9 Lessons for Caregivers Through Serious Illness
The late thirties and early forties can be the most stressful time of a person’s life if they are caring for their parents while raising children of their own. A few of my friends have become the primary or second caregiver to their parents, accompanying them on doctor’s visits, then rushing home to help with homework and make dinner.
With them in mind, I appreciated the wisdom presented in the book, “The Art of Conversation Through Serious Illness: Lessons for Caregivers,” by Richard P. McQuellon and Michael Cowan. They offer nine virtues most needed in “mortal time,” a term they use to capture the experience of being aware of one’s own mortality. Here they are.
Genuineness. It’s awkward, yes. Watching a person die is probably the most uncomfortable situation we experience. Which is why it is so important to be authentic, real, genuine. As the philosopher Hans Gadamer said, “Thus a genuine conversation is never the one we wanted to conduct.
Presence. This is a toughie when you have so many other things pulling at you: 15 urgent emails from the boss, two phone calls to return, and the rest of the items of your to-do list. But by tuning into the other, giving as much of our attention as we possibly can, we give our ill sick one the most precious gift of our presence.
Sensitivity. If you don’t know how to read body language, start learning. All nonverbal clues like voice tone and pace of speech. To be a sensitive caregiver means to develop people-reading skills.
Courage. It’s not easy to accompany a person in mortal time. The bleak reality of impending death screams the opposite of the message we are accustomed to seeing: “20 Ways to Live Longer That Doesn’t Involve Any Kind of Pain.” But do it anyway. Go to the difficult doctor’s office. Be there for her test results. Tag along while she’s waiting.
Acceptance. Per the authors: “Acceptance is not giving up, but may mean letting go of the effort to control a situation fraught with ambiguity and uncertainties.” They then cite the “Serenity Prayer”: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Respect. This involves give and take, sometimes responding with deference to the other’s personal circumstances … you know, basically the opposite of how we conduct conversations in our day.
Compassion. Write McQuellon and Cowan: “Patients experience the compassion of their professional and family caregivers through many gestures such as a hug or what we call ‘kind eyes’ … to take that suffering into one’s heart and hold it there gently.”
Humor. I believe humor forces a much-needed distance between a scary event and your feelings, so that you can experience something difficult with a different perspective.
Awareness of limitations. The authors conclude this section with an essential message: “We cannot spare our loved ones or patients the sorrow and pain that is part of each and every one of our lives…. We are limited in our ability to protect those for whom we care from suffering.”