Aging Parents And The Command To Love Them Well

Over dinner the other night, John and I were talking about why the world does not warn you about the pain of losing a parent?  Why is it no one mentions how heartbreaking it is to watch your loved ones age?  Why is it we do not proactively and transparently communicate about death, loss, and the slow burn of watching someone you love slip away?

Because it is hard.  Really hard.


Earlier this year, I called a dear friend who has walked through unspeakable loss at a young and unexpected age.

I  felt numb to the world about what was going on. And I was at a loss about how to maintain faith and hope when I knew the ending to the story does not end with..."she lived happily ever after."

I was angry at God and sad about the situation.  The old me wanted to block it all out-just keep going.  It hurt too much to make those visits; to see her mind going with every conversation.  My pain told me to avoid...but the command that lingered in my heart was to love her well.

So how do you do it?  How do you love well when there's not a storybook ending for your loved one's situation?

My wise friend's answer that day went something like this:

You need a plan; you need something systematic in place to love your Mom well.  You need a schedule.  Because if you don't schedule the time to go see her, your emotions, the pain, will keep you away.  And loving well and loving from afar are not the same thing.  You've got to be committed to getting your hands dirty in the situation even if you do not feel like it.

Her insight was not what I wanted to hear.  No, the answer I wanted to hear was: go when you feel like it.  Go when you think you can handle it.  Go when your feelings tell you to go.

The thing with dementia is every moment is precious.  It is precious because you don't know how much of your loved one's mind will be there at your next visit, so giving yourself the time and space to grieve and hurt can actually just make the situation worse.

Do you need space and time to grieve.

Hell to the yes.

But do it on your time, not your loved one's time.

Over the past six months I have tried to go see my mom once every two weeks.  It isn't much-usually just a down and back day trip made up of lunchtime conversations over Mexican food and chips and guacamole (one of my mom and I's favorites).

My mom's decline has looked much like the route of a roller coaster: there have been highs and lows, steep and hope-filled climbs, and then gut wrenching and immediate free falls of fear.

This past weekend was one of those free fall moments where the decline of her mind was all you could see and hear.  

I'd be lying if I told you my faith has not wavered this year.  I'd be lying if I told you the situation isn't breaking my heart.  I'd be lying if I told you I have not whispered damn you, dementia countless times.

I've teetered between being face down on my knees in sadness and then the next day want nothing to do with prayer, hope, and faith.

God has felt distant.  My heart has become lukewarm in many ways.

But on Monday, out of the blue, just as clear as day, this truth was whispered into my heart:

It matters.  She matters.  I see all of it.

What you are doing matters.

The parts of her mind that are gone, the parts of her mind that are going...they are with me.  

They are with me in heaven and I am holding them in safekeeping until I welcome all of her home.

So until then, keep showing up.  Keep walking into the mess of the situation.  Keep loving her well, even when it hurts like hell.

Many of us will be surrounded by our loved ones this holiday season. We will see grandparents, great aunts and uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters, moms and dads.  

Friend, can I remind you to hug these precious people a little tighter this season?  Can I encourage you to get your hands a little dirty-take them to coffee, bring them lunch, linger over that conversation.  Savor the small, ordinary moments.  Do the thing that feels inconvenient.

Go see them.  Go love them.  Life is too short and we are not promised tomorrow. 

Figure out what it means to love them well.