If you are like most, you are probably reading this in private so no one will know what you are reading…especially the one you are caring for. Because if you are like most caregivers of Hospice patients, there is an inherent guilt that swarms around your burned out thoughts and feelings. Some feel their fatigue is selfish, childish, and a sure sign of weakness. After all it’s not about you, right? It’s all about your friend, your mother, your father, your husband, your wife, your son, your daughter, your loved one!
So society tells us (or we internally tell ourselves) that we need to “suck it up”, “be strong”, “do what needs to be done”, “stop being a cry baby” and a whole host of other phrases to remind us to totally deny ourselves and focus on others. And without fail, those who follow that philosophy of total self denial and total self sacrifice end up flat-out burned out. So I want to encourage all of you to discover your own unique balance between self denial and self sacrifice. To discover this balance, let me offer you these suggestions based on the six primary areas that affect our lives.
Heart: Truth is, if you are caring for a loved one on Hospice, you are already grieving. People mistakenly think that grief begins at death. Not so! Grief begins at the time of loss or even expected loss. Some of you wives are grieving that you and your husband had planned on traveling a lot during your retirement years, but now that dream has come to an end.
Some of you friends are grieving that you and your friend played golf every Saturday morning, but now that is just a wish from the past.
Some of you sons are grieving the love that your mother expressed to you when she stirred the batter of your favorite cookie recipe with her favorite wooden spoon. Grief has already begun and it is critical that you care for yourself. In fact, it is time to silence that little voice in the back of your head that says, “Caring for yourself is selfish!” If you don’t take time to experience and mourn your grief, it will find ways of making itself known to you physically, mentally, spiritually, socially, etc.
Repressing your grief will only cause problems down the road. So allow yourself to feel the pain when it comes and give yourself permission to express it in the way that you mourn the best. Some cry. Some run. Some scrapbook. Some write songs. Some journal. You know what your way is. So don’t bottle it up inside. Be heart healthy and allow the grief to be expressed in mourning.
Physical: Even though your body feels exhausted and exercise is the furthest thing from your mind, it is one sure fire way to avoid burn out. Add to that drinking lots of water (to stave off the effects of dehydration) and eating healthy, you will be caring for yourself in a way that your body will appreciate.
Mind: Make up your mind that you cannot do it all. Firstly, “all” doesn’t need to be done. There are some things that can be left undone. I know from my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies, leaving some things undone is difficult. But if you don’t prioritize by doing first things first and pushing twenty-first things down to twenty-first, then you are, by definition, going to burn out, and fast.
So figure out what needs to be done and in what order and then decide who needs to do it. Some of the caregivers that I have personally seen burn out are those who enabled their lazy or reluctant family members not to do what they should have been doing. Instead of confronting them and assigning jobs to them, they complained about their family members and went ahead and did it all…and then burned out. I know how hard this can be, especially if you feel your family is dysfunctional, but the main thing is for you to learn to first say “no” to yourself. Know what your boundaries are and make up your mind to stick to the boundaries.
Spirit: The spiritual side of ourselves usually gets the short stick. It doesn’t grumble at us like our stomachs do when we haven’t eaten for a while. It doesn’t ache like our hearts do when we are sad. In fact, when things get hectic, our spiritual side is usually the last thing we think about. But one of the greatest ways to avoid burn out is to engage your spirit whether that be through meditation, prayer, spiritual songs, scriptures, reading, you name it. By engaging your spirit you escape from the “tyranny of the urgent” and embrace the “peace of the present”. As some traditions say, “You must be filled up before you can be poured out.” So don’t forget to fill up your spiritual side so you have something to pour out to others when it is needed.
Social: Seek out safe ears. You need a safe place to vent. If you keep holding it in, it will be like a tea kettle ready to squeal. So find someone that you feel safe with and give them these instructions.
1) I need you to listen.
2) I will tell you my problems, but don’t need you to give me solutions.
3) I will say some pretty ugly things, please don’t judge me.
4) Feel free to ask me questions, but please don’t give me advice unless I ask for it.
5) Be yourself so I can be myself.
Even if you can’t find a friend or clergy person who will do this, it is worth the money to go to a professional counselor so you can let your proverbial hair down and be you in all its beauty, strength, love, ugliness, weakness and hate. Letting the steam off helps ease burn out.
Truth is, life is hectic now and may be for a long while for you as a caregiver. If you are going to be able to finish the race well, you cannot totally deny yourself and totally sacrifice yourself. There must be a balance, a balance that is attainable. Only by finding this attainable balance will you be able to give the best care you can give to your loved one while caring for yourself the best way you can. I believe in you. You can do this. Pick one of the areas to start and get started today!