The Long Goodbye: When To Be There For A Dying Parent

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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the Sugars tackle a tough question: How much should you be in the life of a parent who may not have much time left to live? It's especially difficult when you live far away and the timeline is vague. To help answer the question, the Sugars are joined by Robin Romm, author of The Mercy Papers, a memoir that tells the story of her mother's death from cancer.

Dear Sugars,

Three years ago, my father was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. When he was diagnosed, I was 25 and in graduate school out of state, 17 hours away. It was hard, but as the years have gone by, I have graduated and fallen in love in my new state. I am in a serious relationship, and I have moved my younger brother out here as well.

My dad says to live my life, and he would rather me stay where I am than move closer to home if it makes me happy. Some days I don't know. I have guilt, the type of guilt where I will be sitting thinking about how I am a terrible daughter and my father is home with my mother dying without me. He could die a year from now or 10 years from now.

Am I being selfish? How do children cope with this? I feel responsible for my parents even though I know they only want the best for me. Am I a crappy daughter? I took their son away as well! I feel like I have abandoned them, but I don't know what to do. I don't want to move home, but I don't want them to feel like I don't want to be there.


Daddy's Girl

Cheryl Strayed: My mom died of cancer when I was 22 and she was 45. The question for me wasn't: Is my mom going to die in a year, or 10 years? I knew my mom was going to die quickly — she died seven weeks after her diagnosis. The most important thing for you to do in this period is just to love the people you love with abandon and truth, because we all could die any time. With a long-term cancer diagnosis, there will come a time when it will be appropriate to go to him and maybe stay with him for months. That's a very different prospect than picking up your life and living in a town near your father just because he might, in 10 years, perish from cancer.

Steve Almond: And then there's this line, "I took their son as way as well." This is what happens when we feel guilt because somebody we love is ill. She's taking on her brother's decision making. He's an adult. He decided to move to this state. In a certain way, you have an opportunity. Now that you know there's limited time, talk with your dad about what his life consisted of, what your relationship has been, and what he thinks of what you're making of your life. Try to seize the day. After all, I think that's what parents want.

Robin Romm: I don't regret going home [to be with my mom near the end of her life], though it was not an easy experience, and it did disrupt quite a lot of my life in my 20s. It disrupted my relationship, my schooling, work, everything. But I remember thinking, a long time from now when I'm much older and my mom is dead, what will I wish I had done?

It became very clear that, for me — and I don't think this is necessarily true for everybody — the answer was that I would have wanted to be there. But I will say, when I was there, especially in the last few weeks leading up to my mom's death, there was so much pressure on that time. There's a lot of fighting. It was just painful, beyond painful. It certainly wasn't fun and it wasn't necessarily beautiful, but it was really authentic, and I'm grateful to have had those last, messy, authentic moments with my mom. And so, I just think that you have to play it by ear in a way.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the whole episode to also hear from one woman plagued with guilt for missing the death of her mother.

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