By Ann O’Malley
8 am. My phone rings. It’s Mom. Uh-oh. She doesn’t usually call this early in the day. Is it good news or bad? Bad. Very bad. She’s having a total meltdown.
Up until now, I can only remember witnessing my mom crying twice in my life.
Once, when she saw me off at the airport as I left for college. Just a tear or two trickling down her cheek. But it was such a shockingly new experience that I went from wildly excited about my coming adventure to painfully homesick for the entire flight.
Once, when a newspaper article erroneously reported that her boss, the best one she had ever worked for, had been killed in a car accident. The victim turned out to be the boss’s son, who had the same name as his father. Even before Mom learned the truth, though, her tears were gone.
I know she cried when Dad died, but I don’t remember actually witnessing it. I wasn’t with her 24/7, and I was too distracted by my own grief at his funeral to notice Mom’s reaction.
Now she’s on the phone with me, sobbing uncontrollably. Weeping and wailing. Barely able to talk.
The problem? She broke her wrist about a month ago. First, it was put in a cast; now it’s in a splint. She thought she’d be seeing the doctor today, and that he’d remove the splint, but it turns out that her appointment is for next week instead. She has to wait a whole seven extra days to free her wrist. Therefore, she’s falling apart. Totally out of control.
This is not my mom.
This is not the mom I grew up with. The amiable woman who often laughed but never cried. The one who was born during the Great Depression, whose family barely had enough to eat, with their meager income and multiple mouths to feed. The one whose wardrobe consisted of hand-me-downs from her sisters and clothes donated to her church by the wealthy and redistributed to the needy. Who headed to school knowing that one of her classmates had discarded the dress that Mom was now wearing. The survivor. The overcomer.
This is not the woman whose husband couldn’t handle money and bounced from job to job. She loved my dad (and so did I), and he treated her well in many ways. They were clearly happy together. But he also made life harder for her than it should have been. Dad expected Mom to support the family financially, do all the cooking and cleaning, and make all the childcare arrangements. The mom I grew up with was strong, resilient, and happy.
Now she’s falling apart over having to wait seven more days to get the splint off her wrist. She says her life is over. She can’t go on. She thinks she’ll just stay in bed and mope for a week. Why? Her mind has been hijacked by dementia.
Part of the problem is her warped sense of time. She thinks it’s been four months since she fractured her wrist. It’s more like four weeks. With her broken brain, of course, an extra seven days in a splint feels like too much to bear.
What do I do? What do I say? How do I mother this child-like Mom?
Weep with those who weep. ~ Romans 12:15 (NLT) My eyes fill with tears.
But am I weeping for her or for myself? I’ve always idealized this verse. It seems to be telling me that, in Christ, I can identify so completely with another person’s suffering that I will cry unselfish tears over their sorrows. But I wonder now if I’m truly sharing her pain or if I’m mainly hurting because of my own loss, the loss of the mom I used to know.
I tell her how sorry I am for her disappointment. I encourage her to have a good cry. I don’t try to fix her; I don’t try to pump her up. If I was in her shoes, I’d want that kind of empathy. I wouldn’t want to sit with Job’s friends.
She continues to sob in despair as I listen and sympathize. I continue to grieve over the heartbreak of watching a formerly strong and cheerful loved one struggle with the ravages of dementia.
But after ten minutes or so I wonder: Is it enough to weep with her? She seems to want more. S he seems to need some kind of hope for the future. I’m pretty sure that once she’s cried herself out, her mood will naturally turn around, but can I leave her in her depressed state at this moment? We need to weep with those who weep, but do our tears alone provide the best answer?
I refuse to scold her for her unrealistic view of life. I refuse to treat her like a two-year-old having a tantrum. If I was really parenting my parent, the best response to unruly behavior might be a stern rebuke. Somehow, that just doesn’t fit here.
As Mom’s tears slow to a halt and she pauses in anticipation of a helpful response, I’m frantically searching my brain for the next step beyond listening and sympathizing. Eventually, fresh words pop into my head.
I remind her how strong she is. Not how strong she used to be, but how she’s continued to get through the toughest days in spite of all the trauma she’s experienced in the last year. No unrealistic expectations to go back to the way she was, but the recognition that her life isn’t over just yet.
I’m not sure she believes me. I have to repeat the reminder a few times. But when we hang up she seems to be doing just a little bit better.
3 pm. I call Mom back to see how she’s feeling. Complete turnaround. She’s cheerful, upbeat, capable of carrying on a reasonable conversation. More like her old self.
What happened????? She was just told that she’ll be discharged from the Skilled Nursing Facility in a few days. Hope for her. Relief for me.
How often do I go to God in a total meltdown? Crying, despairing, threatening to just stay in bed for a week. Tantrumming. All because life isn’t going the way I thought it would.
Part of the problem is that I can’t always see my life through God’s eyes. With my limited vision, of course, pain and grief and disappointment feel like more than I can possibly bear.
How does God respond?
He weeps with me.
Jesus embodies the idealism of Romans 12:15. Because of His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, He truly, completely, lovingly bears my grief and carries my sorrows. (Isaiah 53:4 RSV)
He understands the pain of my disappointment. He lets me have a good cry. Through many examples in the book of Psalms, He lets me know that I can honestly express all my feelings to His face.
He doesn’t immediately jump in with attempts to fix me or pump me up. He doesn’t speak to me as Job’s friends spoke to Job.
My God listens and sympathizes while grieving over the heartbreak of watching His child struggle with the challenges of spiritual dementia (forgetting His provision in the past, letting my mind be hijacked by worry and fear). But He doesn’t leave me there.
He doesn’t scold me for my unrealistic view of life or treat me like a two-year-old having a tantrum. He knows when a stern rebuke just doesn’t fit.
And then, when I’m ready, when the timing is right, my Lord reminds me of the strength that He provides for me. Not how strong I should be after so many years of walking with Him, but the many ways He’s seen me through day by day and year by year. No unrealistic expectations for me. Instead, helping me to recognize that His divine power has given me everything I need for life and godliness. (2 Peter 1:3 NIV)
My mom is in a state of decline. I cannot honestly encourage her to hope for much improvement in her physical and mental health. But God genuinely assures me that I can continue to grow nearer to Him and that one day I will be in Paradise.
I don’t always believe Him right away. Sometimes He has to repeat the reminders a few times. But eventually, I come back around to experiencing His joy.
This pattern of listening, understanding, sympathizing, encouraging, and gently reminding is what I find in many of the Psalms. The ones where the writer starts out having a meltdown and ends up praising God. Thank You, Lord, for the model those poems provide as I attempt to minister to this precious woman who is, but is not, my mom.
About the author:
Ann O’Malley is the pseudonym of a new author seeking a publisher for her memoir of suicidal depression. Her pen name comes from “anomaly,” that feeling of being different, of not really belonging, which plagues so many of those who suffer from depression. For more of her writing, check out her blog, “Those Who Weep: Not-Quite-Evangelically-