Continued from 10/25/13 post
…After all, I was in the healing profession. I had become a nurse practitioner and Dad turned to me when he couldn’t find assistance through his own doctors to help him find even a small degree of comfort in his day-to-day life. I tried everything I knew in both Western and alternative medicine, but not knowing his diagnosis it was almost to no avail. As a result, I went down many blind alleys and unfortunately took him with me. Had I known his diagnosis, we could have gotten him into hospice much sooner than we did and perhaps provided some of the comfort he desperately sought.
Some of us are more sensitive than others. Those of us who are more sensitive may more easily step into the shoes of the person in agony and feel their pain more than those of us who are less sensitive. That can overwhelm us. For me, it’s not that I felt my dad’s physical ailments, but he so readily shared his anguish with me that I was beside myself at times. My heart broke for him. Others are better at keeping emotional distance from the suffering of those they love. According to Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, highly sensitive people are more aware of subtleties than others mainly because their brains process information a little differently and reflect on it more deeply. They notice more than others, which can lead to becoming more easily overwhelmed. “If you notice everything, you are naturally going to be over stimulated when things are too intense, complex, chaotic, or novel for a long time,” writes Aron. Being highly sensitive is a normal trait found in fifteen to twenty percent of the population.
Ten months after my father passed, my mother died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage at age eighty. We all thought Mom would die first because she had a compromised heart. She’d had rheumatic fever as a child, which damaged her heart valves and required two open heart surgeries as an adult. But Mom surprised us all. It was she who held it all together during Dad’s long demise, allowing them to stay in their Indiana home until the last six months of his life.
As we drove, Tom and I stopped at a restaurant for dinner. It was here that I first realized I had to write this book, that everyone experienced the decline and loss of their parents in some fashion. Yet hearing people give voice to the feelings and experiences I was struggling with was not commonplace. Was it all contained within grief support groups and therapist’s offices? Surely people do not keep these kinds of emotions bottled up inside, or do they?
“It is such an important and unexamined topic,” said a woman I spoke with. “Why are there so many books on the first years of life and so few on the last years? Why are we expected to get over it and not talk about it past a couple of months after our parents’ death?”
Why, indeed? Perhaps part of that expectation is because many of us want to run away from pain, to dissociate from it rather than be fully in it. Can you allow your own grief or do you feel you have to be positive and escape it through constant distraction? Grief is painful. It’s difficult to allow ourselves to feel our own pain, let alone be present with someone else’s. But what we resist persists. It is by going into our grief and feeling it fully that we in time heal and let go. And when you can be present with a grieving friend for whatever they need to express rather than trying to re-direct them or getting them to see the positive, you are giving them the greatest gift of all. You are helping them heal.
My parents’ deaths and my ensuing grief changed my life. Certain things can prolong or complicate grief. In my case, there were several. There was the heartbreaking estrangement between my sister and me during my dad’s last couple of years and how the pain of our conflict upset my father. I didn’t want him to die with that unresolved, but he did, so I felt guilty for not giving him that peace before he passed. Then the day my mother died, the hospital staff missed crucial signs in her deteriorating condition. As a nurse practitioner, I felt responsible for her enduring so much pain that final day. Not necessarily rational thinking, but real for me nonetheless.
Finally, my husband and I faced multiple losses in a short period of time, including his parents, our dog, and our best man from our wedding—his closest friend. We were unable to grieve one loss before another one hit. It left us reeling and lacking reserves. This often happens to people—where it’s not just one tidy grief package to cope with at a time. My identity of being my parents’ daughter and being on the receiving side of their unconditional love was gone. If I was affected in these ways, I suspected many others out there were, too. It’s like joining a club that you didn’t know existed. A woman I interviewed nailed it precisely when she said, “It’s like a tribe, a community, a secret handshake.”
I decided to give a voice to this tribe, to offer people a chance to talk about their experiences and share it with readers who are about to cross the threshold into this tribe. Women responded more readily to my search for interviewees than men. I was not surprised since men grieve differently than women do. According to Stephen Garrett, author of the blog, Embrace Your Death, men tend to control their emotions more and grieve for shorter periods of time than women. He found almost six times more women at a training program for hospice volunteers where there was a female facilitator and all female presenters along with mostly female staff and volunteer teams. Simply put, women are more willing to both feel and talk about their grief.
My hope is that you will identify with and find consolation in at least one of these stories, or in parts of many of them, so that you will know you are not alone. Through the nine women and one man who shared their journeys here, you will find many different choices to make, numerous ways of making them, and as many reasons for choosing one direction over another. For example, are my parents going to live with me? Will they go into a retirement center? Assisted living? A nursing home? The answers will depend on their desires, their health, your relationship with them, your living situation, and your own emotional resources, among other things. If you feel at arm’s length from your parents because you felt emotionally neglected or physically abused by them, you may deal with your aging parents with the same distance.
It may help both to read a similar account and recognize that you handled it in a comparable fashion and to realize there may be a community of people in your position. Perhaps it will allow you to let go of any guilt you feel for how you handled things. Others love their parents deeply and are present for and with them through illness and death. I wanted to share with you the smorgasbord of choices that people made and identify why they made them so that maybe you can relate and feel, “You know, what I did was okay. I did the best I could.” This is not a “how to” book for how to make decisions as your parents age, nor is it to cope with your grief when they die. But might you find guidance for navigating this tough road through the genuine experiences and stories shared by the people in this book? Yes.
This club is growing. In August, 2012, Brian Williams reported on NBC Nightly News forty-two million people in the United States between the ages of forty and sixty are caring for an older adult, according to AARP’s latest report. And the number of those caring for their aging parents continues to rise. Sixty-three percent of these caregivers, primarily women, spend about nine hours a week caring for a loved one, while twenty-nine percent spend over forty hours per week caregiving.
Brian reports that “Many say the hardest part is the loneliness and isolation.” The comfort of community is essential, especially with the stress and commuting often involved. AARP strongly encourages caregivers to seek support. “Support can include anything from staying physically fit to phoning a friend.”
What are the questions you have that might be answered in the contents of these stories? As one woman I interviewed stated, “the more that we’re able to tell our story, the more healing that occurs.” Healing is my wish for all of you who turn the pages of this book.