Dealing with a dying parent

Visitor (not verified)
anonymous user
Registered: 12-31-1969
Dealing with a dying parent
Wed, 08-22-2012 - 2:58pm

Not sure this is the right place for this, but I am the mother of two teens and we all have to deal with this. We live in Massachusetts; my parents live in the Seattle area. My dad is dying of metastatic prostate cancer. He has already outlived his prognosis of one year, but from here on out, it looks as if all the news is going to be bad news.

We've been out to the west coast 5 times in the past year. The last time was a few weeks ago, when we helped my parents move out of their 3 BR house into a small condo in a retirement community. My kids were troopers. We had a lot more packing and moving to do than we anticipated (because my parents refused to throw ANYTHING out) and they worked their butts off during a heat wave trying to get all the stuff (seriously, who needs 73 neck ties?) loaded and moved into their new place.

Where we really stumbled was in knowing what to say. I am generally a positive person, and I found myself saying stupidly optimistic things whenever my mom would say something sad. I know she is in despair anticipating the loss of someone to whom she has been married for over 50 years, so there really is nothing anyone can say that doesn't sound wretchedly stupid and trite.

In any case, I know some of you have BTDT, so I'm wondering what on earth you said to comfort the likely surviving spouse? The kids and I are sincere Christians and I know my parents also believe, but they really don't like it when we bring up matters of faith. Not sure why...maybe that will change down the line.


Community Leader
Registered: 12-16-2003
Wed, 08-22-2012 - 3:01pm
I am sorry, no advice but ((Hugs)) and prayers.

Ramona  Mom to 2 great kids and wife to one wonderful hubby since 1990!

Avatar for suzyk2118
iVillage Member
Registered: 07-30-1997
Wed, 08-22-2012 - 3:08pm
Same here - my parents died unexpectedly, 19 days apart, so I didn't have to deal with what to say (my dad had dementia and we kept my mom's death from him - he figured it out on a 'good day'; I'm 300 miles away from where they were)


Avatar for sabrtooth
iVillage Member
Registered: 12-03-1999
Wed, 08-22-2012 - 7:12pm

Both of my parents, and both of dh's parents died quickly, so there was no preparing there.  But I have witnessed my friends' parents slow dying--in one case, it was my gf since I was 5, and I was as close to her parents as my own.  What i have found is that, honestly, there is NO way of "comforting" a surviving spouse.  Death is never easy, and having a LONGER time for people to say things like, "They're going to a better place", really doesn't help.

What does seem to help, is acknowledging that it will be hard on them--and that it will be hard on you, too.  "Mom, I know you're gonna miss Dad.  The kids and I are gonna miss him too.  We have to be there for each other.  Maybe you can spend some time with us afterward."

The other thing, is that the surviving spouse is worried about what's going to happen to them when their spouse dies.  How lonely they'll be.  Whether or not they'll have enough money.  Where all the investment papers are.  What will happen when THEY get sick.  I think it's a good idea to get these issues out in the open, before the death.  Ask your Mom about her fears, and discuss how you'll help her handle them.  If your Dad is still clear in his mind,  sit down with BOTH your parents, so YOU know the answers to those questions, too.  Make sure both your parents have a living will, and that everyone is clear on what "No extraordinary measures" entails.  (PS: Google the rules for the state your parents are living in.  You might be unpleasantly surprised to find out that their state defines giving food and water to a terminal patient, as an "extraordinary measure" ).

Edited to add:  My younger dd had a hard time after her miscarriage, & her husband's reaction, which was the straw that precipitated her divorce.  So we suggested she go back to the Pdoc she'd connected with when she was a teen.  Her Pdoc told her that she was not grieving enough.  Besides grieving the loss of her marriage, she needed to grieve the loss of her child, especially because many people you speak to, trivialize that loss.  Pdoc said that our culture has suppressed the normal grief process, and that people NEED to grieve, and need to know that it's OK to grieve, for as long as it takes. 

iVillage Member
Registered: 08-08-2009
Wed, 08-22-2012 - 11:29pm
The kids and I are sincere Christians and I know my parents also believe, but they really don't like it when we bring up matters of faith. Not sure why...maybe that will change down the line.


It has been said that grief is the black camel that kneels at every tent.  We all grieve differently and in different ways.  And I think it is something that we have to do alone.

I have not walked that path YET, so I have no BTDT advice other than this little tidbit of information from the lips of one who did.

After his son was slain at the Loraine Motel in Memphis and his wife was murdered by a crazy man as she sat at the church organ a few years later, Martin Luther King, Senior was asked how he dealt with this sadness.  His response was a very short and simple affirmation of his personal faith.  “In times like these, we simply claim and cling to the promise of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, when he stood not far from the grave of his dear friend Lazarus and without qualification proclaimed, ‘he that believeth in me shall never die.’”


iVillage Member
Registered: 10-16-1999
Wed, 08-22-2012 - 11:31pm
Good post sabr, you said much of what I was going to say.
In or culture we do suppress grieving, which only makes it more difficult and drawn out. Very often people who allow themselves to intensely feel the pain actually heall faster than those who avoid it. In a way I work in the business of dying - that's how most people leave a nursing home - and so often it's the families who try to act as though everything is OK as the person is dying who are still feeling the pain several years later. My mother in law was very il l for several months before she died, my father in law was so grief stricken in the last w weeks that he was pretty non-functional, but once she was gone he coped better than any of us.
iVillage Member
Registered: 02-14-2000
Thu, 08-23-2012 - 9:23am
So sorry to hear about your dad, ash. I don't have any BTDT advice as 3 out of 4 of our folks died before the kids were born and my dad died suddenly of a heart attack in 2001. I'm on the care team at church and from what I've seen and learned there really isn't anything you can say to make someone feel better after the loss of a loved one (or during the final weeks/months of a terminal illness as in your case). As others have mentioned everyone grieves differently. Keep in close contact with your mom, let her be sad or angry without trying to cheer her up. Refrain from any of the usual phrases like 'it's just his time' or 'God needed him more than we did'. Just listening and murmuring things like 'this must be so difficult' and 'he's going to be so missed' is, IMO, the best thing to do.
iVillage Member
Registered: 04-16-2009
Thu, 08-23-2012 - 12:49pm

Sorry to hear about your father. Both my parents died young, many years before I married. My in-laws passed away soon after we married.

Death is part of life; we will all die someday. The hard part is dealing with the death of those close to us.

Take your clues from your mother and just be a source of confort and stability for her.  Knowing that she will not be alone; that she can rely on you will, I am sure, help ease her pain on loosing your father.



Community Leader
Registered: 07-26-1999
Thu, 08-23-2012 - 3:16pm
No real advice really, but lots of hugs. I know the first few times I talked to my grandmother on the phone after my grandfather died I wasn't sure what to say to her, for her, though it was sudden when he died, he had had several strokes and mini strokes over the last several years and needed a lot of caretaking. She was at the point that she was extremely sad when he passed of course, but it was a bit of a lifted burden for her. I actually found myself surprised when within a few short weeks she had already went through his closet and sent a bunch off to goodwill, etc. Everyone grieves differently though I guess.
iVillage Member
Registered: 08-08-2009
Sun, 08-26-2012 - 11:51pm
ashmama wrote:


Yes, they have told us all about their wishes and have the legal documents in place. One good thing is that my dad and his brothers (and their wives) had some bitterness over their parents' wills and end of life decisions, so mine have made sure that won't happen. Every time they came to a new decision, they called each one of us up and told us about it, as well as where the related documents were so that there would be no misunderstanding.

We're doing the same for our kids.

Ah, this is a big one for sure.

Youngest SILs father does estate tax planning, mostly for the rich—many who are truly nuts. After 30 plus years he has seen most every type of meanness and stupidity imaginable.  Like the parent using the will to reach back from the grave and screw some or all of their children one final time.  The situations where the parents try to even things up be leaving more to those who got fewer benefits from the parents while they were still living and thereby create hard feelings among the children they leave behind—a GOD send for the local bar association members as the heirs fight over the estate in court.  The failure of the parent to recognize that some beneficiaries should have structured payouts over many years, so that their portion of money is not gone within three weeks after distribution.  NOT putting one sibling in a position of authority where they are caught in the crossfire of the other siblings.  The failure to select a decision maker who will make the hard choices, like when do we honor and follow the life ending wishes.  The failure to establish a division of all the household junk—crap would be a more correct word—in a manner that doesn’t create hard feelings among the heirs.  Casting dice for the prizes would be far better than what many do.  The list is endless.

There was a book published a few years ago with a title like, PREPARING YOUR WIFE TO BE A WIDOW.  A bit grim, but accurate in that eighty or ninety percent of the time it is the wife who survives the husband.

For those clients who are not nuts or mean, SILs father recommends that those he prepares documents for do precisely what your parents are doing with conveying everything ahead of time.  Your parents are truly wise and we should all be so wise with our own final affairs.

I have also been to funerals where it was apparent that the children were trying to make up for years of hard feelings with expensive caskets and flowers.  Dead noses smell no roses.  A few kind words and actions over the years would have been worth far more. I notice that you and several others took the time to spend time with the parents.  Each of you is or has been going about things the RIGHT way.  Those trips home are far better than a roses when the nose can no longer smell them.

Over the years, as parents of friends and coworkers get older, I have heard many express something along the lines of I want my parents to go quickly and not suffer.  Sometimes they say something about how bad that sounds.  I always say, “I didn’t hear you say that you wanted them to go early. What I heard is that you wanted them to be healthy and live health until the day of their death.  That is just the selfish prayer I have for myself; why would I ask for anything less for those I love?” 

Your parents and my parents have been blessed with 50 plus years together.  We should all be so fortunate to get 50 plus years with the love of our life. 

Sadly, most couples, even those who don’t divorce, rarely get to fifty as one or the other goes early, leaving the other for another twenty or thirty years.  Forty plus years ago, one of the ladies in our office was sitting in the living room of her in-laws house when she saw a marine green car come to a stop in front of their home and two men in uniform step out.  They needed not to come to the door, they could have simply saluted, she knew instantly that she was a widow and their son would never know his father.  She never remarried, continued to live with his parents, tended to them in their declining years, lives with her son’s family in that same house, often visits with a new generation of war widows, and has no regrets about her life.  She truly considers herself to be among the blessed. 

Those words of MLK, Senior that I quoted in an earlier posting come from a plaque she keeps on her desk.   Another of his quotes, “We are not going from a living world to the world of the dead, but rather, we of the faith are going from a dying world to an everlasting world of LIFE!” Both the father and his son lived up to their last name.  They were kings amongst us.

I think MLK, Junior knew he was in his final days as he delivered that last address the night before his death.  It was about not personally going into the Promised Land, but having seen it from the mountain, just like Moses.  I think he was given “dying grace.”  He knew he had fought the good fight, the victory was assured, and his work on earth was finished.  I think Lincoln was granted the same grace. I think MLK Senior and Junior’s widow were given the grace to understand and carry on after the loss of their spouses.  They were all kings amongst us.

Thank you to each of you who shared your thoughts in these words.  It caused me to think and consider things as we all should—cause we’re only here for a little while.  It made me think that I should never miss the opportunity to call home, tell those I love that I do, as there will come a time when no one answers at the other end or I am unable to place the call.  Thank you all.

Ashmama, may you and yours receive the grace of the Savior’s comfort during these tender times. 




Avatar for mahopac
iVillage Member
Registered: 07-24-1997
Tue, 08-28-2012 - 4:09pm

My parents handled my mother's decline and death well.  They were prepared for all the practical aspects.  Had living wills in place and chose me as their health proxy because at the time I was the only one of their kids with a spouse I can talk to about anything, who would provide the right level of support if I had to make a difficult decision.  Made their funeral wishes known with a letter sent to all their children.  Told us long ago that everything will be divided evenly among their five kids at the end of their lives.  A few months ago, my father walked me through all of his financial matters; I wrote down all the information and sent it on to my siblings so everyone is informed.

After my mother's death, my father chose to deal with his grief privately, but not by suppressing it.  He avoided their church, where all her friends were, until he was ready to deal with well-wishers every Sunday.  He put photographs of mom around the house and left bottles of her perfume out so he could smell them from time to time.  He admits he drank a lot for a while, which seemed very natural, but then went back to his normal evening martini and wine.  I was so proud of him for not trying to avoid his grief, and dealing with it on his own terms.

I think having the practical things squared away helped him, and us, deal more freely with the emotional aspects.