The grief of watching your parents get older
How do you come to terms with your parents’ mortality?
My mother and I have a strange ritual whenever I return home. She first takes me through all the jewellery she has collected over her life, inherited from her mother and in-laws and tells me who gets what between her two daughters. “You never know what will happen, Sara,” she says. We make a trip to her locker box at the bank, going through a comically small but overstuffed diary with all the passwords, login information and details of investments, FDs, insurance policies and more. She’s made individual files for every one of us with all our medical records, from blood tests taken five years ago to X-rays of suspected broken bones. “You never know when you may need it. What if I’m not around?” The terror of watching your parents get older is real, but it hadn’t hit me just yet.
Once you cross from your 20s to your 30s, a shift happens. We go from thinking dad can jump from one building to another like Krrish to slowly noticing his eyesight is getting weaker while mom’s bun is suddenly overrun with grey streaks. When my father crossed the 60 age mark, we laughed about how he was now classified as a ‘senior citizen’. Watching your parents get older makes you grapple with mortality, impending loss, and grief.
Social worker Dorothy A Miller labelled it the ‘sandwich generation’. Stuck between caring for your kids and watching your parents get older simultaneously. Getting tugged in both directions for attention and care.
I neither have a child nor elderly parents. My parents are in their early 60s, but this past year, the universe has been teasing my father with more near-death experiences than my anxiety disorder can handle.
As my sister blew out her candles at midnight to bring in her birthday, it wasn’t a drunk partygoer locked in the only bathroom available to 50 people that caused drama that night, but a phone call. What my dad had been treating as a sinus infection the past few days had been an undetected aneurysm in his brain that finally ruptured.
I had never really thought about my parents’ deaths until now. It might seem odd, considering they’ve both had COVID-19, have medical histories of diabetes, heart disease, thyroid problems, and more. I don’t believe in a singular Almighty power, but I did send out a whisper of thanks to the stars that we made it through the pandemic relatively unscathed when grief was on every shore.
So this phone call felt like a punch in the gut. It had been a few months since we met. I stuck to my father’s side for the next two months as I logged his blood pressure in a notebook at two-hour intervals.
All things must come to an end
When I was around 12, a baba of some kind rang our bell, promising to read our fortunes in exchange for a meal. A plate was made for him, but since my mother and I were alone and bored, we thought we’d indulge him for a few minutes. After writing my name on a piece of paper, he whispered mantras into the air and proclaimed I’d live a long life and meet a peaceful end at age 85. My horrified mother dismissed his words and shut him up with a big glass of RoohAfza (the rosy nightmare of our childhood) before sending him on his way.
The number has forever stuck in my head. I’m always worried that disaster is approaching, but it’s been my own death that’s preoccupied me. My handbag is a sack of over-preparedness with emergency credit cards, sanitary pads, and rubber bands. I’ve got medication for everything from headaches and joint pain to SOS tachycardia pills after my stint at the cardiologist clinic and a pharmacy’s worth of Digene.
After all, I had a prophecy to fulfil as if I was the main character in this plotline.
Watching your parents get older shakes you out of that self-centeredness. When international boundaries separate you from your parents, it’s not the fear of loss that lingers heavily in your heart. Instead, the fear of crossing that distance. That delay between receiving an emergency call and actually getting there.
You could be 55 with three kids or graduating out of college, trying to decide whether you want to try your hand at acting or prepare for the IAS exam. Watching your parents get older – the white hair, deepening wrinkles, aches, pains and a growing stack of daily pills – a big question mark starts to hover above your head and theirs. Do they have enough saved for a comfortable retirement? What about the increasing medical insurance premiums? Will they continue living independently or move in with Kabir bhaiya? How can you be their caretaker when you’re already pinching pennies to make all your bill payments?
The questions are crude. Your heart hurts over the selfishness in your worry about having to step into the role of caregiver at any given point.
A study from 1987-1993 in US households surmised that a father’s passing has more negative effects on a son than a daughter, and a mother’s passing causes more negative impact on daughters than on sons. I don’t think something like grief and loss can be quantified, whether by gender or background. Mainly because we don’t and probably never will be able to comprehend loss fully.
Friends, peers and fellow citizens, we fight and argue about everything from politics to fashion choices, what is and isn’t an Oscar-worthy film and whether raisins belong in samosas (60% of 864 Tweak readers said no in our Instagram poll). But there is unity in grief. We try to cope with it in any way we can. Some people drink away their sorrow until they finally face it. Others emotionally immerse themselves in memories of all the good times. Self-help books, therapy, spending time with friends and reminiscing. We do what we can.
I’m focusing on living up to my promise of picking up the phone whenever my parents call. “The best thing you can do is give me your time,” my mother once told me. I never lived up to it before. Now I talk to at least one parent every day. We chitchat about nonsense things, how our day went, pulling each other’s leg and the possibility that my sister may have lost her debit card yet again. We’re all trying to speak our minds more, to leave nothing unsaid. I ask them about their teenage experiences and their first day of college. Sometimes emotionally manipulating them into exercising more and eating well but still cheering their indulgence of gobbling up chops at a friend’s barbecue.
I can’t stop the cycle of life and death. I could spend my time stuck in overwhelming consternation or join the watch party with my parents to watch the new season of Jack Ryan together.
There is only acceptance of the pain that will come. No amount of green juice or retinol will make us live forever. We will mourn, and the best we can do is pass on the stories, good and bad, of the life we’ve been privileged to share with the people that we love.