QUESTION: My husband and I are very proud of our two sons and their families. They are extremely successful financially and are active in their spiritual communities. The glitch is this: They have everything, and our five grandchildren want for nothing, so this year in addition to hosting Christmas Eve dinner for our family, my husband and I chose to not buy presents and instead donate money to a local mission and help serve Christmas dinner at the mission on Christmas Day.
Our decision practically started World War III. We had an incredible time at the mission and came away with our hearts filled with gratitude for what we have, and we’d like to do the same thing next year. At the same time, we love our sons, their wives and our grandchildren. We had not the slightest idea they would react as they did.
What can we do to avoid a family rift regarding this situation?
~ Baffled Couple
Dear Baffled Couple,
The acts of kindness that you have chosen are greatly appreciated by those who receive them. People generally react with appreciation when someone gives a gift that they feel came from the heart. You both know how good it made you feel to recognize and respond to the needs of those who have less than you.
How unfortunate that this wonderful act of kindness did not sit well with your family. The reaction of your family on one hand makes you think how could they respond in such a way. On the other hand, it makes sense that they responded in this way. It all depends through what lens you look at the circumstances. The good thing is now you know how your family feels about giving to each other. It is very important to them – so important that it was worth fighting to keep.
There could be many different reasons – some may be different for each of them – that caused their reactions. It may be too cumbersome and unproductive to pursue these reasons. What you can do to better manage this situation next year is get together with the influential voices in the family and devise a solution that will allow everyone to at least understand and lovingly allow for what you two want to do next Christmas. I am hopeful that heartfelt and kind conversation will be your answer.
By the way, my family grew over several years with ideas of how we would celebrate Christmas. We now pick names for each person to give one gift to an adult in the family and each adult to get one gift for a child. This year our family fed people at a mission on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day helped give a party at a battered women’s shelter. Heartfelt kind conversation, a desire to help others and understanding the importance of the meaning of Christmas to each of us over several years was the journey my family needed to take to celebrate Christmas the way we did this year.
Bless both of you and your family.
Dear Baffled Couple,
It sounds as through you had the best of intentions and gained a great deal of satisfaction from your support of others who are less fortunate. The difficulty in your plan appears to be your failure to involve your family in your decision. I certainly cannot guarantee that the results would have been different if that had been done, but it would at least have given them the opportunity to join with you in your benevolent project instead of receiving the news without their input. If they had been able to go with you to the mission to serve food they might have seen first hand the positive impact of your gift in their honor. And it could have been a way to draw your family together rather than causing a rift.
As a grandmother myself, I value the opportunity to give gifts to my grandchildren, even though they also have virtually everything they need. I try to find some special thing to recognize our relationship. And it doesn’t have to be something tangible. Maybe it is some time together or taking them to a place they would enjoy. Most adults may understand the value of giving to others, but children need to learn that virtue, not have it decided for them. So I would probably have given your children and grandchildren something small in addition to the opportunity to participate in your gift to the mission – at least in this first year.
All that being said, I hope that you will apologize for catching them by surprise and include them in your plans for next Christmas. I send my blessings to you for your generous hearts and wish you all the best in the coming year of deepening spiritual dialogue with your family.
Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Foothills
QUESTION: Many of my baby boomer generation are finding ourselves in less than desirable situations, facing decisions with our now elderly parents. My question is quite simply: What happened to God’s “exit plan?”
For most of us, our entrance into this world is a blessed event. We basically all arrive in uniform fashion after nine months of gestation in a protected environment, landing into loving arms – the whole “miracle of birth” thing. How come the end of life is so random? So many seniors feel abandoned, or lose their minds while being warehoused in facilities (if their family has enough money to put them in one), suffering with painful infirmities and illnesses – the whole unpleasant messiness of aging. Assisted suicide continues to be a hot topic. It just seems creation is so orderly; predictable. Why is there no plan to cease gracefully? With dignity, in peace? Why is there no “miracle of death?”
Seems like God dropped the ball on this one. Your thoughts?
~ Concerned Daughter
Dear Concerned Daughter,
We in the 21st century have made so many advances in medicine and all these advances mean that many of us are living longer. But as with so many “blessings,” there are also “curses,” if you want to look at existence that way. My own parents died relatively young, my mother at 69 due to breast cancer and my father three years later at 72, probably due to a heart attack. While such relatively “quick” deaths are of course a shock to the survivors, my brothers and I didn’t have the task of putting our parents in a “God’s waiting room” as I have heard places that look after the elderly called.
I am sorry for your problem, your angst – and as a minister, I really have no satisfactory answer. My own feeling is that life is like a big bell curve: we start out weak and needy, we grow to full strength and enjoy life, and then we begin to get weak and needy again.
You are not the first person to ask the question or to wonder about this mystery of life. The ancient Greeks had a riddle, and the riddle’s name escapes me, but the question is: What starts out on four legs at the beginning, becomes two-legged in the middle, and becomes three-legged at the end? The answer, of course, is man or mankind. We crawl on all fours as babies, we learn to walk and stand on our own two feet, and as we age we need a cane or a walking stick, the proverbial “third leg” of the riddle. Sorry that I have no satisfactory answer.
If I were you (since you mentioned God), I’d pray a lot and I’d ask for God to give me patience as I try to take care of the ones who once took care of me. And I would also thank God for the extra time I’m getting with those who first loved me. I realize that Alzheimer’s and dementia take away what was unique about your parents, and it has to be hard to see life “killing them softly,” to paraphrase an old song. But also try to remember that you aren’t the center of the universe; God is.
My sermon title last week, I swear, was, “Life is Tough.” It’s not all hearts and flowers, and you are now finding that out personally. Good luck, do pray about your concerns, and try to be grateful to God for this extra time you are getting with those who first loved you. Oh, another song just came to mind: “I never promised you a rose garden.”
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
Dear Concerned Daughter,
Death is one of the most challenging aspects of life. In regard to God’s exit plan, wouldn’t it be nice if we could just push a button one day and have it over in an instant? Yes, since we all have to cross over, why not have it instant and easy?
It must be noted here that birth is not as “uniform” as you have suggested and “creation,” is not so “orderly.” (I know you already know this deep in your heart.)
There is the pain of labor, there are risks, and there are accidents that can affect the child all his/her life. It is not so cut and dried. Don’t take my word for it; visit a neonatal ward.
Then there is raising the resulting child, which is anything but easy and ordered. Each child is unique and requires its own individual path in life. Even if you try to treat each child the same, the children themselves are not the same and therefore will or will not take in what has been offered in different ways.
The same actions will have different results with different human beings.
Doing right by a child is labor intensive.
And so is life. And so is death. The point of living is not to be orderly or to fit perfectly in a box. Fortunately, there is hospice to help with all the issues that are troubling you. Every issue that you see as part of the “mess” can be addressed. Pain management, spiritual needs, hygiene and appropriate food needs can be assessed and met by the professionals in the hospice business. There are procedures to meet these needs and make your burden as daughter less daunting. Please seek out a hospice that can service your needs. They are equipped to go to the elder where he/she lives.
Of course there are the other issues of watching your parent decline and lose the qualities you have come to know and count on over your lifetime. These spill into the mess of managing your own psycho-spiritual issues – not an easy task.
This is only one more example of life’s persistent demands that do not fit into the box one might expect or wish them to. Although it might be great if we all came into the world with an owner’s manual that showed us just how to operate at the most optimal of levels, that is not our truth as human beings.
Now is the time for you to have compassion for your self in this demanding situation and for your aging parent who is undergoing end of life changes. If you can, try praying for the strength to bring yourself through the time at hand. Also find comfort in a grief support group where you can talk with those in similar situations.
Work at staying present so that you can take in the good around you. Notice morning sunshine, colorful flowers, the faces filled with human kindness around you. Make each moment as good and as rich as it can be. Get in touch with all you can be grateful for.