By Karla Wheeler

When someone we love is terminally ill, it can be the most challenging time in our lives physically, emotionally, socially, and even spiritually. But if we can learn to be gentle with ourselves, newfound energy awaits us on all levels.

GO GENTLY. GO GENTLY. This became my mantra, the phrase that kept running through my brain when my 54-year-old husband of 30 years was dying of cancer. I’d be stuck in traffic, late for an important doctor’s appointment about Gerry’s latest x-rays or CT scans. My heart would pound as I willed the stoplight to turn green, knuckles clenched around the steering wheel. Then I’d take a deep breath and say aloud to myself over and over again, “Go gently. Go gently. I will go gently about my tasks this day.” Instead or racing into the doctor’s office, I would try to walk normally, silently chanting my calming mantra.

PHYSICALLY EXHAUSTED. Oftentimes we are exhausted physically, not sleeping well, forgetting to eat, or eating whatever’s handy, like a bag of cookies or chips. We know we should be eating properly so we can keep up our strength, but who has time to plan a balanced meal, go grocery shopping, or cook? Tempted to grab a handful of cookies or chips, I’d try my best to remember to stop, take a deep breath and repeat my calming phrase, “Go gently. Go gently. I will go gently about my tasks this day.” My task at that moment was to be gentle with my body, feeding it something useful, rather than forcing it to deal with the excess sugar from cookies or infusion of salt from a bag of chips. So I’d put down the junk food and instead reach into the fridge to grab a piece of cheese or a handful of baby carrots.

EMOTIONALLY DRAINED. Unless someone has walked a mile in our shoes, no one fully understands the emotional toll of knowing that a loved one’s time with us is limited. Will he live another month? A week? Will he hang in there until his brother arrives tonight from out of town? Emotionally, we become frantic one minute, numb from anticipated grief the next. Sometimes our hearts ache so much that we think the pounding in our chest must mean that our physical heart is injured, too. How can one person cope with the roller-coaster ride of feelings that plague our every waking hour?

ASK FOR HELP. When we’re going through these increasingly demanding times, many people around us want to help, but they don’t know what to do or say. I’ve learned having been through the terminal illness of not only my husband, but also my parents that it is okay to ask for specific help from friends, neighbors, and coworkers. In fact, they will be so grateful to know they can help lighten your load! Ask your neighbor to do your grocery shopping. Rely on friends to take care of your children after school playtimes or regular sleepovers. Lean on a coworker to take your car in for an oil change or pick up your dry cleaning. Let everyone know that casseroles (in containers that don’t have to be returned) are welcome any time. Don’t be shy about saying which recipes are your family’s favorites, especially from Campbell’s soup. (For us, it’s the green bean casserole and tuna casseroles, both made from cream of mushroom soup).

BE GENTLE. Most importantly of all, don?t beat yourself up when you can’t be superman or superwoman. We are human beings not human doings. So during this time of enormous emotional upheaval, take more time to be with your loved one, rather than doing things non-stop. And when you feel you’re at your rope’s end, gently whisper a healing mantra to yourself, whether it’s “Go gently, go gently” or another phrase that brings you calm amidst the storm. And if the angels at hospice are helping to care for your loved one, ask them for other ideas to help get you through each day. You are not alone. Help and support surround you at every turn.

The above is copyright 2009 by Karla Wheeler. All rights reserved. Karla is the editor of the Open to Hope Hospice Blog. She is the founder of Quality of Life Publishing Co., which specializes in helping hospices provide their compassionate care, and is author of several gentle grief support books. Learn more at the About link.

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Karla Wheeler

For 20 years, Karla Wheeler has been an expert in hospice care and grief support - both personally and professionally. A former newspaper reporter and editor, Karla is the founder of Quality of Life Publishing Company, an independent firm dedicated to helping hospices provide their compassionate care to terminally ill patients and their families. Her company publishes clinical newsletters for hospices to educate area doctors and nurses about the many advantages of referring patients to hospice. The periodical Quality of Life Matters® is now in its 11th year and is recommended as an educational resource by top medical organizations in the U.S. and Canada. Her firm also publishes a growing family of grief and other self-help books, including three written by Karla. Afterglow: Signs of Continued Love is a compilation of stories of comforting coincidences from those who grieve. Timmy’s Christmas Surprise and Heart-Shaped Pickles are popular resources for grieving children. Karla’s grief support columns have been published widely in newspapers via Scripps Howard News Service. Her articles about grief in the workplace have appeared in business/management newspapers, magazines, and newsletters across North America. Karla was a guest on the radio show, “Healing the Grieving Heart,” in October 2008, where she shared insights into hospice care in America. To hear her show with Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley, go to the following link: Thanks to hospice, five members of Karla’s immediate family have been able to die with dignity and free of pain, including her 54-year-old husband, who was diagnosed with advanced cancer “out of the blue” in late 2006 and died a month later. Other loved ones who were blessed with hospice care include Karla’s mother, father, father-in-law, and grandmother. It was after her grandmother experienced what Karla calls “a beautiful death” in 1987 that Karla knew she would someday dedicate her journalism career to helping families understand that no one needs to die in pain - physically, emotionally or spiritually. Hospice professionals help to ease pain on all levels. Karla and her teenage daughter travel nationwide to speak about death, dying, hospice care, and grief. Jenny is the author of a teen-to-teen grief support book, Weird Is Normal When Teenagers Grieve, based on her experiences and observations following her father’s death when she was 14 years old.

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