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.