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Published June 01, 2013, 11:33 PM

Minding Our Elders: Dad’s death always news to Mom

Dear Carol: My mom is in a nursing home because of kidney and lung problems plus mid-stage Alzheimer’s. Dad seemed to be doing well at home but had a sudden heart attack and died. It’s been a difficult, sad time for us all, but the worst part now is that Mom can’t or won’t believe he died. We took her to the funeral and did all we could to comfort her, but it’s like her mind won’t grasp the loss. How do we handle this? It’s horrible for the whole family. – Susan

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

Dear Carol: My mom is in a nursing home because of kidney and lung problems plus mid-stage Alzheimer’s. Dad seemed to be doing well at home but had a sudden heart attack and died. It’s been a difficult, sad time for us all, but the worst part now is that Mom can’t or won’t believe he died. We took her to the funeral and did all we could to comfort her, but it’s like her mind won’t grasp the loss. How do we handle this? It’s horrible for the whole family. – Susan

Dear Susan: I’m sorry about the loss of your dad and this agony with your mom. We have slightly different experiences, but many of us have had to live through similar situations and we need to make our own, unique decisions on how to cope. That being said, here are some of my thoughts.

After the death of a spouse, I feel we need to tell the survivor the truth about the death. You’ve done that and even taken your mom to the funeral, which I feel was the right decision. You did what you could to honor your dad’s memory and their marriage. From now on, though, I don’t feel there is any point in repeatedly putting your mom through what to her is fresh pain.

If the truth will, indeed, just repeat the pain, then whatever could have kept your dad away from seeing your mom under past circumstances could now serve as an explanation as to why he isn’t here to see her. He could be on a business trip or a hunting trip. Anything that makes sense from their past as a couple could be used. After telling her he’s doing something that won’t worry her, you can say that they’ll be together soon and then move on to something that will hopefully distract her. You’ll likely need to repeat this process often, but whatever you tell her you’ll have to repeat often, so why not make it easier on all of you?

If your mom didn’t have dementia and just blocked out the horror of your dad’s death because she couldn’t deal with it, you’d have to keep repeating the truth until she could accept it. This was the case with my parents. Mom had developed some cognitive issues but not to the extent that she’d forget something as important as Dad’s death. Yet she often talked as though she’d blocked out his funeral. When I reminded her that she was there she’d say she didn’t remember it.

For weeks, Mom just kept saying “did he really die?” There was, under the circumstances, no way to fudge the answer. It was awful for both of us. Mom didn’t live very long after Dad died. I think part of her went with him. If this mirrors your situation more than the approach that generally works best for dementia, then all I can tell you is that she will eventually ask less often. There’s not a lot of comfort in that, but know that you aren’t alone in this dilemma

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.

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