Forgiveness: A caregiver’s hidden strength
Caregiving is difficult.
It’s often thankless. It feels lonely. It can be burdensome and it causes resentment.
While it is usually an act of love, for many it is also an obligation. Caregiving relationships happen because of unpleasant circumstances, and they often start under unfavorable conditions.
Caregiving involves obstacles to overcome and relationships to maintain or repair. This means it’s important to talk about forgiveness, which can be as difficult as the caregiving itself.
You may struggle to forgive those who have been abusive, judgmental, or neglectful. But the person most deserving of forgiveness is you.
Self-forgiveness is the essential first step in your effort to forgive other people and situations.
You’ll find strength and wellness in your ability to practice it.
Why forgiveness is important
Quite simply, it’s a matter of maintaining good health and improving your life as a caregiver.
Anger and resentment cause unwanted reactions in your body, such as elevated stress levels and an increased risk of depression and heart disease. If you’re harboring these feelings you’re putting yourself in a state of fight-or-flight, which leads to negative outcomes.
Forgiveness allows you to reduce your level of anxiety. It helps you forge better relationships with your family. It leads you toward a deeper understanding of circumstances around your loved one’s need for care.
Done successfully, forgiveness lightens your load.
“Because forgiveness is like this: a room can be dank because you have closed the windows, you’ve closed the curtains. But the sun is shining outside, and the air is fresh outside. In order to get that fresh air, you have to get up and open the window and draw the curtains apart.” Desmond Tutu
Why forgiveness is hard
There is no manual on the right way to forgive, especially in the world of caregiving.
There are methods for practicing forgiveness but no guarantees. The practice is gradual, prone to setbacks, and often taxing. But as you develop the habit of forgiving, you’ll improve your own well-being in the process.
For family caregivers, seeing to another’s needs often means figuring things out as you go. You mean to do what’s best for your loved one, but what’s best can vary from day to day. You make mistakes, you learn through trial and error, and you can find yourself clueless about what to do next.
You might feel guilty about it.
That’s called being human. And it calls for you to forgive yourself and move ahead.
If you are caring for a parent who was abusive when you were young, you have an additional obstacle to overcome. You may feel it’s your duty to care for them. If you’ve struggled to get past your negative feelings, however, the person who suffers is probably you.
Forgiving someone does not mean you’re required to forget. It does mean understanding that they may have suffered abuse from their own parents. When you work on getting past your feelings of hurt and betrayal, your forgiveness of them can be liberating.
It’s important to understand that some diseases — such as Alzheimer’s — can lead to abusive behavior in your loved one. It might be especially difficult to separate the behavior from the disease, but doing so is in your own best interest. Forgive your loved one and remember they’re not at fault for the abusive effects of the disease. Consider getting assistance from experts who care for dementia patients, such as a residential memory care facility or in-home help from SeaCare.
Some caregivers assume responsibilities without assistance from family members. If you have siblings or other close relatives who have declined to help, remember that they might have situations in their lives that make it impossible. Forgiving them allows your own peace of mind. It means understanding that their limitations are their personal burden to bear. You can rest assured you’re doing the right thing.
How caregivers can forgive themselves: 5 steps
Everyone has an occasional bout of anger or resentment, but some people are more naturally inclined to forgive. Letting go of these negative feelings means they experience less stress and anxiety.
If you are not naturally inclined toward forgiveness, harboring these feelings — holding a grudge — can be damaging to your caregiving role and your health.
Fortunately, it’s possible to learn to be more forgiving and make the choice to offer compassion. This goes beyond simply saying the words.
Psychotherapist Loren M. Gelberg-Goff, author of Take Back Your Life: A Caregiver’s Guide to Finding Freedom in the Midst of Overwhelm, offers five ways to forgive yourself as you care for a loved one. She has worked with caregivers experiencing the tough challenges of hostility, lack of appreciation, and family tension and emphasizes that it can be difficult to muster compassion for care recipients.
So difficult that the result is negativity and diminished quality of life for many caregivers.
Gelberg-Goff suggests that they consider these important steps. Below is a paraphrased summary of her recommendations.
If you feel anger and resentment, start by acknowledging it. Identifying your feelings and admitting they’re impacting you is critical to reaching forgiveness. Such feelings are normal. Recognizing this helps you deal with them rather than pushing them below the surface.
Accept that you have made a choice to give care. Gelberg-Goff believes that people who didn’t make a deliberate move to be a caregiver have still made a choice. There are options, even though some of them might be completely unsuitable. Recognizing that becoming a caregiver is a choice helps you to find a way to accept it even if you don’t relish the role.
Consider how your early family experience might be affecting how you feel. Some of a caregiver’s feelings might be rooted in situations and relationships from many years ago. Our personal histories are a powerful influence on the way we live and function as adults. If you experienced difficulty with your parent when you were young, there can be residual bitterness in your relationship with them now. Understanding this and factoring it in might help you alter your perspective and focus on what’s happening currently.
Ask yourself what your goal as a caregiver is. Think about why you’ve assumed this role. Are you focused on compassion for your loved one? Are you trying to be the daughter or spouse your person most needs? Are you caregiving because you cannot imagine any other options? There’s no right answer. It’s vital to be aware of your goal in caregiving, however, so that you can move toward personal health.
Request and accept help. Gelberg-Goff reminds us that caregiving is an enormous mental, physical, and emotional responsibility. She writes, “No one is served through martyrdom” and says that asking for assistance is not a sign of helplessness. It’s essential to suspend self-judgments and remain open to receiving help.
At SeaCare we’re all about helping families with their caregiving challenges. We offer quality care to your loved one and peace of mind to your family. Contact us to learn more.
Katie Wright writes about aging and senior wellness from Bellingham, WA. You can read more about her here.
If you or a loved one you know are looking for additional support during this time and are interested in scheduling a free in-home assessment, please contact SeaCare In-Home Care Services today! A SeaCare family member is standing by. 425-559-4339.