Parental Death Doesn’t Have To ‘Trigger’
Dealing with illness and loss as the child of an alcoholic
My 83-year-old mum was given a terminal prognosis just eight weeks ago. A lifetime has passed since then. What floored me at the time wasn’t that cancer was ravaging three of her vital organs. Having smoked for more than sixty years, she had already outlived the risks of a toxic lifestyle. She was a medical marvel to have survived so long! What got me smack in the heart was the question:
How will I be able to help and then ‘let go’ of a mother who can’t even bear closeness?
Don’t get me wrong, after a rocky start, say, the first 30 years of our relationship — we had finally hit a loving groove (of sorts) in the past decade. My new found faith in God, demanded I forgive and let go of past conflict (we are all a work in progress). And mum forgave me too which was so wonderful. We found, a cool, yet mutual, appreciation. She told me she was proud of me — when I hit 50 years old. I told her she was an ‘amazing mum’, when she hit 80. I committed to helping her as much as I could with the time she had left.
Dementia is not an easy gig
In her spotless, 1980’s living room, a hospice-trained counsellor went through the grim end-of-life options with us. Mum, struggling by this time with dementia too, nodded along, saying nothing, as she was told:
‘Treatment is minimal’. Nod.
‘You won’t be resuscitated?’ Nod.
‘Do you understand Susan?’
Suddenly, giving her trademark angry groan, mum tottered from the room, as fast as her unstable legs would take her.
‘I’m going for a cigarette — this is all deeply boring!’ Her way of dealing with, anything uncomfortable, including impending death.
Now alone, I asked a concerned-looking ‘Rachel’ what we, the children should ‘do’ now? How best to help an elderly parent with (we then believed) months to live? Her words, meant as a comfort, unwittingly inflicted pain and sadness instead.
‘Have nice times together. Cuddle her, look at old photo albums. Reminisce about the good times you shared in the past.’
As the adult child of a parent who struggled with undiagnosed psychological disorder/s from childhood and associated addiction for four decades, such moments of beauty were now extremely unlikely. What photo albums, what memories and… cuddling?
Yet, if you are able to commit to trying to love and be loved in the final months of a damaged life, it’s possible you may witness a vulnerability — even an inner kindness, that detoxes the previous dynamic. Mum still swore as I tried to help her work out the complex medication regime. And yes, she threatened to throw the dinner I’d made into the bin — or at me. But there were hours when we said nothing to each other. In a pleasant atmosphere of mutual tolerance. ‘I love you, I really do’ came from her lips. An earthly bliss I had rarely tasted.
Mum died suddenly this week. Thanks to, frankly, cruel NHS Covid regulations which allow only one member of a family to visit the sick and dying, I didn’t see her in her last days. I rang and(confusing me for my sister) mum said I was at the hospital, looking after her.
Shock news! A parent’s success or failure in their role doesn’t necessarily effect the grief you feel losing them. It’s hard wired into us.
But, without a lifetime of hugs and love to keep us afloat, grief can become twinned with anger and regret, the ugly sisters of mourning
It’s love Jim but not as we know it.
No matter what relationship you are having with your mother — she will always be one of a kind, the body that grew us, gave birth to us, went through 9 months of sacrifice and sickness. Suffered the pain of childbirth, breastfeeding, exhaustion.
The fact is that however, clumsily even neglectfully, she may have held us as children, the lack of her presence in the world is a chasm. Crossed on a rope made of missed opportunities.
Friends, doctors, other family members may, unwittingly, offer painful condolences. Probably because you chose to keep a lot of what has gone on private. After all, parents are supposed to provide their children with a source of support, strength, and unconditional love. Not having had that can evoke feelings of self- loathing and blame.
You are not alone.
Parental addiction is more common than you might realise. Studies estimate that more than 28 million people in the United States have a parent addicted to alcohol or drugs. A research study with 4,000 respondents estimates there are 3 million children in the UK living with parental alcohol problems. The 2004 Health Survey for England and t General Household Survey, calculated that 28–30% of children live with at least one binge drinking parent.
When this parent dies, it is so easy to worship at the altar of regret and anger.
I didn’t realise how much residual anger I had, until my sister proposed a memorial ‘To celebrate mum’s life.’ I ranted about the waste of time not to mention money this would be for a person who hated life. And who disliked everyone except us.
My angry outburst hurt loved ones who are grieving. As my mum always said ‘Do as I say not as I do.’ So don’t make the same mistake I did by bringing stuff like that into the open when things are so raw.
I’ve started work on loving mum beyond her death. I’ve made the conscious decision to hold onto the good and let go of the hard times.
Some real-time advice on dealing with parental illness and/or death:
- Don’t mourn the living. Make the moments you have now count. As best you can. However you can. They won’t be coming back.
- Do NOT revisit the imperfect past. Will any of that picking-through-the-rubble change it one iota or help you or your mum through this?
- Palliative and end of life care should be person-centred. This means providing care based on the person’s individual needs. Being aware of the challenges that can affect emotionally unwell or addicted individuals can help you to provide the best care for them.
- Take second place emotionally. Be okay with not mattering most or even much, for this process. We get to live on, mum, sadly, won’t.
In a less-than-perfect terminal prognosis scenario don’t take ANYTHING personally. The old personality traits which ‘trigger’ are likely to come into sharp relief when someone is in pain, or scared. Be patient even if your best efforts get rejected. The time for hurt feelings and setting things ‘right’ is long gone.
In Anne Enright’s non-fiction work Making Babies (2004) she writes:
“Most of us come to an accommodation between the ‘Mother’ in our heads and the woman who reared us”
Accept that the soul which has just departed, did what they could, with the life, with the character, they were given.
Know this too.
By staying calm, by not pushing others away with your anger, as your parent may have done, you will, in the long term, move forward and thrive.
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article reach out to NACOA here