When Your Parents Are Dying | Mary Gaitskill

(From "Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two", contribution by Mary Gaitskill, Writer)

My advice here is very specific and practicable. It is advice I wish someone had given me as forcefully as I’m about to give it now: When your parents are dying, you should go be with them. You should spend as much time as you can. This may seem obvious; you would be surprised how difficult it can be. It is less difficult if you have a good relationship with the parent or, even if you don’t, if you’re old enough to have lost friends and to have seriously considered your own death. Even so, it may be more difficult than you think. You may have young children that you can’t leave alone, you may be sick yourself, you may find yourself strangely focused on completing a task at work - you may simply not want to believe it’s happening. If you are a young person who has had a bad relationship with your parent, it’s a nightmare of anger, confusion, and guilt. Even if you hate them, you may still not want to believe it’s happening. Whoever you are, if the death is prolonged, it’s harder still. If it happens too fast for you to get there, that is a whole other topic, another kind of difficulty. But, if there is time, you’ve got to go be with them, for as long as you can.

I’m certain that there are people to whom this general directive does not apply, and I don’t mean this as a rebuke to those people. However, it is one of the only general directives I stand behind. Even if your parents have been abusive, physically or emotionally, they are part of you in a way that goes beyond personality or even character. Maybe “beyond” isn’t the right word. They are part of you in a way that runs beneath the daily self.

They have passed an essence to you. This essence may not be recognizable; your parents may have made its raw matter into something so different than what you have made of it that it seems you are nothing alike. That they have given you this essence may be no virtue of theirs - they may not have chosen to do so. (It may not be biological either; all I say here I would say about adoptive as well as birth parents.)

If nothing else, you should go be with them just to acknowledge that they will soon be gone, that you will no longer be that person’s child in the sense you once were. I have a friend whose mother physically abused him when he was a child, and who has continued to bully and hector him (in increasingly comical ways) as an old lady. There is no question that he’ll be with her when she’s dying. This may be partly because he recognizes that he got his tenacity and fire from her. It’s also because in honoring his mother he is honoring the hard truth that we know nothing about who we are or what our lives mean. Nothing makes this plainer than being in the presence of a dying person for any length of time. Death makes human beings seem like very small containers that are packed so densely we can only be aware of a fraction of what’s inside us from moment to moment.

Being in the presence of death can break you open, disgorging feelings that are deeper and more powerful than anything you thought you knew. If you have had a loving, clear relationship with your parent, this experience probably won’t be quite as wrenching. There may in fact be moments of pure tenderness, even exaltation. But you might still have to watch your parent appear to break, mentally and physically, disintegrating into something you can no longer recognize. In some ways this is terrible - many people find it absolutely so. There is another side to it, though: In witnessing this seeming breakage, we are glimpsing the part of our parents that doesn’t translate in human terms, that which we know nothing about, and which the human container is too small to give shape to.

It might not happen this way. Your parent may be lucid right up until the end. They might talk to you about how much they love you, they might talk to you about taking care of the garbage, or taxes, or socks. How pissed they are at their neighbor - maybe even how pissed they are at you. The variety of possible experience makes absurd all but the most general advice. Knowing how to respond from moment to moment requires a lot of attention: Your physical touch may be calming to them or it might be agitating. They might want you to sing to them, but at some point words might be too stimulating; they might just want to hear melodic sounds. Pay attention to their responses, stuff like whether they’re tensing up or relaxing. Ask them what they want, even when it comes to little things like whether they want you sitting on the bed or not. If they can’t talk, ask for a nonverbal sign. I like to think that even if you can’t figure out exactly what they mean, and do everything wrong, they’ll still feel you there, being the well-meaning boob you always were, and that the familiarity might be the most comforting thing of all.

Knowing your feelings is hard too because there’s so much emotion, it’s hard to tell which is truest. Part of you might want to leave right away; part of you might want to stay forever. That’s why I advised that you stay “for as long as you can.” What that means will vary with each person, with the needs of the parent and the other relations. A day might be enough, or it might take a whole month. If it’s a prolonged situation, it might be good to leave for a few days and come back. Those decisions are so personal they are beyond the scope of my advice - except my advice to pay close attention to yourself. If you feel, To hell with this, I’m getting out, don’t worry - there’s room for that. Maybe in fact you should leave. But before you do, be sure that voice is not shouting down a truer one. When your parents die, you will never see them again. You might think you understand that, but until it happens, you don’t. They say that you come into the world alone and that you leave alone too. But you aren’t born alone; your mother is with you, maybe your father too. Their presence may have been loving, it may have been demented, it may have been both. But they were with you. When they are dying, remember that.

And go be with them.


From "Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two" compiled by James L. Harmon 2010

Commentary by Maria Popova at https://www.themarginalian.org/2021/11/11/when-your-parents-are-dying-mary-gaitskill


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