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The Desire For Help – The Need To Be Independent

(Names changed)


 


         A well spouse must be independent. There is often no partner to call on for help, physical or mental, and so s/he is left to make all the decisions, carry all the heavy things, make all plans and preparations on her own. As the chronically ill partner is the one getting all the attention, people rarely notice as the well spouse schleps what needs schlepping and does what needs doing.

 

         With the passing of one’s sick spouse, the desire for normalcy becomes paramount. Strangely enough, for many well spouses (now that they are single) the need to be cared for is even greater than when they were caring for their partners. And so even when the help is available, but not forthcoming, anger and resentment takes over.

 

         Malki was a former well spouse. Since her husband’s death, life had become simpler. She was able to meet most of her own needs easily. Though missing Mendel, she was content with the newly-found peace living alone brought.

 

         There was one change in her life that made her angry. She noticed, that when her husband was alive, her son was available to help out when she needed things done. He and his family lived close enough to help. He would set up their sukkah, move heavy things for her, bring in groceries if he was around, etc. Now that she was a widow, her son Steve always promised to help, but rarely showed up.

 

         Malki began to become more and more frustrated with her son. Especially now, that she needed to dispose of Mendel’s things. She’d call Steve and say she needed help moving heavy boxes. He would either put her off, saying he’d do it another day or next week, and then seemed to forget about it. If she reminded him, he’d say she was nagging. If she waited for him to show up when he said he’d come, he’d claim he forgot about it.

 

          And so, stress began to develop between Malki and her son. She became resentful every time she had to walk around the boxes of Mendel’s belongings. She was angry that her son was not letting her move on, or so it seemed to her. Their relationship began to deteriorate – Malki, desperately needing her son’s help and Steve refusing to give it, despite saying he would.

 

         We are all psychological beings. It is not easy for us to always understand our own behavior, much less someone else’s. Malki has a need to move on, and she has every right to do so. Steve, for whatever his reasons, either has difficulty with his mother’s desire to move on, has other things on his mind or may just have become too busy or is just lazy. Malki may not be able to understand why her son no longer helps her, but she should not to allow this to be the catalyst for friction between them.

 

         Malki must become independent and no longer rely on Steve’s help. She cannot force him to do what he chooses not to do. Belaboring the issue is only causing problems. Malki has to decide which is more important: getting Steve to help or getting her boxes moved. If Malki chooses the latter, she needs to hire someone to do the schelpping for her. She needs to get the task done and let go of her anger and desire for her son to help her. She needs to become independent.

 

         This is not as easy as it sounds. After years of being a well spouse and having only yourself to rely on, many well spouses cherish offers of help. It is like a drink to a person in a desert. It is a difficult feeling to explain, if you have never experienced it. I can still remember the first time in many years that my adult children (who lived in a different state) were home when my husband went – yet again – into intensive care. Just having someone to go through the crisis with, instead of dealing with it by myself, felt amazing.

 

         I had the same wonderful feeling when a stranger offered to put my husband’s wheelchair into the car for me. These two incidences don’t compare in gravity, yet the desire for help and the need to feel you can rely on someone, can be all encompassing. But for many well spouses, or former well spouses, it is not something for which you should give up your independence. It is certainly not something worth sacrificing shalom in your family for. I am not debating whether it is right or wrong to be able to rely on your children for what you need. But is it worth tension between family members? Is it worth letting yourself be held back from moving on? Only you can decide.

 

         In the end, Malki hired a neighborhood teen to help her with the boxes. He was thrilled to earn the few dollars it cost her for the hour it took to move the boxes to her car and then to a donation center. Now, she could finally move on. Meanwhile, when her son saw the teen working for his mother he became embarrassed, apologized to his mother for his negligence and offered to pay the teen for helping. It is once again peaceful in that household.

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More Articles from Ann Novick

When one is blind one learns to use Braille to read. When one cannot walk, a wheelchair gives mobility. Sign language allows a mute person to speak and ocular implants assist in hearing when one is deaf. These are all compensatory strategies that help a person function despite his disability. But compensatory strategies are not just for physical problems. Understanding our psychological weaknesses and setting up our lives to ensure that we are not tempted to repeat our past mistakes, is as necessary as any aid to the disabled.

Well spouses have often discovered that their friends and relatives, despite their closeness to the situation, often don’t realize the tremendous emotional impact living with chronic illness has on the family. With the best intentions, suggestions, ideas and criticism are offered, based on the non-experience of those with healthy families. Even when the good intentioned get a taste of the difficulties, it is sometimes not enough for them to then identify and understand what the family of the chronically ill must face on a constant basis.

Over the past two weeks I have shared letters from a therapist and a well spouse. Both of the letters gave personal insights into the process of losing hope, how we react when that happens and some ways of coping when test scores, diagnosis and just simple repetitive behavior indicate that change for the better is impossible.

Dear Ann,

I’ve read your last few articles on psycho-neurological testing (Oct.8-22) with interest. As a therapist who has counseled couples dealing with chronic illness, I’d like to give you another perspective.

Dear Ann,

Your articles on the Neuro-Psychological Testing were right on (October 8-22). My husband underwent testing twice and your articles explained it things exactly the way they were. Besides the test, we also tried therapy.

Very often when we can’t face our big hurts or big loses we focus on the little ones. We can discuss those. We can cry over the small loses, be angry at the smaller hurts even though it may look trite and sound ridiculous to others.

Over the last two weeks we have been discussing one way in which well spouses can determine whether behavior displayed by their ill partners is caused by their illness or is a way they have chosen to act. We have focused on Psycho-Neurological testing, what it can tell us, as well as its pros and cons.

Last week I discussed a question that haunts many well spouses: not knowing if the difficult and often inappropriate behavior frequently displayed by their partners are caused by the disease and therefore not-controllable, or if the behavior is a choice the spouse makes and can therefore be changed. This doubt can be the source of much frustration and many marital disagreements. One way of alleviating this doubt is by having a psycho- neurological work up done. But that path is not so simple.

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