Long-term marriages generally evolve into a support system so efficient that even adult children hardly notice changes in their parents. If Dad's hearing is poor, Mom becomes his ears. If Mom's arthritis is bad, Dad becomes her muscle. If one of them has memory loss, the other fills in the gaps so smoothly that it's barely noticeable to onlookers.

Then, either Mom or Dad dies. The person remaining suddenly is more frail and needy than anyone would have expected. The surviving spouse is suffering the loss of their life partner, a shock from which they may never completely recover. Also, the person who filled in the gaps is gone, and those gaps can suddenly look like chasms.

Adult children to the rescue

Naturally, adult children of a couple such as the one described above would expect the surviving parent to go through the grief process and need a lot of comfort and care for awhile. However, more often than many would expect, that comfort and care morphs into long-term care needs.

The frailty of the surviving parent becomes a stark reality. The double whammy for grieving adult children may be that the funeral of one parent becomes a time for planning for the care of the surviving parent.

Go slow and don't make snap decisions that can't be undone

The death of a parent is tough, whether it's sudden or a long time coming. The advantage of a slower death is that there may have been more time to prepare, however human nature being what is, often people don't use that time well. Of course, a sudden death can throw everyone back by the very nature of the shock. Either way, unless there is a solid reason to do otherwise, it's generally unwise to make changes too quickly, if they can't easily be undone.

  • Change of residence: It's easy to say, "Dad, you'll live with me now." But is that really the best, long-term solution or is the offer coming out of your emotional shock?
  • Removing belongings: There's a lot of emotion involved in cleaning out the belongings of someone who has died. Give your parent time to grieve. Give yourself time to grieve. Decide together, after some time has passed, how to deal with clothing and other personal items of the deceased.
  • Communicate with siblings: Who among you lives the closest to the surviving parent? Who among you works best with finances? Who among you knows the health issues best? And yes, who among you has the move "caregiver-like" personality.
  • If that caregiver personality belongs to you, don't let it overtake your common sense. Your natural tendency to take over all care may put you in a bind down the road. If you live nearby, you can say, "I'll take over Dad's care for now, but we have to figure out how to divide up responsibility long-term."
  • Don't become a dictator. Protect the dignity of the elder. Ask about preferences. Present choices. Don't push for decisions. Work slowly and with compassion if you are pressing for change, even if that change is for the safety of the elder.
  • Naturally, if the elder is so fragile or has cognitive problems so great that he or she can't be left alone, someone needs to stay with the elder until other arrangements can be made. However, with time, some of this shock may wear off and you may notice that there is still a lot of fight left in the surviving spouse.
  • Have legal papers updated as soon as possible if the couple hadn't appointed adult children to represent them legally prior to the death. Ideally, a will, a Power of Attorney and a health directive will already name at least one adult child as the person in charge. However, check over all documents to see if anything needs updating.
  • Take care of yourself. You have lost a parent. Your siblings, if you have siblings, have lost a parent. Your parent has lost a spouse. You can't fix any of this. Try to get some time to yourself to think things through. Also, try to get some alone time to just relax. Bring in friends of the family or other siblings to give one another breaks. Contact your parents' religious organization for help.
  • Make decisions that need to be made, but if at all possible, put off binding decisions that change the flow of life more than it's already been changed.

Sometimes you have to throw away all of the rules and just do it your way. If so, just remember: compassion rules. If you go at it with a kind heart and consider everyone's needs, including your own, you will come out okay in the end.

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