“I don’t want to visit Dad because I want to remember how he was.”
One of our hospice’s social workers relayed this comment from a member of a patient’s family. A child, now an adult, struggled to spend any time with a father. He no longer resembled—or acted like or reacted like—the father of the “past.”
Dying can literally change us. Even if we remain relatively healthy as the birthdays accumulate, there are inevitable and predictable transformations in hair color, skin texture, and a hundred other physical clues. But add a form of dementia, and often there’s no chance for the remember-whens as an adult child tries to support a parent. Add a form of cancer and either the disease, or the treatments for the disease, will wound and warp the body. Add the terminal stages of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and the “normal” act of breathing can appear as frightening as watching a gasping fish out of water.
Anger stirred when I overheard the social worker’s quote from the non-visiting adult child.
How dare a son or daughter avoid the person who gave them life who is now in one of the worst times of life? Get over it! Yes, everything is different now, and maybe the parent is difficult to be around. Maybe now, the once loving mother or father physically lashes out in unexpected ways. Maybe she or he smells bad. Maybe the parent makes odd demands. He or she once changed your diapers and weathered your infantile tantrums, so buck up and take the time to be with them.
Professional concern gripped me when I overheard the social worker’s quote from the non-visiting adult child.
Down the road, the son or daughter will regret not visiting the parent. My background is ministry and not counseling, but I’ve met many folks—after the passage of years—who grapple with the decisions (and non-decisions) of the past. The shoulda-coulda-woulda things we didn’t do can shadow the remainder of our years. The dread of taking a single step into the room of a loved one who no longer looks/acts like the loved one of bygone times is far less worse than all the steps that follow when the regrets burden your memories.
Comparison raised its leering metaphoric head when I overheard the social worker’s quote from the non-visiting adult child.
Hey, I visited my father! I supported my mother when she was staggered by the care of a 90+ year-old man with dementia. In the earlier stages of Dad’s disease, I’d visit and receive his random, vicious insults. Later, at his care facility, I dealt with foul odors, stuffy rooms, and health aides who didn’t hide their (understandable) dislike or fear or both for my father. If I can trudge into my slowly-slowly-slowly dying father’s room, everyone else should be able to do that for their parents.
But all my reactions were wrong.
I don’t know what was going on between that child and that parent. Depending on the situation, on how long the patient would be under hospice care, maybe the social worker or chaplain will help the child consider visiting the parent. Reasons for not visiting can be complex. Avoidance can be a response to a perverse or a perfect lifetime relationship between parent and child. Other reasons can include the odd way our culture goes about skirting talk of death. In a society that reveres “good” youth and bluntly trumpets the various ways—surgery, pills, and diets—to stave off the “bad” path of aging, many of us have a knee-jerk response about fearing death.
Let me not hastily judge others for what they say during the unsettling time of dying. And let me not, as I voice unplanned words when confronted by a dying loved one, so harshly judge myself.
As with so much of the discourse (and discord) around dying, whether it’s the confusing explanation of a physician adding more confusion about a medical procedure, or the confusing words spilling from our mouths, I long for everyone to have time to ask questions that receive answers, and to be supported by people who care and keep caring. Before and after the death of a friend or family member, we can feel alone, misunderstood.
I wonder if the child will eventually visit the parent? I hope so. And I hope that now and later, the child won’t bury the anger or regrets, and will have a chance to tend to his or her own feelings.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)
Picture from here.by