Guest commentary by Lynne Clements
Sleepless nights, temper tantrums, meal-time struggles, day care crises, bathroom messes, doctor’s appointments and loads of laundry.
If you live with an infant or toddler, this list might seem all too familiar; yet this list also describes life when providing care for an elderly person. Or two. Which is exactly the situation I found myself when my 94- and 95-year-old parents came to live with my family after my dad had a stroke.
In my small house. While I continued to work full-time. For weeks.
Then, late one afternoon my mom had a stroke in my living room and died a week later.
Nothing in my life had prepared me for any of this, much less doing so while caring for other people and their families. I felt alone and numb. I was frequently exhausted and spent, and yet I kept going. After all, what else could I do?
In the six months since my mom’s death and my dad’s remarkable recovery and successful transition to assisted living, here is what I learned about ministering to others while caring for myself and others.
Know your tribe. Who are your people — the ones you can call on no matter what time of day (or night)? Make a list of your family members, colleagues and friends with whom you have a deep trust and love. You will need them — if not today, then someday. More than once in the last six months, I have needed my tribe — to listen, to lean on, to cry with, to hear my story over and over again, to celebrate the numerous holidays and anniversaries that are still a part of life even while mourning. Friends have sent me cards, shared books, taken me to lunch, asked how I was doing and really meant it. Colleagues have taken over projects and seen to details in my absence and absent-mindedness. And my family, well — there are simply no words to describe what they’ve done to hold space for me in my grief. (And if I can’t write about all three daughters, I can’t write about any of them! Y’all know that truth.)
Ask for what you need. No one can read our minds or our hearts. Ministering is challenging and demanding; life with a family whileministering can be overwhelming. Unless we let our tribe and our church know what we need, they cannot help us. Whether we need time off to rest or someone to help with meals, asking for what we need is as powerful a model for those we love and serve as any sermon we might ever preach on humility.
Receive generously. This is the corollary to asking for what you need. We are taught to be generous with our time and compassionate toward others. We are also taught to maintain healthy boundaries. Yet what I learned during this season of ministering while caring for my parents was to receive what was offered. The day after my parents arrived at my house, a pastoral deacon from the church where I serve arrived at my door with a hearty meal and some fall flowers. I didn’t have any words. I simply received what was offered. Meals, prayers, visits, phone calls, texts. From friends andparishoners. Receive generously what you are offered.
Be gentle with yourself. I know I am not the only one who has a harsh critic living inside her who has lots to say about my shortcomings and long to-do lists. I know I am not the only recovering perfectionist who is driven by unreasonable expectations that every sermon will make the Compendium of Great Sermons or that one half day off while raising children or caregiving for loved ones is all we need. Friends, let go of that nonsense! The truth is that you and I are only able to love others as much as we love ourselves. So be gentle with yourself. Take an extra day off. Read for fun. Get a massage. Walk in the woods. Exercise. Find the place of peace in yourself and take a seat there. And offer yourself the grace you so often give to others.
LYNNE CLEMENTS is an associate pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. She and her husband Lynn live in Orange and have three amazing daughters.