Caregiving has been a part of my professional role since I was a bright eyed, bushy tailed teenager. I felt the call to “help” early in life and have navigated that path of service with all its ups and downs for close to 40 years. To say that I have been changed through my experiences with others would be an understatement.
I wasn’t always aware of the opportunities for personal transformation that were naturally a part of the helping process. I came to the role much more externally focused. Any evidence of growth was something I searched for in other people. It never dawned on me (until it did), how my personal growth was enhanced through the act of service.
Having been acquainted with the suffering of burnout, I was propelled into a journey of self-discovery ~ one that would lead me back to my original inspiration. When I caught myself just wishing to get through the day, I knew things had to change. Life had become a series of groundhog days with me white knuckling my way through. Nothing ever seemed to change, or so I thought.
I got really curious about my experience. I asked questions. I read books. I sat quietly in wait of that intuitive whisper. What had lead to this disillusionment? Somehow, I felt that I was coming up short. I must not be doing enough. What I thought I would feel through my career in human services and what I actually felt were two very different things. I had no idea if anything I offered had any impact whatsoever. I couldn’t see change or growth. I saw people struggling through the challenges life had thrown at them and I saw a lot of unhappy Service Providers ~ many, who like me felt unfulfilled and powerless.
I came to realize that any caregiving relationship ~ any relationship, in fact ~ holds the power to change us. Relationships are the containers for transformation. And transformation begins with an altered perspective. So, that’s what I set out to do.
Challenging all the assumptions I held about service and my role in it, led to dismantling the notions I held around sacrifice and suffering as an element of service. I started to see how the capacity to serve was a gift for me and I only needed to open up to receive. I found freedom in recognizing that I didn’t need to fix anyone or anything but rather I had been honored with invitations to witness the personal journeys of other people. And my presence and engagement could be enough to create a safe and loving space for growth and healing.
I started to pay more attention to how I was transformed through my interactions with others. This continues to be a very powerful practice for me ~ one that often brings me to tears with sheer gratitude.
So, when I found myself in a personal caregiving role with my mom, I came face to face with another opportunity to walk my talk and allow myself to be changed.
In the early summer of 2017, my mom was suddenly diagnosed with stomach cancer. She was 83. I immediately felt ripped off. She was supposed to live to 100 and beyond. That was the agreement. She had previously been in excellent health so the news came as a shock, paradoxically, leaving me feeling somewhat hopeful. That it couldn’t be that bad and there must be something could be done.
I begrudgingly changed my travel plans to be there sooner, which is when I first noticed the severity of my resistance. I remained in that state for about a week after my arrival culminating in disagreements with my mom and my brother. I just didn’t want to be there. I mean, I wanted to be there, but I didn’t. What I really didn’t want was for this to be happening.
Frustration and anxiety lay underneath my façade of optimism and strength.
When my mom ended up in the hospital, I had a turning point. I went outside for a break and some fresh air. In that moment of solitude, my heart spoke with authority. You are here. This is where you are meant to be right now. This is happening. Surrender. And I did.
In that moment, all grievances disappeared. I knew not to sweat the small stuff with my mom, with my brother, with anyone. And I knew it was all small stuff. All of it, except the business of my mom’s dying. I realized the profound gift I was being offered to be there with her.
Walking with someone through any challenge ~ including the end of life ~ is an honor. To fully receive the gift of this time meant I had to be fully invested. With the company and collective support of my siblings, we surrounded our mother with our presence, our love, our laughter and our tears.
I was alone with my mom when she took her final breath and I believe that was her last gift to me.
Several months later, I was out enjoying a brisk fall walk when I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude. I thought of my blessings ~ I am able to move my body and enjoy my health, I have created flexibility in my life allowing me to enjoy my grandson and my family while continuing a fulfilling career, and I thought about my mom.
I know she felt like she hadn’t had enough time. She felt it came too soon and she wasn’t quite ready.
While I often need reminders, I committed that day to slowing down enough in my life to notice the unexpected gifts in the unexpected places.
I don’t want to miss a thing.