July 28th, 2010
What do you do when you love someone so much – you’d do anything for them – and they are suffering?
How do you help your loved one get through a dark night of the soul?
Jane (not her real name) contacted me because she didn’t know who else to turn to. She was very concerned about her father who she described as the most giving person she’d ever known. He’d always been the strong one, the rock of their family, and he loved his active lifestyle.
Jane’s mom and dad met in the Peace Corps and had been married 40 years. Her mom died unexpectedly about 8 years ago. Jane knew this was so hard on her dad and in his typical style, he rarely talked about his feelings. Instead, he often told stories about his mom and how amazing she was reminiscing about the good times.
Then, Jane’s father decided to get back in the Peace Corps and do some volunteer work in various parts of the country. He loved travelling and this was a great fit for him. From there, he worked locally with habitat for humanity. He found meaning in his life again and was doing okay.
One day, Jane got a call that her dad slipped while running.
In the process of getting her dad the care he needed, the doctor also discovered he had COPD (a lung condition). Suddenly his whole world changed.
First, he had to adjust to portable oxygen. Then, he needed special oxygen equipment in the house. He also needed surgery for a torn rotator cuff plus a pin in his ankle making it impossible for him to get around as he used to.
Life as he knew it was turned upside down.
Now his life revolved around doctor’s appointments, oxygen tanks, and adjusting to constant pain. He was so used to being the one who helped everyone else; now, even going to the bathroom was incredibly exhausting. Needless to say, Jane noticed that he wasn’t his usual chipper self. She could feel his frustration, his sadness, and his pain.
Recovery was going so much slower than either of them expected.
They had always been a family of faith which got them through many hard times. Almost every time Jane spoke to her dad, he would say something like: “I wish I could just be with God and your mom already. It’s too painful to live like this. And I have no choice about this one – because God takes you when he’s ready, not when I’m ready. “
This concerned Jane more than anything else. She sensed his deep despair and felt like a helpless bystander. All she could do was listen – and listen some more. Her attempts at encouraging him to hang in there felt trite, even to her.
I listened to her and felt her heavy heart. This kind of thing is so difficult for everyone involved. It is so scary especially when we feel so helpless.
The first thing I said to Jane was that, in addition to the physical changes for her dad, I suspected some grief may be surfacing for all of them. Jane was used to her mom and dad being together. Her dad was facing the most difficult time of his life alone, without his wife beside him.
Being ill brings us face to face with our losses. When we ourselves get sick, it can bring up all kinds of grief as the one we counted on isn’t by our side.
I think the views of our society on grief are flat out wrong. They always say the first year is the hardest. I disagree. The first year is very very difficult and the waves of grief often crescendo in unexpected ways for the rest of our lives.
I understand only too well how grief can come up when we least expect it. I’ve been widowed for almost 20 years and some days it feels like it was just yesterday that my husband was by my side.
In my humble opinion, grief is our constant companion in one way or another when we’ve lost someone we dearly love – regardless of how long it’s been since they’ve died. We learn to live without our loved ones – we grow around the experience – but we never “get over” it.
When we don’t feel well, we feel vulnerable. We need other people’s help and we don’t want to ask for it. We don’t want to wear out our welcome or seem like we’re complaining – so we try and keep it inside. That’s human nature.
And when the one we love isn’t there to help us, it’s understandable that we often feel sad, worried, helpless, afraid and lots of other things. Needless to say, we’re all different so our feelings on this are as individual as our fingerprints. And our feelings are always with us regardless of whether we acknowledge them out loud to others or not.
Often those unexpressed unacknowledged feelings create that dark night of the soul that I’m referring to.