Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members. Nicole Cliffe is filling in for Danny Ortberg this week.
Q. Chronic illness: My dad is seriously, chronically ill. He has been ill for about 15 years, and he’s progressively lost a lot of independence in increasingly upsetting and embarrassing (for him—we are not embarrassed) ways. This has taken a serious toll on our family, but it seems lately everyone just wants to tell us how “lucky” we are since he’s beaten the odds so many times. Friends who have lost parents always shut down any discussion of how hard this over-a-decade has been and tell me I should just be thankful I still have him. Prudie, I need to be able to talk to my friends and support system about this. I missed my own graduation—twice—because people were sure he wouldn’t survive. I was in the hospital the day after my wedding. My mother and adult siblings are dealing with so much toxic caregiver stress; we are all lashing out at one another to such an extent that we are spending the holidays almost completely apart. It’s painful, it’s heartbreaking to watch, and I am just so tired of having that pain minimized. Yes, I am thankful my father is alive. No, I am not thankful for the circumstances. Do you have any ideas for how I can make this plain without getting too upset or minimizing the pain of others?
A: This is something I hear so commonly from the chronically ill themselves: how after an initial period of assiduously asking after their health, “normal” people eventually become almost … annoyed … the chronically ill person is not better. Society is familiar with illnesses that resolve, and illnesses or injuries that result in death, but the idea that people might just be sick and sick and sick and sick … it makes those fortunate enough not to understand very uncomfortable.
I can tell you love your father and are glad he is still with you, and that it’s been brutal for all of you, especially him, and it’s not helpful to get “AT LEAST YOU STILL HAVE YOUR FATHER.” That being said, I think you need to talk to friends and build more of your support structure from people who have not lost their parents. And do not count out the benefits of talking to a professional, with whom you need worry about absolutely no one’s feelings except your own.
I know this is painful and hard, but I think you may be asking too much from people who have lost their parents, especially in recent memory, and you’ll be more satisfied talking to people who can truly just listen and hear you.