My mother, Dorothy, died in early September. She had been ill for more than a year, and was in her late 80s. We, my family and I, were prepared for the inevitable. Or so we thought.
My mother was very much a product of her generation, the one that lived through the Depression and the Second World War – which meant she believed in planning, especially planning for disaster. By the time she was 65, her will, the distribution of her heirlooms, and even the purchasing of her burial plot was sorted. I don't remember a time in my adulthood when I was not thoroughly aware of what would and should happen after Mum died. My mother was not a morbid person – quite the opposite – but she could not abide a mess.
I wish her tidiness had extended to giving me a bullet-point guide to the days leading up to her death, something simple and full of warnings, such as:
1. The guilt is inescapable;
2. You will regress to the small child screaming inside you, and;
3. Get help.
Then again, she had her own problems.
My friends and I, all in our late 40s and early 50s, are beginning to lose our parents.
And while no two end-of-life situations are the same, and certainly no two families are the same, we compare notes and find ourselves shrugging in agreement. I've looked around and there are plenty of books to teach you how to deal with the loss of a parent, but they are all either very theistic or the opposite, full of fairy lights and whispering candles. Where are the practical tips? When I learned that my mother had cancer, I was living in Europe. I panicked, wanted to rush "home" to her. But she was so calm about it all – and my brother kept telling me there was nothing I could do anyway – that I stayed put. Stayed put and tortured myself.
And learned lesson No. 1: Regardless of how "ready" you are, the guilt is non-stop. There is no winning the end-days game – whatever you do, some part of it will be wrong-seeming.
Rushing to the bedside will not quell the rush of guilt you feel about not being there more during the healthy years. Stay where you are and you feel like a world-class heel. Drop everything and focus on your parent, and you're letting down anybody or anything that depends on you. There is no correct or admirable action that does not come with a cost, a black, cloud-thick blowback. Your beloved parent is dying, you lose. You lose before Mum or Dad even passes away.
Lesson No. 2: Whatever your role was as a child (the peacemaker, the bossy one, the quiet wallflower), you will revert to that role. You will naturally resent this, because you're a grown-up now; one of the wonderful things about adulthood is that you get to remake your childhood self. But when a parent is dying, a primal return to deep-rooted family dynamics kicks in and the impulse to follow that programming is too powerful for most people. You will hear yourself say things that ought to have stayed in your 14-year-old mouth the first time. At one point, I watched myself make a meal of frozen French fries covered in cream of mushroom soup – a meal I had not made since I was a stoned teenager, and really should not eat as a high-blood-pressure, pill-popping, almost-50-year-old man. I ate the whole pan.
By the time my mother was moved to a palliative ward, the transition to older/younger siblings by my brother and I was CGI perfect. Walking into the hospital, he told me which elevator door to go through. Then he instructed me on the finer points of using a light switch. He told me how much the coffee at the cafeteria cost, while I was staring at the cash register in front of my face, and then paid for it himself. I was five and he was seven again. I was the baby of the family.
In turn, I demanded the comfy chair in the hospital room. I told him, petulantly, that I knew my way around the hospital (I did not). I demanded we stop in stores on the way back to his house, like a child nagging for ice cream. I had many childish needs.
Weirdly, I think he enjoyed being the patient elder sibling. I certainly enjoyed being a pain-in-the-ass brat. Our spats and outbursts, big and small, were (mostly) my fault, but playing "who started it" is not the point. We were both traumatized and both of us knew we were enacting old roles: Partly because familiarity is comforting and partly because devolving to a younger, less clever and adjusted version of you, an old self brought back to life by a terrible trauma, gives you licence to behave badly. You will need to behave badly to survive. It's one of the ironies of losing a parent – to cope, you must become an exaggerated version of the child you once were to that parent.
Don't go half-hog: Be the brat, be the fixer, be the sulker. You have enough to fight without fighting your family-order destiny.
Which brings us to the third lesson I learned in these early days, and possibly the most important: enlist an Adult Buddy, somebody who never knew you as a child, to keep your feet planted in the real world.
Your Buddy will pull you out of your regression simply by not being a signifier of your childhood. Your Buddy reminds you who you are now. It will seem like you are living in two worlds: your childhood revisited world and the real one, the one your Buddy represents.
Be fine with the inherent bipolarity of the situation. Your family will not mind you disappearing for a few hours with your Buddy, especially if you come back a grown-up again, however fleetingly. They'll probably drive you to Buddy's house, and pack your overnight bag.
The three lessons above ultimately speak to the need to remain aware of your exaggerated feelings and actions as much as possible – not to suppress or try to fix them, but to own them. You're going to do and feel bad, even terrible, things. Better to do them with your eyes open.
This is the start of a biweekly column by R.M. Vaughan about his mother's death. The next instalment: The hospital is the worst place on Earth.