Addressing Death – Providing Care

This is hard for me

Today in our sermon series on Addressing Death the topic is on providing care.  For me, this is a very difficult thing to talk about.  That may seem strange to come from a minister, but it is the truth.

I have never had to directly care for another near end of life for an extended period of time.   I have had some very difficult experiences to deal with both personally and professionally.  I have not directly felt or experienced what it is like to care for a spouse or immediate family member when it comes to failing health and death.  The closest I have come is to tell the doctors to stop the machines when my late grandmother was failing many years ago.  My mother was overseas at the time.  My two aunts agreed with the course of action but could not bring themselves to say or do it themselves.  My sister was the same.  I was the one, the youngest of all of them, who spoke for the family.  I was the one who did what needed to be done.  I was the one who took the misplaced darts of anger, grief and sorrow from my family.

This is a part of who I am, doing what needs to be done, and it does not always feel or look like I am the most caring person in the world.  As a minister this feeling and image deeply bothers me.  In fact, I have had a colleague tell me bluntly, “Ian you are not a pastoral care kind of guy.  You just don’t have it.”  That cut me deeper than I let on.  It hurt because I care quite deeply about all in my charge, my family and my friends.  This caring is a big reason why I work so hard to serve the church and my family.  I have a hard time expressing it in words.  I have a very hard time showing my deep emotions.

This is also where I am introverted.  I am very careful about who I let in, because I have been hurt a lot.  My heart is very precious and can be overwhelming to me, so I keep it under a sense of appropriate control.  My wife knows this.  The best way of showing all of you my heart is through laughter, a good conversation and hugs.  I love to listen to what is going on in someone.  I love listening to the person shares joy and love in the lives, and I also love being in the privileged space where pain, hurt and sorrow is shared.  It is in these moments that I get to see how God is working in the other, providing healing, challenge and growth.  It is in these moments that I find it easiest to see God, and then share that experience with others.

When it comes to providing care, I feel that we are really engaging in sharing Gods love, both with another, and with ourselves.  Yes, the care provider themselves matter.  Practically speaking, you are no good caring for another, if you are a mess yourself, both inside and outside.

I am not very good at this part … the self care part.  Personally, I have an unhealthily strong martyr streak in me and it takes effort to keep this streak in check.  A martyr is some one who cares so much about someone else that they neglect themselves completely.  The thing that we can feel we are called to do for others, can be the same thing that is our own undoing.  This is not a good or healthy thing.  There are times where we to need take one for the team, but if you are always taking one for the team, then there is no team at all.  Providing care for others and yourself means that we will need to rely on others for help to keep healthy emotionally, physically and spiritually.

Caring for another person is hard, disciplined work. Caring for someone we love is even more demanding because of the love that is always present underneath it all.  Providing care affects us physically and emotionally – and spiritually.

Caring for another person takes a toll.  I have seen this toll on others over time, and I have felt this toll through them too.  Our bodies can hurt resulting in someone to care for us.  Taking time to intentionally choose to care for ourselves, especially when we provide care for another is not always easy.  Guilt and grief are powerful motivators for many, and it is guilt and grief that lead to burn out too.  We may want to give all our time to caring for another, and in the process, neglect our own physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health too.

Guilt and Grief Never stop

When we find ourselves providing care one thing that I have noticed that is consistent is guilt. Guilt for not spending enough time with your loved one.  Guilt for not tending to your own family. Guilt for having negative feelings.  Even guilt for resenting the care you provide.  You may find yourself thinking, “shame on me for thinking all of this negative stuff.  I wish it would just be over so I could get my life back.”  Then we could feel more guilt about thinking that thought!

In my experiences this is a normal thing.  You love the person you are caring for, and do not always want to provide care.  This is normal.  If you know someone who provides care, they are likely walking around with a lot of guilt that needs to be released and there are many ways you can do that.

Connecting with organizations that offer education and support, investigating transportation services and scheduling time for yourself help sort through a lot of this.  Developing a support network is really since isolation and depression bring their own serious health issues.  Calling the minister, we have three available at this church and an active lay reader too, is another support that is available.  Try to come to terms with some of the negative feelings that come with providing care.  It is normal.

The other piece that is common is grief.  If you are providing care for a love one in a way, grief for the loss of the person you once knew, even though their love one is still alive is palpable.  The memory of what used to be is not what is present.  When someone dies, it can be overwhelming, but at least it is the end of something.  You grieve because you have lost the life you had, and you know it will likely not be coming back.

One way to address this kind of grief is to try and forge a new way of relating to each other.  If live hockey games are out of the question, perhaps listening to classical music together would be a new endeavour.  The arts can be a great avenue for caregivers and receivers to powerfully reconnect in a new way. Storytelling, dancing, playing instruments and painting — provide ways for each of us to enjoy a bit of fun together in a new way.

Faith in Jesus matters

Coping with guilt and grief are parts of a larger whole that we are often uncomfortable and uneasy with.  In the end, we may find ourselves afraid of what and who is next.  This is where faith in Christ matters.  When we are caring for someone we are working in partnership with God.  We care for the other as Jesus cares for each of us.  This means that we are not alone – ever.  This is what gives us hope and pushes us out the darkness of despair and depression if it takes hold.

When someone we love is failing we are not slowly waiting for them to drift away into nothingness.  Instead, we are slowly releasing them into Jesus’ full love and care until we meet them again.  2Corinthians writes, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. … So death is at work in us, but life in you.”

The challenge in all of this is not to become overburdened in our care providing that we leave no time to care for ourselves.  Trusting in the presence of God, in Jesus Christ, in this life and the next is foundational to the task at hand, and to our faith itself.  We are not alone, and we place our hope, faith and trust in the one who promised it in this life and the next.  Amen.