How To Parent When Your Parent Is Dying

How To Parent When Your Parent Is Dying
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In the game of adulting, a herd accompanies you past the milestones. When you’re young, everyone you know is graduating university, landing a first job, getting married, having kids. As you approach middle age, the milestones become less celebratory. Everyone you know is loosening their belt, losing their hair. And then comes the most disorienting loss of all: Their parents.

Illustration by Angelica Alzona/Lifehacker/GMG

For this milestone, I was a reluctant advance scout, far ahead of the herd. My mum died seven years ago, when I was 32. I’ve written about the peculiar feeling of becoming a newly orphaned adult. Here, I’ll share some thoughts about how to be a good parent as you’re losing yours.

Be Direct

This is no time for euphemism. If your father is in hospice care, he isn’t “feeling a little sick”. When your mum flatlines, she is not “sleeping”. Your dad is dying. Your mum is dead. It’s brutal, but it’s the truth. Your kids need the opportunity to say goodbye, just as you do. If you hedge reality, the gravity of the situation will escape them.

Kids learn the reality you define, and you’ll only blur it if you speak in clumsy metaphors. A side effect of euphemism is anxiety. The kiddos may become scared of going to bed or getting a cold. After all, PawPaw was feeling a little sick, and now he lives underground in the big flower garden.

Show What You Feel

Cry. Moan. Mope. Stare into space. Your mother will never kiss your cheek again. Your father’s quest for the cheapest petrol has ceased. He’ll never share another update on that subject.

Your feelings will be messy and contradictory. Don’t try to make sense of things right away. And don’t hide the mess from your kids. If they’re young, they won’t understand what happened to Grandma. Do not compound this confusion by wearing a brave face that creates the question: Why isn’t Mum sad that Grandma is dead? Mourning openly shows children another way to express love. It’s more than hugs and smiles – it’s also wailing and tears.

But. Your kids don’t need to see you drunk or punching the plasterboard. There’s a difference between being vulnerable and being scary. Go ahead and climb all the way into despair. Devour an entire Ben & Jerry’s store, puke whiskey and doner kebabs, sleep for 20 hours – whatever. Just make sure your kids are enjoying a sleepover with their cousins while you come unglued.

Tell Stories

There’s research that indicates your boring stories about the way things used to be actually do stick with your kids. Telling family stories provides a sense of connection to the past. More than that, it signals that the subject of your dead mother is not off limits – that you want to keep thinking about her.

I didn’t do so well with this, initially. I kept a lot of memories about my mum to myself, and my daughter’s empathy told her to shy away from asking. Eventually, it became easy for me to think of my mum without feeling sad, and the stories spilled out.

That encouraged my daughter to tell her own stories. Remember, you and your children are mourning two versions of the same person. They will want to talk about the times Grandma snuck extra cookies to them at the dinner table as much as you’ll want to reminisce about the time Mum did the boot scootin’ boogie at your 12th birthday party.

Keep the Routine

You’ll want to sit very still in a dark house. But soccer practice will beckon and a Girl Guides meeting will loom. The pantry will empty and Woolworths will stand ready and eager to welcome you. A life has stopped. Your life is on pause. But life in general goes on. As much as you can, do what you would have done anyway, if your dad’s ashes weren’t sitting in an urn on your dresser.

My mum died early in the morning on October 29. I was with her in the hospital room. Two days later, I was with my wife and daughter as we walked around the neighbourhood trick or treating. My daughter was only three, and she wanted to dress up and see her friends’ costumes. She was sad, but she was also as lolly crazy as Garfield.

I don’t remember much about that evening. I was still in shock. But it was nice to take a break from crying. It was nice to watch my kid squeal with delight at spooky decorations. It was nice to eat my feelings in the form of fun-sized Snickers.

Look Outside Yourself

It’s likely that you won’t be able to navigate this alone. You may be capable, ambitious, resilient and still entirely unmoored. Look for the helpers, as Mr Rogers used to say.

There are dozens of kids’ books about death. I bought The Fall of Freddie the Leaf when my mum was dying, but it turned out to be beyond the understanding of my daughter. It remains on a bookshelf across the room, waiting for the next unlucky grandparent to die.

A support group or a good therapist can be miraculous, leading your family through the hurricane of emotions each one of you is feeling. Your child might have no words to express his grief. But maybe he can draw pictures or create videos on your phone. A professional will have the instincts to explore those alternative methods of communication.

Say What You Believe

No one knows what happens after the final heartbeat. Though current events make a strong case that humanity experienced a sudden mass extinction and Hell is real, the afterlife remains unconfirmed. If you’re not down with angels or ghosts don’t pretend otherwise. Older kids will see right through such hypocrisy, and they will judge you harshly for it. It’s OK to say you don’t know what happens after we die.

It’s also OK to create your own mythology. I think of it this way: A little fluttering of the air, just above my right shoulder, like the wings of a butterfly almost touching my ear. I turn my head and feel a warmth like the sun pulled through my body into my toes by the gravity of the Earth. That’s what it’s like when I feel my mum with me. Is it a trick of my creative nature? Is it a touch from an astral being? I don’t need an answer. Either way, I know there’s some part of her that’s still around.


  • I lost my father approaching 4 years ago now, not long after I turned 34. My daughter at the time was also only about 4 years old and didn’t really understand what was happening. Now that she’s 8, she understands, but at the time she didn’t. Also, as he died from cancer in hospital, he didn’t really want any of his young grandkids around to see him like that as he progressively but rapidly weakened once he was admitted to hospital.

    I think the way we dealt with it with our daughter at the time was fine, as I said she was a little too young to understand what was going on but we still tried to explain to her that grandad was going to heaven and wasn’t coming back. Compounding this is that my wife lost her father very suddenly and unexpectedly less than 2 years earlier so in the space of 2 years our little girl lost both of her grandfathers. She was even younger obviously when my father in law died, only about 2 and a half.

    My dad died early on a Saturday morning, on a day where I had tickets to see the Mythbusters live show that I had purchased a long time before and had been really looking forward to. I still went to the show that day, to try to “get on with my life”, but obviously my mind wasn’t totally focused on it.

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