The “Dreaded Call” and Reflections
On the evening of January 15, 2015, I got “the dreaded call” that my Dad had suffered his second stroke and was being rushed to the hospital. I was immediately thrown into a devastating emotional hurricane; and mechanically jumped into action. I thought of Dad’s first stroke 8 years ago. My four siblings and I had just celebrated Dad’s 80th birthday with him at his home in Florida. We were feeling very close, and our experiences together through that family crisis went well. And Dad, thankfully, made a full recovery. Then, I also recalled the time when my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1990. Upset about the condition of my mother’s house, I voiced my opinion, offending some of my siblings, which prompted a huge, emotionally-charged conflict in the hospital waiting room. So, during the 6 hour drive to my Dad’s home, I knew that either scenario was possible. Walking into Dad’s ICU room at the hospital would be one of my greatest emotional challenges, which could easily spark conflict, or support a fierce collaborative, team-building effort to take care of our Dad and do what was best for him. I got very little sleep as my partner, Brad, made the loving sacrifice of driving all night to take me to my Dad.
Restlessly drifting in and out of sleep during our drive, it hit me that I had absolutely no preconceived plan of action for this situation. It never occurred to me to think about the day my father would lay dying. I didn’t want to think about something so unbelievable painful. The quiet decision I made as I walked through the hospital corridors was to try my hardest to remain fully present to whatever situation was occurring; and be a team member within my family, not take on the pressure of being the leader, and not judge what others would do or say. I remember staying vigilant, staying aware, but mostly, I surrendered to the present moment with my Dad and my family. And, I think this had a huge, positive impact. To my surprise, the types of conflict I remembered from my own prior experience and what I’d heard from my therapy patients while their parents were dying did not occur. The events that unfolded throughout the following week while my Dad lay in the hospital, and later, in hospice, were like nothing I could have imagined.
The reason our family experiences were so surprising to me was because harmony or togetherness among my four siblings and me or between me and my mother hadn’t been the norm throughout much of my life. To the contrary, I often felt distant from everyone in my family and had difficulty finding my place, my “purpose,” or “role” among the “team.” During our childhood, in order to see Dad, we had to go to one of his businesses to “catch a glimpse” of him and maybe a hurried conversation; unless, like my older sister and my brother, you decided to go to work with him and see him every day in a “work” relationship. When Dad retired and moved to Florida in 1988, he began taking trips to see us and making daily phone calls to stay in touch. He never made it an obvious issue, never talked about how he decided to do this to make up for lost time or past regrets. That wasn’t his style. He communicated by “doing”. His joyful, cheerful conversation and visits began to lift our spirits. Through Dad’s initiative, I actually got to know him. He went from being a stranger in my home, someone uncomfortable being around, to someone I actually looked forward to seeing. The visits and phone calls allowed us to “bond” with each other, and this bond spread across other relationships, helping me, my siblings and my mother grow closer as well.
Maybe this remarkable transformation that Dad made built the foundation for us staying present and staying close to him and each other while he was dying. Dad, the workaholic, the caterer, bar owner, overindulging in alcohol and food, rarely seen in his immediate family’s home, but host of all the large family outings, always the one who brought us together for celebrations. He was a professional at it while active in his career. After he retired from the catering business, Dad was still the one who brought us all together, and there was still the professionally laid out buffet table but, there were remarkable changes too. He insisted on “less is more” in the food and drink department. And, the new and most delicious of all “foods” at Dad’s table was now verbal and physical expressions of love, hugs, kisses and the most warm and hearty of “Welcomes” when we gathered at his comfortable home, one he created that was large enough, complete with swimming pool, dart board, horseshoe pit, putting range, extra dining room, sun and fun, for “the whole gang.”
My family was fortunate because Dad became very wise as he aged. He didn’t outwardly wallow in regret over his years of neglecting his wife and children. He did, however, suffer for his neglect. He apologized for the ways he deeply hurt me, and other family members, yet without being excessive or pitying himself. And, he became “active” in his role as father, “becoming” the father we always wanted him to be. He came to my home and helped with projects, watched my daughter and took her to school, took trips with us, made us meals and took care of everything when I had foot surgery, spent 15 years with us at our home in Georgia for Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and birthdays. I know he shared the same times with my other siblings. And, most remarkable of all, during the last 7 years of his life, he became “active” in his role as husband. He reunited with my Mother after 37 years of separation, and showed her the love, loyalty, care and devotion she so longed for but resigned herself to never having. Dad’s love for Mom was enduring. He took care of her every need through medical visits, diabetes treatments, stroke, falls, taking care of the household, shopping and cooking, and bringing her out of obesity, helping her loose over 200 lbs. I felt I had witnessed a miracle the last few times I saw my parents together; and I will always treasure the quieter moments I was fortunate to capture on camera as they embraced, laughed and showed affection.
Of course, many families won’t feel or experience the good fortunate of having their elderly parent reach out to them in their later years to re-establish a more positive relationship; and those are the families I hope to reach. The families who are in chronic conflict, even before their elderly parent becomes terminally ill. The families where there is lack of trust, suspiciousness of who might take advantage of the situation, complications of mental or physical illness, or such physical distance that any hope of establishing emotional bonds later in life seems nearly impossible. When these type of conflicts precede the crisis of a parent dying, it is hard to imagine how the parent’s dying process could not be another extension of the ongoing conflict. Or, given the enormous stressors involved, create even more severe conflict. Unfortunately, this is often what happens. I wish I had easy or clear answers. What I do know is that, when the mind and heart open even to the possibilities, as unimaginable as they may seem, changes in personal and family dynamics can occur. I’ve witnessed this in my office for over 30 years. I will never rule out the possibility of change or transformation.
My book, Hydrangeas from Dad, started as a chronology of ways family members can stay close, be present and dignify their dying parent. True to the power of family dynamics, I now realize that the conscious choices the dying parent made in how they interacted with family members during their later years is a significant contribution to the quality of their family’s experience as they are dying. My Dad showed me how positive, healing choices could be made and what an influence that has on the dying process. Dad accomplished his transformation in such a humble way, never calling attention to any of his acts of kindness or reconciliation, but by “being” fully in the present moment, having made different decisions with a different set of priorities. Although we cannot re-live our past, Dad demonstrated how we can create new, active, healing experiences in the present, through changes in behavior, and how these changes can help family members bond and heal the hurts from disappointments, mistreatments and neglect of years past. Time spent creating meaningful connections and experiences with family members during later years in life will have a profound effect on the way we say our final good-byes. So, I will add another section to my book addressing this issue – As helpful as it is for adults to prepare for the time they will experience their parent dying, it is equally helpful to encourage and support an elderly parent to review his or her life, the regrets, the longings, the unfulfilled promises, and consider how they can transform their life into whatever semblance of the life they wanted but couldn’t have while they were busy building a career and/or supporting and caring for a family. This issue, like the issue of dying, touches all of our lives as everyone must take this journey into our mature years, when the stresses of work obligations give way to time that can be spent having meaningful family connections and experiences while we’re still together, which will positively impact healing closure upon death.
My hope in sharing the story of my and my family’s experiences while my Dad was dying is to open the minds and hearts of others and offer inspiration and encouragement. As your parent is dying, TRY to stay focused on the present moment-by-moment experiences, knowing that your parent is communicating with you until the moment of their death; allow yourself to respond according to your authentic feelings and honest thoughts about your parent dying; be aware of who’s with you and offer acceptance, suspend judgement, and feel no obligation to interact in a certain way; and get the private time you need to make peace and say good-bye to your dying parent. Each member of my family is different in lifestyle, beliefs and ways of expressing ourselves or keeping ourselves private. If we were able to become so close and stay so presently involved in our Dad’s dying process, even with all of our differences, perhaps other families may be inspired to know it’s possible, if they choose, to have times of closeness, spontaneity, privacy and mutual support and comfort at this most difficult of times.
Thank you for visiting this site. I hope you will interact freely with feedback, comments, opinions and sharing your own stories of your journey with your dying parent or your thoughts about anticipating this event in your life. I wish you peace and blessings!
Mary Ellen Connett, M.S., LMFT