Don't Lose Your Identity in Caregiving

Caregiving expert Peter Rosenberger shares how you can maintain your own identity while caring for a loved one.

Posted in , Aug 25, 2015

Don't Lose Your Identity in Caregiving

My friend's wife has gone through a rough couple of years with cancer, and my friend has been her sole caregiver. When I ran into him one day and I asked him, “How are you doing?”

He quickly replied, “Well, we’re doing okay.  She just got home from the hospital, and seems to be having some better days.  We have a long way to go, but our situation is better than it was.” He then shared test results that his wife had, and gave a comprehensive update on her condition.

After he paused for a moment, I pointedly said to him, “I asked how you are doing.”

The ease of speech used to relay his wife’s circumstances instantly vanished, and I saw the tears well in his eyes.  Stammering, he managed to get out, “Peter, I’m scared and worn out.”

Both responses my friend gave me reflect the condition of virtually every caregiver I know—including myself. We tend to lose our identity in the story of someone else. When a caregiver answers direct questions in third person singular (he, she, etc.) or first person plural (we, our, us), it’s a good indicator that the caregiver’s identity is overshadowed by the loved one.  When asked about our own hearts, however, we find ourselves caught off guard, and we usually struggle to share our feelings.

It’s simply too easy to become lost as the person pushing the wheelchair, the one standing in the hospital room corner, the one doing laundry or meals, etc. How can we talk about our own broken hearts or weariness when our loved ones have such drastic illnesses or challenges? 

Too many caregivers feel guilty if they say anything construed as complaining or wanting a break—after all, the suffering loved one doesn’t get a break from pain/disease/disability.  But our injuries and wounds, whether physical or emotional, require attention—regardless of how they compare to others. 

If we don't start paying attention to and taking care of ourselves, a strong resentment can quickly take hold. In a relatively short time, we can find ourselves tied in all kinds of emotional knots of guilt, and other negative feelings. 

We fight back against that dark road of resentment by reclaiming our identity. It’s starts with acknowledging your feelings out loud: “I’m tired,” “I’m lonely,” “I’m scared,” “I’m angry,” or “I’m weary," and seeking the help you need. 

Caregivers should also regularly visit support groups—particularly, one related to the trauma/disease of the loved one. While support groups  cannot match up exactly to every specific case, it provides an opportunity for attendees to share from their own heart, their own experiences, and their own struggles. Another way caregivers can reclaim a healthy identity is to cultivate trusted and appropriate relationships where the caregiver is safe to regularly express feelings and challenges with someone who understands the need for the caregiver to share in such a manner. The Bible also tells us that there is  “…wisdom in a multitude of counselors,” and a caregiver can be well served with a trained mental health counselor who can help sort through the issues and even connect the caregiver to various respite and other type community services.  All of these are important steps in reclaiming an identity, but they all start with a simple phrase each caregiver must utter for themselves: “I need help.”

As caregivers, the next time a trusted friend asks, "How are you?" it may feel strange at first, but answer in first person singular. Appropriately sharing your own heartache and feelings is not self-centered; it is healthy—and healthy caregivers make the best caregivers.   

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