Caregivers: Burdened and blessed, and how to move on (Part 2)

In our southern society, it is inappropriate to complain, speak negatively, or moan-n-groan in general.  Ours is a community that prides itself on having-it-all-together and not revealing the deepest feelings with which we live on a daily basis.   As we consider this second article (of three) on how caregivers can grow spiritually, we must turn to the first order of business: Learning how to express feelings we would otherwise suppress, and becoming vulnerable with a loving, compassionate God.  In other words, letting it all out.

Many people feel that hiding feelings is somehow beneficial.  If we “let it out,” then we will loss control of ourselves and unveil our very fragility and brokenness to a cold and cruel world.   For some, especially women caregivers, this means that being passive, subdued, or subordinate, is a regular part of life.

Pursuing spiritual growth requires us to ignore these survival instincts.  Our conversations with God, not to mention our very relationship with Him, must honestly reflect the tumultuous storms that sometimes rage in the deepest parts of our being.  Jesus is our example:  Hanging on the cross at Calvary, his own bitter prayer was that of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul encourages his readers to “present your bodies as living sacrifices” and “be transformed in the renewing of your mind.”  Becoming vulnerable in honest prayer–allowing the frustrations that result from caregiving to see the light of day–is a spiritual act of surrender that gets us closer to the heart of God, because we let God into our heart.  We bend to God’s good and pleasing intention for our life.

There is a story of a woman who entered a psychiatric hospital kicking and screaming.  The nurses took away all that she owned except for a coin.  She fought anyone who tried to take it away from her.  Holding it with a deathgrip, she protected it because it was the only thing that reminded her of her old way of life.  But it was her old way of life that kept her from healing.

Though this story seems a bit extreme, it reminds me of our resistance to the Lord.  We feel that if we surrender all of who we are to God, we will somehow lose ourselves in God.  We fight hard to protect our sense of identity, our sense of control.   It is scary to pray honestly because the posture of prayer includes open hands rather than clenched fists.

Caregivers resist God because coming to Him with open hands also leads to guilt.  It’s bad enough that caregivers rarely feel like they are doing enough for loved ones; for caregivers to also admit that they have personal struggles, points of resentment, and periods of exhaustion just adds to the burden of care.

By coming to God with open hands and an open heart, however, caregivers can find a new sense of spiritual freedom.  Vulnerability is scary, no doubt–how many times have people let us down when we have become vulnerable to them?  But God is not human; He does not turn away a contrite spirit.  He does not allow open hands to go away empty.  There is no condemnation for those who love the Lord.

There are many ways to express feelings to God.  One idea is to keep a journal.  The best journaling happens when one free-writes without having to worry about audience, grammatical accuracy, or modesty.  Another idea is to read a variety of the psalms aloud–there is everything from pain (Ps. 22, Ps. 130) to praise (Ps. 23, Ps. 135).

Whatever we choose, we must realize that letting out frustrations and becoming vulnerable with the Lord is healthy for a vibrant spiritual life.  This is especially helpful for caregivers who face a multitude of burdens as they fulfill their call to care for loved ones.

Trinity Baptist Church is hosting the open house of the Center for Caregiver Spirituality on September 30th, 7 PM.   Click on the link for more details.

Caregivers: Burdened and blessed, and how to move on (Part 1)

About ten years ago, Cynthia took on an important role for her mother, Edith: that of caregiver.  At that time, Cynthia started to care for Edith, (who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease), personally, financially, emotionally, and spiritually.  Edith was such a supportive mother for Cynthia; Cynthia is now doing the same for her.

As Cynthia’s and Edith’s roles reversed, Cynthia realized that being a caregiver was both a blessing and a burden.  Cynthia had moments of fulfillment and joy, as well moments of resentment and anger.  It was a pleasure to help Edith, but the more time Cynthia took to care for her, the more she felt strained, pressured, and mistreated.   No one seemed to help Cynthia, and the blessings of care turned into an endless obligation of dread.

Cynthia is not alone.  The National Alliance of Caregivers states that nearly 29% of the U.S. population (up 5% since 2005) consists of people who care for loved ones, the elderly, or special needs children.   Like Cynthia, many of these caregivers confront mixed feelings of satisfaction and of suffering.

In our society, we depend upon our families for support.   This is, for all practical purposes, the way the world turns.   Yet, we pay very little attention to just how much the task of caregiving requires in terms of time, money, personal energy, and stress.  We certainly fail to see how much strain this places on individuals who are struggling with economic pressures, precarious careers, and much-needed time to raise healthy families.  Nevertheless, despite the many burdens caregivers face, society passes this expectation on from one generation to the next.

Churches have traditionally praised the role of caregivers without pointing out shortfalls.   We hear from the pulpit that Jesus commands us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him.  When God seemingly asks us to care for loved ones, we are deny ourselves yet again.

It is this very denial that creates the burdens that sometimes hinder the blessings afforded by healthy caregiving.  By “taking up their crosses,” Caregivers neglect the self-care needed to retreat, renew, rest, and exercise.   Often, caregivers simply don’t have the time to do the things that lead to a more balanced lifestyle.

Self-care takes a back-seat in the face of productivity and pressures: Caregivers work hard to please their loved ones.  To do any less creates feelings of guilt and of impending failure.  This, in turn, feeds a vicious cycle that spirals out of control: blessings, joy, exhaustion, guilt, resentment, anger.

A week passes–perhaps a month or a season–and the cycle begins again.  Caregivers end up broken, spent, and lonely.  Is there ever a chance for renewal, even if only for a few moments at a time?

According to therapists, spiritual leaders, and caregivers well-versed in this field, the answer is a resounding “yes!”   Many studies show that when caregivers invest even a few minutes a week in growing spiritually, attending church (one hour on Sunday will do!), and taking intentional steps to enact self-care, they gain the resources and energy needed to cope with the burdens associated with their particular journey.

Some churches are making a course correction:  As the number of caregivers increase, churches are starting ministries that cater to them and their loved ones.  These ministries create ways to help caregivers grow in their faith with loved ones, not in spite of them.

One way churches minister to caregivers is to explain that self-denial does not mean abandoning self-care and does not exclude receiving care from others.   Caregivers must work with God to allow a new cycle to begin: blessings, joy, exhaustion–pause!–retreat, revive, and renew.

As my church and I put in place a new ministry for caregivers in late September, I would like to take the next few weeks to share some biblical resources for caregivers in our community.    I hope that it will benefit the many caregivers who need some “good news” during these difficult days.

Trinity Baptist Church is hosting the open house of the Center for Caregiver Spirituality on September 30th, 7 PM.   Click on the link for more details.