precious hours, days and moments was my last stop.
There is was, just as it was back in November 1948, being watched over by the Metal Man and whispering its everlasting words of love.
In conclusion, I would say from my experience, that the grieving process is very different for each individual and for each death in an individual’s life. Perhaps a good rule of thumb is only to do things when they feel right ~ not when you or someone else thinks the time should be right.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
(William Shakespeare ~ Hamlet Act 1)
Flowers can be highly symbolic both during life and as a comfort after the passing of a loved one.
I totally associate sunflowers with my late father. He introduced me to Van Gogh’s great paintings of these bright, cheerful flowers and he loved to take photographs of them.
I bought him a huge big bunch for what I knew would be his last birthday in June 2010 and later that Summer brought him photographs of some beauties which people grow by their gate way on the road which he loved between Tramore and Annestown.
I’ve been keeping a close eye on the progress of those sunflowers over the last few weeks and headed out there this morning in the mist to see if they were in full bloom.
The whole experience gave me such a strong sense of connection to Dad and I can only smile as I write this and think of the delight in his eyes when he saw me arriving with the bunch that day on his birthday.
It’s well worth finding out your parent’s preferences about flowers ~ if you don’t already know them ~ and weaving them into your relationship with them. They can have such a calming effect and it’s always great to know that the flowers will continue to bloom year after year and appear in all sorts of different places, such as poetry and art.
There tends to be a sense of sense of loss and grief throughout the whole process from when one’s elderly parents first show signs of frailty to way beyond when they die.
Grief isn’t, by any means, a feeling that somehow starts at the moment of death and follows some sort of highway that leads to a town called All Done.
Grief varies in its intensity and takes many, many different forms but I think it’s fair to say that the place it is probably felt most is in the heart.
I really like this short poem by Australian poet, Michael Leunig, which relates to degrees of heartache and ways to cope with it:
When the Heart
When the heart
is cut or cracked or broken
Do not clutch it
Let the wound lie open
Let the wind
From the good old sea blow in
To bathe the wound with salt
And let it sting
Let a stray dog lick it
Let a bird lean in the hole and sing
A simple song like a tiny bell
And let it ring
(from:Solitaire written by Neil Sedaka and Phil Cody,1972)
I set out with noble intent, some months back, to write a series entitled 101 Ways to Cope with Losing Elderly Parents. I wanted to move away from me and my parents and be a resource for the world, based on my reading of the literature.
You may, or may not have noticed, that I never got passed #9. This isn’t because I suddenly lost interest in the subject; because I felt that no one was interested in what I had to say; or because I thought that ‘elderly parents’ had suddenly stopped dying.
I can see every single day that people are searching for information, solace, support, comfort … words of wisdom about how to cope with losing elderly parents and I have felt really bad about my abrupt silence on the whole issue.
I realise that my mistake was in trying to be ‘objective’ about a subject that had, and continues to have, huge significance for me.
I know perfectly well that there are grown-up children TODAY facing dilemmas and issues associated with their elderly parents similiar (but not identical to what I faced), especially during what I consider to have been my parent’s ‘frail years’ ~ 2004-2010.
This very weekend in 2005 my mother was in a comatose state in hospital with pneumonia and was deemed to be on the verge of death. My father was in the very same hospital, just one floor above her, recovering from surgery for a hip replacement after a fall while down town on the Friday.
It was pure and utter hell ~though neither Mother nor Dad knew the full story.
If I was trying to write this in terms of 101 Ways to Cope with Losing Elderly Parents #10 -#14, here’s what I’d be saying with the benefit of hindsight:
1. People don’t always die when they have been deemed to be at death’s door. (Mother came out of that episode pretty well and lived on with a reasonably good quality of life (at home) for almost 4 years;
2. Breaking a hip can spell the end or the beginning of the end for many elderly people BUT there are exceptions. (Dad was walking around totally independently ~ without any aids ~ from the morning after his hip operation. He was 86 at the time! Overall, neither the break to his hip nor the surgery knocked a feather out of him. Being hospitalised, or should I say ‘ being away from home’ was his biggest issue in that it disorientated him greatly)
3. We didn’t tell either of our parents about the situation of the other at that time. We, kids, felt that it wouldn’t do either of them any favours to have to cope with worrying about the other as each had enough on their own respective plates. We never said very much about that ‘hellish’ August Bank Holiday weekend to either of them afterwards either, as it seemed like it had very little purpose to serve. In hindsight, I think this was the right decision, even though there are all sorts of ethical issues around ‘withholding the truth.’
4. Recognise the extent to which elderly parents, who have a strong bond, will both consciously and subconsciously be affected by the health and well being of the other. ( It was uncanny how often my parents both fell ill at the same time and I am as sure as I can be that it was because they were worried about each other, however much we tried to spare them that worry. This is part of what the longevity of a ‘happy’ marriage entails.)
5. Five and four years on since the deaths of my mother and father, respectively, I would say that the memory of August Bank Holiday 2005 is as vivid as ever but so are many, many, many other August Bank Holidays in which they were absolutely central. And, this morning, as I went for an early swim and for a walk with a puppy they never had the pleasure of knowing, I know that Mother and Dad are still a huge part of my life as I carry their hearts in mine.
Dreams and Nightmaresseem to be part and parcel of the process of losing elderly parents. Obviously everyone is going to have their own versions of these, depending on their unique circumstances but I guess most people can be very unnerved by the vividness of the dreams and the disorientation that can be associated with them.
Recurring nightmares can be hellish, especially when they re-play a part of the journey that one has manged to ‘forget’ or somehow deal with in waking hours.
The only way that I have found of stopping recurring nightmares is to bring them out into the open and tell a supportive person about them. Bottling them up seems to be a recipe for disaster whereas confiding can well serve as the key to dealing with them successfully.
One of the most difficult issues that can arise with elderly parents revolves around driving the car, or perhaps I should say ceasing to drive the car.
For a person who has been driving for 60+ years, the car tends to be a crucial symbol of life, living and independence. However, it can also become a very lethal weapon if driving skills are impaired by symptoms associated with failing health.
While there are legal requirements for older people to be medically certified as being fit to drive on an annual basis, situations can arise where family members become aware that a parent’s ability to drive has diminished after a further health setback and that they have definitely reached a point where they are a a danger to themselves and others on the road, even though they may only be driving very short distances to local shops and the like.
In ideal circumstances, the parent will be the person to take the decision to hang up the car keys. If not, the matter has to be taken in hand by the family, either directly or through a third-party, like a family doctor.
Whatever the case, it is crucial to recognise the significance of the car and to identify other means of transport so that the parent doesn’t feel trapped. For example, the point can be made that savings on ‘not driving’ can be used to take taxis for both essential outings and what may be perceived as ‘luxuries,’ like a drive along a much loved stretch of coastline or a trip to visit family or friends.
It is pretty much inevitable that frail elderly parents will have at least one medical emergency that requires hospitalisation and it is a very good idea to be well prepared for this in advance.
Take a quiet moment to make a list of key information that is going to be required when an emergency arisesand be aware that that stuff you think you could never, ever forget has a tendency to go absolutely blank in an emergency situation.
So here’s my basic template for the Emergency List:
1. Telephone Number/s of the Emergency Services ~ especially the Ambulance
2. Your parent’s full name and date of birth
3. Your parent’s next of kin
2. The telephone number at which your parent resides
3. Your mobile phone number
4. Directions to your parent’s residence
5. A brief outline of your parent’s medical condition/s
6. A list of CURRENT medications and dosages
7. A note of any known allergies to medications
8. Details of Medical Insurance or other cover
9. Name, address and telephone number of your parent’s family doctor
10. Telephone numbers of other family members
Please note that making such a list does not bring on an emergency but it will certainly be immensely helpful if and when one arises.
Finally, make sure that the Emergency List stored in a place where you or others likely to be on the scene are sure to remember!
How do grown-up children react from the point at which their elderly parent/s become frail? This is a question to which there are many answers and around which there can be much conflict.
It has to be borne in mind that the older grown-up the children are, the more life experience they will have had and, in many cases they will now be parents themselves. It is also essential to remember that each grown-up child will have a unique relationship with his/her parent/s and may well perceive the parents differently from their siblings.
One of the most interesting approaches that I have come across in relation to understanding grown-up children’s approaches to their elderly parents was that presented by Professor Kenneth Doka, the world renowned American writer on issues relating to death and dying.
Professor Doka introduced me to the different roles that people can play in a death and dying situation, using the DLR acronym:
D = Doers ~ those who get on with practical activities, including those relating to personal care;
L= Listeners~ those who are excellent listeners and in whom the elderly parent/s may be most likely to confide;
R= Respite People ~those whose strengths lie in organising the essential ‘time out’ from talking about illness/dying.
Professor Doka also spoke of the the X Category~ those who are destructive and who should be avoided/removed from the situation.
Crucial to all this is that grown-up children recognise and bring out each other’s strengths rather than assuming that each perceives and can support the elderly parent/s identically.
To what extent does this approach resonate with you?
I think that the seeds for coping with the loss of elderly parents are sown way back before frailty or death occur and this generally happens in a subconscious way. For me, one of the many things that softens the sadness is seeing the blossoming of shrubs and flowers that I planted with my parents in happy times.
A typical example of this is the camellia which is currently in full bloom in my back garden and which Father and I planted together after a trip to our local garden centre and a drive round by Dunmore East where we stopped off for coffee and a chat.
Seeing the camellia now brings me back to a time when Father was in the great health and is completely dissociated with any of the more difficult memories of his declining years.
So seize all the opportunities you can when your parents are well to plant these memories and, if that time has passed, identify a few things or thoughts that relate to those earlier times as they can be very sustaining when pangs of sadness strike.
I’d love to hear what items or thoughts are ‘special’ for YOU in this context.