Taking Leave and Aging

      • The look on the face of the five-year-old as he boards a school bus for the first time and the look of apprehension on the face of his mother.
      • The last lingering touches of two lovers who cannot bear to let each other go.
      • The moment when one must board that jet and fly off to a new life elsewhere.
      • The apprehension that this could be the last time they shall see each other and that chill of final separation.

The following is an excerpt of a discussion I had several years ago with the daughter of a man (her father) who had recently passed away.

“The last time I saw my father I guess I knew it might be the last time. We talked a little about this and that…nothing important. It was as if we both had agreed to keep it that way because we both knew, and we knew that we knew.

“As I started to go, I proceeded to rearrange his pillow and blanket…I don’t know why. I found myself saying ‘good night, sleep tight’ just the way he used to say that to me when I was a little girl and he would be tucking me in. I don’t know what made me do that and I was afraid I had done something wrong or said the wrong thing.

“But daddy just looked at me with the nicest expression on his face, a private little smile there and finished it… ‘Don’t let the bed bugs bite.’ That was my daddy. And that’s a moment I won’t ever forget.”

How does the loss of one person affect another? In the current research much has been learned about grief and bereavement. It has been found that even young children can have deep reactions to loss and may show the effects decades later.

Attention is most often given to the effects of bereavement when both the deceased and the survivor were relatively young. But the death of an old person makes an impact as well. The death of a mother is still the death of a mother, even though she may have been 90 and her daughter nearly 70.

The power of basic human relationships is not necessarily diminished by the passage of years. If we assume that all old people are ready to die then we sometimes also assume that their loss will not count for much with the survivors.

Accordingly, there is little in the way of social support during the psychological aftermath of the loss.

The wife becomes a widow. Wives tend to outlive their husbands. For many women there is the difficult period of anticipating her husband’s death, followed by the impact of his loss and then the challenge of trying to carry on alone. This is often complicated by financial worries, unanticipated health problems and social patterns which tend to exclude the un-coupled old woman.

Finally, many of us, including health care providers, assume that we know what old people who are ill and dying want. This assumption is often a projection of our own thoughts and feelings upon the other person. “When I get to be that age, I’ll be ready to go,” a young person may think. “She would rather be out of her suffering” is another variation on that theme. Whatever the source of our assumption, the terminally ill individual needs to communicate her wishes as to her advanced directives.

The idea that a dying elderly person needs protection from the knowledge of his condition often only serves to protect others from the uncomfortable prospect of conversation between the elderly, family, and their wishes.

My years working with nursing home residents and family members leads me to believe (1) in the value of good sense and emotional honesty, and (2) what a helping individual can bring to a situation that benefits a grieving person.

Quotable Quote: “To have faith is complete.” Anon.
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