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When help isn’t helpful

Our Faith

Despite our best intentions, sometimes we fail at aiding our aging parents. Joyce Rupp says empathy is a good place to start.

Servant of Mary Sister Joyce Rupp has come a long way since she started work as a spiritual director in the mid-1970s. “I remember the first time I worked with someone,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to ruin somebody’s soul because I’ll say something wrong.’ ”

Today, Rupp leads spiritual retreats and conferences all over the world. She is also the author of more than 20 books, including, most recently, a memoir, Fly While You Still Have Wings: And Other Lessons My Resilient Mother Taught Me (Ave Maria Press). She writes about accompanying her mother through her final years, along with Rupp’s own struggle to be present to her mother in a meaningful way.

“I wrote Fly While You Still Have Wings to help young people understand older people and to help older people accept that what they’re going through is part of life,” Rupp says. “The more I thought about my mother’s life, the more inspired I was by the universal quality of what she went through and our relationship.”


While she is glad that other people can benefit from her story, Rupp also says it was the hardest book she ever wrote. “It took me 10 years to write it,” she says. “I just didn’t want to go there. What I learned is what I have taught for years: You can’t be healed unless you go through the grief, unless you really deal with it.”

How do we start to process the grief of losing a parent?

We always say there’s a big distance between the head and the heart. Mom and I had a lot of talks about dying and how she was ready for death. But the day that she said to me, “I went to Greenwood Funeral Home and I picked out my casket. I have the prayer card, and I paid all the bills,” I thought, “I don’t want to hear about that. It’s too close.”

Then, just a couple months before she died, she tried to tell me that she felt her death was getting closer. I couldn’t hear it. I didn’t want to lose her. I remember the last time I drove away from the house. I thought, “I’m OK with Mom dying. We’ve had a wonderful relationship.” Then, about a month later, she died, and I was devastated.

I thought, “I didn’t want her to die. I didn’t want her to be gone.” No matter how much we know intellectually, the heart still has to have its time. We can’t get out of it. When Mom died, I wanted to leap from her death straight to resurrection.

Why is it so hard to have conversations with our parents about death or other difficult topics?

I think it’s because they’re always our mom or our dad. Somehow or other, it was much easier to talk about the hard stuff with somebody I didn’t know well. It’s almost like you’re too close.

Even though we had all those conversations, unconsciously I didn’t want Mom to tell me what it feels like to get ready to die. I just didn’t want her to die, even though intellectually I thought, “Sure. She’s getting ready. I’m OK with it.”

I never talked to my mother and said, “Well, who’s God to you?” I could say that to somebody else in a minute. But I felt like I was invading her privacy. It has to do with the roles you play as parents and children. I guess unconsciously I’d feel like it would hurt too much to know, that I couldn’t do anything about it. Maybe that was it.

As children, we don’t want to hear things from our parents like: “I’m so frustrated. I feel so helpless. I don’t like this at all.” Our parents are supposed to be the strong people for us.

Given that these conversations about death and dying are so difficult—maybe even too difficult—how can we help our parents while still respecting them as our parents?

We need to let them be as independent as possible, but that’s so hard. If they’re somebody we love, and they’re older, it’s so easy to want to do everything for them. We presume we know what the other person needs, and we just leap in to do it.

I did that same thing with Mom. I got in there, and I went, “Let me do it.” But it makes people feel more helpless. They feel more dependent. They think things like, “I really can’t do anything for myself.”

Once, I said, “Mom, I’m going to come home. I’m going to clean your kitchen cupboards. That’ll be my birthday gift to you.” I thought she’d be really happy because my mother used to be so neat and tidy.

So I’m out there cleaning cupboards, and she’s sitting in the living room. She had swollen ankles. She had congestive heart failure. She couldn’t breathe well, and she’s feeling really miserable. She calls out to me and she says, “Do you know how that makes me feel when you’re out there cleaning my cupboards?”

I got up, went in, and sat down beside her. I never said to her, “No, how does it make you feel?” Instead, I said, “You know, Mom, you had eight kids. Look at all you did for us. The least I can do is clean your cupboards,” and on and on.

She got angry with me, and I can’t remember exactly what she said. She kept trying to get me to see what it was like for her. It wasn’t until after she died that I realized, “Oh my gosh. There she was. She just wanted me to be with her. I bet she wanted to play a game of Scrabble.” She loved Scrabble.

She didn’t give a damn about those cupboards. She felt like, “You’re doing that for me? I don’t care. I know I’m going to be dying here. Let somebody else take care of that after I die. Let’s have a little conversation here. Let me tell you, this is awful feeling so old and not being able to do anything.”

But I didn’t go there. And I think almost everybody would tell me they do the same thing. We swoop in and do anything we can to keep them from suffering. Yet, maybe they’re not suffering if they’re trying to do things for themselves. Maybe that’s actually their positive support, their self-compassion.

It seems like it’s easy to cross the line between wanting to help and being really patronizing.

People can be so condescending. They say things like, “You’re 85? You don’t look 85 at all!” Or, “Gosh! You still walk a couple miles every day?” All of those little things we say.

My aunt did that to me one time. She’s about 10 years older than I am and has macular degeneration; she can only see really blurry things. She came out of the house as I was getting out of the car and said, “Oh, you look just great.” I said, “Don’t give me that BS. You can only see the outline of my face.”

Or else we treat older people like children, even to the extent of talking in baby talk. A woman I met at a conference told this story. She got off the plane the same time the pilot happened to be getting off and he said, “Well, young lady, I hope you had a good trip.”

She said, “I wanted to say to him, ‘That is so condescending to call me a young lady.’ ” This woman is probably older than I am.

When I’m on the plane and someone says, “Can I help you with your suitcase?” at first I used to be offended. I’d go, “Well, I’m not old. I can put it up myself!” Now I say, “Thanks a lot. Yeah, go ahead.” I’ve thought to myself, “I’ve just got to start doing that. I’m getting to that place where eventually I’m going to have to have help.”

I was once staying with a family while I gave a talk somewhere. The woman brought me in the house and stopped by the bathroom. She looked at me and she said, “Are you going to take a shower in the morning?”

I thought, “That’s kind of personal!” but I just said, “Well, yeah.” She said, “Can you get your legs over the bathtub?” I wanted to smack her. But I didn’t. I just said, “Well, yes.” Then I went in.

When I was by myself, I became upset. But then I thought, “You know, the age difference between her and me is the same as it was between my mother and me.” Or at least it looked like it. And I thought of my mother as old from the time she was 50 years old. When she was 84 and died, I thought she was really old.

And I remember doing the same thing with my mom; I would tell her what she should eat and not eat and how to take her medicine. Fortunately, my mother always gave you one of those looks like, “Yeah, right” and did whatever she wanted to do anyway.

How do you think of your own aging differently after your journey with your mom?

Aging is the natural way of things. I want to get to the place where I can say, “Can I accept that I don’t have as much energy as I used to, and can I live life in a little different way?”

Our culture is simply not saying that to us. We don’t like to look old. We don’t like to act old. We don’t like to have help. We are so enculturated to think a certain way about getting older, and I don’t think we even realize it.

This winter I looked at my cross-country skis and thought, “Am I going to keep those? I haven’t used those for two years.” I used to ski alone all the time. I thought, “Now, Joyce, if you fall and break something, you’re by yourself. And this sort of thing happens easier at your age.” I have to think about all of that.

These are little “letting go’s,” but they’re real. The movement happens. But it’s really hard to think about. There’s this big transition that happens in middle life because that is when we ask ourselves questions like, “Who am I? Where do I want to go with this? What am I willing to give up in order to move to a new phase in my life?” I think doing that really did help me to be a little more accepting.

So once you ask yourself those questions, what’s next?

Our culture basically says there’s something wrong with you if you get old and you’re not a benefit to society. If you’re not producing something, you’re not worthwhile. That was my mother’s problem. She had a lot of energy, but she got to this point where she had all these health issues, and she couldn’t do as much. She called herself lazy, and she felt worthless.

My mom went through this great depression because she didn’t know who she was anymore. But when she finally accepted that her life had changed, she was happy and peaceful—just a very loving, wonderful person. She always had been that way, but I just saw that and thought, “That’s acceptance.”

Not that it’s not a struggle to get to that place. If you’re 50 and older, and you lose your job, you have a hard time getting a new job. People assume you’re not as productive as somebody who’s younger.

Compare this to the mindset in a lot of Eastern cultures: “This person has so much experience. This person has all this wisdom.” Instead, our culture’s mindset is, “You’re going downhill. We want you to just roll over and die,” so to speak.

I hope we can start to change that. Maybe part of this will happen with grandparents who are taking care of grandchildren. They have a great benefit to offer to these grandchildren; maybe we’re beginning to see that there is a wisdom in their lived experience.

You express a lot of empathy for those who are aging. How has this understanding translated to other areas of your life?

I think it’s always been there, but the seed of empathy came alive for me when I began to research and teach workshops on compassion. I’ve learned how vital it is to see the world from another’s eyes, to “walk a mile in their moccasins,” as the American Indians say. Empathy is foundational in order to live with compassion. It’s all too easy to judge another from the perspective of my standard of living and beliefs rather than slipping into their world and viewing their lives from their point of view and lived experience.

It’s easy to meet someone and right away wonder, “How old is he? What’s she wearing? What’s he going to be like?” We can’t help that our mind does that. In my own life, I try to take those thoughts and examine them, and allow that person to be who that person is. “What’s underneath that? What’s that person’s motivation? Why are they thinking, feeling, and doing things the way that they are?”

Here’s an example. One winter, part of Iowa had 72 inches of snow, and there was no place to drive on two-lane streets. I’m in my car at 6:30 in the morning on my way to a prayer group. It’s dark, and all of a sudden I see these lights coming right at me. I think, “Where can I go? There are piles of snow all around me.” Just as I’m getting really worried, the lights move over, and I see that it’s a pickup who has passed a biker.

I’m instantly upset. I said, “I hope that guy gets pulled over.” I’m thinking bad thoughts about that driver. “Couldn’t that driver be more patient?” I’m just really irritated. Then I remembered what I teach about compassion. I thought, “Oh. Maybe that driver wasn’t thinking about what he or she was doing. Maybe they’re not really awake yet. Maybe they’re merely impatient. Whatever it is, I don’t want to wish them bad things.” Then I went into the prayer of compassion. I began picturing that person being at peace, calm, and not doing that kind of thing again. Just sending that person on their way. By the time I got to the prayer group I was feeling calm and peaceful. I wasn’t feeling upset with that person anymore.

If I hadn’t done that, I would have walked in and upset the other nine people there. I would have said, “This jerk almost hit me!” They would have all had this annoyed feeling, and they would have lost their peacefulness. That’s how it happens.

Compassion is not a simple thing. How do you teach it in a nuanced way?

I’ve worked to put together a four-day workshop on teaching compassion. The first day I do a whole afternoon on how neuroscience teaches us about compassion. It is fabulous. All the studies on neuroplasticity are now saying that we can change our brain. We can change the way we think, the way we are, our attitudes, and all that.

On the second day, I do a whole day on self-compassion. This is the day that is especially meaningful for people like social workers, teachers, and ministers—anyone in a caring profession—because they’re the least self-compassionate. They’re out there doing things for other people, and they don’t do the same for themselves. Then they get burned out, they get critical and harsh, and so on.

The third day, I talk about suffering: what your attitude, your theology, and your spirituality say about suffering.

Then, the fourth day is compassion for those who are marginalized. There’s the whole justice issue and also compassion for creation. We ask people to take a look at what they believe and then bring it out into the world. That’s where the spirituality part comes in. I start with a reflection that brings in pieces of the gospel. It’s often a Christian aspect, but I talk about Buddhism, Hinduism, psychology, and all of these other disciplines.

What would you tell someone who finds it hard to have compassion for others because they’re just struggling to get through the day themselves?

The more self-compassionate you are, the more you’re going to naturally think about other people. Let’s say you have a tough day at work. You go home, and the house is messy or whatever. It’s a tough day at home, too.

You pause in the midst of that, and you say to yourself, “This is a hard day, and I’m with myself in this. I’m sorry it’s so hard, but I’m going to get through this. I know I have the ability to do this.” That’s good self-compassion.

Then you come back to work the next day. The more you practice on yourself, the more you can extend that thinking to someone else. Maybe one of your coworkers is in a grinchy mood when you get here, or you see something happen that you wish wouldn’t have.

It’s only after doing this for yourself that you can give people the same courtesy: “I don’t know what’s happening in that person’s inner life, but I’m not going to push against them inside myself.”

Self-compassion is vital. Being as kind to ourselves as we’d want to be with another person: There’s so much in that. It has to start here before we can take it out to other people.

Isn’t this kind of self-centered?

If I’m truly kind to myself, I will be more kind to others. I grew up in a family where my dad was always right, which meant he judged other people a lot on how they ought to be.

When I started to notice that approach in myself, it took me a long time to get out of that habit. I had to stop judging myself first. “Why did you do that? How come you didn’t do that? And you know you shouldn’t have said that.” Once I started saying, “No, I’m not going there,” I really could begin to be kinder to others.

After I taught one of my four-day compassion programs, a woman wrote to me and said, “Well, I dropped my cell phone in the toilet this morning, and I stopped my mother’s message that said, ‘That was the stupidest thing you ever did.’ ” Before, this woman would have berated herself all day, instead of saying, “Well, it was an accident. I wished it hadn’t happened, but . . .” It’s that kind of thing.

How does the importance of compassion tie into our Catholic faith?

I’m so happy Pope Francis is talking about compassion; I really think that’s what’s going to transform our world. I’ve thought, “Who’s teaching Christians how to be compassionate?”

It was like this light came on for me: “Oh yeah, that’s right, I need to be compassionate.” It’s such an important concept, and I’m so happy that the pope is talking the way he is, but my concern is that he’s considered this hero. I’m afraid that people are going to say, “Isn’t he wonderful?” and then they won’t do a thing with their lives because they think the pope’s taking care of it all.

And the reality is that I still do not hear enough about true compassion from the pope or in church. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term self-compassion in a homily, at least not as I want to hear it! It’s certainly not being lived in many of our Catholic organizations.

Why do you think this is a missing piece in Catholicism?

Who really invites us to ask ourselves, “Where do those negative thoughts come from, and where do you let those thoughts take you? What is your vision of life? How would you like to be, and what’s holding you back?”

The key quality of Jesus in the gospels is compassion. But what does this look like? Maybe someone says, “You know, all these immigrants are taking away our jobs.” I’ve heard good Catholics say things like this.

My response is, “Well, let’s look at that. What do you know about immigrants? Have you ever met an immigrant?” Then I try to get them to get inside the skin of that person. What’s it like? What would it be like for that person to live in, let’s say Guatemala? “Have you ever lacked drinking water? Have you ever wondered where your next meal is coming from?” Then you can lead them to Matthew 25, “Whenever you did this for the least of them you did it for me.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 8, page 18–22).

Image: Flickr cc via Chris Marchant