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Being There When They Leave

Caring for dying parents can be the greatest gift they give.

Key points

  • Caring for your parents when they're dying is the confirmation of your adulthood,
  • Allowing your children to share the end of your days is the last gift you can bestow on them.
  • The obligations of love, care, and commitment are the ties that bind the generations.
  • If you haven't already finished up your business with your parents, do so while you still can.

Early in the morning hours of what would be the last day of my mother’s life, my 21 year old daughter, who’d been shuttling back and forth to the hospital as I kept vigil, urged me to take a break. “Don’t worry, I’ll be here for Bubbe, I won’t leave her alone.” Holding out my coat, she put her arms around me, hugged me close, and whispered, “And when it’s your turn, I’ll be here for you, too.”

My heart, which had been so heavy, lifted at her words. At that moment I knew my daughter would someday accept from me the same gift I had received from my mother; the privilege of caring for a parent and sharing her last days.

When we have children, the last thought in our minds is that they’ll take care of us at the end of our lives. But the question of who will be there for us becomes increasingly important as years go by. When our time comes, our children may see it as their last gift to us. But we’ll know better.

It may be that your kids are long grown, and perhaps their kids are, too. At birthdays, weddings and funerals, you occupy the role of family elder. Such ritual occasions, in the quiet time between them, can leave you to dwell on how much being a parent has defined your life. Of all your roles, parenthood is the one that counts the most.

The last stage of parenting, when we turn responsibility for their lives over to them, comes at different ages for all of us. It is at this point when we realize that whatever we forgot to give, teach, show, honor, or forgive, they must do for themselves or do without. It’s a critical point in our own psychological development as adults.

As for our kids, it’s a ready-or-not deal. They may take years to accept responsibility for their own lives and also stop blaming us if those lives aren’t perfect. Years go by, and long after we’ve resigned ourselves to knowing there’s nothing else we can give them, something else comes up—the opportunity for that one last gift.

Some people call this the reversal of roles; it’s actually something much more profound. Regardless of what caretaking tasks they assume, our kids can never become our parents. Rather, it’s a shift in our shared emotional lives. For them, it’s an important passage in their adulthood and an opportunity for growth. For us, it’s our last teachable moment as parents and/or grandparents. Allowing them to truly be our friends in all the ways that matter as we near the end of our lives creates a model of love, caring, and sharing for both our children and theirs.

I cared for my mother during the last four years of her life; I was present for her emotionally if not always physically.. Some of my friends, especially those who never settled their business or their baggage with their parents, undertook the responsibility of their final years out of a sense of duty rather than love. As one friend told me, “She wasn’t a very good mother and maybe I wasn’t the best daughter, either. But at the end of the day I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and say, ”’You did what you were supposed to’”

It wasn’t that way for me. My mother and I had resolved our differences, accepted that we were both right, each in our own way. She was 71 when my father died, and gradually she allowed us to modify, if not reverse, our traditional roles. She turned to me as a source of information and a resource for learning to manage her own affairs, as I had been doing since I was divorced. She let me be a friend with whom she could gossip, vent, or complain about her other friends. She knew I could and would understand, empathize and accept. She shared her anger at my father for “dying just when we had our best years ahead.” She confided her guilt, justified or not, her fears about her health, her children, and grandchildren, and her worries about the future of the world, the stock market, and the Mets.

I feel sorry for parents who begrudge their children that gift. I learned many valuable lessons in the last hears of my mother’s life, Most important, I came away from her dying confirmed as an adult, aware that I’d fulfilled my obligations as a daughter, the obligations of love, care, and commitment, like those she’d fulfilled for so long for me. That was her final gift to me, and of all the things she gave me, that’s the one I'm most grateful for.

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