I talk to my patients about the many faces of love, whether romantic or non-romantic love. There is the “It’s early on and everything you say is fascinating” love, the “We know each other so well and can finish each other’s sentences” love, the “Wow, you can still surprise me” love, and then sadly, the “You’re really sick and I’m terrified of losing you” love. I’ve gone through the last one and it was so terribly painful, and yet in the midst of that pain there were moments of joy too. I was taking care of someone, who was very sick and diagnosed with a serious illness. (Thankfully he is stabilized now.) There were days when just the thought of losing him made me tear up. One day I even had to put on my sunglasses because the tears just started rolling down my face while I was walking outside. Other days, my fear would turn into anger when he wouldn’t eat despite my best efforts and cajoling. Yet throughout this, I would experience unexpected moments of profound beauty when he would allow me to take care of him and I realized that caretaking a sick loved one can be an honor and a gift. I was awed by his vulnerability, trust, and acceptance. It takes real strength to show your vulnerability to someone. Then there were moments when I saw that he was trying to survive and my heart felt like it would explode with love, joy, and gratitude at finding him alive for another day.
How did I get through this difficult period and remain sane? Well I relied on wonderful, supportive friends, who would take my despondent, late night calls. I contacted my old therapist, who was willing to work with me on an as needed, weekly, or even telephone basis. I practiced forgiveness with myself when I fell short of my expectations of being “the compassionate, wise, and calm caretaker.” That meant that when I was unreasonably angry because he was too nauseous to eat and I accused him of reneging on his promise to try, I later forgave myself. (Of course, I apologized to him too.) I knew it wasn’t my finest moment, but I knew it was my own fear of losing him that led me to be so childishly angry. Also, I had to acknowledge that I was doing my best under difficult circumstances. Even after clumsily giving him shots with trembling hands, I had to be grateful that I had gotten it done and tried to believe that I would get better with every shot. I tried to take care of myself. On those days when even I didn’t want to eat, I made sure that I did and tried to get enough rest because it wouldn’t help either of us if I got sick. And lastly, I was grateful for every day that he stayed alive. It forced me to stay in the present because looking too far ahead was scary and made me miss out on the joy of having today together.
So if you are caretaking a seriously ill loved one, my heart goes out to you and my advice is: Cut yourself some slack; you’re doing your best under extremely difficult circumstances. Be sure to:
- Have a support system, such as friends, family, and a mental health professional
- Be compassionate with yourself and forgive your shortcomings
- Take care of yourself also
- Be grateful for the time you do have
Thankfully my loved one is stabilized and I wish you and your loved one all the best.