Mari D. Martin is the author of Come Home Alive: The Power of Knowing How to Work Together to Make it Through the Crisis of Cancer.
Caregiving. What does that mean? Especially when the person you are giving care to is alive and mobile, but just not fully healthy. That’s what happens when a cancer diagnosis comes. One day everything is normal, or you’d like to think it is, but it’s not normal because your husband, or mother, or father is tired, not feeling well, and is sick on the inside without really knowing what has caused an overall feeling of malaise. They need someone around who can lift their spirits, schedule doctor appointments, and be with them when the doctor makes the ‘fall to your knees’ announcement. Caregiving includes a whole host of things, but none is more important than just being present. Being there to provide emotional support, engaging in conversation, and being a companion—all are essential. We all need a buddy. But caregivers need to thrive too. Can caregiving and thriving happen simultaneously?
I am a mentor Angel through Imerman’s Angels to spouses who are caregiving through cancer treatment and recovery. Here are a few things I share with them.
Find Out What’s Important: Find out what gives your spouse joy. What is important to him? What does he need from you now that he can’t do for himself? Does she want clean laundry and a few things ironed? Does the kitchen need to be tidied up? Or is it quality time, having a conversation, and just being together. Take the time to unpack exactly what he needs done or would appreciate being done today. Maybe she wants to be alone to sort out the unknowns, or maybe he needs you to get a handle on some bills or critical decisions. I often say, “expectations rule” in a relationship. So, get out those expectations right up front. Then, be genuine and authentic about your ability to meet them.
Allow Others to Be in Control: When you are sick, everyone is making decisions for you. When to take your medicine, when to be at this appointment, what to do to recover sooner, what action you’ll need to get better. My mother did not recover well from a fractured hip. She needed to be more committed and disciplined about her physical therapy. Nagging her about it didn’t work. She needed to be in control. It’s hard to watch those you love struggle to do what has been prescribed. They need to grapple with all that has happened, and so there will be a rebellious attitude. Let them vent. Let them blow off some steam. In those moments, feelings are hurt. Life will have its disappointments and we all must learn to cope. The choice of how to respond is ours. I have come to realize that I must put my reactions to these words on hold. I may have been on the receiving end, but it was only said to me, not about me. Let them have their day. Give options that allow them to make the choice. “Do you want to walk to the end of the driveway, or do you want to do one round of the exercises? Each will take about five minutes. Which would you like to do?” These are times when the flexible craft needs to give way to the more immovable object. However, I often will pray for both parties to “grow up and be mature.”
Cultivate a Purpose: In my book, Come Home Alive, I write, “For Chris to thrive again, he needed to heal, and for him to heal, he needed to be in the environment that allowed him to thrive. If those environments are not there, it will hinder the healing process because the mind and body are using valuable energy going against the grain. I wanted Chris to be going with the grain, no matter what each day brought. I wanted him to abound again.” Our bodies have a built-in mechanism to strive, even when we are fighting disease. Everyone desires to find fulfillment from a goal-oriented activity. Mental health leads to physical health. Being able to make a positive impact somewhere—with our family, in our job, in our community—is something we all need. However sick one might be, finding a purpose or vocation in each day is essential. It is critical to health, healing, happiness, and longevity.
Look Forward to Something: In my conversation with another caregiver whose husband has prostate cancer I said, “go to Paris. It’s what both of you want to do. You won’t remember later how you paid for it. But you’ll remember the trip forever.” When Chris was recovering from his radiation and chemotherapy, our granddaughter was born in Chicago. We needed to go. It was something to look forward to. He had zero energy to even walk one block to the hospital entryway and then get across to the bank of elevators, but we made it up to the room and there she was. Looking forward to something doesn’t have to be expensive. It can mean getting in the car and driving to a farmer’s market to pick up fresh fruit. It can be going to the greenhouse to replace a geranium that’s looking a little tired. It can be a full-on vacation that you were planning to do in a few months. Get it on the calendar. Talk about the trip coming up. Keep it front and center. When Chris was too ill to be independent, he had friends schedule time for a “road trip.” They would pick him up and just go for a drive. He still talks about those drives today.
Practice Normalcy: What is normal now? Get back into that routine as quickly as possible. Is it running errands on Saturday morning? Church on Sunday at 9 a.m. For me, it’s running three days a week. It may not be the same days, but it’s three days. Seek ways to get back to what was usual and typical for you. Don’t always talk about the illness—this doctor visit or that one. Talk with others about your hopes and dreams—about the future. That’s what you used to do didn’t you? Get back to normal.
Stay Healthy Yourself: The demands of caring for your spouse or parents lead to role confusion, unrealistic expectations, lack of control, and unreasonable and unattainable demands on you. Don’t die of caregiving. “You cannot serve from an empty vessel,” I will often say to other caregivers. While you are extracting what is important to those you are giving care to, take time to jot down what’s important to you. Keep moving down the list. Ask yourself: Where do I need to be in control? What is my purpose and how can I achieve that today? What’s something I would look forward to? How can I get to some state of normalcy? Everything you are doing for your wife as you provide for her care, you also need to do for yourself. Put on those New Balance and go for that run.
Above all, Love: “We love our children unconditionally because we practice the actions of love with them throughout their lives. But we fail to practice the actions of love with our spouse throughout our marriage. Feelings do follow actions. As I tore open the bandages, and as I pumped the fluids through his life tube, my love grew deeper and broader and wider,” words from Come Home Alive. Saint Peter writes, “above all, love each other deeply because love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8 NIV). When scarcity arrives, and with a life and death illness it most certainly will, tempers are running hot. Anger and resentment seep in. As one caregiver said to her husband, “be kind, I’m all you got.” Working together to make it through requires compromise and a healthy dose of good old-fashioned love.
About the Author:
Mari D. Martin is a child of God, wife, mother, grandmother, sister, and daughter. She is an avid reader, runner, golf enthusiast and football fan. She and her husband, Chris have been married 38 years. Chris was diagnosed with Stage Four throat cancer in 2013 and has survived. Come Home Alive is her first book written to help others make it through the crisis of cancer together. She is the founder of Performance Strategies Group, Inc, (PSG) now in its 31st year. PSG is a corporate training and development firm that helps organizations master the art of working together. To learn more, please visit www.comehomealivebook.com and the book is available for purchase on Amazon.