Minding our Elders: Acceptance of reality precedes feeling gratitude

DEAR CAROL: My wife has had a stroke that's left her mostly paralyzed on one side. She can't speak well and she cries often. We're in our 70s and have spent our lives as active church people. In fact, we've done our share of visiting hospitals an...
Carol Bradley Bursack
Carol Bradley Bursack

DEAR CAROL: My wife has had a stroke that’s left her mostly paralyzed on one side. She can’t speak well and she cries often. We’re in our 70s and have spent our lives as active church people. In fact, we’ve done our share of visiting hospitals and nursing homes representing the church.

We’ve told people that what they are facing is their reality and that we will pray for them. We’ve told them to be grateful for what they have. Now, the shoe is on the other foot. I’m having a difficult time feeling grateful for anything at all. Instead I feel angry, exhausted, frustrated and frightened. How could I have been such a hypocrite all of these years? – Roger

DEAR ROGER: You have every right to feel what you are feeling. Go ahead and be angry. Admit that you’re exhausted, frustrated and frightened. If you’re mad at God, you may want to talk with your spiritual leader for guidance. However, in my opinion, that’s okay. God’s big enough to handle it.

You aren’t a hypocrite. What you are feeling are human emotions. If you admit your feelings to yourself, and perhaps discuss them openly with close friends or your spiritual leader, you will likely find that the negative power of these emotions will gradually weaken.

One reason caregivers gain so much from sharing their feelings with other caregivers is that’s how we discover that our darkest feelings are normal. They are similar or even identical to those of others. We learn that we aren’t alone.

Acceptance that we have dark feelings can eventually lead to acceptance of the situation that grieves us. Accepting something doesn’t mean that we like it. It simply means that we understand in our hearts that something is true.

Acceptance can be hard. After my dad’s brain was destroyed by a surgery that backfired, everything changed – not only for him but for all of us who loved him. No amount of anger or blaming would alter the results of that surgery. We had no choice but to accept what had happened. All we could do was decide how we would cope with this tragedy.

Only after going through the agony of learning to accept Dad’s new reality could there be room for gratitude. We could never be “happy” that Dad had that dreadful outcome from his surgery. All we could do was help provide Dad with the tools for the most satisfying quality of life possible while he lived in his altered world.

Gradually I did learn that there were things to be grateful for. When Dad had what was, for him, a good day, I was grateful. When he had a rare moment of clarity, I was grateful beyond words. When he wasn’t in pain, I was grateful. I also learned I could handle and even grow from experiences I never would have thought I was tough enough to endure.

Give yourself time to grieve the losses you and your wife are facing, Roger. Give yourself license to be human and then seek to accept life as it is. Once you’ve accepted what has happened, with the help of your friends and your church you’ll likely begin to discover that you still have much to be grateful for. You’ll then have what you need to return to helping others.