Imploding Families

Arriving at work today I was met by my coworker who wanted to talk. We’ve worked together for about three years and I see her when she comes in once weekly for a project that we work on together. Aside from the project sometimes we need to be present for each other as fellow sufferers as the circumstances of misfortune and illness that accompany our everyday lives make themselves felt.

As I entered the office and before I’d even put down my bags I could see that she was already at work going through her emails but she looked up expectantly when she saw me.

After very brief “Hi, how are you’s” I asked the queston, “How’s it all going with your father?”

Her elderly father who lives in another city, in another state recently suffered from an acute illness that led to heart failure, and he was hospitalised and treated for over three weeks before being sent home. My coworker had been up to visit and stay, to oversee his treatment, to meet with family, to cook, to clean and run around, to plan, to discuss, to pray, to jolly along, to look at scenarios, to argue, to investigate, to look at residences and to confront and manage the familial interactions that accompany a parents sudden illness.  But living a distance away means ones  authority is weakened as you strive to assert your knowledge of the medical system in an unfamiliar setting and this was true for her.

There’s not much laughing at these familial get-togethers though, and at the end of the day families forced together to deal with sudden illness or trauma often implode as differences and problems tolerated throughout life, and as adults fortunately from a distance, suddenly come to a head and force family members into positions that are often polarised, full of pain, are heated and have long term consequences.

I still recall standing outside a nurses station in a private hospital holding the ear piece of the nurses telephone about thirty centimetres from my ear as a relative hurled abuse, horrible abuse down the receiver at me. The nurses were non plussed and I bemusedly thought to myself that they were probably accustomed to this appalling scene.  This behaviour too was the results of parental illness, surgery, ongoing care needs and everything had come to the boil and the anger spilled out, it just spat out of everyone as decisions were made.

My family relationships fell apart too, but that is a story for later.

My coworker is a health professional.  But as a daughter, with an ill parent she – and they – revert as many of us do to the primal relationships that characterised our early lives. She and her siblings are like satellites around their father, living one to twelve hours drive from him. In early retirement as mums and dads sell up the family home and move to the coast to live the kind of life they’ve always dreamed about, this situation seems perfect. It gives parents a bit of space from their grown up children and at the same time offers family an opportunity to have a destination as they clamber in a tightly packed vehicles with scooters, sleeping bags and DVDs on board as they head north to see their parents and grandparents.

While it sounds grand, it may not always be so, but these are the good days. Remember this.

But, like their stellar counterparts, satellites can collide causing the destruction and demise of worlds, in this case our familial worlds of sociality, support and meaning.

As parents’ health deteriorates, as with my coworker’s family, one parent becomes ill and dies.  Her mother died a year ago; it was the one year anniversary yesterday. He and she had planned a cruise around Australia, but in the end it was my coworker who took the cruise with her father. But the dream was still sound and the family recovered and readjusted to the new reality as they now dealt with one parent in retirement.

Now, as dad is ill, the adult children are all fighting. There are some who aren’t talking to each other, planning on how to avoid seeing each other, warning of the approach of each other and rummaging through each other’s and their fathers things when the opportunity arises, seeking knowledge to gain some advantage.

One wonders about the parental bank account, another about the option of an enduring power of attorney and suddenly guardianship becomes a meaningful term. There are allegations of parental abuse, of favouritism, of money going astray and the resurgence of past, unresolved hurts, of longtime simmering wounds.

There are medical conversations that have to be had, conversations that only some family will understand.  Suddenly everyone’s trying to become conversant with the technical aspects of medical specialties that take years to master. We all want to be knowing and knowledgeable about drugs, body systems, body physiology and the effects and interactions of complex chemicals, both natural and artificial. We live in an age of access to and understanding information outside of our own realms, but this is normal.

Suddenly one sibling is putting in plans to council for an extension on their house to accomodate their aged and now dependent parent, something the other siblings strongly disagree with. There are disagreements and fights about where dad will go after hospital. As he can barely breathe and stand at the same time, it does seem as though he’ll need some support services after he leaves hospital but one sibling has refused, wanting to do all this himself with his wife, an unlikely and improbable situation according to my coworker.

While the actors in all these dramas are different the circumstances, pressures and outcomes are not dissimilar to other families. Flying allegations, differences of opinion, threats to the way things have been, fear of the unknown and the ultimate unknowable all point to the fear that we all hold about death, and the demise of a parent moves us all a bit closer to the edge of the perch, and with the generation before us no longer taking up space on the perch, is it any wonder that families come to loggerheads at times of intense fear, change and stress?

The telling of my coworkers tale of woe takes some time and strongly resonates  with others’ familial tales as people drift in and bear witness to the new, current, updated version of familial illness, suffering and power struggles but we all stay to hear, to share, to offer sympathy and advice wondering at the back of our minds how we too will fare when we face this crossroad, and what form our own stories will take.


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