There is nothing more real about adulting than when your parent gets sick. As teens and twenty-somethings we not only believe ourselves to be invincible but we also believe that of our parents too. Seemingly they will always be there to catch us when we fall…whether that catch means bailing us out of a financial jam or coming over in the middle of the night to give a new mama just a few minutes rest from an inconsolable newborn, we have become accustomed to the knowledge of their presence. Whether we are big or small, our parents provide our sense of safety and security. We expect them to always be there no matter what.
As we grow older, venturing into our 30’s and 40’s we see them aging, slowing down, possibly retiring, or closing up shop. While we love having them close and frequently turn to them for advice on all things life, love, and parenting, as we begin to see their wisdom, we also begin to notice their age.
We watch them play and frolic with our children, the joy and pure love for their grandchildren evident on their faces. But we also see them tire, needing to rest more often, struggling to keep up with a fast tot, or getting frustrated at a child’s less than ideal behavior. Part and parcel to the aging process, for many families, a parent’s illness or disease becomes a part of their reality as well. While people today live longer than ever before due to advances in medicine and technology, sickness and disease still take a significant toll physically, mentally and emotionally on the affected and their family.
Here are 4 feelings and realizations that may come to light when struggling with a parent’s illness.
For many adults, a parent getting sick is their first real experience with illness, disease, or facing the possible loss of a loved one. Both the ill parent and the adult child are faced with the idea of life without one another. Whether you live close to one another or far apart, the concept of not having your parent, this person who has literally never been more than a phone call away for your entire life is a scary prospect.
Panic and anxiety frequently surface here too as one starts to imagine the future…holidays, weddings, and even mundane outings like weekend trips to the farmers market coming to an end. While taking a deep breath and vowing to take things one step at a time seems like great advice, it is very difficult to actually accomplish. Like it or not, there will likely be lots of tears, anguish, and sleepless nights spent worrying and envisioning worst-case scenarios. That said, you have to do your best to enjoy the time you do have together, make light of the situation as much as possible, and try to put aside other less important tasks such as weekend work or laundry that really aren’t as crucial as spending time with loved ones.
Adult children and parents who are used to being in control are those who will likely face the greatest fears and have the hardest time coming to terms with the illness or disease. Those of us who are the “strong ones” or the “control freaks” don’t do well with circumstances outside of our control and disease is definitely one of those things. In order to somewhat curb those fears or gain a modicum of control, being involved in the ill parent’s doctors appointments of treatment plans may be helpful. Further, as the recently diagnosed parent is even more afraid than you, their child, it is helpful to have someone else involved to remember the slew of information quickly given to you in a relatively short time.
Yep. Guilt. One of the most inconsiderate of human emotions, guilt, will at some point set in for one reason or another and you simply have to do your best to overcome or at least accept it. Past guilt that you were not nicer to your parent as a rebellious teenager, moved away, or have not spent all of the time you could have with your aging parent(s). Present guilt that you have other responsibilities keeping you busy even now that they are sick such as work, school, or kids.
Future guilt because you now realize you will live long after your parents are gone, you will continue to have a life, you will continue to have happy and joyful occasions and experiences when they will not. And while this is all how it is meant to be, the parent going before the child, it does not make acceptance any easier.
And the worst, if you are already a parent yourself, a deep-seated guilt because as upset as you truly are at the scary prospect of losing your own parent, you also thank god it is not you, who has little people to raise, or your child that is sick.
Anger or Frustration
Why your parent? Why your family? Why you? These are the questions that will be racing through your mind when you first find out about your parent’s illness. Trust me, your parent is asking the same questions as well. For most of us, this leads down a rabbit hole of no return with no good answers or justifiable reasons available. You will spend many sleepless nights evaluating all of you or your parent’s life choices and comparing them to what you know of other “healthy”, “well”, “not sick” people.
- My mom always went to church.
- My dad always gave to charity.
- My family always helped others.
- I went to college, got a job, didn’t use drugs or alcohol…
Unfortunately, one family’s cross to bear can never really be compared to another because life is unfair. There are no real scales of justice out there keeping tabs on the good or bad someone has done. Thus, anger and frustration which may come in the form of rage or even tears are a normal part of this process. Some would say acceptance will follow, others may just be angry for a very long time. In my experience, anger and acceptance come in waves…there is really no end to either, just an ebb and flow depending on the happenings of the day.
Facing your own Mortality
For most young adults a parent’s illness is the first experience where one comes face to face with his or her own mortality. If these people who were literally always there, always had your back, and who in your eyes could do anything can get sick, slow down, or even die, what does that mean for you? Knowing that none of us get out alive and facing that same truth head-on are two very different emotional experiences.
Similarly, for all children, but especially only children or oldest children, your parent(s) very well may be the only person(s) you know standing between you and death. While common-sense tells us that is a silly thought, for some, the stark reality of being the oldest living relative in a family is difficult to fathom or digest. As a thirty-something mama of four, I can say I don’t feel old, I don’t feel like I’m anywhere close to leaving this life behind, but I do feel time flying by with a seemingly faster speed every.single.day.
Sickness, disease, and death are somethings none of us are ever prepared for. We may think we have a handle on life, love, and our physical, mental, and emotional well-being, but one day illness may just rear its ugly head with no warning, reminding you that you are only human and not truly in control. The truth is, even when an illness can be treated or even cured, things will never be the same. Sickness and disease change us all, just as births, deaths, love and other major life events do too. To say it is good or bad is nonsensical because it is probably a little bit of both. You will be a different person, your parent will be a different person, and your family dynamics will change. Whether together or apart, you all will grow, adapt and time will go on because, well, that is simply what happens in this existence we call life.