US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Go ahead, be a burden to your adult children

Parents put a great deal of effort into caring for their kids. When the time comes, it’s OK to let them return the favor.

By Patrick Lynch | Print this pagePrint |

My father came home from his service in the Marines in the South Pacific to marry the redheaded girl of his dreams, whom he’d met at St. Francis De Sales in the fifth grade. She’d written to him daily and he’d written her back, making plans for the future they hoped for together. They moved into an apartment over a funeral home in Detroit and he went to mortuary school, working evenings while she began to raise the inevitable family.

There would be nine of us in all, six sons and three daughters, a living testament to their love of children and their lifelong romance with each other. Both of them saw us through all the burdens of parenting—Little League games and dance classes, measles and poxes, mumps and flus, heartbreaks and curiosities, triumphs and tantrums. They saw us through first days at school, first dates, first mortgages, and last details.

Each of us was a burden to them, and the bearing of those multiple burdens defined them and shaped what would become their lives. By their own testimony we were the greatest blessings of their lives, the surest sign of God’s grace, and for all the trouble we most certainly gave them, we never doubted they regarded us as gifts.

Since my wife and I have become parents ourselves, we too have experienced the mystery by which our greatest burdens become our greatest blessings. That is why I have always mistrusted the conventional wisdom that we should not be a burden to our children. If bearing the burdens of our children’s lives has given blessed meaning to ours, why oughtn’t bearing the burdens of our age and infirmity and eventual deaths give meaning and purpose and its special tuition to them?

The celebration of life’s joyful mysteries—births, baptisms, weddings, and reunions—brings an accentuated beauty to those events. Likewise the bearing of life’s burdens, including sadness, sickness, and even death, gives perspective to our human experience.

Of course, sometimes not wanting to “be a burden” stands in for the less noble truth that we can’t bear the wound to our pride involved in sharing decisions about our lives and circumstances with those who care most deeply about our welfare. Possibly it is God’s wry-humored reversal of circumstance that toddlers and teenagers who must submit to parental guidance, scrutiny, and loving care grow into adult children who must negotiate how to guide, advise, and lovingly care for parents who resist—with the same outrage as teenagers—their sons’ and daughters’ efforts to lovingly assist. When to quit driving after dark, climbing the stairs, patching the roof, living alone. How to ask for help, how to be more grateful than begrudging. These are all stages in the fullness of time by which we negotiate the balance between autonomy and family.

Following a career path that eventually led my father to the ownership of several funeral homes, a partnership with his sons, and the recognition that the burdens he bore to make his dreams realities were well worth it, he enjoyed a semiretirement at Mullett Lake in the section of Michigan known as the “tip of the Mitt,” just south of the bridge that separates the lower and upper peninsulas.

He and our mother were living the dream until she was stricken with lung cancer, which in 18 months left her dead and him widowed. The father of nine, grandfather of 20, and friend to hundreds suddenly felt very much alone.

I made an extra effort to spend more time with my dad following my mother’s death. It never felt like a burden. Two years into widowhood, following a major heart attack, my dad ended up in the ER of the local hospital. I arrived there within minutes. Looking through his glazed-over beautiful blue eyes, he removed the oxygen mask to utter these instructions: “You’ll know what to do.”

He was correct. I felt blessed that he had enough confidence in me that the decisions that were being faced as to his medical care and even his possible funeral arrangements would be handled properly at my direction.

Though a funeral director for more than 40 years, our father never felt compelled to tell his children how to handle his funeral. We knew what to do. We embalmed our dad, arranged the newspaper notifications, contacted the church to work out the liturgical details, secured the Marine Corps to provide military honors for one of their own, ordered the casket and burial vault, and saw to the grave opening. These were the basics.

Then we set out to the finer details, such as who would speak at his funeral, who would serve as pallbearers, how to involve the grandchildren, which songs to choose for the Mass, and all the other details surrounding the Roman Catholic burial rite. 

My father’s experience taught him that family members bearing the burdens of grief by actively involving themselves in the rituals of mourning makes grief more bearable and gives our rituals a deeper meaning. In my own experience as a funeral director for nearly 40 years now, his wisdom has become more and more clear to me.

The preplanning for the inevitable reality of death has been around for a long time. People bought family plots at the cemetery. They purchased insurance policies or established funeral funds at the bank. Husbands and wives certainly discussed their thoughts on the matter: “Will we be buried with your people or mine?”

Then in the 1970s through the 1990s, coincidental to the aging of the greatest generation, cemeteries and funeral homes began actively marketing prearranged funerals. Marketing bromides like “Spare your family the grief,” “Don’t be a burden to your children,” and “Prepay now to lock in prices” popped up in church bulletins, newspapers, and yellow pages everywhere.

People of the targeted demographic were telemarketed, junk-mailed, and cold-called into the belief that preplanning and prepaying their own funerals was the correct thing to do. By making all the decisions surrounding one’s death and funeral, families would be spared grief and unburdened. “It’s your funeral, have it your way” was part of the pitch.

The problem with all of this is that often arrangements were made without consultation with or consideration of family members. And while the intentions were usually well-meaning, things didn’t always turn out the way people had hoped. Husbands insisted that no fuss be made. Wives felt compelled to abide by instructions that were sometimes not in their best interests. And children and grandchildren were completely excluded from the discussion.

Family members were left to abide by arrangements that might be unsatisfying to them, or they had to go against the wishes of the deceased to meet their own needs. Neither of these unintended results is preferable to an open dialogue prior to, or during, advance planning.

What has been learned from this is that the involvement of family members who will survive to experience the arrangements is critically important. Thus when our funeral homes are contacted to assist an individual or couple with their advance planning needs, we always encourage them to include their extended family in the conversation. This is a wonderful opportunity to discuss the wants and needs, joys and sorrows, hurts and hopes of all parties involved. People making advance funeral plans for themselves are best advised to offer thoughts and suggestions rather than demands and requirements.

Conversations about our mortality can be difficult, even burdensome. But like the conversations that generations of parents have had with their children about life, love, heartache, and happiness, these are the conversations that give our lives meaning, substance, and a deep sense of purpose.

End-of-life preparations for aging parents are multifaceted. When is it appropriate to discuss the immobility associated with no longer being able to drive, the confinement of assisted living, or the resentment that often follows dependence on others? Members of the sandwich generation, who feel responsible for the generation before them and the one behind, are faced with similar concerns surrounding their parents and children, principally when to push back and when to give in.

The occupancy of this place is both burdensome and blessed. The best way to make a decision that will be life-altering is to think about it, pray about it, talk with your family about it, and seek the good counsel of trusted professionals. Having done all these things, “You’ll know what to do.”

And the survey says...

1. I worry about someday becoming a burden to my children or younger relatives.

41% - Agree  
46% - Disagree
13% - Other

2. When my kids or younger relatives come to me and tell me it’s time to limit my activities or start relying on others for help, I suspect my first reaction will be to:

42% - Be truly glad that someone cares enough about me to intervene.
19% - Try to cooperate while hiding the hurt or anger resulting from my wounded pride.
11% - Object as if I were a teenager being given an unreasonable curfew.
9% - Pretend to go along but try to outwit them whenever posssible.
19% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“I would hope we could talk it over and decide together what would be best for us both.”

3. After all the care and worry that parents lavish upon their children, it’s only fair that children give some in return to their elderly parents.

66% - Agree
15% - Disagree
19% - Other 

Representative of “other”:
“It is not about fairness or obligation, it is about love and following the commandment to honor our mother and father.”

4. When I get older, I will not hesitate to ask my children for help. 

47% - Agree    
23% - Disagree
30% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“I would prioritize when to ask and would only do so after exhausting all other means first.”

5. Getting actively involved in planning the funeral of a parent helps make grief bearable and gives a greater meaning to the ritual.

79% - Agree
12% - Disagree
9% - Other

6. The way I want to prepare for what happens after my own death is to:

48% - Work out a clear plan for how things will be handled in discussion with my extended family, so both my wishes and their needs are taken into account.
33% - Discuss some of my preferences with close family members, but let them be in charge of handling the arrangements when the time comes.
7% - Preplan everything down to the last detail myself and expect my family to abide by my wishes.
5% - Not worry about the details and let family members work it out after I’m gone.
7% - Other

This article appeared in the March 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 3, pages 27-30).

Image: Tim Foley