Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for October 30th, 2011

Who Cares About the Friends and Family?, or, How to Stay Strong during a Family Health Crisis

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Right off the bat, I want to say that I’m not a health care professional.   I’m just a person who’s observed many people in crises and believe that caregivers, or family members, or those who are trying hard to support someone who is in the hospital, or has a serious chronic illness that impacts every part of his or her life, need to be supported.

Note that this particular post has been prompted due to the health of my good friend Jeff, who remains ill in a Fort Collins hospital at this time.  Jeff’s been in the hospital now for approximately three weeks; two weeks ago, he had open-heart surgery, and there have been a number of people at his bedside ever since (along with the doctors and medical personnel that you’d expect).

I know that I’m far away from where “the action is” with regards to my friend; he is ill, and I am very concerned about him.  I have talked with his family members, I have talked with his good friend (and medical POA), and for the most part, my focus has been on how to get Jeff better rather than how all these people, who’ve been around Jeff and his illness now for three solid weeks, can hang in there and remember their own needs at such a difficult and distressing time.

But they, too, are suffering.  They see Jeff in that hospital bed, and he’s not well.  They’ve been there for weeks now, and that’s extremely distressing; further, there’s no timetable as to when he’ll get better and be able to go home or to a rehab facility — which is why I thought to post this at all, in the hopes that it might do some good, and that it probably won’t do any harm.  (“First, do no harm,” that’s the Hippocratic Oath.  And while I’m not a medical person by any stretch of the imagination, self-care is still a medical function, right?  So it seems like that Oath applies.)

What I’ve learned is this: if you take some time for yourself — providing you’re in a long-term situation, where someone is ill for a long period of time (either at home, or in the hospital, or in a hospice, or whatever), you are actually better able to deal with your ill family member or friend.

I know this sounds nonsensical; you want to be there every minute, to show that you care, and to do all you possibly can to aid the health care professionals to get your loved one well, or at least keep him or her as well as possible.

But we’re human beings, and we need to take at least some care of ourselves during a health crisis.  We have to remember that if we don’t take care of ourselves, we’re not going to be able to do all we can for our ill family member or friend.

Now, what I mean by “take care of yourself” is this: make sure you eat.  Make sure you get adequate rest.  Do something nice for yourself, even if it’s as simple as buying yourself a small piece of candy, or talking a walk outside in the sun.

Don’t neglect yourself, whatever you do.  Because focusing all your attention on your ill family member is actually counterproductive, unless it’s such an urgent crisis (life-or-death, with immediacy, something like I faced on my husband Michael’s final day of life) that you have no choice but to do so.  (Even then, the health care people told me I should make sure to eat something; I managed a banana, I think.  To go wash my face; to have water; to talk a walk inside the hospital to clear my head.  And they told me to take my regular medicines on schedule, too; I had to stay strong in case my husband was able to survive.)

For Jeff’s family and friends who are there in Colorado with him — and for those of us who care for Jeff very much, but do not live in Colorado and haven’t been able to get there — we have to remember to do what we can to take care of ourselves in addition to whatever we can do for Jeff.  (What I can do right now is pray.  That’s about it.  But I am assuredly doing that.)

Taking care of ourselves is not selfish; instead, it’s our way of staying ready to help.

So if taking in a movie helps to clear your head, you should go do it.

If going out to eat is what you need — go do it.  (If you can’t stand the hospital food, briefly leaving the hospital for an hour or whatever isn’t going to change things for your loved one — and it may really help you, which indirectly helps your loved one.)

In other words — self-sacrifice to excess is a vice.  So please, do something nice for yourself every day — even if it’s just to luxuriate in the shower an extra minute, or take a walk, or eat a candy bar, or read a few pages in a book that makes you laugh . . . these are good things to do, and you should make a point of doing them for your own mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

Taking care of yourself should help you be better able to deal with your extremely sick loved one.  So please, keep this in mind; I know it feels wrong to take care of yourself at such a stressful time, but if you won’t, who will?  (And if something happens to you, how will that help your sick friend or family member any?)


Note: I’ve walked this path, and I know how bad it feels to be there but not be able to affect the outcome at all.  I think being there at your loved one’s bedside is the right move — of course it’s the right move!  But you have to remember that in a long-term illness, you need to take care of you in addition to your loved one . . . also, if the person in question wasn’t so very ill, he or she would want you to take care of yourself.

Written by Barb Caffrey

October 30, 2011 at 4:45 am