Our mother is 87 years old. She had been married to our father for 68 years when he passed away less than two years ago. They had a wonderful marriage, a true love story; they were like two halves of a whole. They respected one another totally, and each tried to defer to what the other wanted.
Obviously, our mother was devastated when our father passed away. She lost her husband, her best friend, her soulmate. It was hard for any of us children to imagine what her life would be like without him. But our mother is also very strong and very social, so we hoped that these qualities would kick in and she would be able to enjoy a quality of life, since she was in good health at that point.
Unfortunately, over the past several months, our mother’s health has deteriorated. Nothing life-threatening, but she is in chronic pain and not as spry as she used to be. It’s harder for her to get around and be as independent as she once was.
Over the past month or so, our mother has started to say to my siblings and me that she’s “ready to go,” that she had a great life, is grateful for everything, and wants to move on. Hearing this is devastating to us. We don’t want to lose our mother, too, and are worried that because she is a strong-minded woman, perhaps her thoughts and intentions could have some sort of bearing on whether she lives or dies, as crazy as that might sound. Besides not wanting to lose her, frankly it’s insulting to think that we, her children and grandchildren, are not enough to motivate her to want to live as long as possible.
Does this sound normal and should we just respectfully accept what she says, or is there something we can do to help inspire her to fight through her pain and the loss of our father so that she can be around for as long as possible? Do we have a right to weigh in on the subject, or is it not our right to maybe selfishly tell her that we are upset by what she is saying and we want her to change her attitude?
Obviously, we want to be respectful and appropriate, but we also don’t want to stand by and allow her to just give up on living. My siblings and I are feeling helpless and lost right now. How do we handle her, our feelings, etc.?
This must be an extremely painful, shocking, and frightening time for you and your siblings. You’ve already experienced the loss of your father, and now your mother sounds as though she is discussing her own demise in a very cavalier way, lacking apparent emotion and sensitivity toward how you and your siblings must be feeling in response to her thought process.
It’s not that unusual for a spouse who experienced a wonderful and satisfying marriage to feel as though he or she doesn’t have enough reason to go on once the spouse is gone. It shouldn’t be viewed as any sort of statement regarding her love for the rest of her family, but as an affirmation of the incredible relationship she enjoyed with your father. Over all those years, they probably become like one — two halves of a whole. Together, they were complete, but separated, each felt lost. Additionally, as your mother is living with chronic pain — now both emotional pain and physical pain — it would be understandable how this might create a tipping point such that she asks herself whether it’s time to move on, as morbid as that might sound.
However, I do think it’s important to make sure that your mother is not currently suffering from depression. Obviously, she is sad for good reason. But sadness and clinical depression are two very different things. Even if she never experienced depression during her entire life, seniors tend to suffer in this way more than people realize, and are often undiagnosed and under-medicated, if medication is necessary. So I urge you to get her to a psychiatrist just to see whether this might be the case and, if so, encourage her to try medication in the hope that it will shift her way of thinking and allow her to feel positive, hopeful thoughts. With that and therapy, your mother’s mindset could be totally turned around.
But if she is of sound mind, with no hint of depression, and just feels as though she is “ready,” which some people do actually feel, you have to respect her feelings, as difficult as it will be for all of you. That doesn’t mean that you should be encouraging her in any way to just give up, and you should all continue to be shining lights in her life, providing nachas and joy whenever possible. However, when she talks, in addition to reminding her how much you all love her and need her around as long as possible, you should also try listening to what she is really saying and allow her to express her feelings. Encourage her to talk about her beautiful marriage to your father and enjoy sharing happy memories with her.
This is such a tough time for all of you. No one will emerge unscathed. But as callous as this might sound, it is all part of the cycle of life, and there is much to be celebrated. Your parents had something rare and precious together, and it sounds as though your entire family is quite close and loving. In that way, you are all very blessed.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.