Dealing with Loss and When Kids Become the Parents

I am sitting in the parking lot, again. Trying to gear myself up to go inside, again. Making myself pleasant and cheerful and not expecting anything when I go inside the care facility to see the woman who used to be my grandmother. Again.

My grandmother has Alzheimer’s. If you know, then you know. And if you don’t know, I hope you never know.

She has not been herself for years, but in the past few months it’s gotten more serious. She doesn’t know who I am anymore when I come to visit, and she doesn’t know who I am in the photos of me that have been on the wall of her room in the Alzheimer’s care facility for almost two years. She knows she’s supposed to know who I am, but that’s it. She’s very polite, and asks me if I have children, am I married, do I have a boyfriend, but she doesn’t know why I’m there to see her.

I feel cheated that my kids don’t know her. They know my other grandmother, who is 98 and as present as someone almost a century old can be. But my grandmother here, who lives near me, who I saw every week growing up, doesn’t know my kids, or that they are my kids, or even that I have kids. I used to make them go with me to visit her, but when she didn’t know them, I realized that no one was getting anything out of their going. They had no relationship with her. And when I realized that not only was I not able to parent them through it–because they had no feelings about her one way or another—but that they were trying to parent ME through it by helping comfort me after a visit, I stopped bringing them. They still try to parent me through my visits to her—pep talks before and a lot of hugs afterward and “I know she was special to you.” And that’s a little strange. I try not to see it as a failure of my parenting them, but as evidence that I’m raising empathetic people.

My mother (whose mother is the alert 98-year-old) and I talk a lot about the shifts in what you need from your parents. How my uncle and my dad are experiencing the loss of their mom while her body is still here. How my mom’s relationship with her own mother has shifted, and she’s parenting her mother now. In a way, I’m parenting my mom through her parenting her mom. How neither of us can parent my uncle and dad through this. How everything changes and you settle into roles just to have them shift. We’ve laughed about how all-encompassing those early baby months are, and how hard that time is, and how it feels so long and so heavy at the time, but it all disappears until the next person you love is in the middle of it.

They say that when you lose someone you love you never really lose them because their memory stays with you. The problem with the slow thievery of Alzheimer’s is that the good memories are shoved so far down in your mind that it’s hard to access them, and the reality is so sad. I hope that once my grandmother’s physical body leaves us, those good memories will spring back to the front. But right now it feels like the connection we had between us is leaving her and transforming into the connections I have with my kids. One day I’ll be talking with them about shifts in what you need, like I talk to my mother now. And they’ll be parenting me through more things than this.