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Minding Our Elders: We can support our grieving parent, but we can’t erase their pain

Dear Carol: My dad, who had been Mom’s caregiver for years, died suddenly from a stroke. I can’t say that I’m surprised because he was under enormous stress trying to cope with first Mom’s illness from cancer treatments, and more recently her early-stage Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Needless to say, we’re all heartbroken over Dad’s sudden death as well as up in the air about how to handle Mom. She seems to be in total denial, though some of her repeated questions may be due to occasional short-term memory loss. How do we help her with this shock and grief? — VB.

Dear VB: My heartfelt condolences to your whole family. It has to be difficult for you to concentrate on your mother’s grief while you deal with your own, yet you are sensitive to what she’s going through, which says a lot about you.

Since you indicated that your mom is in an early stage of Alzheimer’s, she likely has memory problems — but it doesn’t sound as if her disease has advanced to where she is completely forgetting something of this magnitude. For that reason, it would seem that she is probably going through periods of denial, which would be normal for anyone under such circumstances. I experienced a similar situation with my own mother and, especially in retrospect, I believe that denial rather than memory loss explained the origin of her repeated queries about whether or not Dad had died.

What can you do? Spend time with your mom. Encourage her to talk about your dad and their life together in whatever way she wishes. She needs to hold on to her memories of him and talking will help her do this.

If there is someone from her faith community who could come to her home, this person’s presence may make your dad’s passing more real to her, or it might simply offer her comfort, but it’s not likely to make her feel worse so it’s worth considering.

Additionally, you could try to interest her in doing something that she has enjoyed in the past, or you could suggest something new. Even taking her for a ride to look at the budding trees of spring could be helpful to her frame of mind.

If she has friends who will visit or take her out for coffee, that could also help.

Affirming your mom’s grief rather than attempting to ignore or erase it is important even though it hurts you to witness her suffering. In the end, though, nothing can take away the pain that any of you feel, so you’ll all have to find your way through grief the best that you can.

Alzheimer’s is progressive so eventually, it will become advanced enough that reminding her of your dad’s passing will seem cruel. At that time, you’ll need to change your answer to her queries about him to something like, “He’s gone for a while but you’ll see him soon.” For now, though, to affirm and comfort are reasonable goals.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carolbradleybursack@mindingourelders.com.