Thanksgiving begins a season marked by great emotions. Regardless of your personal faith background, none of us can escape the mixture of friendly, warm times and cold isolation, the joy and sadness, the grateful hearts and bitter memories or regrets. It’s all there, isn’t it?
Just stand in line at the post office — as I did this weekend to send presents to orphaned children in Belarus (my wife Kathleen’s service passion) — and listen to the mixed emotions of those in line.
- “I’m just grateful I have a job.”
- “Why don’t these government workers have more people helping us?”
Some were laughing; others looked angry and wrung out.
As I observed this microcosm of intense human emotion, for some unexplained reason, I thought of Kay, who is now deceased. Kay was an early member of the Dutiful Daughters, a support group I was privileged to lead at my church in Decatur, Ga.
Kay, always cheerful, was a seasoned public-relations person. She was on the staff of the church. She had a husband, Tom, and several children and grandchildren.
Kay joined the Dutiful Daughters because she was responsible for supporting her mother, from whom she was estranged. Her mother lived alone in Decatur. She was a bitter woman. The origins of her attitude were rooted in a husband who died, leaving her with the tough job of raising a family with no resources. But Kay’s mother persevered.
How she and Kay became alienated over the years isn’t clear. It just felt like that with each passing day, each year, more and more anger pervaded their lives, Kay said. At one point, Kay’s mother decided to isolate herself in her modest house. Kay’s mother would let Kay bring medicine and groceries, but Kay had to leave them on the doorstep and drive away before she would come out and retrieve the items.
As fate would have it, Kay’s mother suffered a health event that necessitated hospitalization then a move to a nursing home. Kay visited daily. Her mother’s hard edge softened a bit, but negativity still set the tone. Kay felt guilty. “If only I were a better daughter” was always the undercurrent, with no sign of reconciliation.
Then, one Sunday, Kay came into the Dutiful Daughters meeting with an urgent issue. Her mother had developed pneumonia and her health was deteriorating. Kay had to decide if she wanted aggressive treatment and a referral back to the hospital, or if she wanted to let nature take its course. “I always expected that I’d have to make such a call some day, and I thought I’d immediately answer that I wanted no aggressive treatment for her,” Kay told me. “But I couldn’t do it. I told the nursing home staff to send her to the emergency room and that I’d meet them there.”
The situation was grave.
When asked why she made that choice (no judgment from the group either way), Kay began by saying, through tears: “I don’t know. I thought it would be easy to let her go. She had a hard life. We didn’t get along. But I admired her. She was tough. She survived and saw to it that our family made it after my father died. I am like her in many ways. I have her good qualities. Without her I wouldn’t be what I am today. She gave me so much. I am grateful.” When I asked if she’d ever said those things to her mom, she replied: “No, I haven’t. And now it’s too late. She’s in a coma. I feel so bad I haven’t told her.”
All those unresolved feelings.
The group advised her to write down exactly what she’d said to us, go to mom’s bedside and tell her — coma or no coma. “I don’t know if I can do it,” she said.
You and I work with people every day who stand in the gray zone between gratitude and bitterness. Some of us may be there personally. But during this season, a gift we can give to many is the encouragement to express appreciation to those who gave us something, especially seniors and our circle of families and friends. We must give that gift before it is too late. I even like to encourage people to step outside of that circle and visit with veterans, teachers, neighbors or parents of childhood chums.
Do it personally, and encourage your residents and others you serve to do the same.
As for Kay, she returned to Dutiful Daughters about a month later. Her mom had died during that time. Of course, the group was very curious about whether Kay had actually told her mother how she felt.
Kay said she went right home after the last meeting, wrote down all the things her mother had done for her. She said she sat on her mother’s bed, took her mother’s hand, and began expressing her gratitude. From within the comatose state, tears began flowing down her mother’s cheeks.
No other communications … just Kay’s gratitude, her mom’s tears.
Bitterness has a long aftertaste that can last for generations. Kay could have attested to that. Gratitude — even when thrown back in our face — leaves us with a certain peace of mind that we’ve a right relationship with those important to us. As Kay discovered, it is more satisfying to express our feelings to a live person in a coma than to stand over a grave to do it, which could have been the conclusion to Kay’s story.
During holiday seasons, be grateful and let others know it. Pray for those who seem bitter. They need it. A warning, though: standing in line at the post office — even for a good cause — will almost always try your patience.
This article was written for LeadingAge by the organization's president and CEO, Larry Minnix
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