A Decalogue: Ten Commandments for the Concerned Caregiver
by Rabbi Earl A. Grollman
in
Living With Grief: When Illness is Prolonged
edited by Kenneth J. Doka with Joyce Davidson
Hospice Foundation of America

Grieving is hard work-- work that tears at you in so many ways. Grief taxes every part of you-- body, soul and spirit. And when loss comes after a prolonged illness you may feel that you have twice as much work. And in many ways, you do-- for you are grieving both during and after the illness.

There really are no commandments in grief. But I offer this decalogue, a list of ten recommendations, to help sustain your spirit as you grieve. For those of you who are not family members or friends, but formal caregivers-- nurses, doctors, clergy, counselor-- this decalogue is for you, too. Your calling is not only to minister in whatever way to the spirit of others-- you also grieve, and you must sustain your spirit. Only by struggling with your own healing can you help others heal.

DURING THE PROLONGED ILLNESS

I. Be Realistic

"I believe God creates miracles. No matter what the doctor says, he'll get better. You'll see."

A Jewish expression states: "Believe in miracles but be prepared for alternatives." William James said it differently: "Acceptance of what is truly happening is the first step to overcoming the consequences of misfortune."

Of course, you don't want to accept the diagnosis. You can't imagine that your loved one is so sick and will die. Feelings of vulnerability mount. Suddenly you realize that you are not in control. The truth is that no one is as powerful as he or she would like to think. And some miracles may not happen. When you cling to false expectations, you distort the present and postpone the future. Truth challenges you to understand what the human being is capable of enduring.

Think in terms of possibility-- not impossibility. There will be moments when you want to believe that all is back to normal and that your prayers are being answered. Then an event takes place where actuality forces you into a downward plunge. Though reality is harsh and unfeeling, it is the compass which keeps you on track, a directional guide to aid you through your painful journey.

If there is a sin against life, it consists not so much as despairing of life rather than in hoping for another. --Albert Camus

II. Be Informed

"I'm so confused, I know my loved one is seriously ill but I honestly don't completely understand what is really wrong with her and what I can do to help."

The natural coping mechanism of defense is to shut out potentially agonizing news. Yet to cope with adversity, you must speak with the health professionals to understand the impact of the illness and how you can be of the most assistance.

Before speaking to the doctors, organize your thoughts. Concentrate on the real concerns: diagnosis, prognosis, tests, treatments, procedures, research findings. Ask specific questions. Stay on track. Delve into important matters. Don't be embarrassed to share your real fears and anxieties. What really needs further clarification?

Concentrate. Actively focus your attention on what is being expressed. React to ideas, not to the person. Don't interrupt. And remember to listen. Your listening rate is faster than your speaking rate (Speech rate is about 100 to 150 words per minute; thinking and listening is eight times that fast.) It is you who must hear, understand and learn in order to help your loved one and yourself.

God in Hebrew is called Rofé, meaning healer. But says Ecclesiasticus: "Honor the physician whom the Lord hath appointed."

III. Be Caring of Your Physical Health

"How can I help my loved one when I'm so tired all the time?"

For of the soul, the body form doth take
For soul is form, and doth the body make.
--Spencer

Just as your heart aches, so does your body complain of severe loss of appetite, insomnia, fatigue. It is so draining to care for your loved one and yourself.

Walking can be an energizer. Adrenaline pumps through the body as you are revitalized, which can lead to feeling, eating, and sleeping better. As you move your feet, your mind begins to clear and the sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach may gradually begin to disappear.

You might benefit from extended activity, such as jogging, tennis, swimming, aerobics. Exercise produces powerful stress-reducing effects, fending off anxiety and depression, reducing risks of coronary mortality.

Be sure to check first with your physician. Then build your endurance gradually but surely. At this time of apprehension and stress, respect your body more than ever. You must maintain your health if you are to effectively take care of yourself and others.

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© Copyright Earl Grollman, 1997. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this work may be reproduced of transmitted in any form of by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system now or hereafter invented, without permission in writing from the Publisher.