Handling Family Crises

Some family crises bring members together while others wrench them apart. For example, when a parent requires extraordinary care because of illness or dysfunction, siblings may become more closely bonded, while others become split. Freda’s sisters, brother and their spouses all offered to share help when their mother became senile. Since their mother, 86, adamantly refused to go to a nursing home, they had a family meeting and decided to share taking “Mom in.” Leo’s wife, Sherri, declined sharing and Leo, who was the most well off, offered to chip in more than his share financially. Sam thanked Leo, but said (correctly), “That’s the easy part.” Freda and her siblings took turns having Mom stay with them, Leo contributed both time and money, and they were all closer six years later when their mother died peacefully.

On the other hand, Andrea was furious with her brother James when their father became senile. Andrea visited the nursing home almost every day for several hours while James came some weekends and stayed only a few minutes. Andrea accused James of not caring for their father, and being entirely selfish and self-centered. James became hurt and equally furious at what he considered false accusations. Predictably, the conflict escalated and they both brought up grievances from the past that had lain dormant for years.

When I spoke to James, he began with a litany of Andrea’s faults: She has always been too indulged, a papa’s girl, full of neurosis, etc. Then when we talked about his feelings towards his father, it was abundantly clear that he loved and respected him. He saw his father as being strong and capable. He said he visited his father more than Andrea realized, but he couldn’t stay long. His experience of being with his disoriented and incoherent father was just too painful. His feeling of helplessness added to the pain he felt during the visits. He had to leave or break down.

Although I could not speak to Andrea about their rupture, I know what I would have told her. She felt useful being supportive, while he felt helpless. Her capacity for dealing with her senile father was much greater than James’. The same event led to very different emotional responses. James did not choose to be in pain; he was fragile in that situation. I would explain to Andrea that if I asked her and James to lift a hundred pound weight, they would have very different experiences. James would lift it with ease while Andrea would probably not even attempt it. Dealing with crises brings out the very great differences in capacities that people have in handling stress. Rather than attack James’ motives for his limited capacities in handling stress, I would ask her compassion for his intense stress in that situation. Sadly, they no longer speak and the prospects for reconciliation seem grim.

As a consultant psychologist for the Birth Defects Clinic at St. Charles Hospital for some twenty years, I saw what birth defects did to families. Some parents bonded in either raising their children or in deciding that residential care would be better, while others simply could not handle the burden. In my experience, mothers were more accepting and realistic about their children than fathers. Yet, it was rarely out of malevolence or indifference that the fathers had difficulty in accepting the disability. They had legitimate differences in capacities and priorities. Crises tend to make us more emotional and lead to denial, blaming others and seeing everything in a negative light. Some people are better at handling crises than others and therefore they tend to get more of the responsibilities. Rather than blame others for the inequities in responsibilities, they should realize their strengths are a blessing and not everyone can face up to a crisis. Handling the crises is itself difficult. By recognizing that people differ widely in what they can contribute helps maintain family closeness. Family bonds need not be an accessory victim of crises.