I have a terrible problem concerning my dad. My mother and father were married for more than 50 years and had four children—three girls and a son—all now grown. We all work full-time jobs and live in different states. Only one—a sister—lives near my parents. She is not married and has no children. I recently called to wish my father a happy birthday, and my sister informed me that he was dead. She said she and my mother had him cremated and held a closed ceremony. She said that if the rest of us had called to check on him more frequently we would have known. We are all shocked, and some have vowed to never speak to her again. My dad had been sick for a while, and I know she felt that we all should have done more to help him and my mom. Still, she had no right not to tell us about his death. Neither did my mother, but she’s old and suffering with mild dementia. What should I do?—Signed, Heartbroken
My condolences to you and your family.
Heaven help me, because I don’t know what to say next. When I read your email, I was completely stunned, so I read it again and again, and my brain wouldn’t take me to the next thought. I cannot imagine how you feel. Growing up, I often heard my mother say “death brings out the worst in families.” I had no idea what she meant, but as I’ve gotten older, the meaning has become clearer.
At this stage of my life, I have lost my big sister, Kim, my father and my mother. As I continue this life’s journey, I have accepted that parts of my heart will be forever broken. I thank God every day for my husband, son, stepsisters, aunts, nieces, nephew, many cousins and BFFs. But there’s something special about immediate family—the people you grew up with. They know you better than anybody else, and they love you anyway. The term “Life is short” means so much more to me now. I suspect many of my readers can relate.
I say all of this to let you know that I’m familiar with the valley you have entered. I occupy a condo there. The loss of a parent is piercingly painful. Until it happens to you, you just don’t get it. No matter how old you are, how old your parents are, or how hard you try, you can’t prepare for it, and you’re never ready for it.
Let’s talk about your sister for a minute. I understand the position she held as the lone caregiver. That was me, too. It’s more work than anyone can imagine or explain. The roles regarding a parent’s care put you in a delicate and reversed position. You feel like you are trying to parent the person who parented you.
Your sister, the caregiver, was overwhelmed, and I think she felt that you and your other siblings were not carrying this enormous load with her. You mentioned that she’s the one who lives close by, isn’t married and without children. I’m sure that’s why the rest of you thought she could be more flexible. I understand that, but maybe you guys could have done more to let her know you were there to support her. It sounds like she felt alone in this situation. I could go on, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
Once your father died, it seems to me, she should have put all those feelings aside. She should have contacted one of you to contact the others. All of you deserved the right to funeralize and mourn your father’s death. All of you deserved the right to support and be with your mother, and each other, during that time.
I’d suggest you contact your family clergy and a mental health professional. I pray that all of you will come together, forgive one another and start to heal and love in a healthy, meaningful and respectful way. God bless you and your family.—Alma
(Alma Gill’s newsroom experience spans over 25 years, including various roles at USA Today, Newsday and the Washington Post. Email questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook at “Ask Alma” and twitter @almaaskalma.)
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