Mindfully Falling Down the Rabbit Hole of Caregiving
Written by Melissa Felteau, MAdEd
Like so many others who have had the experience of a brain injury, we have been the recipients of a great deal of compassion and love – especially from our parents, who helped us face the daunting challenges to recovery. So what happens when the roles are reversed as our parents age, and we find ourselves in the position of becoming their caregiver? I can tell you it is the road I am now travelling and it is full of insights, inspirations, and moments of despair.
I was 31 years old with a successful career in public relations at the time of sustaining a brain injury. The demands of that career became out of reach for me so I went back to school, studied adult education, and eventually became a mindfulness meditation teacher. Not only did my daily practice of meditation help me to recover and integrate my experiences, but it also gave me a new perspective from which to view my changed life. It is also the core teachings of mindfulness that are helping me to navigate this new phase as a caregiver and its inherent demands, challenges, sorrows, and joys.
Recently my mother began experiencing a myriad of health challenges and is facing the ‘slippery slope’ phase of her life. Illness can be scary, frustrating, and unknowable which adds to the stress for each of us. Here the mindfulness teaching of moment-to-moment awareness is helpful. Fully experiencing what is happening NOW, not anticipating the future, grounds me in the reality of this moment. We know the road we are on but fearing what comes next will not lessen any of the sadness or anxiety, nor will it anticipate any of the grief accurately. If I can be present and fully experience the swinging tide of emotions, I know that the next moment embedded in the next breath can and will bring something new.
This is the mindfulness teaching of beginner’s mind. If we let ourselves off the hook of perfection and observe the situation from the stance of a beginner, we can invite freshness, perhaps forgiveness, and a willing and open attitude to what the next moment brings.
In moments of frustration, exhaustion, or the expression of my or her strong will; when I fail to extend the same compassion and understanding that my parents extended to me during my recovery – indeed throughout my whole life, I can benefit from practicing beginner’s mind and self-compassion. I can pick myself up after a lapse of compassion – and believe me, there are many; I start with an apology and begin anew.
So how do we practice self-compassion within our new role as caregivers? Perhaps this is the most challenging aspect of being any type of caregiver. After my mother’s first five-week hospital admission, I desperately realized I needed to place more priority on nurturing and balancing my need for rest, fresh air, exercise, nourishing meals, and companionship outside the hospital. I also acknowledge that I am only human and I will make mistakes – and I can start fresh again tomorrow with the intention of an open and loving heart.
But what happens when parents die? What happens to those of us who have relied so heavily on the love and support of our parents –perhaps more so than other family members?
Again it is helpful to rely on another foundational tenant of mindfulness – that of trust. When my mother was discharged from her third hospital admission, I felt scared that her medical needs would not be met within the home setting. I felt scared to leave her alone in her home. I worried about her readiness for independence. I suspect my parents grappled with these same concerns during my recovery with the stress written on their faces. My mother’s hair turned completely white from worry two years after my injury. And they relinquished their winter vacation for the first four years to be available to me. In caring for my mother, my body has borne the brunt of my ‘bracing for the worst’ in back pain and bursitis. While I worked at urging my body to let go of the holding pattern of tension, I urged my mind to let go and trust. I needed to trust and accept that everything was unfolding in the way it was intended.
As caregivers of aging parents, we are called to the final act of acceptance and the ultimate of letting go. My parents have taught me well. It is my desire to offer the reciprocal gifts of their unconditional love and endless support that motivates me. As I witness my mother’s strength, determination, grit and grace, I am constantly inspired. And I realize I am made of this stuff too. So as we travel this last road together, I watch her strengthened by my love, support, and compassion, and when the time comes, we both know I will be okay.
Melissa’s father Wilf Felteau died in 2010, and her mother Irene Felteau recently turned 83.
For further training information about Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Acquired Brain Injury, Melissa may be contacted at [email protected]