I was listening to Brene Brown on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday recently. She made a statement that struck me to the core. Initially, I thought of it in terms of my own life parenting adult children, working on building a new relationship. Musing on it for a couple days, though, I realized that this contributes to why — as a culture of middle aged adults — we distance from our family Elders. Brene stated “When we lose our capacity for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding.”
“What makes us vulnerable?” Risking the pain of losing a parent you love and adore and know really well is being REALLY vulnerable to loss, pain, self doubt and regret. As our parents and other Elders age, we know that we will, ultimately, have to say goodbye. We will experience loss (statistically speaking). To fully engage with our parents as they age, as their abilities change or decline, as they need us more as advocates and companions and not just as children, is to open ourselves up to the pain of letting them go after becoming very engaged and attached. That is something, perhaps, worth defending your heart against (or not, more on that to follow).
The second part of that quote is that “Joy becomes foreboding”. When we are afraid of being vulnerable and truly open to the moment without fear of what may or may not happen down the road, even happy moments generate tension. When I had a great day with my mother, I often felt pre-emptive grief, realizing that these were special days and numbered. How much better it would have been for both of us if I could have just experienced the joy without the foreboding. Would I have shown up for her better? More often? It is something I contemplate in other relationships now.
There are many reasons why people distance from aging relatives and friends. Their changing or dissolving abilities challenge us. It isn’t easy to be with some people — communication is difficult due to physical changes (loss of hearing for example); cognitive changes (from mild to advanced dementia, depression and ensuing negativity), to powerlessness which makes people feel hopeless for any positive change in their situations. Hopelessness is hard to cope with in someone we love, someone we want to help out. Too often it seems that our Elders don’t want help, they just want to complain. This may actually be more a symptom of depression (which is a common and treatable disease among Elders), than an overall personality change.
We may distance because WE feel powerless and hopeless. “There’s nothing I can do, anyway.” (A self-fulfilling prophesy if ever there was one). “They don’t want my help” (No, but they might want your attention, to know that they aren’t alone in this last walk around the block). “They live too far away” (how can you mitigate that through phone calls or setting them up with social media?).
This is what I have learned about distancing and avoidance. Our parents will likely precede us in death (mine already have). In the case of my father’s death, he was young and it was unexpected. There was no planning for, preparing for, working out old issues. It just happened, and there we all were, carrying around the things left unsaid and undone. That is the stuff regrets are made of. Regret, like disappointment, is an emotional experience I go out of my way to avoid.
My mother’s last years were quite different. Yes, I often woke up in the middle of the night with a start and wondered if she had just fallen. Yes, we lived from crisis to crisis because there was a lack of communication and planning for quite predictable events. Yes, some days I thought a week-long rest in the local behavioral health inpatient unit would be just the ticket for me (thankfully I never had to use that extreme back up plan). In the long run though, I have powerful memories of my mother. Her grandchildren, who engaged with her often showering her with love and attention and likewise being recipients of the same — have great stories to share. In her last years, my mother imparted her values, her humor, her resiliency on that next generation. That didn’t happen all at once but over time, over ice cream and Scrabble boards, card games and coloring books, Sunday dinners held at her house even if the best she did was Shake and Bake chicken strips, mashies and salad. We watched together as her abilities diminished.
My mother’s passing came as a completion of several years of work in which we loved on her, were devoted to her comfort and quality experiences. With our help, she remained in her home until just shy of her 88th birthday, moving to an adult foster home the week before. I sat with her daily. We knew her favorite music, and it played in the background. We knew the stories she liked to hear re-told, and we shared them. We placed phone calls to people she needed to hear loved her, one more time. Our pastor came and sorted out some last issues around shame. When my mother passed, it was quiet, gentle, complete. I have never looked back and thought “I wish I had only….”, because we chose to be present with her. Choices were made that were temporary sacrifices for a lifetime of peace (mine and my children’s). When we think of my mom and the void her absence sometimes creates for us, it is with a sense of love and acceptance. There is no guilt. No regret. We allowed ourselves to be vulnerable to the pain, and in the process, allowed ourselves to experience the love and joy that spending time with her gave.
I challenge you to look at current patterns with Elder family members. What stands in the way of regular communication: Geographical distance? Technological deficits? Unresolved relationship issues? The belief that parents are the responsibility of another besides you? Time constraints? Upon further examination, are any of those things possibly excuses to help you maintain a safe emotional distance from the reality of aging or end of life issues, for yourself or your parents? Feel free to comment below, and as always, feel free to share this blog with others walking this middle of life walk.