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Praying Advent While Caring for Parents

Giuseppe Nogari  (1699-1763) - An Elderly Woman in a Striped ShallMany of us find ourselves in this Season of Advent as care givers for our parents. For some of us, this is a new experience - one we never imagined before. For others of us, it is a role we've embraced for many years. For some of us, especially many of us in the U.S., our parents are no longer living in their homes, but are in a retirement facility or in a nursing home, perhaps with different levels of care. Often, our parents are living in such a residence in another part of the country. Many others of us are caring for our parents, or one of them, in our own homes.

In a great variety of ways of caring, or degrees of caring - full-time, part-time, or through an occasional visit or phone call - we can enter into Advent in a special way by entering into a reflection upon this care giving role we have with our parents.

A Reversal of Roles, With a Twist.
It is common to say that we are experiencing a "reversal of roles" in this "sandwich generation" (sometimes caring for both our children and our parents at the same time). Of course, we are now caring for the parents who cared for us. However, it involves much more than that. Our parents were caring for us while we were growing up, maturing, entering a life full of hope and promise. We now care for our parents in their decline, in their diminishment, sometimes accompanying them to their death.

Letting Ourselves Get Close to the Experience.
While the experience of caring for our parents can be extremely rewarding, it can also be very draining and stress filled. It often means a complicated balancing act - pitting these powerful and deep emotional bonds and obligations against our jobs and our other family commitments. At times, the stresses of this care can wear us thin. It can lead to tension, impatience, and even emotional outbursts. Sometimes our parent is suffering from some degree of dementia, or some deterioration of their memory or capacity to exercise good judgment. Even if they aren't experiencing any mental deficit, the embarrassment and discomfort with losing control can lead our parents to be very frustrated and perhaps quite difficult at times. Sometimes, compassion, sensitivity, understanding of the stresses the other is bearing, or even good communication have all broken down. And, tragically, in some rare moments we are tempted to, or even guilty of, emotional or physical abuse.

Recognizing and naming what is going on is critically important. When we are frustrated, angry and totally lacking in compassion, it is pretty difficult to see and accept what is going on inside of us. But, honest self awareness is very important for there to be an opening to God's grace in this important mission of our lives. When we are dis-couraged it is not easy to return to courage. But, a humble, candid admission, "I'm struggling here" is the beginning of progress. Sometimes, we have to admit that we need more sleep or we need to take some emotional breaks. Perhaps we need a good friend who has had this experience and can listen to us and give us good feedback. It may be time to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We may need to seek counseling.

Advent is a Time of Hope That Can Touch Our Experience.
Advent is a time when we can get in touch with our struggles and face what seems to be unbearable or unsolvable. Advent is especially powerful when we see no way out, when we feel trapped, when our situation seems only to be deteriorating. It is in Advent when we listen to the Prophet Isaiah proclaim God's fidelity - a vision of liberation and a way out of captivity and war. It is a season that restores our hope that "a time will come for singing."

How does this Advent Hope touch my responsibility to care for my parents? When we hope and trust that God is with us and God is faithful, we are suddenly no longer alone. When I let God into my experience, it is immediately easier to confess my frustrations and to experience mercy and peace from a God who loves me unconditionally. And with my own heart at peace, and hopeful that God can bring Light and Peace anywhere, I can experience this season as a time to allow me to love more freely, more compassionately, more unconditionally. When I taste how God loves me, not because I deserve it, but because I need it, I can more courageously love my parents with that same tender, understanding love.

In this spirit, I don't get "hooked" as easily. My "buttons" don't get pushed all the time. Not as many "issues" seem to matter. Past wounds can now heal and be forgiven. Balance, sacrifice, long-suffering, a sense of humor all return. All that matters is that the one who gave me life is now suffering, perhaps suffering in such a way that he or she can't express gratitude or show affection in return. All that matters now is love. All that fills my heart is a desire to love with the love God has shown me.

Faith takes over where practical solutions run out. With faith, we can see human dignity in the midst of diminishment. With confidence in God's fidelity, we can imagine a day when our father or mother will be restored to the fullness of life in the embrace of Jesus, at the hour of their death. On that day, we can easily believe, they will be eternally grateful for the love we showed them. And, we can enjoy imagining the embrace we will receive from them on the day we will be re-united in the full celebration of our Faith, bathed in Light and Love.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come into my care for my mom and dad. Come and be born here in this humble place. Come and give life and hope as you did in your coming on earth. Come and free my heart. Come and give me the consolation of your love. Come and renew me in this mission you have entrusted to me. Come and give me peace so that I may accept your gift of courage and your own self-sacrificing love. Come fill my heart with understanding, compassion, tenderness and patience, gentleness and deep gratitude. Come and prepare my heart for a new experience of Christmas joy, rooted in a new Hope in you.

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