Conversations in Grief Blog: Helping When We Feel Helpless
My dad lives in a nursing home. While I have seen him through thick glass several times, I have not sat in the same room with him or touched him since before March 11, 2020, the day his nursing home shut down to protect their residents and staff from the coronavirus.
I cannot imagine what this time has truly been like for my dad. While he testifies to beginning his days feeling hopeful, most of the days end literally and figuratively in darkness for him.
When I call my dad and ask him how he is, I know the answer won’t change that much. He is still isolated in his room, with books and caring but with only masked staff for company. Even television viewing has become disruptive; the divisiveness that our society has chosen is reflected on the news, and not at all helpful for his peace of mind.
I like to fix things. Or at least I like to be able to show up and be present. COVID has stripped us of our power to be helpful or at least be physically present. Another loss that we are experiencing during the pandemic is our ability to be helpful.
Recently I was with my mom and anticipating doing a zoom call with my brother and his family. We were chatting, cleaning up supper dishes, and my mom asked if she could give my dad a call before our zoom call. I said, “Oh I forgot about dad.” My mom gasped and said, “We can’t forget about dad!” I felt so badly in that moment as I realized how easy it is for me to get caught up in my own life and simply carry on. Along with helplessness, we may experience guilt that we get to live relatively full lives, enjoying time with family, sharing meals, enjoying the outdoors, while our loved one remains alone.
Dad is in a dark place. Any resident who is isolated from their loved ones in a care facility is in a dark place. How do we offer support?
Let’s not try to fix with our words: “At least you are in your right mind;” “At least you are able to read;” “At least you are getting good care.” It is much more appropriate to actively listen when we call, validating and supporting how they are feeling. Be honest with your loved one; share that you are hurting and that you also don’t understand why this is happening to them. Grief that is shared with a compassionate listener is grief that is lessened. Another way to engage our loved one is with questions thought out ahead of the phone call. In my dad’s case, he loves to talk about his own childhood and young adulthood. I ask him questions: what was it like to be a hired hand on a farm? Which of your siblings were you closest to? Did you always have a huge garden? I may know the answers, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is giving him opportunity to reflect and reminisce about good days, days very much different than the day he finds himself in now.
While I have the gift of being able to communicate with my dad, others who are reading this are unable to even have meaningful conversation with their loved one(s) due to Alzheimer’s or dementia. I can’t imagine your frustration as you long to connect with your loved one. I offer the following suggestions. Sing songs that will be familiar to them; music is remembered even as other thoughts and abilities are lost. Pray familiar Scripture and prayers. Claim that our loving God is present with them, that he has not forgotten them.
More than anything, we must stay engaged with our loved ones. Even as we feel utterly helpless, keep reaching out, keep calling, keep writing notes, keep stopping by with small gifts. Find out if you can order in their favorite meal. My Dad loves Domino’s sausage pizza. Keep remembering them. Keep loving them.
In our helplessness, we may begin to understand how they are feeling, because they feel helpless, too. Really, what I am inviting us to do as family and friends, is to sit in their darkness with them.