This week I’m sharing a letter from someone asking advice, who has given me permission to share the answer in this way.
I am wracked with guilt. My father is in a nursing home, and has been calling me at night afraid and in pain. He has a condition called “sundowning” where he gets more confused and afraid at night. The next day he is fine. Yet each night he is pushing me to travel there and “straighten things out.” I’ve been there several times this year. There isn’t a lot else I can do that I can’t do on the phone. I spend lots of time talking to his caregivers and honestly don’t think being there in person will change that. I live far away – travel is expensive and time consuming. I know he wants to see me, but I have my own family here I need to take care of too.
I’ve dabbled in Mussar. Can it help me? – JB in Florida, feeling elder care guilt
Dear JB –
I listen with an open heart. I too sometimes get elder care guilt. And I too have a parent in a nursing home. It sounds like you are doing what you can. It is a really difficult situation, and there is no magic bullet that will make it “all better.” That being said, Mussar can help you cope. As Victor Frankl taught, we can’t control the outside world, only how we react to it.
The Torah teaches that we must Honor our parents. And Mussar teaches that too much Honor can lead to a obsequious behavior and a lack of self care. Are you giving your father too much Honor by taking these phone calls at night? Here are two Mussar practices to overcome guilt that you can try.
Reset the boundaries. The soul trait of Strength governs boundaries. Our Rabbis taught: One should always be gentle as the reed and never unyielding as the cedar. (Ta’anit 20a). When it comes to the relationship with our parents, we want to be a reed and not a noodle.
It doesn’t sound like the evening phone calls are helping either one of you. Only you can judge what the correct boundaries are. That being said, you may want to only talk to your father during the day. Does he understand the sundowning that he is going through? Let him know that you are unavailable to talk at night and why. At the same time, use your relationships with the staff to get him some additional support and perhaps medication to help keep him calm and comfortable at night.
See the light and be the light. This situation is making you feel guilty. I know these feelings well. In fact, over the high holidays I resolved to try to grow past inappropriate feelings of guilt. I choose the mantra “See the light. Be the Light” to help me grow out of this. You can too.
You are dealing with a difficult and perhaps tragic situation. And you are going to feel sad about it. The best we can aim for is to feel sad about the situation without feeling bad about ourselves.
Self care and self confidence are keys to help you get through. Ben Zoma said, “Who is strong? One who conquers their impulses.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). Here, your impulse to guilt and anger is coming from the Evil Inclination. Strengthening the Good Inclination with this mantra will help you reconnect with your divine spark. And use your network to support you in your decisions, and create time just for you.
The late comic book legend Stan Lee said, “I have always been my biggest fan.” The more you can strengthen your self confidence, the less guilt you’ll feel over situations that you can’t control.
Wondering how Mussar might help you with your current challenge? Sign up for a free strategy session and we’ll talk it through.