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The Impact of a Parent's Death

Even after a long life, there is grief. But sometimes, tension among family members can be resolved.

By Jackson Rainer

Marty Galex died in August of this year at the age of 84. He is survived by Bobbie, his wife of 64 years, in significant cognitive decline and living in a memory care unit of a skilled nursing facility in Austin, Texas. The Galex family includes four living adult children, all of whom have their own children. 

An older man sitting in a chair wearing oxygen, his children are dealing with the impact of their parent's death. Next Avenue
Marty Galex, who died in August 2021 at the age of 84  |  Credit: Ronen Schechter

Marty's oldest daughter, Audrey Galex, who lives in Atlanta, speaks with honest and unvarnished thoughts about her father's end-of-life and death. "He was a complicated mix of a public and private man. Publicly, he was gregarious, funny, and high-spirited. Privately, he liked to be in control and difficult when he was not in charge," she said.

"He knew he was dying, as did we all."

As their parents aged, they needed more care, said Galex. "The Texas freeze of 2020 allowed [her father] the 'due diligence' moment to accept a move to [daughter] Harriet's ranch for care and to provide more professional help for mom." 

Audrey's sister, Harriet Galex Greenlee, who lives in the Austin area, was her father's primary caregiver at the end of his life and simply said, "He was a handful."

A Time to Resolve Issues and Reach Understanding

When a parent dies, the emotional forces and influences inhibiting the process of integrating loss can be challenging.

While we may understand the fact that the death of a parent is inevitable in the abstract, the foreknowledge of this truth does little to lessen the actual experience of grief.

For most families, as is true for the Galex family, coping with loss is less stressful when adult children have time to anticipate parental death.

Marty Galex lived with his daughter, Harriet, and her family during the final months of his life. In contrast to many families, he was willing and able to talk openly about his end-of-life decisions, advance directives and sense of self and life with his adult children and extended family.

An early photo of a family who is now dealing with the impact of their parent's death. Next Avenue
The nuclear Galex family in 1980  |  Credit: Courtesy of the Galex family

Audrey Galex said, "We had lifelong, spirited conversations about our difference of opinion, particularly about politics and how public and private partnerships mattered in the larger community. He knew he was dying, as did we all. We had time to discuss and understand the context of his life. We stopped continuing the same old arguments. Many unresolved family issues were acknowledged and addressed before he died. We were better able to hold the contextual difference of opinions; this helped me to understand him. We learned to navigate the emotional terrain of the ship that he liked to captain." 

She continued, saying, "I still have my moments of sadness. They come in waves and at unexpected times. There are elements of his loss that cause great pain, but there is also a sense of relief that he is not suffering and his caregivers have been released from the burden of his care."

Preparing for Death and Its Impact on the Family

Social science research is particularly instructive regarding the subject of an older parent's death.  Several points are worthy of consideration.

The parent's physical and mental health may have diminished over time. Marty Galex struggled with cardiomyopathy and turned down kidney dialysis, moving him at a more deliberate pace at end-of-life and onto a hastened trajectory to death. 

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Galex Greenlee said, "While this was sad, it gave us time to attend to estate planning documents with all t's crossed and i's dotted. Our mother is quite compromised, so we had to do both parents' estate planning to ensure her safety and well-being. It's good we had decisions made and recorded. It was impossible to be mindful when his death actually came to pass."

In the immediacy of death, others may minimize adult children's loss. While "…at least he lived a good long life" and similar commonplace banalities may have social relevance, such platitudes do little to provide comfort for the survivors.

"My father's end of life and death brought us closer together. We found that texting and streaming kept us connected through a very stressful time with him and each other."

Galex said, "I am so lucky to have good friends. They knew of the complexity of my relationship with my dad and mom. Rather than saying 'nice' things, I heard honest concern in the different ways that those who love me said, 'Tell me about your parents.'  This was so much more compassionate." 

According to Galex, these invitations continue from friends and give her a chance to respond in an honest way, contingent on how she was feeling at the moment. 

"It is nothing to say 'I'm fine' to a 'How are you?' Better: Let me tell you how I really am," she said. "Then we're more likely to make a genuine connection."

Unfinished family business will resurface. Unmet needs, trauma and familial strains tend to be replayed following the death of a parent. The contours of grief are shaped by appreciations, resentments and regrets, all of which rise to the surface in the presence of parental loss. 

Whatever has been left undone between the parent and adult child, or among adult siblings, will be revisited and presented for an opportunity to re-solve the existing and remaining tension.

The family will reconstruct its configuration. Family therapists know that generational continuity is a primary component of a family's functioning. When a parent dies, the system will organically shift to accommodate to the loss. The family is like a mobile. It is a sculptural construction of interconnected parts that can be set in motion by any current of energy. Therefore, the death of a parent means that things will change. 

The Benefits of 'Have Your Bags Packed' Talks

Galex said, "My father's end of life and death brought us closer together. We found that texting and streaming kept us connected through a very stressful time with him and each other. We are in closer psychological proximity, now even at great geographical distance."

The Galex family recognized the value of the breathing room they had with their father at the end of his life. 

Galex Greenlee said, "What was most relevant was to have the hard conversations that put all of his, and my mother's, affairs in order. The conversations were difficult. We called them the 'have your bags packed' talks, which are so final, but so important to be completed. We talked through hard topics while he was healthy enough to participate. His health rapidly declined and when he died, we became his voice. This would have been much more of a burden after his death."

Both sisters agree, saying, "If you have a chance to care for a parent at their end-of-life, do it. Even if it is difficult, even if there are rifts or the relationship is damaged, do it. We saw this process unfold in our father's passage, and it has helped our grief."

Jackson Rainer
Jackson Rainer is a board-certified clinical psychologist practicing with CHRIS 180 Counseling Center DeKalb in Atlanta. He may be contacted at [email protected] Read More
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