I am having a lovely holiday season thus far. The first one that I am truly savoring in a long time. But I am writing today about some who are not singing such a happy tune.
At this time of year, it seems the whole world is merry and bright. Or at least that is what we often assume. One particular television channel has continuous holiday programming this time of year. We can count on the fact that while there may be some sadness or tears within the movie, the ending is always a happy one. The themes revolve around finding the Christmas joy, gathering with family, and celebrating the season. And did you notice there is nearly always continuous snow, but everyone still gets out and about? They seem to have blue skies and sunshine along with all the snow. Few become snowed in and the power rarely goes out. And if it does, there are always plenty of candles and blankets at hand. If someone gets stranded, it’s in a lovely small town, with a beautiful inn that just happens to have vacancies with a warm and loving innkeeper that makes them feel right at home!
However, I recall those not too distant years when I was not really feeling the holiday spirit. Many caregivers simply view this time as one full of more “shoulds” to add to their already heavy list of tasks. With their overloaded schedule, added expectations of decorating, gift buying, baking and finding joy are almost too much to bear. The holiday chaos that energizes some, comes close to pushing others over the edge. In addition, some caregivers have recently lost their loved ones, and this time of year is a reminder of that empty chair, the lost voice, the warm hugs that are no longer there.
Caregivers, I understand. You are not alone. There are thousands out there who feel just as lost and tired as you. I have been there. I experienced many holidays feeling overwhelmed with all the usual holiday tasks, plus trying to do my best at the office, be a good wife and mom, as well as working hard to create some holiday spirit and joy for my mother for whom I cared. As I look back, those holidays are a bit of a blur. So, I give you permission to skip the decorations, forget the tree, and heck, it’s OK with me if you need to say “Bah Humbug” this year. Don’t go shopping, or bake cookies, just try to find time for a nap.
Last year, I spent the holidays struggling to find my way in the new world of NOT being an active caregiver, while grieving the recent loss of my mother. I felt a sense of relief that my burden was lessened and I had more time to carry out my holiday tasks, but I also felt guilty about that. In some ways, I was relieved. I was relieved that her suffering was over. I was relieved to no longer watch her slow decline and her frustration with such. I was relieved to be able to travel to be with my grandchildren without worrying about her care – who was with her? Were they following my instructions? Would she fall while I was away? My worrying had been on overload for many years and it was quite strange to experience this new normal. But I also missed her as we carried out family holiday traditions of which she had been such an integral part. Not only did I still feel the numbness that comes after losing a loved one, my heart was very sad that she was not with us. It has taken a while for me to clear my head. It has been nearly a year since I last wrote a blog post. I just couldn’t do it. I needed time to heal and to find my bearings.
This year, while I miss her, I find that I am savoring the holiday tasks. For the first time since I left my job in order to devote more time to caregiving, I have the time to simply savor the season. I’m not as rushed, nor as weary. But I am still sensitive to the challenges caregivers face. As I listened to the sermon in church on Sunday, I immediately related the topic to caregiving. While I would hope that everyone can experience a joy this time of year, that is deeper and more meaningful than a brightly decorated tree or stockings hung on a mantle, for some that deep, sacred joy may be overshadowed by tasks and exhaustion. (Yes, I believe in that church stuff. If you don’t, stick with me anyway, as there is still a valid point to be made.)
The sermon was about Mary. Mary was going through a challenging time. She had been broad sided with some shocking news that would change her life in unfathomable ways. And let’s remember she was just a young girl. Not only did she have to process this new situation, she was going to have to explain it to her parents and to her fiance. Would they believe her? Would her fiance, Joseph, leave her? What about the community – would she be shunned, ostracized, or worse? Imagine the gossip! But apparently her family listened to her, Joseph listened to her, ( yes, with a little insight from an Angel) and so did her cousin Elizabeth. They listened to her story, they accepted what she had to tell them and they didn’t simply assume she had done something wrong. Well, maybe they did for a minute… but after listening, they began to understand.
This is a gift we could offer an exhausted, joyless caregiver – the gift of listening, and not assuming. In many years of working with caregivers one of the things I learned is that sometimes all a caregiver really needs is to be able to talk about the situation. Caregivers spend a lot of time worrying about the emotions of the person for whom they are caring but often keep their own emotions locked inside. They are dealing with an exhausting task and we know that sometimes even those we love immensely can get on our very last nerve! Offer a caregiver the gift of allowing them to vent!
I urge you to do what is called ” active listening”. This means you not only hear the words they say, but you seek to understand the meaning behind the words. And you make sure you understand before you offer advice. Maybe you do have some helpful advice to give, but first allow the person time to express their feelings, worries and their frustrations. Take time to try to understand their perspective and give them the gift of a time of “release” of those emotions and frustrations.
For those who are grieving or who have recently transitioned to no longer being a caregiver, some will take longer than others to transition from being an on duty, always-on-high-alert caregiver, to their new normal. We should not assume they are over it and ready to enjoy their new-found freedom. For a while, it may be challenging to find a new purpose. Some may be struggling with guilt for feeling relieved, as I did, or feeling they did not do enough, or that they should have done something differently.
I recently had a new thought on guilt. I think that in some ways guilt is an “active” emotion. We can actively explore what we might have done wrong, what we could have or should have done differently. It gives us something to “do” with our minds. When the reality may be that we simply did our best and now all we have is sadness. Many of us don’t like to feel or sit with “sad” so guilt moves in to fill the void. Maybe we can hear beneath those feelings of guilt, recognize their sadness and let them know that sad is ok. By feeling or acknoledging their sad, they can more readily move on from that sadness. I like to say you need to sit with it for a while. Running from it, trying to mask it, may delay the healing process. But as you listen, refrain from offering advice immediately. Let them take the lead in asking for advice. As they feel heard and understood and become comfortable with feeling the sadness, they may take the initiative to then ask you for advice.
For some, revisiting memories or thinking of that missing person during holiday festivities is too much to bear. I know of someone who is experiencing that this holiday season. It is hard for me to understand because I personally love revisiting memories, it is comforting for me. But for him, this first holiday season after his loss, it is too soon and too painful. But I can listen to his silence and be with him in that silence – letting him know that I hear him and he is not alone.
There are other gifts we can give. Make a meal and drop it by. You might offer to run an errand or to stay with the person for whom they are caring for a bit so they can run errands. But a listening ear is unique and much-needed. I believe this gift will be welcomed with a grateful heart.
It would be my personal hope that all frazzled caregivers would experience the deep joy this season represents – the joy of unsurpassed love, forgiveness and promise from our Father in Heaven. Some may have known that joy, but it is buried beneath their current sorrow. Some may choose to never pursue that source of joy. But whether or not that is the case, this holiday season, I just want you to know, I hear you.