A few years ago I read an article in the New YorkTimes about talking with your parents about dying and death. It moved me so much, I cut it out, stashed it in my “to write about” file and never dared look at it again.
The author, psychotherapist Dr. Ruth Livingston, dared to bare her heart and soul in the article in a way that I found profound, anguishing and uplifting. More than anyone else I’ve read or talked to, she captured the poignancy, sadness and privilege of participating in the waning months of an elderly person’s life.
While taking my 89- and 94-year-old parents to the end of life, I found it helped me to write about caregiving and caregiver issues, about the strains and uncertainties related to helping one’s aged parents as they become older and frailer. I never quite managed to tackle the subject of talking with my parent(s) about dying and death, though. While we did talk about it, I was never truly at ease doing so. Writing about it was even tougher. Probably because of my own difficulties, I found — sometimes to my embarrassment — that I had little patience for complainers and whiners in this situation. Rather, I became a sponge for the wisdom of those who were willing to take the time to analyze their relationships in thoughtful ways. Like them, I tried to distill my experience into something both practical and meaningful for others.
Sharing helped soothe my anxiety; it centered me. So now, it thrills me to see more caregivers recognizing that, regardless of the trauma and drama of their situation, they have skills they never realized they possessed, and are gaining experience which will have real-world applications. I want here to quote a few passages from Dr. Livingston’s article, who works at the William Alanson White Institute in New York, as she addresses the subject of talking about dying with wisdom and insight. I couldn’t ask for a more inspiring article on this very difficult subject.
Reviewing her visits with a dying patient she writes, “Awkwardly, haltingly, I speak of mundane events of my day…. I feel strange, out of role and incredibly selfish….Yet as I speak, she smiles. The furrows of pain creasing her forehead relax….And so I go on….The work is draining and lonely. I often feel inadequate, out of my element, helpless. And I wonder about my motives….But I know that I’m deeply grateful to my patient…This work is paradoxically enlivening: it has given my professional life–and my personal life–new richness and meaning.” I hope you will all click through to read the article, which is not terribly long, in its entirety. And I hope you will all find it as bittersweet yet uplifting as I did.