Monday, January 18, 2021

Anticipating The Death of One’s Parents

[Reviewed and updated April 30, 2024]

After you find out all the things that can go wrong, your life becomes less about living and more about waiting.  ~ Chuck Palahniuk

A reader writes: I have been reading your website and accompanying forums, and it is obvious to me that you are a remarkable bereavement counselor. I hope you don't mind my turning to you with this strange question. 

I am 25 years old and still living with my parents, to whom I am extremely close. While I do have one other close friend, they are by far my best friends. Our lives are heavily intertwined. Recently it has 'hit me' (although I knew this rationally, of course) that they will inevitably die, most likely during my lifetime. Since that moment I have been obsessed with this thought.

I have become somewhat paralysed by it, neglecting my studies and music lessons, and spending all day reading about grief. I also force myself to read the obituaries in the paper, comparing the years of birth to those of my parents. 

My parents are older (65 and 75, respectively), but not in any immediate danger that I know of. Still, the fact that my biggest nightmare (life without them) is one that will inevitably turn into reality seems so unfair. Of course I am aware that this happens to (almost) everyone, and that this is "the natural order of things" (this phrase angers me a lot), but I am simply not convinced that I will ever recover from their deaths. I don't want this to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but having read about complicated grief I can't shake the thought that I will likely develop something like this (having a history of mental illness and pessimism, as well as a dependency on my parents). 

I know I should enjoy the time I have with them, but I find myself wanting to distance myself from them, since I feel that making new memories will only make it more difficult for me to ever cope without them. 

I have been referred to a psychologist (my GP thinks I suffer from the 'pure O' type of OCD), but will be on the waiting list for a while. I was wondering if you have any suggestions for me. I did post my question on another grief forum, but I also feel that it is a bit perverse for me to post there, not having suffered a recent loss (although perhaps technically I could describe this as 'anticipatory grieving', but not in any real sense). I have found your suggestions to grievers on the Grief Healing forums to be very thoughtful and understanding, so I hope you will have some wise words for me in store as well. :) 

My response: I wish I had some sort of magic wand I could use to spare you from the future loss of your parents, my dear, but as you already know, death is an inevitable fact of life. The good news is that you can use that knowledge any way you choose. As my own dear father used to say, the future belongs to those who prepare for it. Since your parents are still relatively young and healthy, it is reasonable to expect that you'll have many years to prepare for your eventual loss of one or both of them. 

It is up to you to decide what to do with your life, both now and in the future. You have the incredible gift of time, and it is up to you to use it wisely or to bury your head in the sand and avoid anything to do with preparing yourself to become a capable, functioning and independent adult. No matter which way you choose to go, sooner or later you're still going to find yourself faced with the challenge of living without your parents.

 I am reminded of the wise saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Most of us tend to deny our mortality and refuse to acknowledge the reality that one day we will die, and so will the people we love. You, my dear, are the opposite. You are more than willing to acknowledge this reality. Why not use it to your advantage? Why not use this awareness as your motivation to prepare yourself for your own future?

 You needn't do this all at once, and you don't have to do it all alone. For example, you might consider working with a Life Coach ~ which is different from a therapist or counselor. (See What Is A Life Coach?)

 I hope what I've said makes some sense to you ~ and I wish you all the best as you seize the day and make the most of this important time in your life.

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Image by Rocco Stoppoloni from Pixabay 

© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH 

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