When a loved one passes away, that person is memorialized, celebrated, and remembered. Words are spoken, photo albums are displayed, flowers are sprawled, music is played. But what happens when there is advance notice? When a loved one, say, a parent, is dying? When that individual’s life—and the impact they had—can be contemplated and perhaps mourned, before it’s over?

I recently discovered that it IS possible to mourn a life while it is still being lived.

My experiences with loss were always a few steps removed. As a teenager, I attended the funerals of my grandparents. Throughout my 20s and 30s, I heard about friends from childhood losing their lives in sad, unexpected ways. I talked to colleagues when they lost someone they loved. But I had never been close to anyone who was actually going through the process of dying.

Losing a Parent

My dad was diagnosed with an incurable, idiopathic disease three years ago, at the age of 66. Everything we (that is, my mom, my brother, and me) read in the months that followed—determined to find some exotic cure or clinical trial that the best doctors just hadn’t read about yet about—pointed to an average 3-year life expectancy. And now, almost exactly 3 years later, we have been given the “3 to 4 months left, get everything in order” talk by his hospice team.

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Time has moved quickly as we have made changes to accommodate his debilitation. Moving him into a smaller, more accessible home. Setting up healthcare proxies. Adding the power of attorney rights to bank accounts. These are the logical steps any caregiver, or family of caregivers, must undertake.

But then there’s the other “stuff” that comes with watching a loved one slowly fade away. Purchasing new clothes as pounds are shed. Finding just-right meals for changing appetites and managing medication side effects. Moving furniture to accommodate increasing immobility. Seeing first-hand the stages of denial, anger, and depression rear their ugly heads—and waiting for the acceptance to set in.

The Hardest Part

For me, the hardest part has been to watch our family dynamic change. To see my mother’s passion for work dry up because she had to retire early in order to care for my father full-time. To see her give up the travel dreams she and my dad had planned over the past decade. To witness her own body shed weight as she finds it too depressing to cook only for herself. To observe her patience grow ten-fold as she tries to deal with my dad’s newfound irritability, a frustration borne out of his own inability to stop his body from turning on him. To watch her wonder, without saying a word, how she is going to survive without her partner of 45 years.

Our traditions have shifted too. Since my dad is homebound, there are no more fall drives to see the changing leaves or snowy journeys to view the holiday lights. No more glasses clinked to our favorite bourbon. No more pruning the tulips or backyard barbeques. No more settings around the big dining table. Instead, we are constantly seeking new ways to keep him entertained, searching the Internet for the latest “feel-better” devices, or compelling our own children to “go show Grandpa, go read to Grandpa, go give Grandpa a hug,” in an attempt to stamp memories of him into their budding lives.

The mood throughout the house is somber. The silence is maddening. The arguments over what can and cannot be done are crippling. I find myself longing to go back to my childhood, or even to five years ago, to relive key moments, to take it all in, to do things over—perhaps a little differently, perhaps a little better. 

Is Grief Selfish?

My mind lets selfish thoughts in. My dad has always been the person I go to when I have a question about finances or fixing something around the house. He was a career-long accountant, a do-it-yourself gardener, and often liked to think of himself as an architectural draftsman whose building career got away from him. Who am I going to call when I next need his advice, or when something breaks? Who will answer the phone and make those awful “dad jokes?” I’ve even considered writing down all the things I could possibly ever want to ask him to see if he’ll answer my questions now. But I know that’s not practical. The time for those interactions, in many ways, has already been lost.

These are the thoughts—and the memories—that flood my mind whenever I’m not focused on something specific. They invade my mind as I try to fall asleep and they are the first images that appear when the alarm sounds. They cloud my vision as I drive from home, to work, to the grocery store, and they emerge through tears as I try to get away from it all with a book or old movie. And yet, he’s still here. My dad is still fighting to hold on. Why do I feel as though I’m grieving when he’s not yet gone?

When I ask these questions aloud, my husband points out that I have always been a planner and thrive on getting things done early. Am I, in some twisted obsessive way, trying to mourn this loss ahead of time? Am I trying to avoid the pain that I know will come by forcing it to take hold now? Am I trying to circumnavigate the five stages of grief?

Perhaps. But with no clear answers or path forward, I, my mom and my brother, continue to scramble to make these final moments with my dad count. To hold another conversation, to churn out another laugh, to take another look, to shape another memory.

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When a Loved One is Dying: The Unspoken Emotions & Impact

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Last Updated: Sep 6, 2019