How Do You Deal With Aging Parents And Other Heartbreaks?

All the questions we forget to ask before marriage

I’m writing this at 9 p.m. from my dad’s hospital room in the ICU, where he’s recovering from a traumatic brain injury. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in the ICU this year with my dad, late into the night. My husband is at home, putting two kids to bed, after having several conversations with me today that whipsawed from tearful to angry to darkly humorous. This isn’t the first time we’ve been through this, nor will it be the last. Two and a half years ago, we lost David’s dad to cancer and my grandmother to sudden pneumonia, a horrifying eleven days apart. Those months were living hell. And this month? How I am depends on what moment you catch me in.

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When we got married, my dad told me that marriage was as much about death as it was about anything. That there was a reason that our vows were “till death do us part,” and that was why the process of getting married could make you think all sorts of morbid things. (And why you should damn well make a will when you get married.) But the part that nobody reminds you to think about is “till death other people part.” That, and the road that leads to it, is really important too.

I always say that a good relationship—the kind you should consider locking into forever—is easy. Not that every day or every year is easy (because it sure as heck isn’t going to be). But that the foundations of the relationship are nothing like your (or at least my) drama-filled young love. The relationship itself shouldn’t be hard or full of conflict, because life itself will have tons of that to offer. Your relationship should be calm enough at its core that it’s able to withstand all of life’s storms, because the high winds that rip at the heart are things that we cannot avoid.

Which brings me to the issue of aging parents, ill family members, and all of those other things that fall firmly in the “for worse” parts of your vows but are not just about the two of you.

We spend so much time before marriage talking about our relationship, the two of us, how we communicate, how we have sex, what our hopes and dreams are. But we’re often not encouraged to spend much time talking about the stuff outside our relationship that’s still close to our hearts. How do we expect to deal with our parents as they age? How would we expect to deal with ill loved ones? How much financial and emotional help do we expect to provide to loved ones in our lives? Are we on the same page on these issues? Are we open to many more conversations about it as shit gets real?

As I type this, I’m listening to the beep of the hospital monitor, wrapped in the dark of a hospital room at night. I had some difficult conversations today. And a moment where I was so emotionally exhausted it took me five minutes to figure out how to put on an earring. A few miles away, my partner is struggling through a difficult bedtime that he would rather not be doing alone. And thanks to some really clear conversations about our needs, we’ll probably even find a reasonable amount of grace for each other at the end of a long day.

I suppose, all along, we knew that’s what marriage was. But I’m not quite sure we knew how terrible it could feel to live it, and what a struggle it could be to find nice words for each other when you’re going through the worst. But here we are. Living proof that you can do it. On the best of the bad days, at least.

Who is dealing with aging parents, sick loved ones, or other things we’d classify as #TheHardStuff? What have you learned by being in it? And if you haven’t lived through awful stuff as a couple yet, have you talked about it? What have you discussed? What haven’t you discussed but probably should?

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