Baby Boomers lucky enough to have parents who are still alive, are headed for the ultimate crisis of their parent’s physical decline and death.
Sometimes, as in the case of my mother, this decline is shocking and unexpected, and dire.
If you and I have been geographically gone from our family for many decades, prepare to reenter the same original family dynamics upon your sorrowful return. You will be thrown into your original place in the family, along with the exact same quality of relationship experiences you left behind years ago.
When your parent’s emergency occurs, what comes along with it is every feeling that ever existed between your sibling and yourself.
What to do with a sibling who acts venomously towards you as a rival?
You may be surprised to find that time has stood still for the members of your family in regards to their old feelings towards you, such as competition, or a reanimated toxic envy.
These feelings emerge in their fiercest form at the time of your parent’s physical emergency.
Further, because you have moved away from the city where your family lives, there may be added resentment when you are present.
If you have a psychologically difficult and severe family dynamic, predating your parent’s illness, prepare yourself, for this is what awaits you.
The most important thing to do is Don’t React.
As your parent struggles to recover, it is your job to find a way to deflect the dead past and any negative talk even as primitive feelings are acted out in real time by a sibling and even by your other parent.
Prepare yourself for this surprise. The original emotional condition of your family relationships is alive today as you had never suspected. But here it is.
It is as if all these antique feelings have been waiting all these long years to reappear.
Now, because of the urgency of your parent’s survival, everything apart from her needs must be eliminated from the picture.
Nothing matters. Stick and Stones, remember?
Tune out everything emotionally irrelevant to your parent’s well-being. No fighting, no reaction to anything outrageous.
You are your ill parent’s emotional champion. Do not allow yourself any verbal reaction to anything your family wants to fight about.
Speak with doctors and nurses alone, if you cannot communicate with your sibling or other parent.
Your ill parent is the only player on the stage today.
Pay no attention to unkind or vengeful chatter about or around you.
Do not allow yourself to be re-hooked into an ugly relationship groove.
Nothing is important except for your parent’s survival.
So it was that over three months ago when I received a message from my father informing me that my mother had already been admitted to the hospital and was now returned home two days later.
Why wasn’t I called? This seemed the most appropriate question and yet also the least important.
What was important was my mother’s physical condition.
My father and sister had kept this event a secret from me both for their own reasons and also in the hopes that the hospital visit would be brief and uneventful.
Carefully containing my extreme alarm and shock, I attempted to collate all communicated shards of information about my mother’s condition, and made a beeline to San Diego from my home in Los Angeles.
It seems my mother had felt faint and dizzy and my sister and father chose to have an ambulance take her to urgent care at Kaiser Hospital after normal business hours. This means that her personal pulmonary doctor, her only real and extraordinary doctor as I discovered, whom she has had for years, one who knows her and her health specifics, would not be seeing her or treating her that night.
On her arrival at urgent care, the doctor on duty determined that she had water around her heart and gave her an IV diuretic to remove the problem.
Tragically, they mistakenly gave her by IV too great an amount of diuretics, after which she promptly went into renal failure on the morning of her third day there.
For some still unknown reason, they discharged her at that very point from the hospital to be sent home with a hospital bed.
I arrived to find her at home in that hospital bed, in what I now understand was a beginning process of her death.
My father and sister were waiting for her to come out of whatever “temporary” healing process they believed she was in. In hindsight, it is likely that they had quickly accepted the idea that she was dying. At least this is what they were saying.
She was beyond exhausted, agitated and confused as they tried unsuccessfully and excruciatingly to get her to participate in normal conversation.
Thank God a nurse was scheduled to arrive in just a few hours that next morning, who insisted, against my mother’s general doctor’s previous direction to keep her away from hospitalization’s negative potentials, to indeed return her immediately back to the hospital.
After she was readmitted, it was conclusively determined that she had been released and sent home while in the state of renal failure!
The importance of family members being present to swiftly and deliberately figure out the best choices in these crucial moments—those members who are able to care and are equipped with mental clarity– cannot be overstated.
The ensuing week in the hospital was a blessed one for my mother.
Our great fortune was having Dr. Stanley Salinda, Internal Medicine, oversee a team of other doctors and fine nurses, most notably nurses Linda Beebe and BabyLynn Hynes at the Kaiser Permanente Hospital on Zion Avenue in San Diego.
When discovered in time, renal failure can be 100% reversed.
I thank God again for the brilliance and superb care of Dr. Salinda and his entire team in bringing my mother back.
Finally, there is a time and place to privately peruse and investigate every feeling you have about your parent’s harrowing near-death.
There will be time to privately address what it means to be alive and to love, and time to acknowledge the hurt and anger you, yourself, have survived by your own biological family.
This was discussed in a February 11, 2010 New York Times article by Paula Spans, where she introduces veteran journalist Francine Russo’s book, “They’re Your Parents Too!: How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy” and points out that “family dynamics—old roles, rivalries, resentments—are slow to change, if they change at all”.
A snippet from Russo’s book: “If you have been regarded as the successful outsider, admired yet seen as aloof and resented, your family is unlikely to stop thinking of you this way even if you rush back and try to be more involved now. Each person has a stake in seeing you the way you have always been. They’ll probably resist your help even as they complain that you’re not helping.”
This is an understatement that only grazes the psychological issues that arise in family emergency; the ancient dynamics in family warfare commonly resting unresolved for decades.
And yet, when a parent almost dies, there it all is, freshly baring its yellowed fangs.
Generally, much is made of “family” in this country, each of us in our family presumed to adore one another in that quintessential Hollywood picture.
Family is assumed, not just celebrated, in every song, on every commercial.
We are in the midst of the holiday punctuation of this family promotion with not only “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, but also “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”.
Similarly, we see at this very moment how political campaigns use “family” as code for “legitimate” Americans living “normal” lives.
Here’s the stark truth: as a psychotherapist, I know that often people, given the choice, would honestly not choose to share their lives with those very same family members with whom they share biology (and perhaps holiday dinners). I know, because they’ve been telling me for years.
For some reason, we are made to feel shame if we do not enjoy loving, honest relationships with biological family members.
This idea is ever-present in America, all year round.
Perhaps this is ordained to emotionally control the masses.
Maybe even more simply, family is the most obvious American business strategy to ensure that we are bound to shop on various holidays.
No matter the origin of this demand of family, it seems that society judges each one of us as a failure if we do not feel and share real love with our family. If we are not fortunate to naturally have this, then what?
I suspect the genesis of this judgment to be Biblical; beginning with the commands of the Bible, then reflected in commercial societal psychology, and imbedded in each one of our psyches.
In turn, I have spoken to many people over the years—some extremely celebrated—who harbor negative, shameful self-images because of how it feels to not belong to a loving family.
In this American promotion of “family”, it is Ozzie and Harriet gone hideously awry, slapping us doubly across the face if we are suffering from lack of such fortune.
We need finally to fling this societal shame away and understand that if there is just one beautiful, loving biological connection in one’s life, it is a true and rare blessing.
If this is not the case for you, and you would like it to be, there are ways to sustain authentic fragments of connection with select relatives, without cheapening your personal integrity or deleting who you are.
That’s a subject for another time.
When a parent almost dies, the immediate state of emergency often springs forth some very regrettable replays of long-forgotten grudges, bringing out the worst in everyone.
If your family story is anything like mine, there is time to reflect and the opportunity to update your vision in the following days, weeks, and months of your parent’s recovery.
I am filled to the brim with gratitude for my mother’s continuing strength, recovery, and survival.
I am starkly and intimately reacquainted with my role in the family and relationships with my sister and father.
To those of you with similar family conditions, my wish for you is the miracle of recoveries, and the personal freedom that true understanding from this event so powerfully delivers.