A more helpful response?

Q. I think life has finally caught up to me and I have to face reality. My mother had a stroke and needs care. I understand that. What I do not understand is my fear of pain and suffering, something I never shared with anyone.

A while ago, I talked with her about the possibility of her having a stroke. She let me know that, if it happened, she did not want to go into a care facility. I told her she may not have a choice. At that time, I did not want to get into the complexities of caring for stroke patients. Nor did I want to make her feel badly by admitting my fear.

I am a 53-year old single woman. I own and run a small gardening centre with a staff of six. I make a comfortable living and take six weeks off at the beginning of each new year. My mother and one sibling have always lived within easy driving distance from me. My father died three years ago and my mother remained in their home. She grieved deeply but I was impressed with how she managed to go on without him.

A. I understand your fear of pain and suffering to be emotional rather than physical. It remains one of the main reasons why adult children do not visit their aging parents in facilities. The usual response is “I cannot visit them now that they are in a care facility because I am not comfortable watching them suffer.” Of course, another response could be to develop some understanding of empathy and become as comfortable as possible with their suffering.

First, healthy human beings are an empathic and compassionate species (unless we are wrapped up in human defenses that derail us, but that is a topic for another column). So, it is natural to feel sad, worried or troubled by the suffering of others. And you will especially feel this way when you witness the suffering of your mother.

What, then, can you do so your heart stays open? You need to have a calm sense of yourself in a mindful sort of way and allow the pain of watching your mom suffer wash over you. Try not to resist and just let it happen. It is also in this part of the process that God can enter the picture. Your belief in him strengthens your trust and hope in a God who promises to be with us in time of need. And so, to open your heart and find compassion, which is rooted in the sincere wish that your mother does not suffer, can truly lift and fuel you to help her bear her pain as well as your own.

Nkosi Johnson was born in South Africa with HIV in 1989 and he died 12 years later, after becoming a national advocate for people with AIDS. He once said, “Do what you can, with what you’ve been given, in the place where you are, with the time that you have.” And so, secondly, do what you can.

Knowing that you are doing something for your mother, which makes a difference in her life, even if it is only for a little while, can bring you peace. And, strangely enough, so does your acceptance of your own limitations. In the “doing” you learn you do not have to be a super hero, just a sincere and caring person who is doing her best in being with her mother.

Third, whatever the source of pain or discomfort your mother is experiencing, you begin to realize your mother’s aging is the result of the natural flow of life and some of it is beyond your control. What you do have control over is contributing to the quality of her life. Accepting and acknowledging this understanding is strangely calming. But it also empowers you. It fuels the love you have for your mother and the desire to still do what you can. And this is the greatest gift you can offer her in the last stage of her life. 

  • Arlene Van Hove is a therapist, a mother of four adult children and a grandmother to an ever-increasing brood of delightful grandchildren. She also belongs to the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, a subsidiary of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which raises funds for grandmothers who are raising the next generation in countries devastated by the Aids epidemic.As a writer Arlene hopes to provide a comforting voice for all those who struggle with the complexity of life. At the same time, she believes one of the roles of a columnist is to unflinchingly challenge 'the map when it no longer fits the ground.' And while she has less advice for others as she herself is aging, she hopes her columns will encourage her readers to develop questions and answers for themselves that continue to be worth asking and answering in the 21st Century. She is a member of the Fleetwood CRC in Surrey, B.

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