Big losses bring big emotions; don't feel guilty for feelings

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Big losses bring big emotions; don't feel guilty for feelings

North Carolina: My dad's been diagnosed with a stage-four chemo-resistant cancer. The progression is leading to poorer neurological function, mostly in his communication/comprehension abilities. It's heartbreaking to watch, but I am committed to being around him and my mom as much as possible.

I know you understand this heartbreak. Do you have any advice on staying present for something that is tearing you apart to witness? I'm also struggling with guilt over having wished my dad would just die peacefully during a recent surgery. Everyone was gleeful/thankful when he came out all right. I was just disturbed at the road he's now going to have to travel. Also, how to stay present for my kids when this situation is all I can focus on? I'm having trouble being the mom who kicks a soccer ball around. Sleep is elusive and I'm reading stuff on his type of cancer online over and over.

Carolyn: I'm sorry.

First, get offline. Research that hasn't helped so far won't help now. All it can do is drain you of time, sleep and clarity that you don't have to spare.

Next, see your doctor to discuss responsible ways to get the lights out when they need to be. You're no good to anyone if you aren't rested, because sleeplessness diminishes your mental, emotional and physical abilities.

These two are the precursor steps to the real advice: Purge your daily life of everything extraneous, and free yourself to be fully in the moment of the important things that remain. When you're with your kids, be with your kids. Bring your hard lesson in life's impermanence to the soccer field in the form of enthusiastic play. There's also nothing wrong with watching them play, appreciating a little youth in action while you rest a bit, and there's nothing wrong with hugging your kids a trace too hard and a second too long while you get yourself through this.

Likewise, when you're with your dad, be with your dad. When you're calm, hold his hand, and when you're jumpy, play music for him, decorate his room with your kids' art, go through photo albums, whatever seems appropriate to his condition at the time.

And when you're struggling with guilt, just stop fighting your awful thoughts and know how common they are. Yes, you wished for his death. It was a compassionate and unselfish thought: You'd rather give him up than have him at such a painful and disorienting cost. Even the selfish side — "Please go quietly, so I don't have to deal with this any longer" — is just your humanity talking, and doesn't mean you wouldn't otherwise want your dad around forever.

Obviously you can't act on your awful thoughts, but there's no shame in just having them. If you don't have someone you trust to talk to about them, then consider enlisting a pro. Readers suggested contacting your local hospice chapter; they offer comprehensive services.

Big losses bring big emotions, and big emotions slop out of their container sometimes, often when you least want them to. The best I can suggest is that you just expect this will happen, know it's going to pass, and feel it all without fighting it so hard.

Take care, and good luck.

Big losses bring big emotions; don't feel guilty for feelings 02/14/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 14, 2010 8:15pm]

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