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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published November 28 2010

Bursack: Respond to mother with love

Dear Carol: My beloved mother is 93 and has been paralyzed on her right side for years from a stroke. She’s in a very good nursing home, the family is actively by her side as much as possible, and we try our best. She says she is tired and just wants to die. I feel completely helpless when she says that, and I just say, “Please, Mom, don’t.” How do we handle this? – Virginia

Dear Virginia: When my grandmother, who was my mother’s mother, was in her late 80s and very ill, she told Mom that she was tired of fighting. She was in pain from advanced cancer. She said she was ready to go. In my view, Mom handled the situation well. She told Grandma that she understood. Decades later, when Mom was in a similar state, I used our past conversations about Grandma to make peace with my own emotions.

You mother could be clinically depressed. If you haven’t checked with her doctor about her mood, you likely should do that. However, don’t be surprised if the doctor says something to the effect of, “Why wouldn’t she feel that way?”

Medical science can keep bodies alive long after the spirit is tired. Please don’t be negative with your mom by saying, “Don’t say that!” I’d suggest that you respond by telling her that you love her. Tell her you will do everything you can to keep her comfortable. Tell her that you can understand why her life is so hard. Then, ask her if you can do anything more to help. Try not to make her feel she must “live” for you because you can’t stand to let her go.

As my own mother’s illness and pain grew increasingly severe, she’d sometimes say to me, “Can’t you just give me a ‘little black pill?’ ” I’d say no, I couldn’t, but I’d do everything I could do to make her life as comfortable as it can be. I would ask her if there was more that I could do for her.

Even though I continued to do everything in my power, I couldn’t give her back her health, take away her pain (though hospice helped with that, eventually), or give her back her husband. When she died peacefully, several years after she made the first request of me, I knew for certain that she was ready. Knowing that helped me cope with my grief.

I know it’s tough, Virginia, but we all have to accept that death is part of the life cycle. Eventually, we have to let go.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.