My Aunt Says She Is Ready to Go
"My aunt is 96 years old and has just lost her last sibling. She’s devastated. She often states that it should be her. She’s ready to go.
Her comments are very hard to hear, and I have no idea what someone is supposed to say when they hear something like that. When I discuss it with friends, they say that elderly family members say the same thing to them at times.
What I need is a comeback response so that I am not left speechless when my aunt says that to me. Any ideas?"
Your aunt has lost all of her siblings, assuredly her parents, probably a spouse, and possibly a child or two. When you live to nearly 100, you have suffered quite a bit of loss simply because you are living well beyond the average lifespan.
Your aunt is expressing her sadness. She is grieving the loss of her family while reflecting on her own life. She’s trying to understand and process why she’s still living and they are not. Her network of those who are of similar age, abilities, memories, and interests are gone. She has likely never felt more alone. Imagine your life without anyone your age to commiserate with--no spouse, parents, brothers or sisters, or possibly friends. Sounds super lonely, doesn’t it?
If she expresses the desire to “be done,” it’s understandable. She may want to be with those she has lost. It’s hard to hear, but it’s her reality. She may be ready for her life, as we know it, to be over. I say take her at her word. There will be a strong tendency to dismiss her comment or offer some platitude. Who wants to have that conversation? No one really wants to discuss her desire for her life to be over. That subject, though, is the very door she has opened.
We make comments to people we hope will hear us. You’re likely thinking, “But I’m just a niece!” Think about it: you are likely the family she has left, or you are one of the family members who might lend an ear. Remember, this is a really awkward topic, and most run from it.
If you can bear it, I recommend you say, “Aunt Susie, I’m hearing you say that you wish your life was over. Tell me more.” Then it’s time for you to listen to what she has to say. Don’t offer solutions or opinions; just listen. If there is silence that goes on more than 60 seconds (and please count the seconds before you speak) then you can follow up with, “Aunt Susie, do you miss family?” Again, let there be silence. This could be tearful, and will be hard. It’s what she needs. Offering gentle touch on her arm or hand can also feel reassuring when speaking of something she feels so deeply. Your presence and willingness to be there with her in these moments is a true gift. We all wish to be truly heard, even if it’s hard to hear.
If she needs professional assistance, a grief counselor is a good idea. How will you know? If her sadness pervades every conversation, and her need to talk about it is frequent, there is your answer. Also, if her grief interferes with daily activities such as sleep, eating, willingness to engage, then a professional is advised. For the Milwaukee area, the Horizon Grief Resource Center offers free grief counseling and advice beyond this column.
You can be a valuable support to your aunt at this time. Please seize the opportunity.
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