Is it harder to lose your parents when you’re childless?

Dear friends,

My father, Clarence “Ed” Fagalde, died last week. He was 97. I have written often about needing to travel to San Jose to take care of him. It’s hard to believe I won’t be doing that anymore.

When your last remaining parent dies, it leads to all kinds of thoughts. We’re orphans, my brother noted that morning. Can siblings old enough to collect Social Security be orphans? Can adults with their own children be orphans? There’s a connotation of helplessness in the word. But then I think about “widows.” I’m one of those for sure, and the helpless thing is attached to that word, too. We hear about “widows and orphans” a lot in the Bible. By definition, they are poor and need help.

The only help I need is in dealing with my grief, with the pictures in my mind of those last hard days, and with feeling more alone than ever.

I told the hospice chaplain through my tears that I was afraid I was going to feel terribly alone. My brother has his wife, kids, and a huge group of in-laws. I live all the way up in Oregon with my dog. It hasn’t sunk in yet, but I know it’s going to hit me.

I was more attached to my father than I think most people with children are. My sister-in-law’s first thoughts when Dad died were about the effect on her grown children. She said my Facebook posts had upset them. I honestly didn’t give them one thought. I feel bad about that. Perhaps if I had children, they would have been my first priority, too.

I don’t feel as guilty for an earlier post when Dad was suffering and I really needed someone in the family to sit with him for a while. One cousin-in-law said she would come if she weren’t out of town taking care of her grandchild. From the rest, no response.

I can understand those with young children not wanting to expose them to the nursing home or to the way Dad looked toward the end. My brother and I still bear the scars of visiting our great-grandmother in the nursing home. It was terrifying for little kids. But what about the adults?

My friends called and texted often. How are you? How is your dad? After I complained that I couldn’t sleep because it was almost as hot inside my father’s house (95 degrees) as it was outside (102 degrees!), a Facebook friend I had never met said I could stay at her house. She was in the middle of moving, but she would make it work. I declined, but was deeply touched.

I’m so grateful for my friends, people like Pat W., Pat S., Fran, and Bill, who have been taking care of Annie, watering my plants, doing my church job without pay, and calling often to check on me. Now that I won’t be talking to my father on the phone every night, I want to use those times to reach out to others, both friends and family. Too often we say, “Let’s keep in touch,” and then we don’t.

If I had children, would we be having heart to heart talks, helping each other through our grief? Maybe, maybe not. They would be young, they would be busy, they would be involved in their own lives, just as I was when my grandparents passed away. I felt bad, but not the guts-ripped-out bad that I feel this time.

My brother and I have had those talks lately. Losing our father has brought us closer. In reality, siblings and friends of our own generation are the only ones who really get what’s happening. Someone said last week that we don’t begin to treasure our parents and their history until we’re older and about to lose them. That’s probably true for most of us. We’re busy with school, work, social life, hobbies, workouts, whatever. I still regret an anniversary party years ago for my great-aunt and uncle that I left early to go sing somewhere. The guests of honor died soon after, and I never got the chance to be with them again.

I may have held on tighter than most people to my parents because I didn’t have children. When my mother died in 2002, I still had my husband, and that made it a lot easier. After Fred died in 2011, my father became the man in my life again. Now, well, it’s hard. I keep waiting for the phone to ring. I’d like to think if I had kids, they’d step in to help me and my brother take care of things and distract us with the concerns of youth so we don’t dwell on aging, illness, and death. Surely it’s a comfort to my brother when his granddaughter climbs into his lap now for a little “Papa” time.

So what am I saying? I’ve got grief brain, a little PTSD, and a runny nose. I’m still having trouble believing this really happened. I’m saying treasure your family. Reach out to them if they don’t reach out to you. But also hold on to your friends because you’re going to need them, especially if you don’t have children and grandchildren.

How are you with your parents? Do you think your relationship is different because you don’t have children? If you never have children, how will you feel when your parents are gone? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

You can read more about my dad at my Unleashed in Oregon blog and also on his online remembrance page at https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/santa-clara-ca/clarence-fagalde-8829584.

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Who can you count on to take care of you?

Tomorrow would have been my mother’s 85th birthday. Unfortunately, she never got to be that old. She died of cancer six days after her 75th birthday. She was 15 years older than I am now.

The year Mom died was a hellacious one. In a year, we lost 13 people we loved, including my mother, my mother-in-law, and my ex-husband’s mother. Everyone I had ever called “Mom” was gone.
People who don’t worry about old age without children—because they have children–are always telling me that even if you have kids you can’t count on them to be there when you’re old and sick. I know that’s true in some cases, perhaps many, but that’s not how it works in my family.
When Fred’s father’s health started to fail, he and his mother moved from Las Vegas to Newport, Oregon to be close to us. She didn’t ask, “Would you like to take care of us?” She just decided they were moving to our town. Fred’s dad, who appeared to be in the early stages of dementia and had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, died suddenly of a massive stroke two months after they arrived. We drove Fred’s mother to the hospital in Portland, stayed with her through it all and took care of her for the next four years until she died of lung cancer.
A few months later, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. In those months when she went through chemo and repeated hospitalizations, I spent so much time in San Jose I never unpacked my bags. When she died, Fred and I were there with my dad and my aunt. You don’t say, “Well, I’m busy.” I was working and halfway through my master’s degree, but when your mother is sick, you drop everything and take care of her. If my dad, who is 90 but looks 70, needs me, I’m going.
When I hear people say you can’t count on your kids, I say, “Nonsense. You should be able to, and if you can’t, something’s wrong.”
Yesterday turned out to be an odd Fourth of July. My friends Carol and Jerry were coming up from California and stopping to see me on their way to Portland. We agreed to meet at the farmer’s market in Waldport. When I got there, I saw an ambulance in the parking lot and wondered who might be in it. I had no idea until I got a message from Jerry on my cell phone that Carol was inside. She had complained of feeling strange and nearly collapsed when she got out of the car. So they called 911.
Well, I had plans for the rest of the day, meeting other friends to see a local parade and have lunch after, but as I waited for the paramedics to check Carol out, I realized I had only one choice now. I would accompany my friends to the hospital and stay with them as long as necessary. After all, this was my town, they had never been here before, and they were my friends.
Carol was suffering from low blood sugar. After treatment with glucose and food, she was soon her chatty old self and able to laugh about reuniting under these crazy circumstances on Fourth of July. I missed the parade, but we had a good visit anyway, and I thank God my friend is all right.
Like me, Carol and Jerry are childless. Both wanted to have children, both were married before in situations where it didn’t happen, and now that it’s too late, they share life with three dogs, six cats, and Carol’s mother, who recently moved in with them.
As we talked about my Childlessby Marriage book, Carol admitted that she sees what she’s doing for her mother and wonders who will do that for her if her husband isn’t around anymore. Don’t we all?
I pray that when the need arises for her and for me, someone will be there. I believe a friend, a sibling, a cousin, someone will step up, but don’t tell me it doesn’t make any difference whether or not you have children.
What do you think about this?