Sadness stalks caregivers. It’s brazen, approaching us with no regard for where we are or what we’re doing.
Early on, the disease that has attacked our loved ones plants a dull ache in our hearts. Without warning, the ache can become a sharp pain, sharp enough to overwhelm us. A caregiver overwhelmed by sorrow cannot give care. So we must arm ourselves in advance with healthy ways of handling sadness.
First, a few things to avoid.
- Don’t deny your sorrow, to yourself or anyone else.
If you try to pretend you’re not feeling pain when you are, at some point your mind and body will rebel. Using the tools they have, they will insist you acknowledge your feelings, first to yourself and also, at least to some degree, to those who know and love you. Their tools are formidable: insomnia, lack of appetite, depressed mood, and inability to concentrate are a few.
- At the same time, don’t go looking for sorrow.
Chronicling the progression of the disease is a good practice, but it tempts us to watch only for the negatives. In addition to noting new incapacities, keep track of your loved one’s capabilities. Look—actively, intentionally—for things to be thankful for.
- Don’t feel guilty because you’re not sad.
Maybe you think you should be sad when you take a break from caregiving, but you’re not. Maybe you think you should feel sad when your loved one must be moved to a care facility, but you don’t. The truth is, we don’t order up our feelings. They’re delivered to us at wildly random times in plain unmarked packages. There are no rules to govern them. The only thing we can control is our response to them. Responding to lack of sorrow by trying to manufacture guilt doesn’t make sense.
- Don’t project your feelings on your loved one.
This is something I used to do with my mom. An example: I’d be brushing Mom’s hair in front of the bathroom mirror, remembering how her hair used to hang in long waves, shining clean, around her face. Seeing it as it was in the mirror—short, straight, dirty—led me to mourn the stylish woman she used to be. And because she could see everything I saw, I decided she must be sad, too, at growing old, with her hair and clothes so different from the past. So I’d start comforting her—both of us, really. The results became predictable: either she heard the emotion in my voice and became sad along with me, or she’d hear and not understand, which made her angry. Obviously, neither was good. I urge you to assume nothing with regard to the one you care for; instead, take your cues from them.
So what are the actions we can take to handle the sorrow of Alzheimer’s in a healthy way?
Maybe this will be a good friend, or your spouse or pastor. Another excellent place to share feelings is at an Alzheimer’s support group meeting. The simple act of honest sharing with someone who cares about us, with people who have experienced what we’re going through, somehow brings relief. Once we shine the light on the truth, we no longer have to hide from it, or bear it on our own. In addition, the person we talk to can probably see the situation more objectively, and may be able to make helpful suggestions. Options—they’re always out there, just hard, at times, to see.
- Allow yourself to be comforted.
This goes along with “Don’t deny the sadness.” Allowing others to comfort us emotionally and even assist with the tasks of caregiving means setting aside our ego. We must be able to say, “This is difficult. I need help.” Asking for help makes us stronger, not weaker; more effective, not less.
- Journal about your sorrow.
Putting our feelings into words on paper can bring us much the same kind of relief as talking to a friend. While the paper doesn’t respond to us with words of understanding and care, the act of simply writing whatever comes to mind, knowing we are the only ones who will read it, frees us to be absolutely honest. Journaling can reveal and help us to understand thoughts and emotions and ideas we didn’t know we had.
- Replace sad thoughts with happier truths.
Simply telling ourselves not to dwell on sad events and feelings doesn’t work. In fact, just pushing thoughts away can make it even harder to get rid of them. The better practice is to capture negative thoughts, send them away, but fill the hole they leave with another thought, one that is both positive and true. For example, instead of dwelling on “Dad didn’t recognize me yesterday,” concentrate on “Dad still trusts me to help him.” Replace “Mom hardly talks anymore” with “Mom likes it when I tell her the old family stories.” And don’t have the positive statements only as replacements; remind yourself of them often. “Chocolate ice cream is still Dad’s favorite.” “Sometimes Mom smiles when I sing.” “Dad still enjoys big hugs.” The more we speak the positive truth, the more we—and our loved ones—benefit.
- And, of course, we can pray about our sadness.
The Lord doesn’t promise to take away pain in our earthly life, but He says He’ll never abandon us to it. He sends His comfort through our friends and family, in nature and music and beauty of all kinds, in ways we can feel with our senses and in secret ways only He and we know.
We caregivers can’t escape sadness. Watching a loved one, in spite of all our best effort, lose more and more of life can seem unbearably sad. But we are called to care. And so we’re enabled to bear the pain—not walk through it as if it weren’t there, but bear it, carry it with us as we help our loved ones on their way to an eternity free of all pain and sorrow. Their future makes our burden lighter.
“Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows….and by His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4,5 NIV).
Lord Jesus, as we see the suffering of our loved ones, You alone know the heaviness of our hearts. Comfort us, please, with Your love and care, so that we may be comfort for others.