Sibling Relationships as our Parents Fade

We all know that death is a part of life, but as a middle boomer, I have been learning first hand about a few of the many emotional issues our parents demise can bring up among siblings. I believe a few of my personal struggles may reflect what other boomers are experiencing.

No, I am not talking about who gets what here, although that can certainly create major animosity between brothers and sisters as our parents pass away. What I am talking about here is experiencing the death of relationships with our siblings as our parents fade, and how these stressors may bring up previous traumas from our past.

Suddenly, after 40 or 50 years of growing apart, siblings may be forced to come together to decide quality of life and death issues for our parents. Differences between siblings can be countless after decades of living separate lives. Brothers and sisters may remain worlds apart. For example, my brother and sister could not possibly be more different.

Here are a few major sibling differences:

Very different health statuses and therefore view of quality of life issues

Differences in standards of living (homeless versus very well-off) & financial need

Differences in ethics and personal style

Very different personal relationships with our parents

Differences in the way we treat each other in difficult emotional times

When we add in parents who may be experiencing varying degrees of decreased mental capacity or dementia, we find an emotionally charged situation which often brings up old differences and new personality conflicts as family dynamics finally get settled. Because family members may be the ones whom we have relied on for emotional support in the past, they can be primary sources of relationship stress. It may take some time and work to understand all the stressors involved if siblings should choose to work through this process as our parents’ health fails. Otherwise this may be the best time to resolve decades of anger and frustration by finally ending a toxic relationship with your sister or brother.

Postscript: I just saw a film that dealt with this issue well, “June Again” a new Australian film.

One boomer’s ridiculous dilemma: Beginning to spend all of that saved up delayed reinforcement!

As many of you know, my health has been failing for the past few years, and with one additional serious concussion in April, it appears clear, at least to me, that it’s time. Time for what? Time to begin spending all of that “delayed reinforcement” from the past 45 years of my life.

If you’re anything like me, you have been saving money for as long as you can remember. Why? I guess because I was completely brainwashed in the cradle to save up for my old age. So, exactly when does that “old age” begin? Strange to say, I don’t find myself as the best judge of very much lately, not with this many brain injuries! But I am fairly clear I not going to be living forever and also not sure how long my brain is going to last. One fun fact I learned recently:

Head injuries accelerate aging: “The current state of the literature provides support for the argument that TBI can result in diminished cognitive reserve which may accelerate the normal process of cognitive decline, leading to premature aging, potentially increasing the risk of dementia.”

That explains a lot! The irony in all of this is not lost on me (yet!) I have always prided myself on my excellent brain. Now what? Is it really time to begin spending my wad? I find that hard to believe and even harder to do…

When you have spent your whole life trying to save money, how do you suddenly cut loose? It’s kind of the opposite of the poor guy winning the lottery. Of course he’s going to overspend immediately, but everything in my background suggests that holding on to money is your best avenue to happiness. I know that if I don’t get some big trips planned I probably won’t be taking them. How do I loosen the purse strings? How do I give myself a luxury vacation?

I know, most of the human beings on this planet would like to have such problems, but there it is…

Is our life better than previous generations?

I suppose the thought that stays with me after reading about my ancestors’ journey through life, is how difficult their lives were compared to ours, and yet so many of us struggle with our own challenges today. What has changed between previous generations and ourselves?

‘… and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Leviathan, i. xiii. 9) — Thomas Hobbes, 1651

I am certain that our lives today are so much easier in so many ways compared to my great grandmother and grandmother. In fact, let’s face it, most of us are living much better than most in human history.

I feel so lucky to be alive today! How do we appreciate these differences without undervaluing our own daily challenges?

Mom and I at my wedding in 2005

For example, I know there were members of my mother’s family who suffered from mental illness and dementia in their later years. So much was not known about these illnesses fifty or one hundred years ago, and with misunderstanding came criticism, stigma and heavy judgment. My Mom’s first cousin was sent to the Kansas Mental Hospital where he killed himself by consuming pesticide!

Dementia sent my Great Grandfather McGrew to the Kansas mental hospital at the end of his life…

Today there is counseling and many new drugs to ease our physical and mental pain. There are people like Stephen Levine to help us accept ourselves more fully instead of torturing ourselves with harsh self-judgment. I know I would not be half as healthy and happy as I am today, if I had not had some excellent counseling in my thirties. Since I suffer from a shortness of breath, I wonder what happened to others back then with lung disease. And what about head injuries?

Do you see how lucky we are to have a better education, better science education and many more options because we were born in this age? Have you seen that new TV commercial that says:

Do you know anyone with polio or smallpox? Vaccines work.

It is so hard to watch so many suffer because they refuse to believe that we HAVE MADE PROGRESS! Our lives can be better through education, science and yes, even chemistry. That some refuse to use these tools to better their lives is a travesty and a human tragedy of personal choice…

Why am I here now? Family History!

Somehow, all of the happenings in my family right now are stirring up many questions for me about my family background. The death of my father in 2020, the dementia of my Mom now and the birth of the first member of the next generation of our family has me wondering how all of this came about.

Why am I here? What and who participated in the creation of our family and why?

Top: Photo of my parents’ wedding in 1951 in Kansas City, Kansas

Luckily, my Mom spent a few years searching for the answers to these exact questions back in the early 2000s and produced a detailed family history called: Generations: Our Grandmothers for all of us to learn from. So this week I decided to sit down and read it cover to cover. It also included many family photos I had never seen before. What a gold mine of genetics and social history from a family whose roots go back to farming in eastern Kansas in the 1800s and railroad development in the Kansas City Kansas area.

Top: Great-Grandma McGrew on her wedding day in 1907

What struck me first was how large families were back then, and how “romances” developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the case of all of my great grandparents, they met because so many lived in boarding houses where family members mixed. In the case of my Great-Grandma McGrew, she was sent to live with a different farm family to help out, because her own family had too many mouths to feed. She ended up marrying the only son in her adopted family. The McGrews greatly valued education, so even though the closest high school was ten miles away, they made certain that their only daughter, my grandmother, finished high school. She taught elementary school for two years and then ventured out to the big city to expand her horizons in business school. She then secured a job as a secretary in Kansas City where she soon met my grandfather.

My Mom describes our Carter background this way: “If there is a unifying “track” to the story of the Carter family, it would be the Santa Fe Railroad and its development over time as the history of railroads was unfolding in the West.” My Grandpa Carter, his father, and most of his brothers worked on the railroad their whole life, but Grandpa was determined that his two sons would not. He also believed strongly in education as the primary path to a better life, and my Dad and uncle’s lives certainly proved that point. My dad and Uncle Bob were the first Carters to not only finish high school, but also finish college and graduate school. My dad swore by the advantages of a good education and it worked out great for him and his kids.

Developing your mind and allowing it to go wherever it wishes, opens up so many doors and windows on life! It also allows for so much freedom in determining where we go next. I cannot even imagine how different I would have been without my love of learning…

Can we let go of a lifetime of pain & suffering?

I’m now witnessing first hand a concept from psychology that I have always believed and yet still wondered about. I am observing in those near death what seems to be an endless outflowing of anger and bitterness at the end of life. Both of my parents were what I would call uptight people. My Dad was definitely an angry controlling person and both of my parents could be called obsessive about getting everything ‘right’ and keeping up appearances for others. Everything had to appear ‘proper.’

Instead I observed that my Mom took mountains of criticism from my Dad throughout their nearly 70 year marriage. She rarely got angry or even replied to this barrage of constant critique. She would drink quite a bit of wine, complain to us, and then simmer in bitterness and rage, while she continued to devote her entire life to helping him reach his goals. The tension in our home was palpable. As you might guess, his kids were collateral damage, each absorbing their share of criticism, anger and love that was always quite conditional.

“Letting go of our suffering is the hardest work we will ever do.” — Stephen Levine

Where does all of that bitterness and anger go in the long-term? Can we resolve these tension in some way before we die? I am wondering about this for my Mom, who is extremely depressed and confused at age 88, after the death of my father last year.

At this point I will yield the floor to Stephen Levine, an American poet, author and teacher, well-known for his work with the terminally ill and/or those deeply affected by loss. Stephen chose to work with this population because they were most ready and even sometimes eager to confront their own deepest misery and, by doing so, heal life-long burdens of self-disgust and punishment. Stephen found that by first acknowledging our deepest levels of pain and suffering and then confronting it with love and compassion for Self and others, most found a way to finally let it go. What a marvelous burden to release before death. In a few cases, Stephen found that this gigantic release of emotional pain was so healing that his patients found remission from their cancer or other life-threatening illnesses.

He felt that our minds fight with our hearts, fear versus love, but by accepting all our past pain and suffering, the sensation in our heart may be that it will burst.

To this Stephen responds: “Let your heart break. Let go of the suffering that keeps you back from life. Now your heart is so open and the pain right there. You are doing now just what you need to do, feel so much compassion for yourself and what you are going through…”

Stephen Levine died in 2016 just south of here. To learn much more about him and his work please consider reading his books. My favorite is “Healing Into Life and Death.” Here is a link to his webpage and his wife’s words at his death: https://levinetalks.com/

My experience has been that unless we commit to major emotional change in ourselves, all of the hostilities and suspicions we have held down within our psyche for our entire life, do come out in the end. Sometimes in some awful ways. For me, this type of emotional healing has taken some great re-parenting therapy through counseling and decades of learning and re-learning deeper levels of self-love and acceptance. This process continues as my parents leave behind their earthly presence.

Sometimes being with my Mom is too much for me, and I must respect my feelings about this. My Mom seems so lost in the contradictions of her life. Feelings of love, anger, pain and dementia confuse and overwhelm her such that she can see no way out. I just wish she could have come to some resolution and healing with Stephen by her side.

My experience with post-concussion syndrome

In case a few of you are concerned about my condition since my last concussion in April, I was finally able to see a great neurologist this past week in Denver. Why Denver? Because no one down here would even see me! One in Pueblo refused and would not say why, plus they took a month to say so! Health care? What health care?

So five months later a great MD at Blue Sky Neurology in Denver did a thorough assessment of my condition and concluded I was in very good shape considering my history of a serious traumatic brain injury (2008) and a number of concussions since. He said something I already know too well, head injuries often lead to more head injuries, especially if you take into account my difficulties maintaining my oxygen levels.

It’s official. I now have Post-Concussion Syndrome.

Here’s a summary of what that is according to the Mayo Clinic:

Persistent post-concussive symptoms, also called post-concussion syndrome, occurs when concussion symptoms last beyond the expected recovery period after the initial injury. The usual recovery period is weeks to months. These symptoms may include headaches, dizziness, and problems with concentration and memory.

Concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that usually happens after a blow to the head. It can also occur with violent shaking and movement of the head or body. You don’t have to lose consciousness to get a concussion or experience persistent post-concussive symptoms. In fact, the risk of developing persistent post-concussive symptoms doesn’t appear to be associated with the severity of the initial injury.

In most people, symptoms occur within the first seven to 10 days and go away within three months. Sometimes, they can persist for a year or more.

The goal of treatment after concussion is to effectively manage your symptoms.

Persistent post-concussive symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of concentration and memory
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Blurry vision
  • Noise and light sensitivity
  • Rarely, decreases in taste and smell

Luckily I only have about half of these. Mostly it just feels like I’m slightly drunk a lot of the time with occasional falling down-type whirlies. Ironic though, I almost never drank alcohol before this and I never do now. I found it interesting to know that I also have whiplash in my neck from falling down so violently. It seems some physical therapy is in order. Unfortunately, I now find myself unable to keep quiet when I’m angry. No filter here 🙂 so I sometimes must apologize later for losing my temper. I’ve always been a pretty direct and honest person, now that’s a bit out of control… oops!

But I am surviving nicely with no more plans to fall on my head… Hope you are all doing better than me!