Grief: Slow Grief by Carla Sunberg

Dr. Carla Sunberg shares her feelings about witnessing the loss of what used to be as her parent's age.

A Slow Grief by Dr. Carla Sunberg

I think it started this week when we got off the plane in Boise. A flood of memories began to overwhelm me as I reminisced about the way that things used to be. Many years ago, when we were living in Russia, we would come back home to the United States on furlough and that always meant coming to Boise, Idaho. My parents were living here and had built a home with two guest rooms that we would call “home” for three months. Exiting the security area at the airport, my parents were always there, waiting with expectant smiles, for us to finally arrive. I can see my mom, clapping her hands, with a grin from ear to ear, just waiting to wrap her arms around every one of us. This week, I glanced at the waiting area as we exited the security zone, no one to meet us as we made our way to the rental car counter. 

It’s a slow grief when going through life with aging parents. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for every single moment I have to spend with them. Several times this week my husband reminded me that I had something to grieve because his parents left us when they were far too young. 

However, there are moments when you begin to realize that you are missing the little things. A little over ten years ago my parents sold their home and moved into a retirement community. No more guest room for visiting family! It was at that time that I began to grieve the loss of home. When coming to visit my parents I had to find another family member with whom I could stay. It was just a different dynamic. No more late night conversations with mom after everyone else had gone to bed. I didn’t wake up in the morning smelling the good German coffee brewing in the kitchen, and no more bran muffins baking in the oven. 

The startling realization that things were changing was one Thanksgiving when Mom wasn’t interested in cooking Thanksgiving dinner. We could all come over and we could have KFC and Stove-Top stuffing. Really? This is MY mother that we’re talking about — the one who taught me how to cook a turkey, make stuffing and gravy just like her mother used to make. Everything had to be from scratch and it was almost a ritual that surrounded the holiday. I knew then that there would never be another Thanksgiving dinner at home, and I grieved just a little. 

Now, I’ve come to accept that each visit will bring with it a little more grief, for every time I come to Idaho, I discover that more is slipping away. Dad can barely see anymore and he struggles to get around. He’s trying out a pair of glasses in hopes that they may bring him just another glimpse of the world around him. Because they are often misplaced Mom has suggested that he put a chain on them so they won’t be lost. The chain has purple jewels and somehow it just looks too girly, but Dad doesn’t notice, and I grieve. (We go to the store and buy him a manly black strap and replace the chain — because maybe we’re more bothered by it than he is!) Over lunch he asks questions about my upcoming travel schedule. I assume he wants to know where I’m going and about the ministry opportunities but I soon discover that he is concerned as to whether I could make it to his funeral, should he pass away. 

I grieve the conversations that I wish we could have about my current job, but even when I remind him of things that he used to do, he smiles and says, “Oh really.” Still sweet, kind, loving, and trying to stay engaged with the conversation but the memories are fading, not to be drawn back again in this world. He is letting those memories go, and so must I. And I grieve just a little. 

August has always been a big month of celebrations with mom’s birthday on the 10th, dad’s on the 16th and their anniversary on the 24th. Anymore it has become a challenge to know what to give them for these occasions because they don’t want anything. I sent mom flowers on her birthday and she has enjoyed these and then I sent dad a chocolate mousse cake for his birthday. Dad has always loved chocolate and sweets and I figure, at 91, you should be able to enjoy what you like. However, deep inside, their spirit of hospitality took over and they decided that they couldn’t enjoy that cake, they would need to share it with others. While I may have paid extra to have it delivered so he could enjoy it on his birthday, they decided to put it in the freezer and save it for another time. I was disappointed because I wanted this to be something that my dad would enjoy and I grieved because the usual response was gone. Then I realized my grief was selfish because I wanted dad to like what “I” had sent him — and instead, their spirit of hospitality took over and they wanted to share something nice with other people. 

My mother has always been conscientious about her clothing. In the poor days of her childhood, her mother would tell her, “we may be poor, but we don’t have to look poor.” This had to do with taking care of clothing, washing, and ironing well, and mending anything that might be torn. When mom was sixteen she went to a tailoring school and had learned to be an impeccable seamstress and so, she didn’t need much in terms of clothing, but she had expectations of quality. When I discovered that her clothing was getting a bit worn I thought it might be nice to buy her a few new items. She’d never heard of Chico’s but was thrilled when I got her a couple of items for Christmas and then again for Mother’s Day. However, on my last visit I discovered that while she loved the items, she’d never worn them. I asked her why, and she responded, “I’m waiting for a special occasion.” This week I asked what she was wearing for lunch on Friday for their anniversary, wondering if maybe this was the “special occasion” but she responded that she was just going to wear something old because it was comfortable. I’m not sure what the special occasion will be, and again something inside me grieved, but she did look fabulous in her pink pant-suit as we celebrated their seventy years of marriage.

Mom knows her memory is slipping and she’s trying to not let it bother her. Within the last six months, they’ve stopped playing their nightly word game. The naps have gotten longer and the conversations shorter. Dad used to always say that he wanted to go first because he couldn’t imagine life without mom. This week it was a new conversation because now she’s slipping and he knows that she needs him. He wants to be there for her and hopes she’ll go first, but then he wants to go five minutes later — and hopefully at a time when it doesn’t interrupt my travel. He’s a planner! 

The party took a lot out of mom yesterday and she spent the remainder of the afternoon in a long nap. Dad was worried and kept sending me to check on her. She looked so peaceful, and I didn’t want to disturb her. When she did awaken, she folded her arms around me in a long hug, and then grasped my hand. She seemed so small and frail and she didn’t want to let me go. 

I hated saying good-bye, and yet the time came when I needed to go. As Chuck and I walked down the hall, leaving their apartment behind, my heart was grieving, just a little more of this slow grief. I can’t come back for four months, and things will be different by then — I don’t know in what way, but it will be different. And while this is a slow grief, I know that I am a blessed woman. My father and mother have been witnesses to the faithfulness of God in their lives. They have never wavered in their faith and today they have the promise of heaven. My heart grieves that which we had in the past, but for them, the things of this world are growing strangely dim and they are already living in the peace and presence of that which is to come. John Wesley’s Methodist societies were known for people who died well. My parents are showing us, through this journey, what it means to live life well and to lean into the next life without any regrets. It’s a great reminder of the temporal nature of that which we experience today, and that there is much more beyond. 

My niece, Sarah, has spent time in the past asking mom stories, recording them, and finally, publishing them for us all to enjoy. Her latest project was to help mom put together a book of promises from the scriptures — scriptures for every letter of the alphabet, and why they meant so much to my parents. This latest book arrived last evening, filled with everlasting nuggets of faith from dad and mom. One of their favorites was Psalm 127:1 “Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.” They have allowed the Lord to build their house, and this I do not have to grieve. They have laid a strong foundation and on that foundation, we are all privileged to build. My parents have not labored in vain, and they are now free to enjoy the fruits of their labor. While I may grieve what was, I can also press joyfully into what will continue to be built on this house, for they have not labored in vain. 

Hi this is mike—I encourage you to subscribe to Carla’s blog—Reflecting the Image at


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