Hope and the Humble Caterpillar
"We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty."
I'd like to share a story about struggle that was told to me years ago by a minister friend and mentor. It touched me deeply at the time and still resonates. It's a message of hope for anyone who is struggling, a ray of sunlight shining through the tiny hole in the cocoon: (Story of the Butterfly as adapted by Paul Coelho)
A man spent hours watching a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. It managed to make a small hole, but its body was too large to get through it. After a long struggle, it appeared to be exhausted and remained absolutely still.
The man decided to help the butterfly and, with a pair of scissors, he cut open the cocoon, thus releasing the butterfly. However, the butterfly’s body was very small and wrinkled and its wings were all crumpled.
The man continued to watch, hoping that, at any moment, the butterfly would open its wings and fly away. Nothing happened; in fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its brief life dragging around its shrunken body and shrivelled wings, incapable of flight.
What the man – out of kindness and his eagerness to help – had failed to understand was that the tight cocoon and the efforts that the butterfly had to make in order to squeeze out of that tiny hole were Nature’s way of training the butterfly and of strengthening its wings.
As a caregiver, are you stuck in the cocoon, struggling to burst forth as a butterly, but utterly unsure how to do that? Does the cocoon feel dark and scary and more suffocating than nurturing? It's important to remember that we all have "caterpillar" moments -- times when we simply cannot envision the transformation that needs to happen for us to fly free. Don't give up hope! There's a bit of sunlight shining through to guide you. Have faith that the struggle will be over, you will triumphantly emerge, stretch your beautiful butterfly wings and soar!
Beautiful Compensations of Caring
"It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."
Throughout my life, I have come to know a deep spiritual truth: We are all connected. According to Chief Seattle, "Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together, All things connect".
To me, this connection called the web of life means that every action we take (or avoid taking) has an impact somewhere, either within our own lives, on other life forms, or upon our environment. This idea has been reiterated by many wise poets, writers, philosophers and theologians, so it is not new. However, I think it applies even more strongly to the relationship of caregiver to care receiver. I'm speaking here of the quality of our caregiving experience, from both sides of the equation.
I've written in this blog of some of the negative consequences caregiving can have, in terms of the caregiver's health, happiness and sense of balance in life. All true. But I want to give some time also to the beautiful compensations, those incredibly precious moments of connection at the soul level, that can be a part of caregiving as well.
Every person and situation is as unique as a fingerprint or snowflake, so generalizing is risky. But I think this is a crucial part of creating a more serene, beneficial experience, so I am willing to go out on this limb.
In caring for my mother, I learned (sometimes the hard way!) that we were incredibly connected -- whether that was judged a good or bad thing was up to me and the perspective I chose. She responded to me on an almost psychic level at times, picking up on emotions and reactions of which I might be totally unaware. She often understood that something was upsetting me, even before I knew it! Though she could not always ferret out the correct reasons, she still related to me from this knowing. I soon realized I could not "fool" her into believing everything was fine if it wasn't. So, I had to clear my own mind and heart before approaching her. I could not hide behind a pretense or falseness. Mom spotted that immediately! She was like a dolphin whose echo-location scanned below the surface, all the way through my innermost self, and saw truth. It reminded me of times as a child when I believed Mom could tell if I was fibbing by looking into my eyes. Perhaps she could -- a mother's own type of radar or a truth-seeking missile.
There were several activities we did to nurture and connect us: music was a powerful device for this. We often sang together, watched musicals on DVD that were her favorites, and listened to hymns or songs by Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and other "crooners" from Mom's era. I wish that I'd known about the iPod Project (www.musicandmemory.org and on this site click here) in time to use that with my Mom. But, alas, I learned of it too late.
Another connection was found through flowers, specifically roses -- that lovely flower was Mom's talisman, since she grew a beautiful rose garden which she shared with her friends to uplift and bless them all her life, so it was perfect for reminiscing.
And, lastly, perhaps the most potent of all: simple loving touch. I used gentle, soothing touch with Mom every day -- putting lotion on her skin, gently rubbing her back at bedtime, using aromatherapy oils on her hands and arms, hugging her several times a day, touching her arm or hand as we walked, reaching over to pat her knee as we watched TV or in the car. I used touch along with giving her reassuring words, and loving eye contact. It was this that most often sparked a spontaneous "I love you", or "You're a little sweetheart" (her favorite term of endearment).
Now, in the interest of being completely candid, I must report that I am not a saint. There were days when exhaustion, lack of sleep, worries, distractions, stress or any number of other things got in the way of my being the best caregiver I could be. There were days I didn't much like myself for being tired, short-tempered, upset. I've had to figure out how to forgive myself for not being perfect, for not always knowing how to approach this huge job of being completely responsible for another life. Most days I can do that. I'm still working on it.
I wanted to share this, from my heart, because I know that the one thing caregivers often find in short supply is hope. Hope for a loving positive experience in caring for one they love. My advice is to create that hope and joy one moment at a time. Make this moment count. Use all your creativity and passion to connect through all the senses -- sound, touch, smell, sight and taste. Be present as a healing, loving being right now. Let the next moments and days take care of themselves as much as you can. And find the peace and grace of those beautiful compensations of caring -- one moment at a time.
Don't you wish life had a rewind button?
"Do you mean that people on Uranus can rewind their life experiences and correct them at will?"
The excerpt above is from one of my favorite early books (1983) by one of my favorite authors, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, now with 30 books to his credit. In his classic parable about an alien from Uranus visiting Earth and attempting to understand our strange behaviors which don't reflect our reality, Dr. Dyer uses his trademark wit and wisdom along with his keen psychological insights to make clear how useless our neurotic human behaviors actually are. He manages to do this in a rather delightful and sometimes wickedly funny way.
As a caregiver, I have often longed for a rewind button, when I have either done something really stupid, or said something that I immediately wished I could stuff back in my mouth, usually out of frustration or a total frazzling of my patience. I envied the rewind option available in Gifts from Eykis, on the fictional version of planet Uranus and could imagine myself holding my hands in the "time-out" sign in football and asking God for a "do-over". The best feature of rewind is that you get to repeat the experience having learned enough to modify it accordingly. Now wouldn't that be a handy trick for a caregiver?
And if rewind/do-over actually was an option, it makes perfect sense that it's triggered by guilt. What a concept! Guilt would actually serve a helpful purpose rather than just crushing unsuspecting, well-meaning people under its unwieldy weight. Hmmm.
So, the next time you feel guilty about something concerning your caregiver role -- about anything, big or small, of huge consequence or none -- consider the whole guilt/rewind/do-over thing. Without rewind, guilt does no good at all and actively harms us. So, as caregivers, we need to either release ourselves from guilt by acknowledging that we do the best we can in any situation and, being human, sometimes make mistakes or fall short of our goal. The other thing we can do is lobby for a rewind option on Earth. Somehow, I think forgiving ourselves is the better choice!
What are some of your experiences with guilt, release, self-forgiveness and learning from past mistakes on the caregiving journey? I'd love to hear about them!
A Caregiver's Serenity Prayer
This prayer is written as a blessing to encourage and uplift all who strive to give their best in caring for a loved one.
God, grant me the tender, open-hearted love needed on the caregiving journey, the strength of body, serenity of mind, clarity of purpose and willingness of spirit to meet the extraordinary,
everyday constant changes and challenges of caregiving with a smile and good cheer.
And, please grant me the compassion and courage to choose the right path through the myriad decisions, making the very best choices for the highest good of my loved one, my family, and myself.
Allow me to know that I am enough, I do enough, and by giving of myself at the deepest soul level,
caring with diligence for my own health and well-being, also as priority, I will experience the beautiful rewards intrinsic to caring for another.
Let me seek, find, and accept help and loving support from family, friends, community and professionals for the journey of caring.
Let my loved one receive the gift of love from my heart and hands with gratitude and healing according to Your will.
Bless the hands, hearts and spirits of both giver and receiver in Your circle of light & life and keep us filled with gratitude and grace each day!
copyright 2012, Karen Bonnell
Caregiving is like a table
As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I am reflecting on those people, events, blessings which have made life immeasurably richer -- family, friends, beloved pets, experiences that create moments of heart-soaring joy and spiritual transcendence -- for gifts great and small, blessings bright and beautiful, I give thanks!
One of the brightest blessings in my life was my mother, Ann. She passed away this year in January, and her 93rd birthday would have been next week, so I am feeling a very complicated mix of emotions. And it occurs to me that so many caregivers face these jumbled roller-coaster emotions pretty much all the time. I think being willing to be emotionally vulnerable is almost a prerequisite to taking on the role of caregiver. You somehow find a way to blend love, duty, a desire to give, to be compassionate, to let your hands and heart do the work needed to bring tender loving care to another. You have to find a balance in the juxtaposition of both opening the heart and shielding it to protect it from being crushed and shattered. It is not an easy task. And yet it is one of the most rewarding experiences a person can have, in my opinion.
The key words about caregiving that come up repeatedly for me are compassion, vulnerability, stamina, and acceptance. You need them all in just about equal measure in order to keep your balance and not lose your own sense of self while caring for another. So, I picture these qualities as the legs on a table of caregiving -- if they are equal, the table top is evenly "balanced", strong and stable and it can bear a great deal of weight (and many blessings, too!). If not, things slip off and hit the floor, and shatter into a million pieces. Things like your sanity, peace of mind, self-esteem, health, and other really important stuff. Compassion and vulnerability are the "softer" emotions you need to draw upon to be loving and effective as a caregiver, while stamina and acceptance are strong qualities that you need to use in order to keep your own health and well-being intact. They all work together to create a good support for both you and your loved one.
So, how do you get your caregiving table in balance? I really wish there was a "one-size-fits-all" answer to this question, but, though there is a lot of advice out there, I think this is something each individual caregiver has to come to terms with in his or her own situation, with regard to the personalities and needs, relationships and responsibilities involved. From my own experience, I would encourage you to keep your heart open, even knowing the risks. Find ways to keep the softer qualities of compassion and vulnerability alive and prevent yourself from hardening as a defense mechanism. (Gratitude and remembering all the good in life, past and present help!) With some practice, this is similar to juggling and it becomes almost automatic. Sometimes it is simply keeping your attention on the balance aspect that is necessary to make it work. Other times, it is reaching out for help (there's vulnerability, again!) Keeping your own spirit strong and nurtured is crucial, and this website is full of ideas and information to help you do that through relieving stress, finding peace and comfort, balancing your own needs and care with that of your loved one.
So, to all the caregivers and to those they love: Wishes for a bountiful, beautiful, balanced table of blessings at Thanksgiving and the same for the caregiving table all year round!
Karen is a compassionate, enthusiastic student of life, who cared for her mother for 17 years. She brings her insights, compassion, experience and desire to share knowledge and healing to this ongoing conversation with others on the caregiving path. If you are caring for a parent, spouse, friend or other loved one this site offers sanity-saving tips, open-hearted self-care ideas, and an open forum for discussion, connection and sharing resources for the journey.
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