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Heavy Meddle: Help! I’m Consumed By Thoughts Of My Father Dying Alone

A loyal daughter keeps picturing her aging father dead on the floor of his apartment. (Xava du/ flickr)
A loyal daughter keeps picturing her aging father dead on the floor of his apartment. (Xava du/ flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

My 70-year-old father has long struggled with his health. He had a heart attack when I was a teenager. Ten plus years later, he still smokes and drinks heavily. He lives several states away, and I worry about him constantly. If he doesn’t answer the phone, or respond to my emails or text messages within minutes, I find myself picturing him dead on his apartment floor. He lives alone, and I’m his only child.

Whenever I bring it up, he assures me he’s fine. But I know he’s just trying to keep me from worrying. How do I stop obsessing about him all the time?

PHOTO

Thanks,
Daddy’s Girl’s Burden

Dear DGB,

What a haunting question. Before I go any further, let’s just acknowledge the sorrow of these circumstances. You love your father. You’re his only child. You live far away from him and you fear for his health — with good reason, given his history and his habits. You have a right to feel as frightened as you do.

What concerns me is that you’re ruining your own life in the process, and that you’re doing so by putting yourself in an impossible situation. My hunch is that you feel guilty for not being able to “save” your father. And probably, on a level that is even more difficult to accept or consciously experience, you’re furious at him for making decisions that have left him isolated, and that will hasten his physical deterioration and death.

So you’re living with a core internal conflict and it’s causing you to obsess. Although you’ve removed yourself geographically from your father — a decision that is probably good for you, but stokes your guilt — you remain psychically connected to him through your calls and texts and the invasive thoughts that inevitably ensue.

The next thing I’m going to say is pretty shocking, but I think you need to hear it, because I believe it’s at the heart of your obsession.

Here it is: every fear contains a wish.

I mean by this that there’s a small but deep-seated part of you that regards your father as a burden, and this part of you would like that burden removed. Thus the images that come to you unbidden of your father dead on his apartment floor.

What’s actually happening, though, is that these images are further compounding the tremendous guilt you already feel (for not being able to save him, for choosing to move away) and leading you to punish yourself by obsessing. It’s a vicious cycle.

So what’s the solution? You have to forgive yourself for not being able to save your father. And you have to recognize that feeling disappointed, and even angry with him, doesn’t make you a bad daughter. It makes you a human being. To the extent possible, you have to spend your time and energy making a meaningful life for yourself, which is your own due, and what your father wants for you. Or should want for you.

you deserve to lead a full life. Connecting with and caring for your father is a part of that life. But punishing yourself for not being able to save him shouldn’t be.

I don’t mean by this that you should ignore your father. By all means, you should reach out to him. And if you want to try to get him to stop drinking and smoking, you should try. But you need to accept that you cannot save him. Only he can save himself. And even if he’s able to kick his habits, he’s still going to die someday.

I’m not trying to be a downer here, DGB. I’m trying to convey the idea that even the best daughter in the world can’t be expected to parent her beloved father. You can and should express your love for him. But you also have to accept his mortality, and his limitations, the ways in which he’s hurt himself and disappointed you.

That’s hard work, and it sounds to me like you would benefit from the chance to talk to a trained professional about all these feelings.

As you know by now, I’m not a trained professional. I’m just a guy offering my best guesses.

I do know that you deserve to lead a full life. Connecting with and caring for your father is a part of that life. But punishing yourself for not being able to save him shouldn’t be.

I wish you courage on your path.

Onward, together,
Steve

Author's note: I realize I went out on a bit of a limb with this letter, but I had a strong sense that this young woman feels burdened by her father’s self-destructive decisions, but forbidden from experiencing those feelings. What do you think? Send along your thoughts in the comments section below. And by all means send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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