Caregiving 101: Part Four: Feeling Alone

I took deep breaths, frantically thinking through the implications of my decision. It was hard to keep calm when I so desperately wanted to do the right thing. I had a specific deadline to meet to move my dad from his current unsafe living situation by himself in an apartment. I had done research, I had talked to people, I had looked at different places. I wished someone would pop up in front of me and tell me that they were taking over and I no longer had to make these kinds of decisions for him. Every single thing I did affected his life in a very real way. No matter what kind of advice I got or followed or resources I had, the cold fact was, at the end of the day, I was responsible. If I made the wrong call, my dad suffered for it.

That kind of pressure was unbearable and I shrank down underneath it, feeling miserable and alone. Who could I talk to about it that could help me? And, other than taking away the burden altogether, all help was ultimately meaningless. How could anyone’s advice do anything but make me feel like I was being attacked on all sides?

I was sitting at my mom’s dining room table; she was braiding my hair. I told her I had to make this decision and, before I knew it, I had broken down sobbing. I felt bad enough but it made me feel worse to cry in front of my mom. Despite her not wanting to be around my dad, she had tried to help me every way she could. He had already hurt her so much and now, because of me, she was being hurt again. It was my job to take care of my dad. For some reason, I felt like that also made it my job to protect everyone else from the responsibility.

That might not be rational, but it’s the way I felt. I both wanted everyone in my family to just help me and take some of the pressure away, and I felt this uncontrollable desire to protect them from him and try to do it all on my own. Asking my brothers to help take my dad to doctor’s appointments or having my sister use her hard-earned money to pay for movers felt like I was somehow making them take care of their abuser.

The weight of decision was crushing me and I felt so alone. Nobody else could make it for me. That didn’t stop everyone from having an opinion, but that just made it worse. Opinions weren’t help. Opinions just made me second guess myself and feel like a bad person because, apparently, I wasn’t taking care of my dad right. I got emails from different people, each telling me their concerns about how I was moving too fast, not letting my dad adjust, not handling the money right, or worried about the wrong things. They sent them from the security of their own homes, far away from the burden of decision, and it left me reeling. I was insecure and upset and didn’t know to handle this onslaught of well-meant advice and concern. It left me feeling like I was being personally attacked and that my relationships with my family were being damaged. People that I had looked up to suddenly felt like enemies. For someone who loves peace, it was the worst thing that could happen.

These feelings were so visceral that as I read back through my old journals in preparation for writing my book, I had a panic attack when reading emails from five years earlier. I was trying to handle it as best as I could at the time, and I had big decisions to make, but those feelings of being attacked were never dealt with and caused me to be triggered when interacting with those people.

I can only share my experience and side of the story. Perhaps it would have been better if I’d had the ability to be more openly honest about how I was feeling. Maybe my family relationships would be better. What I do know is that I should have dealt with how I felt about the current crisis, but I ignored it and moved on. I didn’t want to make waves; I didn’t want to cause friction. I thought it was my job to hold the family together. Usually, I did it by helping translate to other people what someone else was feeling. I wasn’t sure how to do that for myself. I wasn’t used to being the source of contention. I was a peacemaker disrupting the peace!

We do need to make a distinction between peacemakers and peacekeepers. One inspires peace by showing peace. The other becomes the peace, which isn’t really peace at all. For years I had been peacekeeping, when I should have been peacemaking.

Peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace should be fought for. It may seem counter-productive, but if we don’t fight for peace, it won’t happen, because God requires our participation in our peace. Romans 16:20 says, “the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet” (NIV). We need to lift our feet to make it happen. We contribute to having peace, but we cannot achieve it by ourselves. We won’t get it unless we follow the Peacemaker’s lead. Jesus leads us out of death, fear, and control into peace.

Peacemakers are reconcilers; they are bridges. Let me be clear, they are not pushovers, or people who let themselves be abused so as to avoid conflict. They are examples, letting people walk alongside them as they live out peace in their own life. Their motives come from a strong love for others, not a strong love for themselves, even though they do love themselves well.

A few weeks after the crying incident with my mom, I was at church listening to the sermon, still trying to figure out my reaction to the emails. The sermon was on peace. I realized that I was more worried about my rights and being right, more worried about what they thought of me, than I was about the people involved, including my dad. I decided to let my own hurt feelings go. To this day, I believe that was the right decision. What I don’t think was right, was me believing being responsible meant I had to do it all alone.

I was frustrated with my family for not helping me more, for letting me be the sole person to carry this burden. And it wasn’t because I didn’t respect their decision to protect themselves, but because it made me feel afraid to ask for help for myself. I desperately needed help and support and, yet, I was afraid to even bring it up because I didn’t want the mention of my dad to cause any more pain. I was perpetuating that cycle of fear he had instilled so long ago, the one that made us afraid to even talk about it. Talking about things is a healthy way to heal together. By not talking about it, I often made assumptions about their motives and what they were willing to do. I had honestly assumed that I would get nothing from some people because of how they felt, not even for me, especially when they didn’t agree with my decision to help him.

But though I felt alone so often, I think it’s important for me, even now, to remember what help I did receive. My mother went with me to review living situations for my dad. My brother (suffering from a collapsed lung, no less) helped me move my dad from his apartment to his new place. My other brother took my dad to countless doctor appointments. My mother helped me clean up my dad’s apartment multiple times, in broiling heat. My sister hired movers and cleaners and filed my dad’s will and researched social security options. My mother listened to me complain and worry and fret and gave me practical solutions and comfort. My brothers supported me in my decisions. My sister texted me every day the week that he died, to make sure I was okay.

I know my family loves me and I love them too. I should have asked them for the help I needed, because I was so alone and felt like I couldn’t ask and yet look how much help they actually still gave me. Perhaps it would be a good idea for you to stop and look at what help you are actually receiving now, rather than focusing on the burden of responsibility. Don’t wait to do it in hindsight, like I did.

I recommend you be honest with your loved ones about what you need, even if you don’t know what that is at that moment. Let them know you’re not doing all right and that you need support of some kind. You may worry about being a burden, you may feel like you’re doing to them what your charge is doing to you, but families take care of each other and families need to communicate. It’s okay to be weak and vulnerable with each other. When we do, we break through the barriers that shame and fear would have us keep between each other. And if we’re open and we’re honest, we can communicate kindly and gently, without accusation, without that desperate fear I held, of hurting them more. It’s more healing for everyone.

Not everyone in your family may be ready for that and I urge you to make sure you are safe in sharing your feelings. Be wise, because it might not be the right time. Only you know your family. But you can be a peacemaker, that bridge, that shows others the way. We can demonstrate it for them as Christ demonstrated it for us on the cross. He wasn’t thinking about Himself, He was thinking about us. Yet, He shared His pain with His disciples, with His followers, and with His Father. Jesus felt His feelings and asked for help when He needed it, praying for strength. If even Jesus needed to be vulnerable, then I think we should be open to that in ourselves and in our relationships.

The best way to handle feeling alone in caregiving is to share those feelings with the people we are close with and not live in fear that sharing those feelings is going to make things worse. It will be difficult or uncomfortable, but feeling so hopelessly alone is far worse. Trust me. Reach out. Be a peacemaker and speak the truth in love.


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