Blessing or a curse

My father became very ill very quickly – one minute he was driving himself to the hospital, the next he was never returning home. I don’t know if this was a blessing or a curse. At least it didn’t drag on.

To compound the situation, I had been helping them move out of family home, into a retirement village at the same time. My dad never got there. But we did move mum in there after.

The whole palliative thing freaked me out a bit.They said ‘we’re going to get him a bed’, the bed they put him into was a palliative one. I realised what that meant, but mum didn’t, that was a tough one, to try and tell mum where he was going.

When I finished caring for Dad, I still had to care for mum. She was fragile, and she hadn’t stood on her own feet for quite a while. She needed support with all the paperwork, the packing, the cleaning, selling the house and moving. She didn’t want to be in the family home alone.

I’m very fortunate in my job. It offers a huge degree of flexibility, and as long as I have access to my diary, phone and laptop, I’m OK. It doesn’t matter if I’m sitting in the office, park, beach, or in my mum’s lounge room, I can still get the work done.

I had a very understanding boss and clear communication became critical. I’d let her know what was going on. The last few days when he was in palliative care meant I couldn’t do any work then. My boss also told me to have the week off after he had died. I’d come in after a couple of days, but she sent me home.

I also had understanding peers – they knew what I was going through and that if they were not going to get hold of me straight away, I would get back to them eventually. Sometimes it was a case of burning the midnight oil, but that’s what you’ve got to do. It’s important to me that my work doesn’t suffer. I didn’t want to drop the balls. I juggled them – throw another ball in and keep on juggling and hopefully the lot don’t crash down.

Everyone is understanding, but there is only so much until it interferes with their commitments and expectations and roles. They might be under the pump to deliver and they are relying on you and so you have to put it in perspective, you can’t just fall and go into the foetal position. I needed to take stock of what I had going on and what the expectations are.

I found it critical to keep track of everything. Time goes rather quickly in those situations and you soon forget what you’re supposed to be delivering and not delivering – personal organisation and time management are key. My system is an excel spreadsheet action list so nothing slips off the radar. If you’re going to be away or absent for any time, people need to know what you’ve got going and how important it is. This was helpful in having conversations about priorities and how they might need to shift in the short and long term.

Some people knew, the ones I felt comfortable telling. Some I didn’t. I wasn’t going to tell all the contractors what was going on. I’d have to go through the whole story for the next six months. With each conversation, your brain is ticking each time: do I or don’t I say anything? How much do I say? Can I get away with just saying nothing? Or do I have to lay my cards on the table and say ‘sorry I can’t do this, and this is why’.

People can get into strife when they try and cover it up all the time. They are doing all this caring role but not telling anyone at work, and everyone’s thinking: ‘what’s happening? he’s dropped the ball, not doing what he says he would’ – they’re not understanding the full picture.

I think I now have more empathy as a manager. I wonder how I would have been if I hadn’t gone through the situation? Would I have lost patience? I hope not.

The bosses have really got to have empathy so they know. Unfortunately if you’re talking to someone who’s never gone through it, maybe their priorities are ‘well you know, sorry buddy, we need to get this done’. Therefore if you can work out your priorities, and come to clarity and shared understanding, hopefully the manager will say ‘I understand, but you really need to concentrate on this bit, don’t worry about the rest, but do this and I’ll be happy’ – it’s sort of like a win:win.

If I could have known the expectations of my employer when I started down the road, that would have been better for my own psyche. I only found it out at the end with my boss saying ‘don’t worry’. Even though they are saying you don’t have to worry, part of my identity is saying ‘I want to deliver – if I say I’m going to do it, I will’. It can cause friction.

Soldering on is how I dealt with the situation. I knew I had to be strong for mum and couldn’t fall apart. I had my moments – when I was with my wife, and my own downtime. I knew that acceptance was important, I knew what was happening. Been around aged care helped..

I didn’t do things to take care of myself – I am way down the list, which I think is just the responsibilities of being a son, husband, father, employee – you’ve just got to juggle as you go. I’m mindful that I need to do a better job of looking after myself. I found myself torn between a lot of empathetic situations: to my boss work commitments; to my mum and what she was going through, to my kids for losing a grandfather.

My role in the family has shifted. Mum and Dad used to make all of the decisions. But now it’s me. As she gets older, it will probably become more and more that way. I don’t mind, she looked after me for all those years. That’s what I’m here to do. When mum and dad were both around, it was a catch up once every couple of weeks. Now I make more of an effort. I have a brother who only sees her every couple of months, that’s just the way he is. Maybe I’m compensating a bit for that.