Because the first thing to know is they’re not the same. Your parent may be up in years, that is an aging parent (And really aren’t we all that?). A dying parent is one who has been given that prognosis of limited time. It’s important to differentiate because talking to an aging parent is not the same as talking to a dying parent when it comes to discussing wishes and, later life, and end of life desires. The similarity is that the talks are always done with caring and compassion and usually (but not always), with love.
This post is about talking with an aging parent– one who is perhaps showing signs of slowing down but is not yet ill.
- Open a dialogue now. This is the time to do it, while your parent is well and reasonably happy, with some clarity of mind. If you haven’t had a closeness or intimacy with your parent up to this point in your life, don’t give up. While you both have breath, you both have opportunity for personal growth. You can begin by talking about little things that matter to you. Maybe increase the frequency of your phone calls if your relationship to this point is mostly via the phone. If you do visit, perhaps do so a bit more. Putting more time into the relationship is a good way to change the nature of it. All talks come easier with enhanced closeness.
- Speaking of time, plan wisely. If you want to have good talks, pick a good time. If you know your dad watches golf on Sunday and his attention is glued to the TV, don’t choose then to open your heart. You may want to go out somewhere where you can truly connect. Coffee shops are perfect venues for intimacy. Bars? Maybe not so much but if it works for you… . It doesn’t matter where you are, anyplace can lend itself to warm connections. Even your own backyard if you like.
- Share your own life. If you want to talk about writing a will, for example, tell your parent how you handled writing yours. This is a time for you to be your parent’s adult child, a partner of sorts, someone speaking to a contemporary. Don’t condescend, don’t take the role of dependent child. Talk to your parent as you’d talk to a friend you respect.
- Be sure to tell your parent why you are broaching any sensitive subject. You want to protect his or her future and to make sure he or she is able to live comfortably as long as possible.
- Don’t jump in head first to the “big” talks about death and dying. Your aging parent isn’t necessarily dying anytime soon. The goal here is to find out what he or she wants going forward. The fact is that with aging come some very natural changes in the body’s ability to function. What you want is to find out how your parent wants to live as those changes happen. Just express that and most importantly, listen.
Recently a friend and I were talking about our lives in terms of what we thought they’d be like when we were younger and what our lives turned out to be. We discussed whether life had for the most part exceeded or failed to meet our expectations. We’re both pretty happy people and we came to an interesting realization. Neither of us had much in the way of expectations when we were younger and really don’t today either. As a result, we’re both pretty happy with the way things are going.
“Low expectations,” my friend exclaimed, “that’s the key to happiness.” We laughed but in considering it later, I realized he may be on to something. Especially when it comes to family. We all have expectations about family relationships, I think. We’re pretty much wired that way from the time we are young. We expect our parents to love us and to take care of us when we are children. We expect our siblings to love us and be our playmates when we’re kids together. Then we take those expectations into adulthood and maybe that’s where we go wrong. If we have high hopes and great expectations and our family members don’t meet our lofty goals, we come crashing down amidst the disappointment. From there the disappointment could lead to anger, to adult sibling rivalry, to fighting for parental approval and any hope for a healthy adult sibling relationship falls apart.
Perhaps the key to happiness here is to lower our expectations of family. Maybe we have to treat family members more like we treat our friends. With our friends we don’t just expect them to treat us fairly and with respect. We understand our friends owe us nothing unless we earn it. We accept the fact that good friendships are the product of work, of give and take, of treating people with respect. We don’t just expect our friends to be good partners, we know we have to work for that, to be good partners in order to have them. We understand inherently that we teach our friends how to treat us by how we treat them.
But maybe with family, we often just believe things will be good because they should be. Unfortunately, what I’m hearing from people who read this blog is that philosophy isn’t working so well. Too many of us are disappointed in our sibling relationships. The family waters are tougher to navigate than those of friendship. I’m seeking to understand why that is. Why do I and so many people I’ve connected with find loving friendships but fail to develop loving sibling relationships? Why are we so lost in the weeds in these waters?
Are our expectations too great or is it something else entirely?
This week marked my sister’s birthday. It’s the 22nd one she’s had since she stopped talking to me. In an earlier post I wrote about how I wasn’t sure if I’d recognize her or if she’d know me. I’m sorry if you can relate to that because you’re estranged from a sibling. It pretty much sucks.
But this week I had a realization. I don’t have to be miserable every time I think about my sister. I can choose to remember a good memory and to replace the pain with that memory when I think of her. Truth be told, I don’t think of her that often but on weeks like this one, it happens and it’s a bummer. Not any more.
You feel what you feel in life but you can choose your reaction to it. That’s what I always taught my daughters. You can’t control everything but you can control how you react to everything. (or most things). So this year when my sister creeps into my brain I’m going to remember this.
We were young, maybe 14 and 9. We were watching the “Beverly Hillbillies” on TV and the daughter in the show, Ellie May, was playing with a bra. She didn’t recognize it as clearly, “hillbillies” had no use for undergarments of that nature. (Wow, was that show offensive or what? Good thing the PC police weren’t around then.) So, the character used it as a slingshot. Well, that was simply hilarious to us and we started to giggle and then to guffaw loudly enough to bring my father into the room. “What’s so funny?” he wanted to know.
Neither of us could say the word “bra” to my father. My sister probably was wearing one and definitely couldn’t say the word. This was a girl who had to recite Shakespeare for school and wouldn’t say “Damn” so she walked around the house saying, “Out, blank spot.” She was clearly not saying “bra.” I said nothing but Dad was waiting for an answer. My sister sensed my discomfort and gave him a satisfactory answer. “She has a funny accent,” my sister explained. My dad left the room. We looked at each other and started laughing all over again. We shared a secret and a giggle. Very rare indeed. The fact that this is one of the only good stories I can tell about a nice moment with my sister is in itself pretty telling about our relationship growing up.
But, here’s the message of this post. If you are hurting from the actions of other people be they family, coworkers or anyone else in your life, remember this — you can’t change them but you choose how you react to them.
Happy birthday to my sister. I hope you are enjoying a good laugh, albeit not with me. I am smiling at a memory of us, that’s what I choose this year.