Aging Parents: Loss and Grief We Might Never Realize

We know parents lose friends, and spouses, and sometimes a child. Yet the lasting grief and the totality and nature of losses is an eye-opener. We hear from an active, obviously intelligent older person:

Yesterday I traveled to the city to meet a group of art buffs who get together once a year for a tour of the galleries of new art. We hoot at the craziness of some exhibits and press each other to understand what’s going on in each installation and interactive piece. This year, however, I could not stand and walk easily. Fatigue overshadowed my pleasure in the art, and I knew that next year I would forgo an event that for twenty years has been one of the highlights of the fall season for me.

On my calendar is the evening wedding of a friend’s granddaughter. In the sixty years of our friendship, S and I have participated in each other’s celebrations, and now I will see a grown-up Rachel in a bridal gown–Rachel, the family nonconformist, in the traditional ceremony. I’ll embrace S’s friends and family members whom I’ve seen at previous celebrations, noting how they’ve aged along with me. Can I travel for two hours to a wedding that will begin about my usual bedtime? Easy, I tell myself, just rearrange your day to include a nap. But at 86 I don’t adjust to changes in schedule and try as I will, the nap won’t happen. Would it be foolish to go? Yes. Will I go? Probably…but certainly not to a similar event next year.

Another pleasure that has come to an end: my jaunts with R, who delighted in driving, as many men do, and would drive us twenty miles for lunch at a restaurant with a view of the lake or ocean. R and I are the only ones left of the six friends–three couples–who met abroad thirty years ago, but alas even the two of us are breaking up. His failing eyesight has forced him to give up driving and yield to his children’s desire for him to move to another part of the country, closer to family.

There have been worse losses than a party or a trip. In the past decade alone, many friends have died. R’s wife, H, with cruel suddenness. An older friend, the worldly A, who guided my plans and purchases when my husband and I began to travel. She taught me how to be a friend. J, a younger colleague whose admiration spurred me to achievement, gone before her time. B, my exact contemporary, is gone, and E, a friend from college died three months ago.

Also lost in the past decade…a deeply admired younger brother, a bon vivant whose word of praise–for a purchase made or a dish well cooked–made all the trouble worthwhile.

And the deepest loss, the steady love that buoyed me for most of my adult life. How to tell children and friends that I haven’t stopped grieving for my husband, who died eight years ago? I’d be disgraced in their eyes, a pariah, a dinosaur who can’t adapt to the present world. And so I hug this guilty secret about a loss that should have healed seven years ago and still stabs daily.

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