After my husband died, I worried about my future. I had been robbed of the most significant person in my life. And every holiday, every major life event where Lev was absent was a new robbery, new bereavement. The losses kept coming, and our family was not prepared. Nobody warned us that death was only the first loss.
When I did not fall apart immediately after Lev’s death or at his memorial service, my family and friends thought I was strong. When I repeatedly fell into sinkholes for months—and occasionally, for years—afterwards, everyone was surprised. The children did not know how to react when I plunged into depression and self-pity.
Critical estate issues consumed my time for more than a year, and most family conversations and get-togethers revolved around business. We needed time together simply to enjoy one another. I understood my role was to facilitate but not dictate quality family time, though there was sometimes a disconnect between what I understood and what I wanted—between what the head knows and the heart feels.
None of us had any idea how drastically Lev’s death would impact the family dynamic. That loss left a huge hole that was impossible to fill. Someone is missing! Living every day with that black hole, I longed for family time to fill the void and to fill the house with joy and laughter again. I suspected that the family avoided my house because of the void. I attempted to be strong, hide my yearnings and my hurt and accept the realities of my children’s crowded and complicated lives. I did not want to burden them with my loneliness; but on the occasional days when I was overwhelmed by the silence and the emptiness, my pain spilled out—usually on my daughter, who lived nearby.
Too Proud to Ask for Help
I was proud to have caring, dependable children and counted myself blessed to have a daughter living in the same community. I did not want to ask for help from friends. While I was generally not afraid of being in the house alone, the possibility of being sick or injured and alone frightened me. Except for college, I had never lived away from family. When I was ill, I called my daughter. When I was in a car accident, I called her. When my car died at 11 p.m., I called her. After I had surgery, she took me to her home for recovery. I never had to call a neighbor in the middle of the night. I never had to ask a friend to provide transportation or go to the grocery store for me.
For five years I tried to live with the black hole. I tried to accept the fact that no one could replace Lev as my confidant. I thought I was strong enough to bury my emotional need for someone to whom I could bare my soul. When I finally acknowledged the impossibility. I instinctively turned to my daughter for emotional support.
What I thought was a uniquely personal response to my loss turns out to be the norm. Most married women consider their husbands their main confidant. When they are widowed, their daughters usually assume that role. Elaine M. Brody spent decades studying the relationship between mothers and daughters, which she analyzed in her groundbreaking book, Women in the Middle: Their Parent Care Years:
Emotional support is the most universal form of family caregiving, the one most wanted by older people from their children and the one the adult children themselves feel is the most important service they can give their disabled parent(s). It is also the kind of help for which no government or paid worker can substitute. The provision of emotional support cannot be quantified and is probably underestimated with respect to the time and effort consumed. Its importance to the elderly cannot be overestimated. It includes being the confidant or the one with whom problems can be talked over; providing social contacts such as phoning, visiting, or taking the elderly person out to family events; and help with decision-making. Most of all, such support means giving the older person the sense of having someone on whom to rely—someone who is interested and concerned, who cares, and who listens.
Brody’s statistics are damning. Almost always daughters have this responsibility, almost all of them feel stress, many suffer from depression and 75 percent feel guilt that somehow they are not doing enough, that they cannot make their mothers happy. I did not want my daughter to be a statistic. I did not expect her to make me a higher priority than her husband and children. Neither she nor anyone else could “make me happy.” But I did depend on her in myriad ways, and life would be much emptier if she and her family did not live in the same town.
Of course physical and material things mattered. I could cope better because I felt safe and secure in my home, I had financial security and my mind and body were relatively intact. I was one of the fortunate ones.
Family, undoubtedly, was my first priority. However, finding the balance of placing family first without suffocating them—and being always available to them without demanding that they always be available to me—was hard. My widowhood impacted my children’s priorities. At this point in time, I was on their list of responsibilities and obligations.
When I Was Part of the Sandwich Generation
I was only 38 when Mama was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and Daddy was diagnosed with incurable cancer. When Daddy died two years later, I asked my pastor what my obligation was to my mother.
He replied, “Ella, you can’t make your mother happy. What would make her happy would be to have your dad alive and healthy again and to have her own health. You can’t give her that. You are responsible to see that her needs are met, but your first responsibility is to Lev and your children. That’s biblical.” He went on to say that elderly parents can be like children, and what they want and what they need are not necessarily the same. Every time I felt stretched or guilty or torn between my mother and Lev and the children, I replayed his advice in my mind.
Growing up, I never wanted to be like my mother. Only after my children were born did I find myself imitating Mama. Those little decorative pillows with clever sayings on them have always amused me. One in particular always made me smile: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all.”
Four years after Lev died, I finally realized that I am my mother. My pastor’s words apply now to my daughter and me. If I could have one wish, the thing that would make me happy would be to have everything the way it was. But my children cannot give me that. Life is not a fairy tale. We do not simply marry and live happily ever after….
Ever so slowly, I became more open with my daughter about my emotional needs—my fears and anxieties. When we began to communicate more honestly, we found our way back to the family we were before Lev died. I finally began to lay aside my pride to ask for and accept help from others. With clearer understanding and more realistic expectations, I relaxed. I shifted my focus from myself and my grief to my family and friends. I reclaimed joy when I reached the point of acceptance, contentment and hope.
I’d like to hear from you…
- From a daughter’s perspective, what can Mom do to lighten the load? What helps? What hurts?
- From a widowed mother’s perspective, what do you need and want most from your children?
You may comment below or email me confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have blogged before on Family Unity Matters and Giving Mama Credit. You can find an illuminating infographic on “Caregiving and the Sandwich Generation” here.
 Brody, Elaine M. Women in the Middle: Their Parent Care Years, Second Edition. New York: Springer, 2004. 34, 35.