What a surprise! What a blessing! And what a learning experience for me.
Last month on Nantucket, I led a conversation on moving from discouragement and loss to joy during four Tuesday afternoons of Porchtime at the Parsonage. Our small group turned to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians for inspiration and practical advice as we admitted our own struggles and shared our efforts to master our grief, rebuild our lives and reclaim joy.
I had no way to know how many, if any, would show up. I was unknown, and small group Bible studies are not common there. I didn’t know what needs and issues participants would bring to the group. I didn’t know if they would be open among strangers. We are talking about New England, after all.
That first Tuesday as the hostess and I waited to see who, if anyone, would come, a young woman—a stranger to us—walked up. Visiting the island for three weeks from Texas, she was walking to another church on Sunday when she passed First Congregational Church, decided to stop there and learned about Porchtime. Four years after losing her husband, she was finally ready to reclaim joy. Two summer residents, both divorced, came. A life counselor. And a year-round resident who is mourning the seriously declining health of her husband. Later, she was joined by a friend who has been a caregiver for many years.
These women were hungry to be in a safe place where they could talk openly and honestly about their pain, grief and fears.
From feedback to my blogs and Facebook page, I already knew that divorced women identify with my loss and grief as a widow. They have repeatedly said, “Your experience is my experience. You put into words how I felt.” They too lost their companion, along with their hopes and dreams for the future. They lost friends, their identity as a wife and—in many cases—their homes and financial security. They dislike their new role—divorcée—as much as I dislike mine—widow.
What I had not encountered before, had not envisioned even as a secondary audience for my book was the hunger of caregivers for hope. In our small group, they were able to pour out their pain and find some comfort. And having tasted the promise of joy found in Scripture, they were hungry for more. On that last Tuesday, as I said goodbye, the group was talking about the need for year-round gatherings with a spiritual theme and making plans for Porchtime in summer 2018.
Since then, I have thought a lot about my own caregiving experiences, both as a daughter and as a wife. I wrote in RECLAIMING JOY:
On the worst days, I wondered, Is this the first day of the rest of my life? This was part of the guilt and regret that I carried after Lev’s death, but I learned through friends who had been there before me that it is normal. Most of us unconsciously crossed our fingers when we said our wedding vows to be faithful “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health.” Few would marry if we thought our future would be worse, poorer, or full of sickness. Young love breeds hope and brings joy. The reality is much more complex.
Due largely to Lev’s stubborn unwillingness to give in to illness, my caregiving experience was seldom all-consuming—three serious illnesses with prolonged hospitalization and rehab across eight years, each leaving Lev weaker than before; but those periods were difficult enough for me to realize how truly awful and exhausting caregiving can be.
To watch someone you love decline—especially when there is no hope for full recovery, especially when there is both mental and physical decline, when it’s out of your control, when you can’t change the outcome—is a nightmare. Too often, the caregiver neglects her own health and wellbeing as she focuses on her husband. When she needs friends the most, she has no time or energy to nurture relationships. And everyone else seems focused on the receiver of care, not the caregiver. Every phone call, every chance encounter with a friend seems to begin, “How is he?” Few want an honest answer to their question, and they seldom ask, “How are you?”
At least the subject is beginning to attract more professional and media attention, as we are living to be older and older, and eventual caregiving—or the need for caregivers—is another step in the aging process. Both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal often include articles on the subject; and Next Avenue, a project of PBS designed for boomers, regularly reports on issues of aging and caregiving. Here are two recent articles that shed light on the subject.
In my book, I address aging from the perspective of the widow, who will rely more and more on her children as she ages. For a study of the emotional toll on daughters who are caregivers, see Elaine M. Brody, Women in the Middle: Their Parent Care Years, 2nd ed., Springer Series on Lifestyles and Issues in Aging. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2004.
I frequently post articles on aging, widowhood and caregiving from the Times, Journal, Next Avenue and other sources on my Facebook page. Click here to like me.
I’d love for you to share your experience, advice and resources for caregivers.