How I Became a More Compassionate Caregiver

“We work on ourselves in order to help others, but also we help others in order to work on ourselves.”

Pema Chödrön

I remember the moment I realized I was going to be my husband’s caregiver forever. I knew Michael had multiple sclerosis, and I knew this would be a progressive disease. Yet, knowing something and realizing something proved to be quite different.

I’ve always been drawn to the cognitive—to learning and understanding. So in the beginning I set out to gain knowledge, believing that with knowledge comes power. I read books and articles on MS, attended lectures with Michael, and more. I learned a lot. But that wasn’t enough. As the realization hit, I found myself entering an emotional darkness, as if I’d fallen into quicksand and didn’t have the energy to get out. Our dreams for the future were disappearing, and nothing we could do would bring them back. Oh my God, I thought. What’s happening to our life? What’s happening to my husband, to me?

According to Carl Jung, “There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.” For me to make this change—to move from the darkness of despair into light—I had to accept and respond appropriately to my new challenge. I had to make the transformation from being Michael’s wife to being his caregiver, too.

This meant I had to bring compassion to our new situation. If I could feel and maintain compassion for Michael in his suffering, and for myself, I would be able to succeed.

The physical and logistical tasks of caregiving are vital, but to perform these well I had to have compassion. Without it, in all the day-to-day tasks I would be doing for my husband, but not caring for him.

The key to caring is compassion; yet, showing compassion for Michael was not always easy.

For example, from the beginning Michael tried to do things himself and only wanted my assistance when a task, such as sliding on his pants while sitting on the bed, proved to be impossible. So, I learned to wait for him to ask for my help. (“What if you weren’t here?” he would say.) This worked fine, until that time he was trying to transfer to our newly installed stair lift. He struggled over and over, moaning and groaning in frustration, trying so hard to make the switch. Dutifully, I stood aside, waiting to help. Until he exploded: “Don’t just stand there staring at me! Go away! Get out of my sight!”

Not only did I leave, but I broke into tears, feeling unjustly accused and unloved. That time, for a while, my hurt feelings won out over compassion.

Still, most of the time, such as when I assisted Michael in all the challenges of daily living, or accompanied him to the doctor and served as his backup memory, or as we quietly shared our thoughts and feelings, not only did my compassion serve us well, but Michael, too, began to develop compassion, for me, for others, and for himself.

So, just what is compassion? According to Merriam-Webster, Compassion is a “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Well, that’s what it is, but how do we develop it? Maintain it? How do we feel it in our hearts?

In my case, I found it through Tibetan Buddhist practices. Before Michael was ill, he and I were part of a sangha, or community, where we learned and practiced meditation. One time as I was meditating on a very large tangka or pictorial representation of Padmasambhava (who brought Buddhism to Tibet from India in the 8th century), I saw a diffused white light emanating from his body into mine. At the same time, I felt a wonderful warmth in my heart as if I were receiving love directly from him. The thought, That’s compassion, immediately entered my mind. It was a very real, visceral experience.

We may not all be so lucky as I was to have such an experience. It did not mean I became a compassionate person over night and for always. What it did was give me an experience that inspired me to develop and act from compassion as well as a deep, inward sense of what compassion is.

I’m sure there are many and varied spiritual practices that teach compassion. I encourage you to seek out one that speaks to you. We are all able to feel compassion and to act from that space.

I’d like to share with you a Tibetan practice I learned for developing compassion. It’s called Tonglen. One does this alone and in silence. It has to do with intention and the breath. Rather than describe the practice, I would like to offer you a video with ‪Pema Chödrön‬.

I have found her books and teaching on many topics especially helpful. (Please see the link in the Resources section.)

I would love to hear your thoughts in response to this post. I feel that by authentically sharing our experiences with others who are in situations similar to our own we are performing a compassionate act—one that can help others feel connected rather than alone, one that can open doors to growth and liberation from suffering.

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