Academic journal article Adultspan Journal

Conversations with Dying Parents: More Difficult Than the Birds and the Bees

Academic journal article Adultspan Journal

Conversations with Dying Parents: More Difficult Than the Birds and the Bees

Article excerpt

Individuals ease life-span transitions for family members in each stage of the life cycle. Parents educate their adolescent children about relationships and sexuality and act as role models. The author proposes that children can play a primary role in the painful but potentially rewarding process of comforting and leave-taking of dying parents.


There comes a time when young adolescents become curious about sexuality. Parents struggle to find a way to broach the subject of sex and relationships with their sons and daughters by having a talk that is historically known as "the birds and the bees." Parents help their children understand the experiences of their bodies, the biological mechanisms that allow their son or daughter to create a new life, and the responsibilities and consequences of giving life. In a family where there is good communication, parents and children may talk about the value of creating a home and the emotional temptations and mistakes that young people can make managing intense emotions, attraction, and sexual urgency.

There comes another time when these parents' children face a similarly weighty and yet often overlooked life-span hurdle. Parents know that their time is limited and that they are letting go, first of ambitions, then of possessions, and later of life itself. There are many kinds of loss that occur with aging, such as physical losses (gradual blurring of eyesight or loosening of teeth), loss of independence, loss of mental capacity, and as time goes on, the inevitable loss of friends, peers, and colleagues. As they near the end of their lives, parents want to know that their children are going to be well and content without them. They want to resolve unfinished emotional business and to die peacefully. At the point of their parents' readiness, children need to talk with them about letting go. As de Hennezel (1998) observed,

The dying person knows. All that is needed is some help in being able to articulate the knowledge. Why should it be so hard to say? Isn't it because everyone else's distress makes it hard to talk, and so the dying person has to protect them? (p. 26)

Life is about living and dying, growth and decline. Children who are in the prime of their own lives face their parents' twilight with intense and mixed feelings. The limit on our time makes our being all the more rich, and yet we resent it, resist it, and often close our eyes to it. That we die intensifies the value of how we live while also making life painful. In his 73rd sonnet, Shakespeare pondered how we can love what we must leave:

That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hand
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such a day
As after sunset fadest in the west,
Which, by and by, black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong.
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
(quoted in Akhtar & Kramer, 1997, p. 131)

Change is inherent in both adolescence and in the final stage of life, both in the reshaping years between the loss of childhood and burgeoning sexuality and adulthood, and in the passage from life itself. Loss is intrinsic to development, and with each progressive step growth requires us to relinquish aspects of what once was and what we once were. However, dying is not yet understood and treated as a "part of living" (Byock, 1996, A Developmental Model section, para. 1). We tend to assume that suffering is inevitable and without meaning. However, those who have provided palliative care typically find that after physical discomfort is reduced by controlling pain, addressing psychological suffering and loss becomes the most important focus. …

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