I was watching a national talk show one afternoon on which the topic was “Breast Cancer Awareness”. They gave free mammograms to those who had never had one; survivors related their stories; and tips were given on how to do a self-breast exam. Everyone dressed in pink robes. However, there was a story missing. The story of the caregiver. The one who stands by stoically, wishing for all the world they could make the uninvited guest at the party of life, go away.  No one hears their story. They are not the ones invited to give speeches.

CareGiver Lillian Lake

Photo Credit: http://www.alzheimersreadingroom.com

It is the caregiver who gives emotional support when no one else can, knows how or will. Tears fall in private; in public, they cry inside. They keep going back to the well, even when they know the well is dry. Knife-like stabs penetrate their heart as they watch their loved one vomit or lie helplessly in bed while looking pleadingly in their eyes when words fail. They are up emotionally when the loved one is up; down when they are down. Riding together the roller coaster of hope and despair. They say all will be well, because to do otherwise would be to admit failure, and failure is not an option. They tell those, who on rare occasion ask how they are doing, “I’m fine, don’t worry about me” for fear of showing weakness or insensitivity; or invoke feelings of self-guilt. After all, what right do they have to complain?

Sometimes it is the caregiver who can’t take on more pain; hold back one more tear; or control one more ounce of anger. They lash out sometimes, seemingly, irrationally. They seek refuge where none will be found. They may divorce the loved one because the stress is more than they can take. Perhaps not divorce, but live apart because living alone and thought a coward is better than living with cancer – the unwanted partner in a three-way triangle.

When the battle has been lost, there is inconsolable heartbreak. As caregiver, they think, if they could have done something, anything to make the thief of life go away. They steal a lone sigh of relief that the suffering has stopped for them both. They may weep openly now, and yet, it is hard, because the loss is so great and so personal, the tears fall like shards of glass. Eventually, the process of healing will begin, leaving scars in its wake.

When the battle has been won, everyone gathers around the survivor. They will don the survivor t-shirts and bracelets. Burn wigs in effigy. Smiles will abound. The caregiver is there cheering loudly, for prayers answered; battles won in the name of winning the war. There are silent cheers inside for themselves, because they too, have won the war.

There is much gained in being a caregiver – personal and spiritual growth, for instance. I have been a caregiver several times for terminally ill family and friends. I salute all caregivers. They are often the unsung hero of those who suffer from diseases and other long-term afflictions. I am grateful for your generosity and selflessness.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. Seek help. Remember that it’s okay to express your feelings. Take pride in what you are accomplishing. Don’t get so caught up in giving care that you forget to connect to the care receiver in the capacity that brought you to this place – that of mother, father, daughter, son, spouse, partner, friend. Don’t forget to breathe.