About a month ago, one of my husband’s closest friends lost his father. As so many deaths go, this one was one of those that happened too soon and left little time for his family to contemplate and digest what was about to happen to their family and to say goodbye. A gorgeous, sentimental obit appeared on Facebook thereafter, and my husband, Heath, quickly hopped a flight to support his friend through the trauma, albeit necessary and cathartic, of burying a parent.
Naturally, Heath remained in touch with his friend over the next weeks to see how he was doing. After one late-night conversation, Heath asked me if I wouldn’t mind calling his friend to suggest “what to do with his mother.” As if I were some expert on how to handle the parent who survives? I immediately bristled and went to bed before I could compose a single thought about “what to do” with the parent who just lost the love of her life, and who, it seems in the moment, won’t be able to survive the death of her soulmate.
I still haven’t called our friend. But I’ve been thinking about him, and his mother, for weeks. In these weeks, I’ve also been thinking about whether I’ve done my part in helping my own mother survive my beloved dad’s passing (it was six years ago this past June). I can’t say I’ve been as dutiful as maybe I should have been.
All this guilt has accumulated and I’m finally writing down–for Howard, our friend, and for myself–a humble how-to that only stems from my experience. Because we lost my dad when he was only 61, because my mom lost the only person in the world who could still make her blush after almost 40 years of marriage, and because my dad’s yahrtzeit is flanked by their anniversary and Father’s Day, which will perpetually suck for my mom, brother, and me, forever, I owe it to Howard and to myself to make this quasi-checklist that even I will have to reread every once in a while. (Please note: I have no background in psychology, and if this list can pertain to you in some way I’ll be happy to know it was worth the effort).
How can you help your recently-widowed parent?
1. Be present. In the dizzying, draining days after we said goodbye to my dad, I had no idea how else to comfort my mom other than being around. Though I was a newleywed, I stayed in her house for almost a week, went through unopened condolence cards with her, stared at uneaten food with her, gorged with her, slept next to her, found toilet paper when we ran out of tissues to cry in, answered the phone, and just listened when she needed someone to talk to. Perhaps your parent is more elderly and already lives in a kind of assisted living house: trust me, s/he still needs you there, even if you spend a few hours a day holding hands. Perhaps your parent was never the kind to want you around in an emotionally-supportive way; maybe you never had a close relationship; maybe you live too far away to be able to help in this way. So let me tap the old Jewish quip: call your mother/father. (They’re not chopped liver, you know.) Call often, even if you live around the corner. Call often, even if you’re still hanging onto some resentment that stemmed from an argument (or several) that you had years earlier. If your parents had a solid relationship–even if they didn’t–you are the evidence that their lives together produced something awesome. There’s some comfort in reminding someone of that.
2. The medium is the message. For now, and maybe for a long, long time. Ever wonder why TLC’s resident medium Theresa Caputo shows up in bizarre places like bachelorette parties? Because most of us yearn to have one more sign of connection with someone who’s died. Grief does funny things to us: my mom and I look at birds and rainbows as messages, if you will, that my dad is ok, saying hi, reminding us to smile on tough days. If you think that’s nuts, wait until the day your own kid says something or does something that makes you 100% sure your deceased parent’s soul just wafted into his or her little body like Patrick Swayze in Whoopie Goldberg. Maybe you don’t believe in the afterlife, the Olam Ha’ba, or souls, or any of that foofie stuff. But your grieving parent may be desperate to find one sliver of transcendental connection. Try to be supportive of that.
3. When it’s appropriate, help your parent find a support group of people who’ve lost their spouses in similar circumstances. Organizations like the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society have well-maintained websites that can help you find local meetings for people who’ve lost spouses to the same types of diseases; there are also sites dedicated to finding support groups for those who prefer to work with professionals in mental health, or who want to be matched with another person to talk to rather than a larger group. You may have to prod and nudge and even accompany your parent to a meeting. If nothing else, the experience will help your parent to remember that there is a community of support awaiting in case she or he needs it someday.
Support groups aren’t for everyone; you can also encourage your parent to grieve more privately, in counseling. Sometimes the universal is best experienced through literature: Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates have penned highly praised, popular memoirs about losing their husbands. (Side note: in one of the days that blended with the other days that followed my dad’s death, my mother, eyes swollen, demanded that it should have been she who should have “gone first.” I recalled an anecdote from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, in which one of the author’s patients suffered from the survivor’s guilt my mother was describing. Frankl asks his patient if he’d rather his wife had seen him suffer instead of the other way around. For a moment, that perspective provided my mom some relief. I’d put that book on the short list, too.)
4. Recognize how your parent’s social life is different. My parents loved to go out with other couples: dinners, movies, shows, they even traveled abroad with their best couple-friends. Obviously the death of a spouse changes the dynamic significantly. My mom complained for several months (years?) that she felt like the proverbial third wheel and the dynamic of an odd-numbered group felt so foreign and uncomfortable. Luckily, my mom has been able to maintain her friendships with those who loved my father, including a best friend who is also single. But she has also found companionship with other widowed women. Try to encourage your parent to continue to make the effort to leave the house when s/he is invited out, whether with old friends or new acquaintences.
5. Remember when your parents snooped around in your camp journal to make sure you weren’t doing anything really stupid? It’s payback time. Though now, your parent needs to open up about finances. In traditional marriages, the bill-paying usually falls to one person. Make sure your parent understands the bill-paying schedule, is familiar with sources of income (Social Security, pensions, etc.) and financial reserves (401ks, savings accounts, IRAs, etc). Make sure your parent has a friendly, knowledgeable, helpful financial advisor. After some time, you and your siblings (if applicable) will need to discuss (however painfully) the reality that funds may need to shift, or a will may need to be established, and so on. Bottom line: make sure your mom or dad can live as comfortably (financially speaking) as she or he did when her or his spouse was alive. Because as shitty as grieving is, so is eating cat food.
6. Create a tradition with people who loved your parent, too; involve your living parent and your kids. Whether you gather for a holiday, a barbeque, or a memorial service on Shabbat, or graveside, take the time to talk about your memories. Storytelling can be both painful and cathartic, and it’s so hard not to miss the person you’re talking about. But as my mom has said many times, it’s good to cry. He [my dad] was worth crying for! I’ve also found my mom telling my and my brother’s kids funny stories about their saba–it’s emotionally fortifying for her to do and also makes the kids feel connected to someone they never really knew, but who is an integral part of who they are.
7. Contribute. So many opportunities exist for supporting medical research in the forms of 5k races, all-night relays, and such, that a whole family can get on board with raising and donating funds for good causes. The American Cancer Society does a beautiful job organizing the Relay for Life, a 24-hour walking marathon during which participants can celebrate caretakers and cancer survivors, memorialize loved ones with luminaria, and have fun doing so. If large-group fundraisers aren’t your or your parent’s thing, agree to donate to an organization, together, in your other parent’s memory.
8. Honor thy mother and father by acknowledging the beauty of a day: while the pain of surviving is at times so acute, your parent wouldn’t have wanted her or his family pining on and missing it. You’ll hear your living parent tell you (often) how much your father or mother would have loved swimming with your kids, lighting Hanukkah candles, going for walks, reading out loud, having lunch with you, and so on. Acknowledge that pain of loss is enduring and tenacious, and try to help your mother or father move on. Make them an integral part of celebrations, ask them to help more than you would have otherwise; if you live elsewhere, make Skyping a part of your communication. Talk about the mundane, the humorous, the beautiful moments that make living such a kick in the pants. Being involved in the cogs of everyday life is one of the best reminders that life does go on, and though we’d never have thought so, the days do–they do–get easier.