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Preparing for the Loss of a Parent

By Sally AbrahmsApril 23, 2019
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Last Updated: April 23, 2019

There’s no way around it — preparing for the loss of a parent or a senior loved one is wrenching. There are things that you can do during this time, however, that may give you and the person you love peace of mind. 

Read more about how adult children can better prepare for the loss of a loved one.

The Loss of a Parent or Senior Loved One

Polly Cummings was not prepared for the death of her husband Walter 13 years ago. Although the 53-year-old had a grim prognosis and year-long illness, she was so focused on driving him to chemotherapy and mothering her two children that she didn’t think about the time when he would no longer be there.

“It was a source of pride for Walter to do the finances, so I let him,” says Cummings. “But, when he died, I was not prepared. I didn’t know where to start. Instead of flailing around, I should have talked ahead of time to his accountant, bank and financial advisor. It made the loss even worse.”

You can chalk up her lapse to caregiver exhaustion, inexperience, and something else: our society’s discomfort with discussing death, whether it’s our own or someone else’s. Slowly, though, that attitude is shifting, thanks to 75 million “tell-it-like-it-is” baby boomers.

5 Ways to Prepare for the Loss of a Parent

There’s another reason, too: experts believe that if you address the impending loss of a spouse due to a terminal illness, or a parent’s aging, you are likely to fare better — and in the process, may give the person you love peace of mind.

“We prepare more for a vacation than we do for death and loss,” says Shelley Whizin, a certified death midwife who recently spoke on the topic at a Motion Picture and Television Fund women’s conference in Los Angeles.

Laurel Lewis, a nurse and end-of-life expert also on the program, says that “loss can be complicated. It’s not just a physical separation, but also emotional and spiritual. Usually, there’s a financial component. You are confused, scared, vulnerable and forced to make big life decisions in an altered state.”

On the other hand, Lewis notes, “If you tie things up before the loss, you can live your life more fully and the grieving process may be shorter than if you were in denial.”

When a loss isn’t predicted but is dreaded and inevitable, it is sometimes called “anticipatory grief.” Like the grief you experience after a death, you may feel anger, denial, depression, fear, guilt and sadness. The “good” part about it is that there’s time to do and say the things you want.

You can plan and you should.

Here are some ways to prepare:

1. Be good to yourself.

Caregivers are always told this, but if you are able to eat well, exercise, find a place to vent and sleep, you will be in better shape to cope. Meditation, support groups, walks and yoga are also good ways to think about you.

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2. Conserve your energy.

Rather than be barraged by calls and emails from family and friends seeking an update, communicate just one time. It could be a conference call or a website like CaringBridge. Another site, Lotsa Helping Hands, lets caregivers post the help they need and others sign up for duties. You might also want to create a family website and divvy up jobs. One sibling can make sure all documents are in order and have a master list of passwords, while another can research funeral arrangements, for instance.

3. Don’t wait for the funeral.

You can say all these wonderful things about the person after they are gone, but what about honoring them or telling them before? You can make a video of the people in your parent’s life talking about what your parent means to them, and share it with your parent before they pass.

4. Seize the opportunity!

You want to feel that you have done everything you can for your loved one and for yourself. Do you need to say “thank you,” “I forgive you,” “I’m sorry,” or “I love you” to a parent?

5. Take cues from who is ill.

Some people want to talk about what they’re going through or what happens after. For Cummings’s husband Walter, it was an off-limits topic. Before Cumming’s mother died at age 93, though, she talked candidly about her feelings and wishes. That put Cumming and her sisters “at peace” after her mom passed away.

Have you been through this experience or are you going through it currently? What do you wish you had done or known while preparing for the loss of a parent? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.

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Sally Abrahms