In this fourth installment celebrating National Family Caregivers month, I’ll share the importance of spiritual self-care for caregivers. Don’t get me wrong, spiritual self-care should be a high priority on everyone’s list, but it’s especially important for caregivers!
Spiritual Self-Care Fail
I had only gone to church a handful of times since April, but that day I felt the need to attend. After all, the church always had a beautiful musical program the week before Christmas. I didn’t want to hear exhortation or counsel from a preacher—I just wanted to hear beautiful music of hope.
“Want to go to church today?” I asked Pedro. Many weeks we had stayed home because his immune system couldn’t handle the germs—chemo did that to a person. Pedro’s doctors had cleared him for travel, and he’d arrived at the airport from the hospital in San Francisco the day before. He looked like a walking skeleton, but the doctors had declared that the cancer was in remission and cleared him for a stem-cell transplant after Christmas.
“Sure,” he replied. His reply required that he first move his bottom lip up with his hand so he could form the ‘s’ sound. The cancer had frozen most of his facial muscles, making it difficult to speak and eat.
We arrived to church late, and made our way up the stairs to thebalcony room. From here, we could enjoy the service without dealing with toomany people (and their germs and questions). The questions always got to me.
People have no idea what their questions do to a caregiver. Most of the time, my pat response to ‘How’s Pedro doing?’ was a chipper, ‘Great!’ I didn’t have the emotional energy to outline the latest treatment plan, its efficacy, and Pedro’s mental state as he got weaker and weaker and his body wasted away.
I had ventured to church once or twice, but some well-meaning church lady had always cornered me and wanted to offer her cancer-fighting tips: Forget chemo and rely on faith (which would result in a dead husband). Carrot juice enemas and raw garlic would bring a certain cure (I never understand how these magical cures would fight cancer inside his spinal fluids.
Even worse? When the church ladies would look deep into my eyes and ask me how I was doing. I didn’t know them well enough to spill my guts, not to mention that I didn’t know how I was doing. I lived in a happy-face state of grace where I just survived from day to day. If I avoided thinking about potential loss, maybe I could avoid loss.
I remember just barely holding it together during the service—music often makes me weep, and my crazy emotional state as a stressed-out caregiver kept my tears primed and ready. By the time we reached the lobby after the service, few parishioners remained. As we headed towards the door, a dear friend of ours glanced up and saw Pedro for the first time in months.
“Man, you look awful!” he blurted.
A thousand thoughts clicked through my mind at warp speed and time seemed to stand still as I waited for Pedro’s response.
Pedro burst out with a guffaw of laughter and reached out to hug our friend. When he quit shaking, he moved his hand to his lips and said, “It’s about time someone told me the truth!”
“I’m sorry, man, I shouldn’t have been so blunt,” our friend said.
“Don’t apologize,” Pedro assured him. “I like honesty.”
Honesty with God
Later on, as I replayed the scene in my head, I realized that I had studiously avoided honesty for eight months. The week of Pedro’s initial diagnosis, I had gone on a long, cold walk in the snow and duked it out with God. That session had left me accepting the journey before us and determined to carry on with grace.
At two other points along the way, I had cried out to God in frustration and grief when Pedro’s circumstances looked dire. For the most part, though, I had studiously avoided whining to God. As if too much of my anger and grief might annoy the Holy One. As if I had to supply the grace for my journey.
I stalwartly stumbled along, avoiding things that might make me emotional (like church). Sure, I read the Bible, but usually just the Gideon Bible left in the hospital. I left my beloved Bible at home with the excuse that I didn’t want to haul the extra weight around or take a chance on losing it.
Journaling my prayers provided a modicum of relationship, but I didn’t even do that consistently. For some reason, I had this idea that God had given me the burden and he expected me to carry it alone.
Always Means Always
That verse from Matthew 28:20 slipped right out of my mind—”Surely, I am with you always.” Always. Not just sometimes. God doesn’t allow trials and burdens to befall us and then stand back to see how we’ll handle the stress. He promises to be with us—always.God doesn't allow trials and burdens to befall us and then stand back to see how we'll handle the stress. #caregiver #selfcare Click To Tweet
In fact, as Christians and caregivers, we have a unique opportunity to experience what James talks about in his book: “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides.You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way” James1:2-4.
I forgot one of the most beautiful realities of the Bible. God can handle wrestling matches with us. He can handle our anger and our angst. God doesn’t expect us to spout psalms of praise 24/7. A quick survey of the psalms reveals that many times the authors lamented and railed rather than praised and exalted.
If there’s one person we can get real with, it’s God. Whether you care for someone long-term, short-term, or just struggle with caring for yourself, spiritual self-care should form an important part of your daily routine. I have discovered that journaling—I don’t know if I’d call it ‘prayer journaling’ exactly—helps me stay focused.
My Spiritual Self-care Routine
I’ve discovered that anything from a composition book to a fancy journal works just fine. I start each entry with a gratitude list. Some days the list looks simple (silly to someone who might open my journal and peruse it). I might list an animal I saw the previous day, or a bird that I observed. Sometimes I list family members, students, or colleagues.Occasionally I list food—who wouldn’t be grateful for lava cake or pumpkin spice scones?
Next, I copy a Bible verse. I might use the verse of the day that shows up on my phone app, or something that speaks to me from my current Bible study.
I finish by talking to God in written form. This ranges from specific prayer requests for people, situations, or events to a dairy-like entry of what I did the previous day. Sometimes I’ll ask God for specific help with upcoming situations. At times I lament and rail, whine and complain, and wrestle with God on paper.
The whole routine takes anywhere from 10-20 minutes each morning. It provides an opportunity for me to focus on what God does in my life (the gratitude and praise list), how God speaks to my life (the Bible verse), and what I wish God knew about my life (yeah, I know he already knows, but he wants us to bring our cares to him and form relationship).
Using this spiritual self-care routine has helped me live with less stress because I have a system for bringing my worries to God. I process things on a daily basis instead of living in denial. This honesty deepens my faith and nurtures continual growth.
What ways have you discovered to develop your relationship with God and what spiritual self-care routines do you follow?
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