Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: In a couple hours I’m heading out for a very stressful weekend. I’d love any words of wisdom.
Here’s the short version: weekend with immediate and extended family 1,000 miles from home (i.e., far away from support system); coming together due to a recent and unexpected death in the family; several extended family members don't want me there — they think it should be just one generation, however, I'm going to support my parent.
My parents are in a very rocky place right now, and one of my parents is leaning on me. I’ve encouraged this parent to see a counselor/therapist, but all the rocky-ness had just come to a head this week (been building for years).
Never miss a local story.
I really, really don’t want to be in the middle of my parents’ relationship. Unfortunately no siblings so it’s just me.
Aside from bringing a couple good books and escaping to walks whenever possible, what do I do? I can handle long-term changes (separation/divorce), but need help getting through the next 48 hours. For what it’s worth, the seriousness of my parent’s issues was made clear to me just a couple days ago. Extended family is not aware. Thanks!
I’m sorry, it sounds like a real stress dump.
My main advice is what you’re already leaning toward: meticulous self-care. Get fresh air, eat reasonably, sleep well, bring or queue up reliable sources of comfort (music and video, say, to supplement your books).
For dealing with the turmoil, have a mantra to keep yourself steady. You want to listen more than you talk, stay calm more than you react, give affection more than you show anything negative — so try condensing these goals into a few words you can repeat in your mind.
Even if people react badly to your presence, you can pull off all three (listening, staying calm, showing affection) by using reflective listening techniques: “I hear how upset you are.” You can always nod to them and excuse yourself from the conversation at that point. It can help to have a phrase ready for that, even one as simple as: “I need a moment.”
When you do have a moment to yourself, don’t be afraid to let your emotions spill over. Holding them back often makes them bigger and harder to manage.
I hope this helps, and that your experience is not as bad as you fear.
For Stressful Weekend: And don’t forget that you DON'T have to “fix” anything. You don’t have to come up with any ideas about how to change anything. You don't have to come up with any answers this weekend. Taking that pressure off yourself can help.
Yes, thank you. That’s the whole point of listening more than talking. Another good phrase to have handy, in fact, when there’s an awkward pause and/or when you’re not sure what someone wants from you: “Would you like me to try to help, or would you rather I just listen?” Just caring what others want is comforting unto itself.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at washingtonpost.com.