Last week at www.wearecaregivers.com, Paul Hile wrote a very personal account of his life as a caregiver and his efforts to forgive—in response to my tale of forgiveness by my father-in-law. In his story, Paul confesses his wide range of deep feelings, from joy and gratitude to guilt and anger. This admission is so necessary for healing the broken pieces of our souls as we move toward forgiving others and ourselves. It's not easy to reach the point of honesty Paul shared with us.
Let me tell you about a different conversation I had recently.
Michael phoned me at the suggestion of his parent’s pastor who had told him I was a caregiver writing a book for caregivers. We met at a local coffee shop, sat at a corner table, and, as the coffee cooled, we introduced ourselves. There was a quiet moment and then, he began to tell me of his long-toiling, faithful commitment as a caregiver of his parents. I was moved by his honest, compassionate, straight forward, sincere rending of his life tale. Midway through his story, I sensed there was something missing—something I had experienced in myself and in other caregivers.
He began, “I was about two years from retirement at a job I liked, when my mother called to say that Dad wasn’t doing well. She asked me to visit. What became clear soon was that neither one of them was doing well. I talked to my two sisters about the situation, and they said they couldn’t really help. I made a rather impulsive decision: I had enough money and resolve to quit my job and move back home to help care for my mom and dad.
"It may be that I moved home because I had guilt about not visiting them enough. I know I felt some shame about my testy relationship with my father. He pushed me and I pushed back—that was our history.
"I moved home and life got pretty intense and difficult very quickly. I was feeding, bathing, and cleaning my father when he soiled himself—stuff I never even imagined I would be doing. It was difficult full time work, and I was doing most of it because my mother was becoming more confused and less helpful. She would leave the stove on, ruin food and fail to function in the kitchen or at other simple chores. I was losing sleep, not eating well and gaining weight. My sisters seemed to drop off the map—they called but didn’t come.
"After about 10 months, my father had a stroke and died a week later. I did something I have rarely done, I cried and felt very sad, but mostly, I felt guilty. I blamed myself for not doing enough for him. Over the next few months, Mom became more confused and unable to care for herself. It was one thing to bathe my father but I didn’t want to do all those personal things for my mother. I got her into a care facility and, before too long, she often didn’t know me. I visit every day. I never know whether she will recognize me or not. I keep thinking I let them both down—I should have done more.”
We sat quietly, as men often do, with our hands clasped, leaning in, elbows on spread knees, eyes staring at nothing on the floor. I had time to feel and then to think.
I finally said, “I’m touched by your care of your parents. You have told me about your love, your compassion, your long-suffering faithful commitment. I am honored to sit in the presence of such a loving, sacrificial man. You gave and continue to give a remarkable gift to your parents. But I get the sense that I am more grateful for your generosity than you are. You don’t seem to value your gift. I’m also puzzled. Can you tell me more about your anger?”
He slowly raised his head, “Did I say anything about anger? I don’t think I mentioned it.”
“I know you didn’t. You told of your shame and your guilt. You did what many caregivers do: You gave your whole self, body and soul. Then instead of appreciating what you have done, you pronounced yourself guilty! You blame yourself for not being all powerful. You feel guilty for not being powerful enough to make their last days tranquil.
"One of the things I have learned is that guilt and anger are often two sides of one coin. Guilt has its root in the daunting shoulds of our lives. We should be able to do it all! Anger is also rooted in our helplessness. Anger gives the illusion that we are powerful and not helpless. Each of us has plenty of reasons to feel legitimate guilt, but I can’t detect one thing in your story that deserves that indictment.
"Your guilt may serve only to keep you from acknowledging and realizing your anger. Both guilt and anger are empty answers in your journey of respectful caregiving.”