My mom and I put the stamp on my dad’s 2018 tax return in March of 2019. That was it, I thought, the last thing I have to do for him. All the papers had been filed, the stuff sorted, the bills paid, the money disbursed, and the responsibility done. I was finally free.
True, my physical responsibilities were done, but my time of healing had only just begun. To be honest, it’s still happening. I don’t know if there will come a point when I can point to myself and say that I’m completely done processing what I went through with my father. My desire is for progress, and the bulk of that is done through acknowledging the trauma is there at all. The path to peace and being a true peacemaker does not come through denial.
If you can, once all the practical stuff is taken care of, make sure you take the time—through vacation, therapy, journaling, nature walks, time with family and friends—to heal. You’ve been under such an immense stress for so long that it has actually built up in your body. It needs to be healed and released or that stress will remain there, causing physical pain and mental torment.
The truth is, caregiving wasn’t the only stress in your life. Life itself is stressful. Not only were you caregiving, but you were working, raising a family, balancing expectations of what you want vs what you can afford, paying your bills, taking care of your house, traveling, handling relationships, and serving. In short, living your life. You have other ways to build up stress, so don’t let the excess you incurred during caregiving keep weighing you down.
I took 2019 as a year of recovery for myself. I still had to work and take care of my responsibilities, but I didn’t take on new ones. I didn’t serve anywhere at church and I didn’t do anything that didn’t sound relaxing if I didn’t have to. I focused on therapy and taking an online course that would help me work though things and make new friends. I built up my identity and life since I was free to do so. You might need to focus so much on you and your own self-care that some people call you selfish. So long as you’re not actually being selfish, don’t pay attention to that. Just like when they tell you on the plane to focus on putting your own oxygen mask on before helping others, you have to heal and recover before you can take on more. Don’t overdo because you’re finally free.
Have grace that it will take as long as it takes. Your period of recovery may be longer than mine and your grief may strike you more keenly. That’s okay. So long as you are not wallowing in it and renewing it on purpose so that you don’t have to face the world again, it’s okay to take as long as you need. Recovery is not about ignoring the needs around you, but understanding what your capacity is for giving at the moment. You need time for God to renew you and build you back up. It won’t last forever.
There will come a time when you’ll need to re-enter the larger world and start giving again. What came after caregiving for me was taking my experience and what I’d learned and turning it into being a peacemaker instead. The word ‘making’ implies intent, a deliberate creation of something, a process of doing. It is not passive even if it may be instinctive. If I want to make peace, I have to choose to do so. I have to follow the example of the greatest Peacemaker there is. Jesus walked with peace. The only moment He didn’t exude peace was on the cross, when God had abandoned Him. So, it follows that the true element of peace is connection with God.
I’m not here to tell you how to have a relationship with God, or what your times of devotions or quiet time or worship need to look like. I don’t think that’s helpful. The point is to pursue that relationship. We prioritize the things we want in life without even trying. Try prioritizing God and see what He pours out on your life. I bet it will be a deeper understanding of peace. This is not something I am perfect at, but I’ve found that when I make it a priority, just like with exercise or eating healthily, I feel better. I am better. I am stronger, I have more energy, and I have more of an inner confidence that spreads through me and to the people around me.
Growing up, my goal was to fix every person in my family and every issue they had with each other. I think this is something most caregivers inadvertently fall into and it lasts well after the caregiving time is over. Well, I’ve learned that I can’t be responsible for that. They have to do their own work and prioritize that for themselves. Can I still help them and support them? You bet I can. Can I still help translate them to each other when there’s conflict? Yes, I can, provided I don’t try to do it with my own strength and provided I don’t base my self-worth on how well I do.
In prioritizing my relationship with God, I’m finally coming to what I’ve been struggling with my whole life—surrender to Him and His will for me. It’s my rock bottom, which is less a moment or event as it is a period of time. In the Bible, I both love and hate the story of Jacob. He reminds me too much of myself and I don’t like what I see. Caregivers, like Jacob, often feel the need to control everything and that doesn’t go away once they’re no longer caregiving. It robs them of their peace and destroys their ability to trust.
Jacob didn’t trust God. He literally wrestled with God and was limping the rest of his life because of it. But after that, you began to see a change in Jacob because he now mostly trusted and knew God. He finally surrendered to Him even if he wasn’t flawless at it. The payoff of surrender is worth the pain. But the pain of surrender is a process; it’s a working out. And it doesn’t mean perfection, it means trust. Peace is also a process and it’s something you give and receive, give and receive, like being in recovery.
“Move at the pace of peace” is a phrase I heard once. The pace is going to be unique to you; it’s not going to be something you can create a formula for. My healing and movement toward peace before, during, and after taking care of my father, is full of my own twists and turns, and so will yours be. Peace is what keeps you on the right path for you. God declares peace over His people and helps keep them from foolish ways. Once we surrender, we will far better be able to hear His voice, and trust Him enough to follow His will.
I read a letter once that reminded me when you’re going through something so difficult as caregiving, you have to enjoy the happy moments. You don’t protect people by withholding information from them. Don’t believe this hard time was sent by God, but simply allowed by God. Don’t get so wrapped up in your own pain and turmoil you forget you are not alone. Others are suffering too. This principle applies for after caregiving as well.
Peace is meant to be shared. Document and monument the peace God gives you. Don’t keep it hidden away, quiet to yourself. It makes movements, it causes revolutions, which may seem counterintuitive, but not when the result is peace. Not when it comes direct from God’s heart. My conclusion after my year of healing, which has only been confirmed by the time since, was that my experience could help others. If you learn even one thing from my words and what I went through, it was all worth it. This is my way of giving back, but you’ll find yours as well. I firmly believe that part of the reason God allows suffering in this life is so that we who have reached the other side can turn around and extend a hand to the person suffering something similar behind us. Don’t be afraid to share once you’ve healed. And just know that your story and what you have to give, is one of the most powerful things you possess.
God loves those who are caregivers and He never forgets them. Not before, not during, not after. You will always have His help whenever you need it. You will always have His peace available to you. So take advantage of it. Trust Him. Rest, recover, and then give again. It’s the way of making peace.