Caring Currents

A Parent's Death Is Never Expected, Even When It Is

Last updated: Nov 10, 2009

Image courtesy of Paula Spencer.

Neither of my parents died the way I expected they would. My mom went so quickly, just three weeks after a shocker cancer diagnosis, that I'm still absorbing the loss. Now, less than two years later, [my dad has also died] (

Like Mom, he had cancer (hers bladder, his renal), but also mid-stage dementia, and he'd been recovering from a stroke "“ so his passing is something I have to say I've been anticipating. Just not last week.

Then again, you never fully expect the death of someone close to you. Parents, having been around your entire life, seem like they'll always be around. They're fixtures -- even when, intellectually, you know better.

Dad's death, for example, snuck up on me despite the fact that he was in hospice. My siblings and I had enrolled him last month because he'd begun having pain at night that interfered with sleep. Given that his cancer was incurable, we wanted to involve good palliative care early so that, above all, he'd be comfortable. Yes, yes, I fully understand that when a person qualifies for hospice, he or she is thought to have six months or less to live. I knew there'd be no miracles here. Still, I believed that we were being proactive, calling in hospice "early." I fully expected Dad would be around for his birthday next week, November 19. Around for Christmas. Around for months and months yet, really.

Never mind that this lifelong bowler and golfer had spent all summer in a wheelchair, a sedentary scene hard to reconcile with the man who never sat still and who, at 87, had spent last Father's Day helping my brother paint. Hadn't he just been making jokes with my kids? Playing cribbage? Flirting with nurses? We all saw that his voice was more frail"¦he slept more often"¦he forgot card game rules"¦the swelling was increasing"¦and yet"¦

How quickly we reconcile ourselves to a new normal as someone close to us gets sicker. How resistant the mind to absorbing defeat! How absorbing the focus on the busyness of caring -- equal parts necessity and distraction.

Despite age and infirmity, parents lodge deep in the landscape of our psyches, forever figures, going nowhere.

No wonder the finality of death startles. Ironically, exactly one week before my Dad died, I posted a piece called ["6 Reasons a Parent's Death Is a Special Kind of Loss"] ( I had no idea, when I wrote it, that my father was literally dying. (I wouldn't change a word.)

And now for "the slow patching of the dad-shaped hole he's left behind," as senior medical editor and geriatrician [Leslie Kernisan] ( kindly wrote to me in a condolence note. Along with a mom-shaped hole and, a couple of years earlier, a beloved Gram-shaped hole, I'm feeling moth-eaten.

Expect the unexpected. Just don't expect it to be any easier whether you do or not.