Healing Transitions for Parents

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

As a counselor with a good deal of experience in working with grief,  I have been hired to present at a senior retirement community in my city.  The audience will be potential patrons who are looking to move their widowed parents from their homes into a facility.  The topic of the presentation is “Healing Transitions for Parents.” A main objective is to present them with information that will be beneficial to having “hard conversations.”  That is, “Mom/Dad I’m moving you to a facility.”  I am convinced that this process of transition is lined with losses that must be addressed, or at minimum included, in whatever conversations are embarked upon.

I want to introduce them to you and your work.  I want to inform them about meaning making and re-storying losses (becoming widows/widowers and moving from their homes).  I think knowing how their parents may be experiencing this transition can positively impact their “hard conversations.”  Hopefully, this awareness will help the adult children to be somewhat empathetic, as well as lower resistance to moving by the widows/widowers.

Do you have a few key ideas you can share with me about this perspective?  I think I know how to approach the practical “how to” aspects of the conversations, but I’d appreciate your recommendations on this too, along with  your thoughts on the larger issues involved.


Dear Doris,

It is a satisfying feeling knowing that you are drawing on my words as well as your own hard-won wisdom in helping families cope more compassionately with this hard set of changes.  Here are a few ideas that might help you frame what is at issue for these families, as they cope with a succession of shared and individual transitions.

Though we rarely stop to think of it, life is fraught with loss.  Little by little or suddenly and tragically, we will lose everyone and everything we love, at least in an earthly sense, from the point of our birth to the point of our death.  Though these losses are sometimes obvious and profound–the death of a spouse, the development of a life-limiting illness–they are often subtle and ambiguous, as in the gradual loss of strength, freedom, and independence that come with age.  Moving residences, even under hopeful or necessary conditions, entails countless such losses, uprooting us heart and soul from the home, neighbors, possessions and routines we once cherished, and that gave our life story context and meaning.  When these losses are involuntary or reluctant, we are denied even the basic sense of choice and voice over our future, as much that constituted our valued past is scattered or stripped away.  Grief is the common response to such losses, wether named or unnamed, and we can only hope that those who love us will broach these unwelcome changes with compassion and understanding.

Bearing this in mind, it can be helpful for us to really try putting ourselves in our parents’ shoes prior to opening this conversation.  Here are some ideas about how to do this, in the form of a set of instructions to an individual.  But you can readily convert this into a 30 minute group exercise to make it even more powerful, beginning with a guided mediation, and then merging into role play and discussion.

First, imagine that we are unemployed, with no children living in our home.  Then take in the daily reality of their health, imagining that we live with the same possible limitations and uncertainties they do.  Take a few minutes with your eyes closed to make these imaginings vivid and real:  I have no work, and no marketable skills.  My children are grown and into their own lives.  And I can’t do many of the things I once did, and don’t know how much quality time I have left, because of this medical problem with….  You get the picture.  Say the words in your own mind repeatedly until they seem real, and see what feelings rise up as you do.

Now add the next piece:  My spouse has died, and I am alone.  Sit with this, repeating the words.  Continue the meditation, and attend to the resulting feelings.

Then, add the next piece:  Now my children want me to move out of my home, my neighborhood, and leave behind most of my possessions, and most of my spouse’s.  Sit with that a few minutes, and track the feelings.

Finally, “channeling” your parent in this empathic state, take out a sheet of paper, and title it, “What I will lose,” listing at least 10 things that matter to you if you were in this position that will be lost with this move into a facility.  These can be physical things (my bed; my mother’s tableware; my garden; my workshop), people (my visits with my neighbors), or valued dimensions of living (my ability to control my life; my sense of safety).

After you have finished this, you might consider role playing a conversation with another person acting the part of your child engaging you in this hard conversation for 10  minutes.  Then process with each other how the conversation went, and reverse roles, with you now playing the part of their child raising the same issue.  If you do this as pat of a larger group, then process this a bit more together.

My hope is that you will be better able to actually approach your parents about this difficult but necessary topic after trying on this perspective.

Dr. Neimeyer

1 thought on “Healing Transitions for Parents”

  1. Thank you Dr. Neimeyer and Doris! While I find all of your posts helpful, this one is particularly helpful in my role as chaplain in a Continuing Care Retirement Community. I look forward to seeing you at the upcoming ADEC conference!

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