Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about the power and importance of love when loving doesn’t come easily or we’re not sure what to do—“Simply Love Them” (Dec. 21), “When Loving Gets Tough” (Jan. 4), and “A Harder Kind of Love: Forgiveness” (Jan. 11). Perhaps the most difficult kind of love to offer, though, is what we do for others with no expectation of return.
I’m not talking about anonymous giving or unrequited romantic love, but the arduous, self-sacrificial love shown to those who cannot, for whatever reason, return our love or show appreciation. They may have dementia, be mentally disturbed, or even be our enemies. In such cases, our loving is entirely one way, and we may easily feel overwhelmed or utterly inadequate to rise to the occasion.
In 1988, I first knew something was seriously wrong with my mother. It took three years for us to have a firm diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and nearly fifteen years before her breathing finally stopped. In between, each day on the long journey felt like a little death, as everything I knew and loved about her kept slipping away from me bit by bit.
Watching her slowly degenerate, lose her dignity, cease functioning, and become completely incapable of communicating with us was horrifying. The sense of loss cut like stab wounds, inflicted over and over again.
Alzheimer’s is a wearisome, disturbing, and heart-wrenching disease. Usually, long, long before the victim succumbs to death, loved ones have the responsibility of caring for someone who no longer knows them, let alone is able to offer them the same kind of love and relationship they have known.
So, what does it mean to love under such circumstances? Warm feelings are often replaced with shock, anger, revulsion, depression, or all of the above. Natural motivation to reach out can wane over time as weariness sets in, especially when nothing comes back. I’ve seen heroic spouses, children, or siblings carry on year after year, but so many others cannot seem to handle the horror of the disease or the pain of the gradual loss, and they disappear.
My nearly fifteen-year journey with my dying mother taught me many things about such one way love that may help you, too:
• It’s OK to be angry and upset. Don’t minimize your distress or rush to look for silver linings. If you really loved the person from your heart, seeing their demise or struggle will be extremely painful. To feel and express your emotions is human, and may provide the energy you need to find ways to cope with the tragedy.
• Don’t try to be a hero. Get support, get a break when needed, and get help. My father probably shortened his life trying to care for my mother too long in his own home. For most of us, providing love for sick or troubled people can be the most taxing and troublesome ordeal of our lifetime. Don’t try to do it alone.
• At the same time, don’t run away. Resist the temptation to cope by neglecting the aging person. You will be sorry later on if, when the loved one is gone, you didn’t do what you could have done to be there for them.
• Separate your own anguish from that of the one who is sick or dying. They have their own psychological, emotional, and spiritual grappling to do, you have yours. Let the pain and cognitive dissonance you are experiencing be a catalyst for your own growth.
• Choose to love them in action, even when you don’t feel love. Insist on their proper care, whether you are one of the actual caregivers or not. Advocate for them continually. Check on them frequently. Look after them as you would a newborn baby who poops and cries a lot, yet is too young to even smile in return.
• When the one you are committed to rebuffs you, hates you, acts violently toward you—as can easily happen in cases of dementia or other mental illness—the example of Jesus may help. When he was rejected and literally crucified by those he sought to love, his attitude was gracious and kind. His prayer was, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
• It’s OK to ask your questions of God. My mother’s illness made no sense to me, because I was living under the false assumption that faithful Christians serving Christ’s purposes would somehow be spared from such tragedies. Being honest with my questions and seeking better answers was extremely helpful to me. Re-thinking my assumptions about God and about the meaning of life and human suffering have helped me to mature and to draw closer to God than ever.
“We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:3-5, NIV)
The Point: Hanging in there with those who are no longer able or willing to love you in return can be one of the hardest tests of your commitment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet choosing to do so can make all the difference in the world to the kind of person you become, and to the beneficiary of your love as well.
Prayer: “Loving Lord, thank you for the depth of your love for me. Please teach me how to draw more fully from your love, so that I can persevere better in loving others. Help me to release my own expectation and desire for reciprocity or reward from caring for hard-to-love people, and to look to you instead for the comfort, peace, hope, and love that I need and crave.”