I’m a 30 year old man with a family of four, and I’m a member of a church community of about 140 people, 80 active members. I’ve been mostly inactive for over 10 years, but go to things occasionally. My parents have been active my whole life, up until five years ago my mother got very ill. My father has kept going to church and doing activities, up until the last year. His reason was that he was sick of people asking how my mother was doing and never asking him how he was doing, and has stopped attending.
Initially, I didn’t think much of this and felt my father’s reasoning sounded a bit selfish. My wife has pointed out that it was our community’s way of indirectly asking how he is doing and showing they care. I had experienced some of the same, but didn’t think much of it, until I started getting active again in the last couple months, and honestly, I’m starting to see what my dad means.
Week to week, my mother’s health does not change. Every couple months she has an episode of some kind and recovers afterwards. But that is the question, every time single time I attend an event, multiple times per event. It is surprisingly grating over time. I feel like it would rude/passive to aggressive to add, “I’m doing fine by the way” or “She’s not getting better, stop asking.” I do think it’s coming from a good place, but I’m seriously thinking about attending a church that doesn’t know my mother.
I know the people mean well and they are following a very classic, approved social script to connect and show concern for others but I can 100% see why it’s grating on you. I don’t think finding a church that doesn’t know your mom is the worst idea you could have, but in the meantime, try channeling people’s expressions of concern into a way they can take action:
- “Mom’s the same. I’m sure she’d love to hear from you if you want to send a card/visit/call her up.”
- “She’s out of it most of the time but it’s still nice when people come by and sit with her.”
You could channel the concern into action that helps your Dad:
- “She’s not well, truth be told – No change since last time we talked. You know what, though? My dad could really use a visit/a casserole/a ride to the doctor/a break from sitting with her/a game of Scrabble/a call to see how he’s doing if you wanted to reach out to him.“
What will happen over time is that some people might take action and do nice stuff for your parents and others might get the hint that if they bring up your folks you’re going to expect them to follow through in some way that requires actual effort.
You could also try the blanket strategy for any uncomfortable topic:
- “Oh, thanks for asking, but I need to talk about something else today.”
- “No change. I really need a break from thinking about it or talking about it – what’s new with you?“
- “No change.” + “Here’s what’s up with me/the kids/the rest of the family” (i.e. answer the question you wish they’d asked)
Third strategy: Talk to the pastor AND the sweetest, kindest congregant who loves helping that you know. Bonus if s/he is in your mom’s age group or friendly with her. Tell those people exactly what you told us. “I know people are being kind when they ask about my mom, but it really stresses me out, truth be told. I know it sounds selfish but Mom’s not getting better, but she’s also not here and and my family and I are here right now. I wish someone would ask me how *I’m* doing, or talk about the day’s service or the kids or literally anything else. Is there a way to spread the word about that? Or some way that I can respond without coming across like a jerk?“
If the pastor is understanding, you could talk directly about your dad. “Hey, my dad loved coming here, but he stopped because of this same reason – he felt that nobody saw him and they only wanted to talk about her. I also know he could use a break/a hot meal now and again/a place to worship and call home. Would you be willing to talk with him about it? I hate that he feels so cut off.“
Also see if you can channel the pastor and your newfound church accomplice in ways that actually help your family. For instance, if something changes with your mom’s illness, could you tell them and then they could update everybody so you don’t have to do it over donuts every Sunday one excruciating conversation at a time? If your mom needs cards/calls/visits, could they organize something ongoing? If your dad needs a break from caring for her or an invitation to come play cribbage to get out of the house, can they check in with him and see? Is there something you and your wife & kids need that the church could help with?
Even the best people with the best intentions need to be pointed in the right direction sometimes.