Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Losses Pile Up

I lost another family member this week.

This is the latest in a string of losses that’s been going on for more than ten years now. It seems that almost every year there’s another death.

This week it was one of my two remaining aunts, both sisters-in-law of my mother. Aunt Rita had been ill for a while but just made it to her ninetieth birthday before she was taken.

This is my mother’s generation, the slew of aunts and uncles I grew up with and loved. My mother’s five siblings and their spouses. Now there are only two left: my mother and her youngest sister-in-law.

My mother (second from left) with her sister Rita (far left) and her sisters-in-law Rita and Virginia

Of course, for the most part these were not unexpected as they all grew older. But a few of the losses were a shock, those in my generation, the ones supposed to be too young to die. A cousin. And, several years afterward, my brother. They were both fifty-five when they passed. And neither my aunt nor my mother ever really recovered from those losses. My mother’s sister lived only a year after losing her son; my mother’s descent into dementia accelerated.

We never lived very close to my mother’s extended family. They were all in New York and New Jersey; I was born in Illinois and then moved to Rhode Island. From here we were able to see our family more often, at least once a year, sometimes more. Yet that was enough to allow me to feel close to them. I was a terribly shy adolescent and didn’t have many friends, so my cousins meant a lot to me. I looked forward to family gatherings and enjoyed the company of aunts and uncles as much as of my cousins. And I learned a lot from them all.

Rita was an outgoing, happy person. I remember her enthusiasm, especially for the arts. She loved theater and music, loved New York City, having lived in the Bronx for many years. At parties she would always ask me if I had seen any plays, if my husband and I had been to New York City recently. She would talk about plays she had seen, in the city or in local theater. She spent many happy summers going to classical concerts at Tanglewood in the Berkshires. It was always fun to hear her talk about them. My aunts and uncles, whether blood relatives or by marriage, were all intelligent, interesting, and young at heart. I’m lucky to have had such a great family.

Now I have the dilemma of how to handle this latest loss with my mother. I visited her on Sunday, the day Aunt Rita died, and deliberately didn’t say anything. I know that she doesn’t remember that all her siblings have passed away, and she wouldn’t remember this, either, after the fact.

So do I need to tell her something that will upset her in the moment but that she’ll forget a moment later? Do I have the right to keep it from her, or am I obligated to spare her? Somehow it doesn’t seem right not to say something to her, but this is no ordinary case. This is a time when I need to think like dementia, a completely different state of mind. Is it really important that she know? At this point in her life, probably not.

Thinking like dementia is what finally taught me not to keep reminding her about my brother’s death when she would ask about him, trading truth for the relief of not having to see her face crumple and hear her heartbroken question, “why?” I learned to go along, to tell her what will keep her calm and contented. When she says she has to get home to fix David’s dinner, I tell her that his wife will do that. When she asks where he is, I tell her he’s working.

This situation is really no different.

Yet I’m planning a family party for her one hundredth birthday in August. She may well ask my cousin how her mother is doing. That’s a difficult spot for my cousin to be in. And we’re heading off to a family funeral for the first time without her. That will be difficult for me.

In the end I suppose the problem is really more mine than my mother’s. It’s about how I feel to be withholding such important information from her. It’s about the awkwardness of knowing what she doesn’t know. If it’s being dishonest, then maybe the answer is just that dementia has its own sense of honesty. Just as it has its own reality, which the rest of us have to accept. Maybe there is no choice.


  1. So sorry Elaine. And so sorry about your mom's current state -- but 100! Wow. I think it's kindest to keep the truth from her -- she would suffer every time she heard it.

  2. So sorry for your loss Elaine and yes, you are in a difficult spot. I think if I were you (and with the little bit I understand of Alzheimers) I would just initiate a conversation with your mom about her sister in law and the memories that you both share of her. That way, both of you would be sharing a pleasant shared memory of her, albeit from different perspectives. I think your cousin would understand if you explained it in that context to her that your mom may ask about her mom, not realizing what had happened. I hope this makes sense and provides a possible avenue for you to follow. Blessings to yo my friend…

  3. you're in a difficult place. I remember that place from when my father had dimentia, and would ask each night at dinner whether his brother would be joining us -- who died in world was II. I dont' kow what the answer is. I think what your heart tells you; truth or a lie, it arises, finally, out of your love for your mother and yearning to protect her from any further sadness and hurt. Thanks for visiting my blog. SOunds like we've both traversed similar territory. Not an easy one.

  4. I think you have a wonderful attitude and I'm sorry you have to bear the burden of memory, but what a gift of peace you give your mother.

  5. Elaine, my mom and I dealt with the same concerning my grandma. She was 100 when her youngest--and last remaining--sister died. Call it dementia, I suppose...but Grandma could still be alert on some matters. The two sisters would routinely phone each other every Saturday. Sometimes Grandma would question why Jo hadn't call, yet she did not make the attempt to phone in return. A few months later, out of the blue, Grandma said to my mom, "Jo's dead. Isn't she?" Mom was truthful to her...but the dementia took her back to a "safe place". Do not feel guilty for what you have to do, Elaine. Even if you feel you can't be truthful with your mother, remember you are doing so out of your love for her. My grandma died a few months later, in my arms, as I repeated how much I loved her. What else can we do, Elaine? ;)

  6. What a burden to shoulder! There are no words I can say to lead you. Your heart has to do that. I honestly feel that the greatest role we can play for our loved ones--particularly our parents--which is to be there for them as they age. It isn't always graceful or easy to maneuver that stage of life. You are bridging the gaps beautifully. I know it isn't easy.

  7. I really sympathize with your situation. On one hand it would be nice to inform out of respect and on the other hand, your Mom isn't who she used to be and she's probably so fragile. It sounds like you're a wonderful daughter. I'm very sorry about your Aunt Rita. It looks like she was having a great day with the gals in the picture above. Take care.

  8. Before I start rambling, I'll try not to do that, that picture is adorable. Those gals look like a good time!
    As far as being totally honest about this loss, I just think it's much kinder to not tell her, unless she asks and then, you'll have to make a decision as to her mental state at that moment. She won't be better for the telling, right? Your aunt would not have been coming to see her, so she won't be asking about her, right? And the birthday bash, so long as everyone knows that she isn't aware, it should not be a problem. It's her birthday, she should be allowed to just be happy.
    You'll know if she needs to be told. She'll let you know. ♥