'How will I move on without you?': What I learned when I talked to my parents about death
'There's still a lot for us to work out, but it was a relief to open the door'
Contributed by Nora Connidis Boydell
I realized that I wanted to talk to my parents about death when my uncle was suddenly hospitalized. I was living far from home and the distance felt palpable. I couldn't shake the thought that I couldn't just appear at my family's side if they needed me. What if something happened to my parents and I wasn't there?
My parents are not ill — just aging — but my discomfort with this reality was coming to light. There were many questions I didn't have answers to, questions like: Are you prepared for aging? How do you feel about death? What are your expectations of me and my brothers? When would you want us to pull the plug? How will I move on without you?
Opening the door to discuss death
So, one night when I was back home many months later, we poured three glasses of wine and I nervously dove into my long list of questions. Though it felt awkward to break the ice, it turns out that my parents were much more willing to talk about their deaths than I realized. My Mum, who happens to study gerontology (aging) for a living, was quick to distinguish between aging and death.
"I feel great about aging," she said. "I really love this phase of my life."
Now that she's older, my Mum worries less about how others perceive her. With many of life's big questions answered (what will my career, marriage, and parenthood be like?) she feels more free than ever. I'd been missing the positive aspects of aging by conflating it with illness and death.
From the beginning, I was struck by how my parents' views differed, and how their sense of humour lightened topics that might otherwise seem macabre. My Mum explained that she would prefer to donate her body to science so that it could be useful to other people. Based on her chuckle and sideways glance at my Dad when she said: "That would be my first choice…", it was clear that there was some history there. The image of medical students working on my mother's body does not sit so well with my Dad. He joked that he'll donate his ashes to science, and said that he'd like to be cremated so long as we don't mix his ashes up with our pet dog's.
Considering a 'perfect death'
When I asked what they thought a perfect death would be, my Mum said she would prefer an illness with limited suffering and a clear time-frame so that she can be aware of her transition from life to death, to live it and feel it deeply, and to express her love and gratitude from that space.
"I just feel there is a way in which you have a deeper appreciation and a kind of depth that isn't there day to day," she said. "Even though we all know we're going to die, it seems to still take us by surprise."
When my Dad was younger, his mother died after a long and difficult battle with breast cancer. Partly because of this painful experience, he would prefer to die suddenly. He paused to imagine the particulars of his ideal death, and we all teared up as he told us about a close friend:
"He's 81 years old now. And he just loves to go out and pick strawberries. His view of the perfect death? He's out picking strawberries and he just drops. It's beautiful."
Even though we all know we're going to die, it seems to still take us by surprise.- Ingrid Arnet Connidis
The more we talked, the more natural it felt for us to explore seemingly morbid questions like "To pull the plug or not to pull the plug?" with vulnerability, practicality, and humour alike.
'How should I cope?'
But there was one question I was most nervous to ask, which I saved for the end. It's the question that creeps in on nights when I feel the most homesick and it manifests as one particular fear: I get a call. The call. It's a stranger on the line: "I'm sorry to tell you this, but your parents have died."
I need to know: how did they cope with losing a parent? How should I cope when they die?
"My best way of honouring [people who have died] and the relationship I had with them is to live the best life I can," said my Mum. "And I hope it's me first. That's always the main thing I think a parent thinks. As soon as you become a parent, you have a feeling of how vulnerable you are… what it would be like for you to have anything bad happen to that child."
It hadn't occurred to me until that moment that the worry I feel for my parents is — of course — a two-way street. They still worry about me and my siblings all the time, and we all relax a little when we reunite. It's as if by being together we can somehow provide a shield against accidents and illness.
There may be things that will happen in your lifetime that are way worse than us dying!- Craig Boydell
Many of us lack avenues to talk openly about death unless we're forced to, and I feel very lucky to have parents who are able and willing to have this conversation. It's not a comfortable topic to approach, but it was a tremendous relief to open the door. Even after three and a half hours of talking, we knew this conversation was just the beginning. There's still a lot for us to work out, and a lot that can only be worked out with time. As for now, there's a wise reminder from my Mum to be grateful for the present and from my Dad to keep things in perspective:
"I don't mean this as a downer but just as a perspective-taker: There may be things that will happen in your lifetime that are way worse than us dying!"
Thanks Mum and Dad.