Is Watching Death Embarrassing?

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She hid him and herself from his friends. She didn’t reach out to have his friends over for visits. She didn’t call her children to let us in on the truth of his disease. She kept quiet and turned inward, shunning people. “Oh, do we have to have another Zoom call? They are so difficult” she said. But my Dad loved them! He would shave, put on his favorite shirt, smile, sit up right, and laugh at our jokes. We did them every Sunday morning for months, as long as we could.

The bottom line is, my Mom seemed to be embarrassed that my Dad was dying; “He is so unlucky” she said once. I was very confused by that statement since Dad had lived a long 88 year life of hard work, healthy family, world travel, plenty of golf and fishing, and good friends. But my relationship with my Mom at that point was so far gone, all I could do was wrinkle and eyebrow and take a deep breath, or three deep breaths. Was she embarrassed that he was getting frail? Was she embarrassed of his physical frailties or his mortality, and therefore hers, staring her in the eyes?

Was she embarrassed of her own physical fragilities and frailties? But she doesn’t have any really- she has a sore back or ankle every now and then (that she lets everyone know about). She is from Minnesota, need I say more? Her emotional health and outward appearance of emotions are as tangled as the Colorado tumbleweeds where I live. Her emotional logic is certainly not predictable or straightforward.

Was she embarrassed that my Dad became childlike, that he needed her as his caretaker in more of a maternal sense than the wifely sense. Was she embarrassed of her changing feelings for him? Was she worried we would find out?

His falling down scared the bejesus out of her. She got all white and wild-eyed when he was alive about his potential to fall down. Secretly, I think she was terrified she would be alone with him, and he would fall down and die right there on her bedroom floor next to her Lands End bathrobe and slippers in the middle of the night. He did lose consciousness as a result of medication he was taking (after we figured it out, he stopped taking it). He fell four times in four weeks in the middle of the night and lay there bleeding from his head. Those episodes scared her more than they scared him. He tried to assuage her worry by wearing a heart rate monitor 24/7, wearing socks with treads, pulling up the carpets so he wouldn’t trip. And yet she still obsessed.

“I can’t take care of him” she said. “I’m not strong enough (to lift him)”. But I wonder if she also wasn’t strong enough to watch him suffer and perhaps pass away on her watch.

When he was really ill during the last month, she stopped sleeping with him in their king size bed with the big blue pillows and warm blue fuzzy blanket. She stopped spending time with him except to lay near him and do her crossword puzzles. And I was not puzzled by this behavior. I was not curious. I was infuriated with her for her weakness. I have been frustrated and ashamed at my mother’s weakness and cowardice most of my life. I was a little triggered. She doesn’t reach out to make friendships, she drinks too much, and she refused to learn any and all sports except golf. And she had to learn golf in her 50’s after haranguing him for 30 years about golfing with friends while she “took care of the kids”. But we are Gen Z, we took care of ourselves riding our bikes across town to the pool or school for 9 hours at a stretch. She had a weekly cleaning lady, no job, no responsibilities, except to cook one meal a day and host bridge club every month or two. She did not learn to put gas in a car until 3 months ago.

Her bizarre role modelling is probably why I love sports. I work out, lift weights, and run almost daily. I will never be a fearful coward, I tell myself. I enjoy watching my shoulder muscles ripple in the mirror and admire that I curl 12.5 pound weights on a regular basis. I have a career and my own investments. I wash my own car.

I hated her cowering from difficulties, such as Dad needing to wear padded underwear his last 4 months to keep him comfortable. I hated her for leaving him in boxers at the dinner table to save her the trouble of helping him put sweatpants on. I hated watching her whine about her life had gotten: She had woken up with him when the nurse was called to help him in the middle of the night; she had a headache; her ankle hurt. “Ohhh, poor baby. Your husband has liver failure and can’t walk, Lady!’

It caused me a lot of stress and was especially painful to watch her complain in front of him. I was mortified. She clearly was not stepping up to the challenge. In fact, she was stepping backwards, into her own web of self-deceit. She was hiding back and away from caring and tending the man who had cared and provided for her for 60+ years of marriage. How did she think it would all end? What was this lady’s problem?!

I am not her. I haven’t lived her life. I actually don’t know if watching a loved one die is embarrassing. But I don’t want to accept that it is. I refuse. Watching death is scary; it is slow; it is boring sometimes and anxiety provoking at other times; it is painful; it is infuriating; it is frustrating.

And it is heartbreak.

Photo by samer daboul on

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