by Nadia Fiorita
Everyone knows that family dynamics can be complicated. Sometimes there are grievances that linger for years, and other times there are relationships that just never get a chance to bloom. But when a family faces a serious health crisis, with all its inherent pain and fear, the potential for loss casts a different light on strained relations.
My grandfather — Nonno to his 14 grandkids — was diagnosed in the spring of this year with multiple brain tumors, for which his doctor recommended immediate radiation treatments. Four years earlier, Nonno managed to survive a bout of lung cancer so serious that he was given only 3-6 months to live.
My relationship with my grandfather wasn’t as good as I would have liked. We didn’t visit him much while I was growing up due to an ongoing conflict between my parents that carried over into other family relationships. But a couple of years ago my father’s mother passed away unexpectedly, and I remember being stopped in my tracks by this. I was distressed by the realization that I would never have any relationship with my very own grandmother. That struck me as very sad indeed.
So when Nonno’s health began a steady decline in the wake of a seizure and hospitalization following a radiation treatment, I decided to embrace the moment and make sure that Nonno did not depart this world before I had a chance to really connect with him. I felt that I needed to make up for lost time, so I made it a priority to see him as often as I could.
At first, it wasn’t easy visiting with him. It was awkward and confusing. He was my grandfather, but I didn’t know the man at all. I forced myself to push past the discomfort because I needed to feel a connection with Nonno, and I feared that time was growing short.
I think that when our loved ones get sick, especially with a terminal illness, it’s very difficult to know how to react. If the relationship is also afflicted with uncertainty and distance, it’s hard to stay present and to let your supportive and caring self shine through.
As a therapist, I have advised my clients and their families to use this time to make amends, to heal old wounds and get things off their chest, as it were. Take responsibility for how you feel and how you may have played a role in the previous conflict or situation. I would always encourage people to ask themselves: How would you like to look back on this time? How would you feel if you didn’t do what you would have liked to do?
And these are the exact questions I had to ask myself.
Knowing how I felt after my grandmother died, I knew I didn’t want to carry the same regrets about Nonno. By making the effort to bond with him, it not only helped me build a connection, but also to create lasting, loving memories that had been missing all my life. And that brought me great peace.
Furthermore, I had witnessed how the love directed toward Nonno by his family and friends has impacted him in such a positive way.
During the early days of his hospital stay, Nonno’s energy was so depleted that he didn’t have the strength to eat or even communicate. But he had many visitors coming to see him, including my aunts and uncles, his grandchildren and other close friends and relatives. It seemed there was always someone in his room, talking to him, reminiscing, making sure he was fed and as comfortable as possible. One night during his stay, there were so many of us that we couldn’t all fit in his room! The nurse made a little endearing joke about this, and I remember thinking that Nonno was surely moved by this wave of devotion and affection and support. I believe it made him feel loved and cared for in a way that is hard to describe. And even though it’s impossible to measure the depth of an emotional connection, I believe it gave him the purpose and strength to regain his ability to eat and speak, and to live on as a cherished member of our family.
As Americans, we do our absolute best to seek and obtain expert medical treatment. But what I learned through my burgeoning relationship with my grandfather is that recovery and healing consist of more than just premium medical care. The other essential ingredient, I strongly believe, is the love we feel with and from other people.
Now that my grandfather has returned home and is receiving the care he needs, I continue to take great pleasure in the special times that I’m sharing with my Nonno and my family. It is a time that I will never forget.
And I have learned, without question, that it’s never too late to start anew.
Nadia Fiorita, MSW, is a clinical social worker with Family Centers. Serving Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, New Canaan and Westchester County, NY, Family Centers is a United Way, New Canaan Community Foundation and Community Fund of Darien partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.