photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

These are times when much is taken away. As caregivers we are all too familiar with loss, and now is an especially difficult time. I’d like to share an essay written by the Irish-English poet, David Whyte, that speaks to loss and to solace.  

Solace is the art of asking the beautiful question, of ourselves, of our world or of one another, often in fiercely difficult and un-beautiful moments. Solace is what we must look for when the mind cannot bear the pain, the loss or the suffering that eventually touches every life and every endeavor; when longing does not come to fruition in a form we can recognize, when people we know and love disappear, when hope must take a different form than the one we have shaped for it.

Solace is the spacious, imaginative home we make where disappointment goes to be welcomed and rehabilitated. When life does not in any way add up, we must turn to the part of us that has never wanted a life of simple calculation. 

Solace is found in allowing the body’s innate foundational wisdom to come to the fore, a part of us that already knows it is mortal and must take its leave like everything else, and leads us, when the mind cannot bear what it is seeing or hearing, to the birdsong in the tree above our heads, even as we are being told of a death, each note an essence of morning and of mourning; of the current of a life moving on, but somehow, also, and most beautifully, carrying, bearing, and even celebrating the life we have just lost. – A life we could not see or appreciate until it was taken from us –

To be consoled is to be invited onto the terrible ground of beauty upon which our inevitable disappearance stands, to a voice that does not soothe falsely, but touches the epicenter of our pain or articulates the essence of our loss, and then emancipates us into the privilege of both life and death as an equal birthright.

Solace is not an evasion, nor a cure for our suffering, nor a made up state of mind. Solace is a direct seeing and participation; a celebration of the beautiful coming and going, appearance and disappearance of which we have always been a part. Solace is not meant to be an answer, but an invitation, through the door of pain and difficulty, to the depth of suffering and simultaneous beauty in the world that the strategic mind by itself cannot grasp nor make sense of. 

To look for solace is to learn to ask fiercer and more exquisitely pointed questions, questions that reshape our identities and our bodies and our relation to others. Standing in loss but not overwhelmed by it, we become useful and generous and compassionate and even more amusing companions for others. But solace also asks us very direct and forceful questions. Firstly, how will you bear the inevitable loss that will accompany you? And how will you endure it through the years? And above all, how will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and as astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light and then just as you were beginning to understand it, take you away?

More from David Whyte can be found at

Our Needs as Loved-One and Caregiver

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I remember when my therapist reminded me that my husband was in survival. She was referring to the most basic of human needs as defined by Abraham Maslow in his Hierarchy of Needs

I had been complaining that my husband no longer seemed interested in the things that usually drew us together—like reading and discussing new books or exploring new concepts. Increasingly, I was feeling alone and disconnected from my husband. 

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who theorized that humans have five basic categories of needs: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Though controversial, his elucidation of needs rings true in many ways and, as a caregiver, I found them helpful.

When my therapist spoke of my husband being in survival, she was referring to the basic physiological needs, such as breathing, food, water, sleep, sex and the maintenance of consistent levels of these essentials. Suffering from MS, my husband was not at all confident that these needs were or would be met. He could no longer work and was becoming increasingly dependent on me. Even sex was problematic.

Where once he had felt safe and secure, his second basic need—safety—was no longer assured. His body was changing, and his health was deteriorating. Working was out of the question now, and our financial resources were being stretched. He didn’t feel safe at all.

Though he felt my love and we had a strong sense of belonging together, his social connections were becoming increasingly limited as friends fell away and his mobility issues limited where he could go and what he could do. He no longer belonged to his work community and his involvement in the larger community was diminishing.

His self-esteem was on a downward trajectory. He was losing confidence in himself now that he could no longer work. This led to a lowering of self-respect, and he wondered if others respected him as much as they once had now that he was becoming “different.” 

In terms of self-actualization, it was becoming more and more difficult for him to accept the facts of his drastically changing situation. He wondered who he was now and who he would become. Fortunately, he nourished his creative side through drawing and painting in his journals and taking photographs that he enjoyed editing on his computer. Here he could be imaginative and spontaneous. This gave him relief from his worries and a growing avenue for self-actualization. Creativity was a wonderful coping strategy that helped him relieve stress and live in the moment. It was both satisfying and empowering.

Meeting these needs, as outlined by Maslow, is linked to our sense of well-being. When they are not met, our sense of well-being diminishes. Add this to the physical pain and limitations of disability, and it was no wonder that my husband and I were sometimes out of sync. 

My challenge was to continue nourishing my own self-esteem and growth in self-actualization while recognizing that often my husband would be preoccupied with much more basic needs. With this knowledge, I became more compassionate when he was anxious and moody, and I appreciated and encouraged his creative pursuits. I also found that being a caregiver helped me to meet my own higher needs as identified by Maslow. While my psysiological and safety needs were well enough met—or else I would not have been able to do all that I did for my husband—caring for him brought us closer together in love and belonging. As I grew more as a caregiver, I grew in confidence and achievement, and this increased my self-esteem. For me, caregiving became a new way of self-actualization as I became creative in my role as a caregiver, learning to solve new problems and accepting the facts as they emerged while finding ever new ways to live fully in the moment.

Caring for My Mother

I’ve been writing about caring for my husband when he had multiple sclerosis, but I also cared for my mother during the last years of her life. It was a strange shift in rolls. As an adult child, I took it for granted that she could take care of herself; in fact, I never thought much about it. But as she aged and her medical problems grew, her need for care grew, too. As time went on, more and more, I was the one in charge. Eventually, I had to place her in a board-and-care home near me.

I often felt like an inept juggler as I tried to balance the demands of my job, my commitments to my husband, and the needs of my mother. My husband was well then, it was before he had MS, and I felt torn between doing what he wanted and doing what I felt I should be doing for my mother. I would have liked her to come live with us, but he didn’t want that. And to be honest, it wasn’t entirely what I wanted, either. His three daughters had just moved out and were on their own. We both wanted time for ourselves.

Even though I spent a good deal of time with my mother and watched over her needs, I still felt guilty. I felt selfish and guilty when I put my marriage first. She didn’t feel that way; she always told me how much she appreciated all I did for her and what a good daughter I was. But I knew I should do more, yet, somehow, I couldn’t. 

In truth, I handled all the logistics well, such as taking care of her finances and overseeing her medical needs. We spent time together and shared wonderful moments when we talked deeply about things important to her. Still, I wish I could have been more emotionally present those times I was preoccupied with my own problems. With a stressful job and sometimes-demanding husband, I sometimes lacked the empathy I wish I could have shown her. 

It’s a comfort to remember some words my cousin spoke to me when I was raising my three stepchildren and having a hard time: “Are you doing the best you can?” she asked. I replied that I was. “Well,” she said, “that’s all anyone can do.” Perhaps that applies to my care for my mother, too.

‘Tis the Season

Photo by Joran Quinten

And the season can be hard. If your loved one is ill, depressed, angry or just distant, this can be an especially hard time. Or maybe he or she welcomes the holiday spirit, but just can’t participate in the old ways that were once so easy and dependable. At time like these, the burden of creating holiday cheer falls on the caregiver’s shoulders. We are lucky if we have friends and family who can help us carry that burden.

My husband, Michael, was never one to welcome the holidays, even when he was healthy and well. Perhaps his negative attitude went back to childhood disappointments. We raised his three daughters from a previous marriage, so, eventually, he rose to the occasion, buying a slew of gifts to put under the tree. 

Michael died on the first of January, New Year’s Day. Since that time, I face the new year with trepidation and sorrow. Yet, I remind myself that New Year’s Day is an auspicious time, and as such it was an auspicious time for him to transition. Keeping this in mind, I hold the thought that each new year will bring me closer to finding peace and happiness even as I mourn his passing.

May the holidays bring you the strength, peace and joy you need, wherever you find them and however they manifests. Blessed be.