God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. These words from the serenity prayer are familiar to many people. They make sense.
But as a caregiver, many times you feel hopeless to change anything about your current situation. For awhile, Viktor Frankl felt helpless to change his situation, too. Frankl was a German psychiatrist who spent several gruelling years imprisoned in Auschwitz.
Suffering the most cruel and humiliating deprivations, he observed: “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,…”
Frankl spends a large part of his book, Man’s Search For Meaning discussing the issues of attitude and responsibilty. As caregivers, we sometimes have this responsibility thrust upon us.
Suddenly one or both parents are no longer capable of living on their own. Or perhaps severe illness suddenly strikes a spouse or a child, a sibling or a friend. Or a family member becomes the victim of an accident or crime.
When called upon to respond to these situations, people may sometimes feel a certain sadness, due to a loss of personal freedom, a life schism that was unanticipated. There are times when tempers flare and caregivers may wish to fight against the unfairness of the situation, or resist the restraints caregiving puts on them.
While the focus is on the patient, the caregiver struggles with feelings of inadequacy, disappointment and sometimes even resentment.
This is wholly natural, and bound to occur. However, once the initial shock wears off, it is important to recognize what it is within the situation that can be changed. One aspect that affords change and which will bring the most benefit to you and to your patient is your attitude.
Take a person who resents being a caregiver. Perhaps they were thrust into the situation, perhaps they felt they had no choice in the matter. This attitude will create a negative atmosphere for both the patient and the person caring for them.
The effect, however, will be most harmful for the one harbouring the bitterness: every day will be a new source of irritation, frustration and general bad feelings.
But if the care giver can bring themself to the attitude that it is important to be the one who is accompanying the patient on his last journey, that it is a journey that demands dignity, humour and kindness, the days will pass very differently for both the patient and the person caring for him.
As Frankl notes, in dire situations, it is not always what we expect of life that matters. As caregivers, we must ask ourselves, what does life expect of us?
And for each of us, Frankl believes,a ‘unique opportunity’ is presented when we find ourselves confronted with severely challenging situations; an opportunity to find in ourselves a previously unfathomed capacity to act with dignity, compassion and honour.
For twenty-one years now I have lived with a man who daily reminds me he is dying.
This has led to a split life for me. I find myself constantly in conflict, constantly questioning my priorities. What should I do next? Spend time with him? Or get on with my work—whether it be writing, housework, or bookkeeping. Or time with friends.
I talked with clinical counselor, Alma Vaugeois about the frustration of constantly having to forego choices unrelated to the caregiver role.
Having to constantly focus on the person being cared for can mean giving up aspects of one’s own life, Alma explains.
Because all of your energy is going into him, there will be a sense of loss for yourself.
This rings true with me. I do feel that I have somehow lost ‘me’ somewhere in that deep chasm between the immutable ‘now’ and the looming ‘then’.
Somewhere between “life with Chris”and the looming future of “life after Chris” my own life seems to have slipped away.
It is ironic that even as delicate as his health is, he can travel with his children without his timelines being affected by any aspect of my life, whereas I have put off a number of trips in consideration of his next procedure, or his present fragile condition.
And I ask myself, are these the ‘fear based’ decisions that self-help gurus preach against? Or are they merely practical considerations in light of his medical history and current situation?
I need to figure out how to carve out time for me, to see some aspect of myself as blooming, even if only in inner space.
I need to find a way to feed my passions while still caring for him to the best of my ability.
Because if I toss my entire life to the wayside in my intent to care for him, I will become resentful and bitter.
I will fester in the role of caregiver. And me festering? It ain’t a pretty picture!
To learn more about Alma Vaugeois, go to www.almavaugeois.com