I am seeking advice on how to get over a terrible mistake I made. I did not care for my aged father. I am the oldest of three brothers. One of my brothers took his own life, and my other brother did not want anything to do with the family. My father was entirely dependent on me. I tried my best to care, but something snapped in me and 8 months later, I sent him back to India and never wanted to see him again.
I visited him. He was lonely, but my heart did not respond the way it should. Six months after my last visit and 3 weeks before I was going to visit him again, he passed away. Since then I have been plagued by enormous guilt and regret. He was a good father, except everything had to be his way. But I know I was a cruel and horrible son, and I have to accept that I am the way I am. May I know if there is a way to move on?
I am in therapy, but I am not sure how much it is helping me. I find your columns very practical, so I am reaching out to you. Thank you.
We are not the sum of our thoughts. We are the sum of our actions. The fact is you did see him again, and you never stopped thinking about him, and you never really let go. Your father knew that you were in his life until the end. It may even be that your father found a kind of peace to die in the land where he was born. Sometimes, things happen the way they are supposed to happen.
You should understand what you went through. Care givers shoulder an enormous burden, and that takes a toll on their physical, financial and mental health. You did what you were able to do for 8 months, and I have no doubt that your father appreciated it, and knows that you did the best you could at the time. You stuck around. You remained in your father’s life for his entire life.
There is much research on the physical, financial and emotional strain of care giving. This research in the American Journal of Nursing concludes: “Care giving has all the features of a chronic stress experience: It creates physical and psychological strain over extended periods of time, is accompanied by high levels of unpredictability and uncontrollability.”
I’m quoting that academic research not to objectify your experience, but to help you gain some much-needed perspective on it. You are one of millions of people who chose to care for a dying or ailing relative or friend, and they rarely — if ever — have perfect results. Millions more never try, and immediately seek out home help or a nursing home, and that is their journey.
‘If you want to respect the memory of your father, celebrate the time you gave each other during his lifetime.’
Over 43 million Americans have become a care giver to a friend or relative 50 and older, including handling their medical or financial needs, according to the AARP. They receive little training and have precious little concept of the enormous scale and pressures of the job. Many, many people have broken under these conditions before you, and many more will do so.
If I were your therapist — and I’m obviously not — I would ask you what you are getting out of this torture that you are hell bent on putting yourself through? Or what you hope to get out of it? Re-experiencing pain does not change the past. You are wallowing in your own regret and recrimination. That does not serve your father’s memory, and it does not serve the son he raised.
There may appear to be a kind of penance in hating yourself or drowning in guilt, but if you truly want to respect the memory of your father, celebrate the time you gave each other during his lifetime. He worked hard for his family, and no doubt wanted them to have a better life in America. He did not do all of that for this. Nor would he want to be the cause of your unhappiness now.
You will not meet one person on this earth who has not done something or said something for which they are sorry, or someone who wishes they could have done more. Wallowing in guilt and shame may seem like the best way to keep yourself accountable. It’s not. Beating yourself up is not a humble act. By doing this to yourself 24/7, you are the one in the spotlight.
Write a letter to your father, read it in a quiet place that was special to you both, then burn it, and offer it up to his memory. Thank him for being the father he was, and know that he would be proud of the man that you have become. You do not have to suffer to prove your love. He worked hard during his life so you could be happy. He would not want this.
As a first-generation immigrant in the U.S., I know that people don’t leave us just because they are thousands of miles away. You take them with you wherever you go. People you love and who love you, despite their and our faults, are always by our side. The are right next to us if we choose to see them. We may be far away from family and friends, but we never have to be alone.
Similarly, people we care about may die, but they never really go away. The feeling, the memories and the love they leave behind stay with us. Your father sounded like a strong-willed man. No doubt, that could cut both ways. Why not harness some of his fearsome will, and pay homage to him by living your best, most productive and happiest life. After all, isn’t that what it was all for?
Keep that spirit alive, and make him proud.
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Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch’s Moneyist columnist. You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at [email protected]. By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch.