Caregiver Story: A Military Man Learns The Value of A Safety Net
I am not a cancer survivor, but I did survive as my wife’s caregiver during her fight with cancer. There is a saying I heard throughout our struggle, which states there are only four types of people in the world: those who are caregivers, those who have been caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will someday need a caregiver.
The Tough Get Going
I’ve often been told I am tough and indestructible, and I used to believe that. I am a military veteran who served over three decades in uniform, both in wartime and peace, and my mission here was simple: Defeat the enemy (cancer) and care for my family! I have been shot at, blown up, suffered days without food or water, and survived long nights of bitter cold, freezing rain and sleep deprivation. I was sure I could handle this cancer challenge.
The Hardest Fight
But nothing prepared me for the struggles of fighting cancer and being a caregiver for my spouse and a father to our three children. My mistake, probably because I am a guy, was that I thought I could do it alone. It was going to be me against whatever cancer could throw at us and I knew I could manage it because I was tough.
I was wrong. For the first time in my life, I realized I was losing a fight and needed help, but I didn’t know how to ask for it. And I, at first, refused to see all the help that surrounded me, nor the many people who loved us and who were glad to lend a hand if I had allowed it. They had to wait for the right time and give me space to figure that out. Now, I look back on those times and realize the importance of the many varied relationships I had and the support they provided.
Relationships Are Key
So, what are the relationships that most influenced me? Before I answer that, I need to stress that everyone is different and so are the resulting relationships. But look around and see who is out there, waiting for you. Just open your eyes and heart and embrace them. And I warn you, some can be in places you never thought to look. For me, the most important relationships were those I had with my spouse, my children, my God, my family and friends and most, surprisingly and most importantly, myself.
Know and Love Yourself
Though I did not discover it until much later, I finally realized if you don’t love yourself, it is hard to love someone else, especially in the way you need to as a caregiver. That’s because there is a crushing amount of doubt and guilt associated with being a caregiver. Did you do enough? Did you make the right decisions? Why didn’t this happen to you? Did you forget something? Who can you talk to? Who could possibly understand? And you always feel you can’t possibly put that burden on the one for whom you are caring.
My simple advice is find a quiet place and have a candid and honest conversation with yourself – and learn to love yourself, including your flaws. You need an incredibly strong relationship with yourself in order to truly understand who you are – especially your strengths and weaknesses. You need to understand that cancer and all its ramifications are not your fault and you are doing the best you can. And without that loving relationship with yourself, you can’t be all that you want to be for the one who needs you. When you have that relationship with yourself, your relationship with your loved one will grow. They will understand you better because you can explain yourself better to them. By doing so, you will know who you are and how you can better help them in their struggles.
Dealing With Children
I forgot amid the chaos and confusion, my children were in this fight too, and not simply as bystanders. It was their mother who was fighting cancer, not just my wife. I learned I needed to foster my relationships with our children. Each was unique in how they dealt with it because of their age, gender and personality. My relationship with each had to address these differences, and I struggled to understand what was best for them.
So I would advise any one in a similar situation to talk to their children and hear in their own words how it is affecting them and how they want to help and be helped. I learned quickly that children are tougher than we think, and they want to be involved. Their greatest fear is the fear of the unknown. Not being involved and informed of how things are progressing, even when that hurts and is scary at times, is worse. My relationship with my children grew from the experience, as we learned to trust and love each other. I became a much better parent because I built stronger relationships with them and understood them at a whole new level.
An Open Heart
The biggest surprise during my journey, was the realizing the value of opening my heart. Speaking honestly of my struggles to other people, including friends, acquaintances, and other caregivers was frightening at first, but in the end, always healing. I found I was not alone, and others were struggling too. I am a very private person, but I came to appreciate how good it felt to talk about my situation sometimes, and I came to understand people do not judge you and see you as weak because of your doubts or perceived failures. On the contrary, they encourage you and prop you up. Almost everyone wants to help and understand in their own way. Denying them that opportunity means you deny them the opportunity to bless you with their strength and love. Those relationships gave me strength and endurance beyond what I could ever have achieved alone. In the end, my wife and I lost our fight with cancer. But in that loss, I learned how to love and to be loved in a way I never understood before. I learned how to lend a helping hand whenever I could, and to grasp a hand that is offered to me. I learned you are not in this world alone, that relationships are the safety net of life, and when you lose your grip, that net will be there to catch you when you fall.