Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Refilling the tank -- the loneliness of the caregiver

I was sitting on the floor in a circle in a yurt this morning with a bunch of other Jews interested in spiritual direction when one person asked the teacher if it could be lonely being a spiritual director (a person who helps guide people on their spiritual journeys).

The question sat with me all day. Loneliness can be a very serious issue for people who make their living -- as I do -- by caring for people in crisis or who spend their days immersing themselves in other people's spiritual issues and concerns. Back in the spring I was working our hospital's cancer units. I was talking with dying people and their families every day, trying my best to offer them comfort by lending a compassionate, non-judgmental ear to hear their fears and concerns.

When the day was over, I was full of all the energy from those encounters and really needed somebody to talk to about it. But I quickly learned what it mistake it was to try to talk to my girlfriend about it. The overwhelming nature of these experiences threatened to crowd out everything else -- including the best stuff -- in that relationship. And so I was left in this strange lonely place where I couldn't connect with the person closest to me about the things that were foremost on my mind. This is the loneliness of the caregiver. And it's why we spiritual caregivers need to do self-care.

In chaplaincy, we talk a lot about "self-care". But, I think people get confused about what that really is for us spiritual caregivers -- sometimes we talk about it as if all it was about was making sure to take time "off" and not working all the time. But no amount of time off alone will renew you in the way you really need to be renewed if you are going to be able to keep doing the work and keep your heart open to people. Self-care also has to mean at least two other things.

First, it means allowing yourself to be cared for -- to be cared for in the same way you offer care to patients and clients. Your friends and family -- as I suggested above -- can't do this for you. You need other spiritual caregivers -- whether it be peers, a psychotherapist or a chaplaincy supervisor -- to be there for you and to hold you (figuratively, usually) in the way you need you, and your experiences and grief from your work, to be held.

And second it means "refilling the spiritual tank". That's what I'm trying to do this week. I'm at a great place -- the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center -- for the week. I'm here for a lot of reasons. Some of it is indeed time to relax. But mostly it's about Torah. It's about studying Torah in community and, through that, reminding myself of all the different ways to connect with God. To remind myself of everything that God means to me. To remind myself of what it is that called me to service -- to become a rabbi and a chaplain -- in the first place. To remind myself of what means to feel God wash over me. To remind myself what it really is I have to offer people who are suffering and hurting.

I'm taking a great class with Daniel Matt -- one of the world's greatest scholars of Jewish mysticism, and the Zohar in particular -- and his wife Hana. Today, Hana led us in a powerful chant of the second half of the sixth verse of psalm 30:

בָּעֶרֶב, יָלִין בֶּכִי;
In the evening, I go to sleep crying.
וְלַבֹּקֶר רִנָּה
But in the morning, I arise singing in joy.
I went for a bike ride after the class and as I was plunging down this one long hill -- feeling the exhilaration from the air rushing by my flesh and the pull created by the gravity of God's earth on my body -- I suddenly realized that I was singing these words to myself over and over again. It's the brilliance of Judaism in the face of life's hurts and wounds. We can't avoid the hurts that inevitably come as long as we walk this green earth. But hope does not die in us. We remain ready to accept that morning of רינה, of joy. What a comfort knowing that the psalms' author -- thousands of years ago! -- felt the same things we do. Suffered the same things we do. And overcame them in a way we still can.

I have so much more I want to write about from this week. So much great learning. So much Torah. Most of that writing will have to wait.


One of the main things I am here for is the Jewish spiritual direction class I opened this blog entry with. It is part of the Lev Shomea program led by Rabbi Howard Avruhm Addison and Dr. Barbara Eve Breitman, DMin. It's been a great introduction. I'm considering seeking spiritual direction training as something to augment my pursuit of becoming a certified Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) supervisor. I hope to write more about that soon.


ByTheBay said...

I'm really happy to find your blog, because of a recent experience with my aunt dying and my current experience of being a caregiver for a grandmother with Alzheimers. The hospital chaplains were a huge part of supporting my aunt in her last months. So good on you for the work you do! And for taking a break to re-charge.

My blog where I talk about Judaism among other things is at - Mostly just personal musings.

Marshall said...

Alan, it sounds like a wonderful experience. Blessings.

Kathy NC said...

My name is Kathy, and I am the primary caregiver for my 79 year old Dad who has Alzheimer's disease and lives with me in North Carolina.

I am writing a daily blog that shows the lighter side of caring for someone with dementia.

Please pass this link along to anyone you feel would enjoy it.



rbarenblat said...

I found my way here via Danya Ruttenberg's blog and wanted to say hello. I'm a once-and-future hospital chaplain (I did an extended unit of CPE a few years ago, and look forward to someday doing another.) Thank you for this beautiful post, and for your blog in general, which I look forward to continuing to read.

I've heard great things about Lev Shomea; may it be a blessing for you.