Dear New Shrink,
I am slowly but surely losing my mother, who has always been one of my best friends. It is not clear whether she just has some dementia or if she may have Alzheimer’s. I have no brothers or sisters; my father is still around but incapable of handling what is happening to his wife as he ages and is depressed by the circumstances as well.
I am college educated and fortunately have a good paying job. I can help financially but I cannot help out as much as I would like to on an emotional level because my work is so demanding. In this economy, I cannot risk taking time off or being too preoccupied. So I stay focused and call and visit when I can, but honestly, the visits are very painful and my wife complains that I am different for several days after I visit my parents. Don’t get me wrong, my wife cares about her in-laws and she is very supportive, but it’s whatever comes over me that bothers her.
I don’t truly understand it myself. I am hoping you can shed some light because while I don’t expect to be happy over my parents’ decline, I feel a bit spoiled since I have had a number of friends that lost their parents years ago from sudden illnesses, one from a heart attack and another lost both of his parents to alcoholism at a very early age. Shouldn’t I just be grateful?
A Sad and Puzzled Man
Dear Sad and Puzzled,
Your feelings are completely normal and understandable.
I think part of it may be that you are a man who most likely was taught to compartmentalize your feelings and to be strong. But men and women alike can feel confused about how lucky they are to still have their parents when they are at an older age. No question, it is really terrible to lose a parent prematurely and unexpectedly, or from a long horrible illness.
Loss is always painful and definitely has its consequences to us if we cannot or do not deal with it.
Loss is easy to ignore or deny because it is so painful and our friends help to perpetuate this because they often feel helpless and do not want to see us suffer or to suffer the grief with us. Instant gratification, or feel good, is unfortunately most often preferred. But I promise you there are consequences to this that often bring serious problems to our lives.
Grief unprocessed leads to depression, substance abuse, or addictions that distract us. It can also cause major problems with relationships. I am not thinking of your wife or marriage at this point but it could cause a problem there as well.
If we do not deal with loss, we generally become detached or, at the very least, anxiously attached in our relationships. Being overly anxious in our relationships can drive our partners away. Often we will spoil things because we do not want to experience the heartbreak of another loss.
It is very important that you face your own loss here. You mentioned that your mother had been a best friend. This is powerful and you are lucky to have had this kind of relationship, but unfortunately you are going to feel the pain of losing her.
When we are lucky enough to have our parents live until a ripe old age, it often comes with a different kind of loss. Sometimes we become the parent as they become more childlike. We lose the parent we have known and been close to for so long. Often it means making decisions about whether to put them in a home or assisted living or a facility for Alzheimer’s care. These are not easy decisions and actually should not be made without help. Often this requires a specialist who knows the differences in what is happening to your parent and can go over the financial aspects with you as well. Surprisingly, this is usually at no cost to you.
But please understand that it is every bit as important for you to get help with understanding and processing your personal loss. A natural part of life or not, loss is always painful and should be treated with the care and respect you deserve. There are bereavement groups, which are easy to find, or if you prefer a more private individualized approach you can see a therapist like myself who specializes in grief and loss.
Please give yourself a break and respect your feelings. No matter how it occurs, loss brings grief. Don’t bury it alive.
Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist and licensed marriage & family therapist with offices in Brentwood. Visit her at www.drbarge.com or send your inquires and responses to firstname.lastname@example.org. Got something on your mind? Let us help you with your life matters.