Caregivers: You're Doing the Best You Can

Buddhist Counseling

Years ago when my life was in turmoil, I looked for a way out of the chaos. My answer was to spend a weekend at a Buddhist Monastery in Northern California. I had no idea what to expect, but it had to be better than my attempts to understand life.

After everyone checked in, the abbot asked if anyone wished to receive counseling. Even though counseling was not something I thought I needed,  I raised my hand.

The next day I entered a room and saw a monk who was in his twenties—less than half my age at the time. I kept waiting for the “real” counselor to enter. What I saw was what I got.

My reluctance to share my life’s problems with the monk faded after a few minutes, and I forgot that he probably had no experience with marriage or children. I spoke openly about the various unskillful things I did as a father and husband as if he was a noted psychiatrist rather than someone who probably just started shaving.

The Message

 After about twenty minutes I stopped, and he remained silent. Slowly he said “Stan, we do the best we can, given the circumstances of our lives.” He rose and left the room leaving me wondering if there was wisdom in his words or if it was a memorized phrase. His words, spoken to me almost thirty years ago, still impacts my life, and it’s one of importance to long-term caregivers.

We rarely act in a vacuum. What we do and say are often products of what precedes our actions. Conditions and events over which we may have little or no control, often limit what we can do as caregivers. Yet, we often feel guilty believing if we just tried a little harder, a little longer, etc., the outcome would have been different.

A Bubbling Caldron of Emotions

As a caregiver, your life is a mixture of exhaustion, never-ending routines, moments of indescribable compassion, episodes of depression, spiritual fulfillment, and, with some loved ones, painfully witnessing the progression of the illness. It’s a cauldron of elements that challenges even those considered most compassionate. That’s what I found at a hospice run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

Understanding Circumstances

Many of the residents had been homeless, without family, incarcerated or lived in squalor until entering the hospice. Mother Teresa’s order serves people in these and similar circumstances.

We would like to believe that as one comes closer to death, personalities soften, or people change for the better. Sometimes, but often getting closer to death amplifies features present in the person prior to a terminal diagnosis.  Not all annoying people magically become more pleasant.

In the hospice, I saw the sisters' ability to be compassionate not only as an expression of their religious conviction but also of their understanding that circumstances shape lives.

Every patient came with a torrid history that couldn't be changed. Every patient would die regardless of what the sisters did. It was a very real example of the monk's priceless words.

Feeling Guilty

I’ve counseled numerous caregivers who’ve chastised themselves for “not doing a better job.” One caregiver related to me her feelings about having had to decide whether to allow her father to die.

His physicians had declared him brain-dead, and he was unable to survive without artificial means. For one day, she wrestled with the decision, eventually allowing the removal of the medical devices that sustained him.

Two years after his death, she still wondered if she had done the right thing, or whether she could have preserved his life for a few more days or weeks, hoping there would be some sign of brain activity. Her guilt was carried forward by not understanding that given the medical circumstances and required decisions, she did the best she could. Thinking retrospectively is a formula for unjustly  creating guilt.

As you continue on with your caregiving responsibilities, you will inevitably encounter a situation where you second-guess your decisions. Remember the advice of the young monk, you're doing the best you can given the circumstances of your life.

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