Henri Nouwen reminds us that “to care is to be present to those who suffer, and to stay present, even when nothing can be done to change their situation.” Family caregivers face the challenge of seeing a loved one suffer weakness and pain but also struggle in the midst of so many changes and demands on their own time and energy.
Staying close to someone who requires our care demands so much of us. At times we may well wonder if we are up to the task and if we will be sustained for the long haul. Although all caregivers are allowed their occasional bouts of self-pity, if for the most part we give begrudgingly, if we resent the demands placed upon us and focus on how constrained we may feel by present circumstances then we run the risk of closing our hearts off to the profound spiritual gifts that are to be experienced within our daily struggles as caregivers. And giving care in a detached and defended way actually increases the likelihood of burnout, increasing resentment and despair. Our efforts to protect ourselves from sorrow and distance ourselves from the one who needs us actually separates us from the surprise of joy and the experience of blessings when and where we might least expect them.
Many sick and dying people feel they’ve become nothing but a burden to their families. And in truth the myriad of demands placed upon a caregiver are burdensome! However, there is a greater mystery at work. As we draw closer to the one who suffers, to the one who requires our care, we discover that we are deeply connected. It is not only the sick or dying loved one who is making a journey, we too are given the opportunity to make a journey of self-discovery. The great need and vulnerability of the one we care for calls forth “our better angels” and gives us countless opportunities to express our true and compassionate selves. At the same time that we experience the burden of caring we also feel a sense of meaning and purpose. Both are true.
Each of us may have presumed that given our relative strength and health we are the one giving care. It is an amazing and uplifting experience to receive care from the one we had perceived had nothing more to give. It may come as a surprise when we least expect it.
I will never forget the last words spoken to me by 93 year old, Edith who having been predeceased by her siblings, husband and children couldn’t imagine the point of living. Edith had stopped eating and appeared to lack the strength to ever again get out of bed. She did me the honour of asking her caregiver to dress her in a lovely frock so that we could have tea together and speak of many things in what became our weekly visits together. Much to my amazement, Edith announced in what was to be our last visit before her death, “I didn’t know I would meet a new best friend at the end of my life.” Imagine my joy!
And amidst all the physical actions we take to give care to a loved one it is important that we recall the wisdom expressed by palliative physician, Rachel Naomi Remen who reminds us that “the most basic and powerful way to connect with another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”
When we give care out of our compassion then we deepen and express our spirituality. When we approach the one who is weak with loving-kindness then we enrich our own spirits and expand the capacity of our hearts. When we open our hearts to hold a merciful awareness of our own vulnerabilities and limitations then we experience our profound connection to the one we care for. When we do our work of caregiving with compassion we are attending to the spiritual needs of the one we care for but also for ourselves. And when we receive the blessing of compassion and gratitude expressed in words or in silence by the one we are caring for we are nourished and sustained.