Dear Carolyn: The holidays were great except ... my mother looks like she is dying. She had a significant fall the week before. Went to the hospital. Somehow managed not to break anything. Was given antibiotics for a "raging" (doctor's word) infection. She and my dad managed to get to our family gathering over six hours' drive away.

She looked awful. She was in pain the whole time. They drove home in stages doing some visits on the way.

They live in a continuum-of-care place and have friends and activities and help with medical issues available at the pull of a string. But I just can't get over how awful she looked. Exhausted. Pale or rather ashen. Not renewing her lipstick, which she has almost been religious about since I was a kid.

I'm having a hard time integrating this. I've known this level of decline was coming for ages. But I maybe thought that moving to the new place with more assistance would be a magic cure that got us a few more years. Now, I'm not so sure, even though her not breaking anything in the fall is huge. Help?

Carolyn says: I'm sorry your mom is sick, and that it brings painful feelings sooner than you had hoped.

Remember, though, that we are built for this. We are meant to die and we are meant to witness death. Since we are meant to love, too, that means almost everyone will eventually feel the devastation that you got your first real glimpse of this season.

I say this knowing — hoping — that your mother may well have rebounded by the time I finish this answer; we are also built to heal. And people can have a look of death when they're ill.

I also know I might already be too late.

So I'm going to give you the answer for all potential outcomes.

Renounce "magic." The more we invest ourselves in an outcome, the more we set ourselves up to lose.

And, more important — the more we miss of the life we have as we wait for a different one to come true.

This goes beyond just involvement with parents in decline: Take steps because they're necessary and/or helpful, but don't expect anything beyond their face value. See any future benefits as a pleasant surprise. Think journey, not destination.

Meaning: Choose housing with extra assistance because you know your mom needs extra assistance, not because you think it'll buy Mom X additional years.

This is a subtle change in thinking, but it's everything. It changes your orientation from securing a specific future outcome to immersion in your present. It's a full-hearted, clear-eyed embrace of now.

A destination focus is what tells you your mother is dying and you weren't ready for this yet and you can't bear it. A journey focus is what tells you your mother's circumstances have changed, so you need to change, by doing A, B and C instead of X, Y and Z.

Like their road-tripping six hours for anything — that needs to go, no?

She needs you in a different way now, and you need her. So you help more, listen more, visit her more, be more present for her in general. Commit to existing right where you both are now. Even if it hurts.

This attention to inherent value versus specific future payoff is particularly useful in difficult times but can apply broadly, from education to activities to the people you keep in your life.

E-mail Carolyn Hax at