‘The grief was his alone to bear’: Father’s despair dealing with son’s death as wife suffers from dementia

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“This photo is from just over a year ago. It is a photo of our dad at the cemetery at the place his son would be buried. Our brother, Jeff, died on January 20, 2017, after a short 3-month battle with two types of cancer.

As my dad stood in silence my mom sat in the car. She said it was too cold to get out. We gave him some time alone and stood by the car with mom. She kept asking what he was doing. What was taking him so long. We had no words and realized the grief was going to be his alone to bear. We told her he would be ready to go soon.

Older man walking towards cemetery
Becky Gacono/Our Journey Through Our Mom’s Dementia

This life changing time in our lives brought with it another dimension of our mom’s dementia. As you can imagine, the loss of a child, no matter a parent’s age, is an unexplainable grief known only by those who have experienced it firsthand. The gift dementia brought my mom is the lessening of the depth of her pain through the process of losing him, and in the end, the enormous loss. Soon after we lost Jeff was the first time I said to someone that now I understood why she has dementia. The loss of Jeff would have been unbearable for her.

Mother with dementia sits on side of hospital bed hold hands with son who would soon pass away
Becky Gacono/Our Journey Through Our Mom’s Dementia

The downside of my mom’s dementia is the grief my dad is carrying on his own. It has been just over a year and when Jeff’s name comes up she will ask, ‘Who?’ and he will once again explain to her that it is her son, and he died from cancer and her response will be, ‘Oh’ or ‘I knew that.’ without any emotion attached.

Wife and mother sitting in a chair next to her husband before she had dementia in front of row of younger people
Becky Gacono/Our Journey Through Our Mom’s Dementia

I was visiting about 3 months ago and Mom was in the bathroom and dad was saying, ‘I love you Mary Jane. I love you.’ I could hear my mom sobbing which is extremely rare. Dad came out and said mom was very upset but he wasn’t sure why. I went in to her and she wanted to be left alone. She was crying uncontrollably. I stayed with her for a few minutes and went out to dad. He said he was talking about Jeff and then after a few minutes she started sobbing. I believe she had a moment of clarity and realized Jeff was gone. We stood outside the bathroom and let her cry. It was heart breaking.

Dad went back in to her and she blew her nose and wiped her tears and he asked if she was OK. She said she was. He pushed her back into the living room. I asked her how she was doing and she said, ‘I’m fine. I don’t know why I was so sad.’

Woman with dementia sits alone at set table with head in her hands
Becky Gacono/Our Journey Through Our Mom’s Dementia

There has been no more sobbing since then, at least not by my mom.

Dad still drives locally, so when he has to run to the store or the VA he will drive to the cemetery to visit with Jeff without mom. It helps with the grief he has had to deal with alone.

For our dad there are no positives of dementia.”

Husband of wife with dementia sits near grave of late son reading in a chair
Becky Gacono/Our Journey Through Our Mom’s Dementia

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Becky Gacono of Annville, Pennsylvania. She is chronicling her mother’s dementia journey on their Facebook page and in a series of posts for Love What Matters:

Family combats mom’s painful dementia journey with humor

‘They are two that have become one’: A day in the life of my mom’s dementia journey

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