"Be excessively gentle with yourself." ~John O'Donohue
This is undeniably, incredibly hard. I was a caregiver for my mother for 17 years, and we weathered multiple hurricanes and hospital stays, pneumonia, falls, and other assorted emergencies, but never a pandemic. During the last months of her life, my mother was in a nursing home and they had an outbreak of flu so bad that they closed to everyone in order to contain it. As irony would have it, I caught the flu there and was then unable to go back to visit my mother for 8 of the longest weeks of my life. So, I do have the very deepest empathy for any family member who is separated from their loved one during this crisis. Unable even to say goodbye. It's heartbreaking, deeply distressing and emotionally devastating. My tears have flowed with those of family members sitting outside the nursing home window with their loved on on the other side.
I cannot really imagine how difficult it is to navigate this crisis, but I would say to anyone caught in this cauldron of fear, pain, helplessness -- keep your focus on what you CAN do -- express your love and be present in any way possible. Use a phone call or video chat or a greeting card or photo held up to a window -- whatever works in your particular circumstance, do your best. And know in your own heart that you are doing the best anyone can in an impossible situation. Try to keep yourself calm and centered by any means -- prayer, deep breathing, meditation, yoga are all valuable helps. Know that others are with you in spirit, praying for your strength and safety. Be at peace. Be excessively gentle with yourself.
"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.
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
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!
"It may be when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey."
I have been pondering some deep subjects lately, spurred by both personal twists of fate and by a compassionate response to to the myriad circumstances and struggles of those around me. Some of my close friends are dealing with life and death issues, and many others, whom I know only at a distance, echo a host of seemingly desperate trials. All are searching (at least it seems to me), even as they deal with the daily onslaught of emotions, decisions, caring for others, trying to live their lives with grace and truth and to find a modicum of peace. Finding our balance in a world where the ground is shifting with seismic forces (emotionally and quite literally) beyond our control is a daunting prospect, yet the changes coming at us are constant, unavoidable and accelerating. I think this condition is common to most caregivers, as well, since there is almost always uncertainty and emotional upheaval involved at some point in the caregiving story. It is very easy, indeed, to slide into despair, or to anesthetize ourselves with various escapist paths, such as drugs or alcohol. Or, our response may be to stick our heads firmly in the sands of denial. Or to lose ourselves in an absolutely exhausting, endless "doing". It is less easy to stay present to our lives and ask the hard questions: why are we here, with these people, in this time and place? What is our purpose?
OK, I know I'm getting a bit mystical and metaphysical here, so hold onto your hat! What if the reason we are living here and now is a very high purpose, indeed -- a calling to heal ourselves and our planet? Could it be that the sum of life experiences we have individually lived, loved, worried about, prayed for, meditated on have been simply preparation for this incredibly important work? What higher calling could there possibly be?
I think this call to healing is one felt by most caregivers, whether acknowledged or not, and whether they are professional or family carers. It's a deeply intrinsic, instinctive part of our human psyche to want to heal situations, people, and certainly those we love. So perhaps Wendell Berry is right in saying that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. Maybe it's time to stop struggling and start healing. It only requires a shift in your perspective to cross the chasm. It's not as wide as you might think! Or, when you reach the end of your metaphorical rope, you can choose to just tie a knot in it and hang on...it is your choice. We each choose our coping mechanisms.
I just read a lovely book titled, The Gift of Healing Presence: Encouraging Thoughts for Busy Caregivers, by James E. Miller. In the introduction to the book, Miller writes: "I've created this writing with busy caregivers in mind, all sorts of them -- professionals, family members, friends, volunteers. I hope the following pages of thoughts, quotations, and images will invite you into this subject in a gentle, calming, and affirming way. After all, that's what healing presence is all about."
This is quite a special book, as I realized after reading the first few pages. It offers a caregiver a chance to understand what it means exercise the power of healing presence and to make a difference in very real and deeply moving ways. Miller writes: "Healing presence is a deeply conscious and compassionate sharing of moments with another person that naturally encourages a movement toward greater wholeness." This is a beautiful definition, because the greater wholeness is tangible and mutual -- both the person expressing healing presence, and the one they are with experience a lifing up, a healing. Being attended (on all levels) by a compassionate listener who cares about us is a powerfully transforming gift.
We are so very focused on doing in our current world. One is considered lazy, and beneath contempt if he or she is not constantly striving for more -- be that possessions or power or other earthly goal. Yet, in the end, if we do manage to capture "more" it is a fleeting success we enjoy, empty and lacking. Our response? To try harder still, seek more diligently, actively, ruthlessly, and often, selfishly for that brass ring -- you know, the one thing, that if you have it, you'll be complete. I submit that is a total myth, and we have all been dreaming that same collective dream. It's now time to awaken, not to act, but learn first to "be" -- to be present, to be in the consciousness of healing. This is a major life shift, I'm speaking of and some will find it incomprehensible and maybe even a bit frightening. For others, my hope is that as you read these words, there's a little zing of truth in your being. Pursue that. It is worthy.
I wish you happiness and fulfillment as you discover your "real work" and begin on your "real" life's journey!
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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