Lessons from Morrie, and accepting reduced functionality with grace

Tuesdays with Morrie is easily one of the most powerful books I’ve read, and at the stage of life I’m in, it also seems very pertinent. Today, I decided to check out the descriptions of the book at various places to see how others find it, I found most readers were touched by it, but I was also surprised how different people took different lessons home from the reading.

What touched me most in the book and impressed me most about the mentor, was not just the grace with which he approached dying, it was the simplicity and naturalness with which he accepted care and help as he became progressively dependent.

Too many people do not go gently into the night, especially with respect to their growing need in performing activities of daily living.

Most people I know firmly believe that they should remain independent right up to their dying day. “We don’t want to inconvenience anyone,” they say. “We would rather die.” “We will never be a burden on anyone. We will work to the last moment. We will die on our feet.” All these statements are said with a fierce sense of independence and energy.

My mother used to speak like this a decade ago. She continued to speak like this even as her dementia advanced.  I think this desire of hers only made dementia and reduced functionality more difficult for her to bear.

I used to believe this was a good, valid, noble desire to be independent. What better, indeed, than to want to do work, to not burden others? But of late I am not sure.

What, is the harm in asking for help, and what is so noble in resisting help? Those determined not to accept help end up endangering themselves by postponing requests for help (or skipping them). They may lack grace while asking for, and accepting help. This makes it difficult for both the person needing help and the person giving it. It even stops the person being helped from expressing joy and gratitude at being helped.

I suspect that those who twine their ego with such “independence” are resistant to the point of being unpleasant while taking the required help. They are unable to accept that they need help and so they play down what others do for them, and deny it at times. They may exaggerate what they do so as to appear independent.

It is strange that people state so categorically that they will not need help. Too many people say, I am ready to die, but I will never be dependent. Does anyone know his or her future sufficiently to predict? What’s the guarantee? Is there no lesson in the fact that people around us do end up needing help? Why fool ourselves by tagging our hopes to not ever needing help?

Death is universal. We all know that, though we forget it, or assume it will come to others and not to us. We act as though talking of the possibility of death is negative.

Even more denial, I think, is associated with the process of dying. Yet, before death, comes the process of dying. The slowdown and breakdown of the body, mental and emotional functions precedes death, sometimes spread over years, sometimes compressed in hours or minutes. While some of us may have instantaneous deaths, most will undergo a few hours or days of ‘dying’, where we will lose ourselves section by section. This will typically be a stage of pain and dependence. It will also be traumatic, unless we are ready for it, and strong enough to undertake this stage with grace.

When I look at my mother, I remember all those days she would talk about how she will always be independent, and I wonder how she felt when (even if she did not admit it), she knew she was becoming dependent. As one who took on her work bit by bit, I know she fought for her independence at every step, with herself, and with those helping her as her abilities reduced. Things would have been so much easier for her and us if she had been prepared for this probability. She would have felt less unhappy, and we would have felt more appreciated.

I do not know how one can balance being honest and hard-working to do what you can do, while also accepting what one cannot do and receiving help gracefully for those parts. Definitely, it makes sense to do whatever you can for yourself as long as you can. Equally, though, it is sensible to ask for and accept gratefully the help needed to function, staying peaceful and also letting the carer feel valued. I do not have the answers, the tools, to fully grasp this, but I do not I would like to have this understanding in place before I reach the stage when I may start needing help.

I am young enough to assume that such a situation (that I will be dependent) is far away, but that is the mistake everyone makes. All it takes is an accident or a stroke. It is silly to keep postponing such an important aspect of personal development, yet I fall in the same trap as everyone around me when it comes to this. The only edge I think I have is, I acknowledge in principle that taking help is fine, and may be necessary, and can/ should be done with grace. Maybe that will help me if the van around the corner does not apply its brakes in time 🙂

Meanwhile, I am marking days in my calendar to think more on this and see how to fully accept that a state of dependence can be navigated in a dignified and fair way.  What I need is an aha! at an emotional level for what already makes eminent sense to me at a rational level.  More on this later, maybe.

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India. I have also been a dementia caregiver for well over a decade, and am deeply concerned about dementia care in India; on this blog I share my personal caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care. For structured information on dementia, for discussions, tools and tips on caregiving issues, for resources in India, and for caregiver interviews, please check my website http://dementiacarenotes.in (or its Hindi version, http://dementiahindi.com). For videos on dementia caregiving (English and Hindi), check the youtube channel here.

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