The words happiness and caregiving don’t belong in the same breath or do they? I think they do because in my experience as a caregiver to my late wife Margaret who died nearly four years ago from Pancreatic Cancer I learned that happiness was one of the few things that didn’t cause pain or grief for either one of us.
In fact as we neared the end of our time together – after having only three months warning that she even had cancer – any happiness that we shared only brought us closer to together. While it didn’t make our final farewells any easier, it gave them new meaning, rounding out the often sharp, rough edges of such an deep experience.
The happiness came at first in small ways. Our joy at watching flowers bloom in the garden she loved so much or, when she was able, taking drives to West Marin as we did when we first met.
I was so busy with the business of taking care of her, learning all that I could about what to do and what not to do and, more importantly, what to expect, that moments like these weren’t always on my radar.
How could they be? I not only had a wife to care for, but a business to run, and family to keep informed. There was no room for such insights as happiness at first. The emotions surrounding these glimpses of awareness grew, nonetheless. We could feel the ease and peace that came with just enjoying each other and the life we had created. Sometimes we didn’t even have to talk. It was as if we were bound by these special moments because they brought us a profound happiness we might not have otherwise ever had.
I recently read A Happy Caregiver – A Happier Life blog by Lori Cavallo in which she describes happiness while caregiving for her mother for eight years:
As mom’s caregiver there was only so much I could do. I followed all of the instructions from the speech therapist: doing daily workbooks, making mom use her words, living life as normally as possible. None of these things worked for Mom and her frustration grew by the day. Unable to meet her needs my despair began to grow as well.
I realized that I needed to find a way to manage my own frustration and set the tone for a more positive experience. Through my counselor and her program, Journal to the Self®, I began to use journal writing to manage my feelings. Gradually, I was able to express my frustration in a safe and healthy way. To my surprise, I also found innovative ways to interact with Mom and help lessen her daily aggravations. By changing my attitude the mood in our home lightened and mom settled into a much happier existence.
For me changing my attitude meant I had to accept what I didn’t want to accept – the finality of Margaret’s life. I also had to come to terms with the fact that if I was going to be there for the moments of joy we did have available to us, I was going to have to take care of myself. Tired, angry or sad, while real feelings, could have easily robbed me of the opportunities I had to be with Margaret. There was no time to waste, not for us.
In the happiness we discovered, we laughed at each other: her laughing at me watching her being bathed or me carrying her into the garden and jokingly threatening to drop her if she didn’t behave. We also laughed together and that alleviated some of the guilt I had about not being able to do enough.
The more we became aware of the happiness, the more it grew. Along the way it raised everyone else’s attitude and also helped us to bridge the social gap for all concerned. Perhaps, most importantly, it bundled the many years Margaret and I had together into a fabric that would not be torn apart by grief.
J. Dietrich Stroeh is author of Three Months: A Caregiving Journey from Heartbreak to Healing (2012 FolkHeart Press). For more information, visit www.threemonthsbook.com.