Do you know what to do if you’re on an airplane and there’s a sudden loss of cabin pressure? Scream? Pray? Scream prayers? All good suggestions, but if you had paid attention to the flight attendant before takeoff, you would know to “secure your own oxygen mask first before you help others.”
If you are a caregiver—either as a volunteer or professionally—for someone facing a serious illness, my guess is that you probably could do a better job of taking care of yourself. Putting on your own oxygen mask first, if you will. And if you’re the patient and not the caregiver, my guess is that you probably could do a better job of understanding what caregivers do and feel.
Thankfully, I’ve never been on a plane which experienced a sudden loss in cabin pressure, but hearing a diagnosis of cancer or some other life-threatening illness certainly has a way of making you feel faint. And the weeks, months or even years of caregiving which follow can leave anyone weary.
So I chatted with my friend Cynthia about the crucial but exhausting role of caregiver because: 1.) She’s been doing it for a really long time and 2.) She’s written a really helpful book on the subject called Cancer Journey: A Caregiver’s View from the Passenger Seat.
Cynthia says her role as caregiver to husband Jim has endured much shifting throughout his 15-year journey with non-small cell lung cancer.
“I had a hard time initially getting him to be honest and express his needs…,” she explains. “He would try to make light of his symptoms or…minimize them when we talked to the doctor.
“I finally convinced him that wasn’t helping him or me,” she adds.
Because Cynthia has been a caregiver for so long—through nine lung cancer recurrences, one go-round with prostate cancer, multiple surgeries and countless treatments—I asked her how she finds the physical and emotional energy she needs to care for Jim.
“Find a support group and it’s better to be in one just for caregivers if you can,” she says. “Then you can really express yourself instead of both trying to protect each other.
“That first year (after diagnosis) I didn’t really do a good job of taking care of myself.” Cynthia admits.
But in the intervening years, she says she has tried to play tennis or do Pilates/yoga a couple times a week. She also joined a community singing group which always lifts her spirits, and together she and Jim find stress relief by watching comedies and reading humorous books.
I’ve been a caregiver for family members—either unwell physically or mentally—for most of the past three decades. I’ve had a relative with dementia living in our home for years and I’ve made bi-weekly seven-hour car trips for months to be with a relative undergoing chemo. I’ve been so physically fatigued I had to literally crawl up the second-floor stairs and I’ve been so emotionally exhausted I’ve spent hundreds of dollars so I could pour out my woes to a counselor.
Being a caregiver is incredibly hard. I get it.
But I also know we make the job even more difficult when we fail to take good care of ourselves. Do you know what Jesus said the two most important commandments are? First, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and second “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Don’t miss those last two words: “as yourself.” It doesn’t just say to “love your neighbor.” It says we need to love ourselves. In fact, we can’t really love other people if we don’t love ourselves.
It is not selfish of you to do something refreshing, rejuvenating or relaxing for yourself. You cannot “fill up” your loved one when you both are running on fumes. Somebody is going to stall and get rear-ended.
The most loving thing you may do for your loved one today is to be good to yourself. If you can’t leave your family member alone, this is the time to call in one of those offers of help that others have made. Watch a funny movie, enjoy a massage, go fishing, get a pedicure, take a walk, hit a bucket of balls, or catch a nap. Do something to lift your spirits so afterward you can once again lift someone else’s.
Adapted from Peace in the Face of Cancer, copyright 2017 by Lynn Eib
(If the music video doesn’t automatically load below, click on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUEy8nZvpdM