So we’re getting close to The Trip. This started as a long weekend in southern California for my husband and me to see my stepson, who is doing an internship with NASA. Then we added on to it that I would go to my sister’s house and help her tell my aging father that after living with her for five years, his needs for care now exceed what she can provide. He’s going to need to move into some kind of facility that can provide more care. Next we found out that the memorial service will be on Saturday, the one for my cousin’s son who committed suicide in July. This was the impulsive suicide on a young husband and new father, using my cousin’s (his dad’s) illegally stored, readily accessible loaded gun. Half of the family is big on their right to own a gun, and the rest of us, mostly city folk, have no practical use for guns and see them as an invitation to tragic accidents. It’s hard not to be aggravated with my cousin, but of course he feel worse than anyone, and we love him. The Trip has evolved into one big emotional challenge.
So far, no emotional challenge is too much for the remarkable E., my therapist for the last let’s-not-count-how-many years. Today’s therapy day, so I bring her this challenge, all wrapped in, “I’m so tired I can hardly see straight,” and “I also have to protect the girl, who never before has been believed while I’ve been around my father” and It seems like a mess to me, but E. can handle it. She has me break it into pieces.
Piece 1: Protecting and respecting the girl
Last week we had talked about making something physical for her to carry with her. I made her a set of four cards using photos from my blog and short statements summarizing some of my key messages to her. These I printed out and will keep in my purse. Here’s one of the cards.
E. asked me if I also could be very attentive to my body’s reactions, since that’s a way that the girl often communicates things she doesn’t have words for. Can I recognize the reactions, even encourage her to use that way to communicate if she wants? This means not panicking if/when I feel them, but simply recognizing them for what they are and accepting them.
She reminded me that I know ways to soothe the girl/myself if needed. And there will be enough family members around that I can use as a buffer if I need to. Okay, I can do this.
P.S. Even before the session, I decided not to tell my husband about my dad before the trip. There will be a lot of emotion and processing around that, and there’s enough going on already. I’ll do it when I’m ready and at a quieter time in our lives.
Piece 2: The Memorial Service
Actually, once we start talking, this one was easy, and I actually already knew what I needed to do. The memorial service is for the living. We can’t bring Daniel back, much as we wish to. But we can offer solace to my cousin and to others in the family. That’s my only job, for half of Saturday: to put compassion front and center.
Piece 3: What Do I Owe My Dad
I have written about my father before. Even if I didn’t believe the girl (though I do), I would have limited sympathy for the situation he’s in. Some sympathy, yes, but limited. He spent a lifetime setting up the situation.
Yet when I imagine limiting the degree to which I’m going to solve him problem for him, I feel guilty.”Okay,” says E. “Imagine Guilt is sitting in that chair. What is Guilt telling you?”
That’s easy. “That I’m selfish, judgmental and unforgiving.”
“And if you look objectively at yourself and your life as a whole, is that true? Are you a selfish person? Does that show up in your relationship with your husband, your sons, your friends?” she asks me.
“Um, mostly not I guess,” I answer.
“Are you judgmental? If your friends call you up with a problem, do you give them a hard time for making bad decisions or choosing the wrong partner or forgetting to pay a bill and incurring a fee?”
“No, I don’t do that,” I tell her. “Usually they are already berating themselves, and I try to help them see themselves in a more compassionate, gentle way.”
“So far Guilt isn’t very accurate,” E. observes. “What about unforgiving?”
That’s a harder one. “It’s partly true I guess. But honestly, I have only just started to believe the girl. I have barely started to process her emotions. I am still working through shame and doubt and haven’t even really touched anger yet. I think I have to do those things before I can think about getting to forgiveness, if I even do get there.”
“All right,” E concedes, “you are not currently ready to forgive your dad. But you are also not universally unforgiving. In this instance, you may or may not be forgiving in the future, when you ready to consider that.”
“The thing about guilt,” she goes on to tell me, “is that it’s simply a signal that we are not abiding by something we value. Sometimes we are inevitably going to feel it because we have to choose between two things that we value, and either way we choose, we are not doing something else we think matters. So here you have the value of honoring yourself, planning for your own future retirement, setting aside money for your son with disabilities. You have the value of being honest about what kind of father he’s been to you and what you feel like giving him, even if you could afford it. These values all matter. And you also have the value that says “we should take care of family” and “it’s good to care for vulnerable older people.” You may not be able to satisfy all of these values at the same time, so guilt may be unavoidable.”
That makes sense.
“A problem with Guilt though,” she returns to personifying the emotion, as if it were a character in the room with us, “is that it tends to talk in a strong, judgmental voice and overgeneralize from a specific instance to your whole life. ‘You always think only of yourself’ or ‘You are so hard on people.’ This isn’t helpful, and as we just saw, it’s not accurate. You can talk back to Guilt and say, ‘I’m not selfish; don’t call me names.’ You can step back and just look at the dilemma that Guilt is pointing out to you: a choice between competing values and priorities. That is the useful side of Guilt. The rest doesn’t deserve too much attention.”
I don’t know about you all, but I found this helpful. When I figure out what I am willing to do for my dad (contribute some amount of money, not yet determined), I have a way to deal with guilt about not doing more. I may have to re-read this post and remind myself multiple times, but I do think this will work for me.