spiritual self-care

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.

Avoiding Church

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

Discover the essential self-care element for caregivers or stresed-out busy people. The discipline of spiritual self-care is a game changer. #selfcare

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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  1. This is so good, Anita! So many times those of us who are not walking through a valley or walking “with” someone through their valley, we forget that connecting with God is difficult, even painful. I remember feeling this after my mother’s death. It took some time before I could reconnect with God. I love your simple and practical advice on prayer journaling (or journaling). Prayer journaling and Bible reading really is my mainstay in the day-to-day! I’ll be pinning this for sure!

    1. I’m sorry for the loss of your mom, Beth. It’s good to remember those hard times occasionally–not to relive them, but to see how we’ve grown and to let our experience bring comfort and help to others.

  2. What an honest and beautifully written story! Thank you for sharing, Anita. Spiritual self-care for caregivers seems to be easy to overlook or avoid, but it really is vitally important. When I was the caregiver for my mom, I struggled mightily with guilt and shame (I worried that I wasn’t doing enough). It took me years to get over the spiritual desert that was the aftermath of her death. God was with me the whole time, but I didn’t realize it until much later.
    Laurie recently posted…Bridges Built Through GritMy Profile

    1. Oh, I can just imagine how difficult that would have been, Laurie! I’m glad you’re through the desert now and have insight to share with others who find themselves lost.

  3. Great post Anita! It took me back to caring for my late husband during his journey with brain cancer…I too had it out with God several times on the farm walking through the paddocks…
    He never left me & yes questions are the hardest to answer as it’s difficult to process…

    I enjoy a walk with God at the waterfront a couple of times a week, as well as having a daily time with Him in His word & journal when I need to.
    Tea With Jennifer recently posted…Knowing your body’s capacity…My Profile

  4. This post felt like a good visit around so many important topics. I find myself forgetting how heavy the load of caregiving can be, and this serves as a reminder to be especially sensitive to caregivers during this season. And I’m looking forward to incorporating my gratitude list into my regular journal entries this year. I know what you mean about the entries appearing silly to a casual reader, but what a great way to warm up our hearts for communion with God. We have so much to be grateful for.
    Michele Morin recently posted…Reading as a Way of LifeMy Profile

  5. It’s hard to know how to deal with those “How are you doing” questions as a caregiver. Sometimes I was grateful, but sometimes it felt intrusive. It was easiest to respond to people that I knew had been in my position and understood. Otherwise I usually just said “Ok.” Thanks for your good advice. In times of crisis we may not be able to maintain our usual quiet time routine, but it’s vital to keep feeding our souls and to keep in touch with God.
    Barbara Harper recently posted…The Fatal FlawMy Profile

  6. Thanks for being so open and vulnerable with us, Anita! I totally understand your feelings about questions regarding your husband. In 1999, my hubs became permanently disabled with bipolar disorder. There have been years he has pretty well spent in bed. Nothing was new to report to all the questions of well-meaning church ladies!

    I’ve recently adapted my spiritual self-care routine. I always read a devotion and do scripture writing in the mornings because I’m a morning person. But lately, I’m also doing an end of the day devotional just before I turn out the light at bedtime. I’ve found my subconscious likes to dwell on the Word while I’m sleeping. I’m having some amazing inspiration by doing so.
    Jerralea recently posted…The Journey’s Weekly Check-Up #3My Profile

  7. I am so thankful for this: “If there’s one person we can get real with, it’s God.” I try to temper my questions when I’m around people who are going through hard times. I know it’s important to let others know that we care, but I don’t want to add to their suffering. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Anita!

  8. Amazing story Anita! In the interest of full disclosure, self-caretaking care of my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs – has been one of my major tripping points in this lifetime. I took stem cells treatment at Swiss Medica Clinic. For a long time, I really believed that if I were to take care of myself I would be the most selfish person in the world.

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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