The Fallible Caregiver Series: Sick of Feeling Afraid (Part 2)

In my last article, I shared some of my deep, daily fears as a caregiver husband to a wife living with stage 4 breast cancer. I ended it by saying that sharing all my fears can sound selfish and petty. Who am I to complain about anything? I’m not the one with a terminal cancer diagnosis. Geez, you’re acting like a selfish little baby in light of what she’s facing. Get over yourself.

I want to open this by talking about this because there is some truth to those sentiments, but there are also some harmful lies.

I, myself, am not facing cancer

First, the truth of it. Well, the truth is that I, myself, am not facing cancer, let alone a stage 4 diagnosis that only God can cure with a miracle. It’s always easier to think of dying when we think about it in the third person. But my wife has to think about it in the first person: I’m likely going to die from this. I try to put myself in her first-person shoes and feel that fear, but of course, I’m limited in this. But I try and that’s important.

It’s important because it does help me “man up” more. It does help me whine and complain less about so many petty things couples often argue about. This is one of the hidden blessings of a tragedy like cancer: it gives you a tremendous perspective about what matters most in life. It sobers you.

Sometimes I catch myself or better, I see myself acting like a self-centered baby, usually over something I’m not getting from her, something I want or think I need. In those moments, when I see my ugliness, it helps me step back and find some self-control and love to put her first.

Caregivers are not robots devoid of feelings

But there is another side to this that can go too far to the point of hurting us as caregivers. We are not robots devoid of feelings. To always deny our feelings, desires, wants, needs, in essence, our lives, is to try to live in a fantasy world, not reality. It’s not real or realistic to pretend my fears and concerns are not real and warranted. The truth is that my wife’s life is no more important or real than my life. The vows she took don’t stop when she gets diagnosed. Those vows may get tempered with needed mercy, but they still stand.

Caregiver burnout is a very real thing. Studies have shown that many caregivers end up with chronic or life-threatening illnesses because of all the fear, worry, and stress that they absorb in caring for a sick loved one. Many times, the sick loved one gets better only for the caregiver to spiral downward and sometimes even die.

Much of this burnout comes when we continually deny our feelings, stuff them, and always try to play the strong man or strong woman. Trust me, I’m a professional at this! And it rarely ends well when I reach the end of my rope and break down.

Finding caregiver balance

I suppose the cliched key to this is trying to find balance. Balance between “manning up” and not trying to be Superman. I’ve read many articles offering tips for caregivers to help with relieving stress and finding balance. Honestly, most of them annoy me and I wonder if the author has ever acted as a real caregiver. But I also understand the other side that most of us just don’t really know what to do, so we offer tidbits of advice that we hope may offer help: meditate, take a day for yourself, take a relaxing bath, etc.

We don’t always get what we want

Here’s one final tip I’ve learned. I said earlier that it’s not real or realistic to pretend my fears and concerns are not real and warranted. One thing I avoid is saying, “It’s not fair!” When you start rehearsing that complaint in your mind, you’re done. You’ve lost. Let me put it more gently: you’re screwed and so is your spouse. If you’re screaming in your heart, “It’s not fair!” I recommend seeking a good counselor or therapist to help you because that attitudinal belief will dismantle your life and the lives of those around you. I don’t offer such advice without having taken it myself before… several times.

Life. Is. Not. Fair. To expect so is to try to live in that fantasy world. I’m learning that one key to life is to accept the fact that life is often hard and unfair. We don’t always get what we want. Life often requires us to man up (or woman up) and endure. Remember the grass is not greener on the other side; the grass is greener where you choose to water it. Throw out the destructive sermon you preach to yourself titled: It’s Just Not Fair! No duh. Stand up, push forward, and seek hard to cultivate gratitude in what you have now. You’re probably way more blessed than you remember.

In the next and final part of this series on fear, I want to share four practical ways I fight fear every day.

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