Coming Along Side Your Overwhelmed Care-Giving Friend

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Coming Along Side

For much of the care-giving experience, Caregivers are characterized as wired, tired and overwhelmed. It is not that all problems are insurmountable, it is that even easy things  feel overwhelming.  Have you ever heard  the old saying “it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back?”  The straws can be something as simple as counting pills or making an appointment.

As a friend, one of the best things you can offer is soul care.  Sometimes a simple smile, a kind word or a warm embrace does ten times more good than a laundry list of questions, simply ignoring them, or worse, making them bear your pain and discomfort.  A heart of soul care seeks to understand and approach the Caregiver with as little stressful communication as possible.

This is what psychologist Carl Rogers called congruence, or to come along side. Acting in congruence is not being superior or inferior. It does not judge like a critic and it does not shrink away in fear. You simply come along side and seek to understand, share and walk with them.  Talk with them, not to them.  You do not teach or orate.  You talk.   Think conversation, not monologue.

Just a few days after I learned my wife was at stage 4 cancer and probably terminal, I was at a point of overwhelm.  I gave the news to an acquaintance that my wife had breast cancer.  He immediately blurted out, “My brother’s wife had breast cancer. Boy, I’ll tell ya it was a tough deal. They flew all over.  They even went to Mayo Clinic.”  That was all he said.  This is a perfectly natural thing to say when you are nervous and don’t know how to respond, but it is a monolog, not a discussion.  He did not come along side me.  He relayed a fact, probably because he was nervous and didn’t know what to say.  And how was I suppose to respond?   Monologs aren’t conducive to a response.    I think I ended up saying, “I’m sorry for that,”  as if it was my responsibility to comfort him, not the reverse.   I walked away feeling even more alone.

That may sound nitpicky, or even selfish to some.   Some might say, “Wasn’t he just trying to relate?”  Maybe.  But this misunderstanding is why I am writing this article.   If you are in a bar with your buddies sharing stories, it is totally appropriate to compare scars and war stories. You can joke and even make fun of each other and grow your relationship.  But a Caregiver in the thick of it is a victim bearing one of the toughest loads life can offer.  Unless it is early in the process and the burden is still light, they simply don’t have the energy to deal with your pain in addition to their own.  By monologue-ing you run the risk of adding to the burden by giving  another burden to carry.

This is why good counselors world over are great at congruence.  They naturally enter into and walk along side another’s struggle and offer blessing in the midst of it. They even know how to joke and laugh without mitigating personal pain. They don’t show up and unload their burdens on their patients. The hurting naturally gravitate to these kinds of people because it is safe to feel and heal.

Sometimes it is hard to relate to painful situations. Frequently, we wrongly think we need to fix the situation or we don’t know what to say.  The best thing is to just be honest.  “Wow. I don’t know what to say” is relatable, honest and vulnerable, and since its true, it’s easier for the Caregiver to respond, “I don’t either sometimes.  I guess that’s okay.”    The truth is the hardest things in life aren’t easy to put to words.  Being speechless is normal and good.   Ever been around a deathbed with a guy who won’t shut up?

To someone deep in exhaustion, even something so subtle as a friend saying “Hey, what’s up?” gently  says “I know you’re experiencing a life-altering trauma but I don’t care enough to enter your world. I don’t care enough to relate to your pain.”    I know that is not what people mean, but it is what it communicates.  The Caregiver wonders, “What do you mean?  You are my friend.  Don’t you know my world is in shambles?”

I am not suggesting you have to be serious and mope all the time.  In fact, humor and distraction can be VERY healthy.  So if you are gifted in humor and know a Caregiver who needs to laugh, be intentional and loving about it, and go do it!   Take them to a stand-up comic or help them to laugh at everyday things. Even that comes from a place of understanding and knowing what the Caregiver needs and when the Caregiver needs it.  As Ecclesiastes says, “there is a time to laugh and a time to cry.”

When a  Caregiver’s strength is giving out, she is no longer living day by day.  She is living minute by minute because dealing with more than 1 minute at a time is too overwhelming.  At that stage, even genuinely answering the question “How are you?”  is an effort.   The Caregiver asks herself, Do they really want to know or are they just being nice. If she just says, “Okay” then she feels guilty for not being truthful to her friend.   Every fiber of her being could be feeling guilty for yelling at God or she may wonder if she can keep going another day.  Saying nothing about the barrage of emotions seems a lie of the highest magnitude.

So if you are going to ask a tired Caregiver  “How are you?”  be sure you and they genuinely have the time and energy to discuss a genuine answer.    If not, say something else. Naturally, we all use all sorts gestures like How are you? and What’s up?  What we really mean is to offer a general greeting or blessing  to a person.  This is good and normal.  So say just that.  Say “Hi” or “Hello” or “Blessings.”  If you really want to ask how she is, then say that – if you can bear the honest answer.  Say what you mean and say it with compassion and understanding.

I have 2 friends who are very compassionate hearts.   They saw another friend who was going through a dark time where sorrow and suffering was her daily lot. They quickly learned asking “How are you?” only reminded their friend of her daily dirge and sent her further into despair.  They adapted the phrase, “It’s good to see you today.”  This was brilliant!  It conveyed the love and sincerity they felt for their friend and also gave a positive blessing their friend so desperately needed.

So if you don’t know what to say to the hurting Caregiver, feel free to walk up, give them an embrace and say, “It’s so good to see you, today.”     It says, “I love you. And I am not going to let the circumstances of life interfere with my love.”  It comes along side them and offers congruence.

Sadly, the alternative is all too common and the results are bleak.  To not embrace the mournful person conveys conditional love, or worse, rejection.  To embrace them but be superior to them by offering unsolicited advice or judging their situation offers the dangerous and duplicitous message of “I will love you only if I can fix you.”

The beauty and blessing of coming along side someone in pain offers freedom, hope and joy.  In such a relationship, the Caregiver feels safe enough to be honest, share their needs and grow.  Problems get solved and life gets healthier.

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One response

15 09 2012

Beautiful. You were a great Caregiver, Ben. And it modeled Christ to all. I can only wish we all cared for you as well as you did for Val.

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