When Your Heart Is Outside of Your Body

According to the natural order of things, children should bury their parents.  They are older, so logically they should die first.  But the heart doesn’t speak logic; and is deaf to what’s natural.  So, when a parent seems to suddenly transition from being the person on whom you’ve always leaned and depended upon — to being the person (another person) who is now dependent on you – your world shifts – and you are thrown completely off balance.

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At the point in your life when you need to be functioning at your highest level because you are taking care of children, nurturing a relationship with a significant other, are at the height of your career, and are also trying to find a little time to care for yourself; your center, the gravitational pull that typically holds you upright (without you even realizing it), shifts and weakens.  So you are now tripping over your own feet, falling down and having to get back up without a chance to care for your skinned knees, and dropping more balls than you can count. 

You try to remain grateful: you are aware that so many have buried their parents prematurely and you are fortunate to still have yours.  But when a parent has aged and is ailing, a death of some sorts occurs – one that no one acknowledges, that no one calls or sends you cards and flowers for – has occurred.  That mom or dad who you have known longer than anyone else is no longer who they were.  You’ve had to say goodbye to your superhero; and see your parent as a human – a fallible, flawed and frail human.  How do you function when your superhero is gone?

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You really didn’t know how dependent you were on your superhero until the cape fell off.  It’s then that you realize that there was this peace knowing that no matter what happened in life: a broken marriage, a job layoff, a sickness, whatever, you had a superhero to save you.  They always had.

And now the world is looking at you, as if you are supposed to pick that cape up off where it sits in a crumpled heap on your parent’s floor and be a superhero.  Doesn’t the world know that the cape is too heavy for you? Don’t people understand that the cape doesn’t fit you and would drag on the floor were you to try to clasp it around your neck because you are now smaller than you were when you first recognized it on your parent?  You are no longer the accomplished adult.  When it comes to dealing with your parents, you are always as you started, a child.

When you are expected to be more adult than you ever have had to be, is exactly when you feel most like a child – a hurt child.  So how do you take care of your parent when you have reverted to a state of mind that harkens back to when they were completely taking care of you?

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You do as they did: the very best that you can with what you have emotionally, physically, and logistically.  That –as it was when they were raising you — will be more than enough.  That — as it did to them when they were raising you –will leave you feeling inadequate, lost, overburdened, and guilty.  Regardless of what you do, you will not feel as if you’ve done enough – just as your parents felt inadequate, as all parent feel inadequate – when we are caring for the ones we love.

It is even more difficult when you are caring for someone who isn’t easy to care for (one who curses you out, ignores you, piles additional guilt upon you when you are only trying to help).  Let’s not pretend that all parents are easy to accept help any more than some of us kids were.  Additionally, our relationships with our parents are oftentimes complicated.  We didn’t all come from loving homes or dutiful parents.  Sometimes we feel the obligation to be their superhero even when they were never a superhero for us.  Even in those cases, you do the best you can (importantly, the best YOU can -not what others try to tell you that you should do).  And I assure you, Love, that your best will be enough.

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It is essential that you take care of yourself; and allow yourself permission to grieve the loss of your superhero or the loss of the chance for a flawed parent to ever be a superhero to you.  You must forgive yourself for not showing up at every appointment, or sitting at the hospital more than an hour, or snapping at them.  Your parent’s greatest desire, even if they aren’t expressing it, is for you to happy.  They, when they were in right mind, wouldn’t want you to lose a bit of happiness in your life because you are having to watch them struggle near the end of theirs.  Treat yourself as delicately and as kindly as you would a scared, sad child —  because when you are caring for an ailing parent, that’s exactly who you are.

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About Randi B.

Randi is a diversity and inclusion strategist, speaker, trainer and writer, focusing on making connections and cultivating empathy in this diverse world one trip, speech, article, book and conversation at a time.

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