I never thought of myself as a brave person, though as I’ve reflected on my experiences in caregiving, I have often turned to what Christopher Robin told Pooh: You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think. I have reshaped my life as I have looked towards the future, and I have forged those steps, small and slowly paced as they may be. At the same time, I have wondered about my destiny. There are things that I would like to do, but there are things that have not come together. This has led me to question my direction, success, and how I define my life.
After several years of caring for my dad and for my husband, Ben, losing them also meant losing a large part of my identity as a caregiver. I was not only grieving their loss, but also grieving what had revealed itself to be a significant part of myself. I was surprised to realize that I missed being a caregiver. Although it was challenging and fraught with tensions and sadness, it was the most meaningful and loving work I had ever done. While I floundered about what to do with myself without the role of caregiver, I came to embrace that caring for people is who I am, whether as a caregiver or a teacher. I channeled Merida and determined that this was my destiny- the purpose of my life- and I had to look inside myself and see that in a positive way. I pursued my certification as a caregiving consultant, though I was never exactly sure how I would or if I would professionally put that skill to use. As a teacher and a person who loves to be around children, although Ben and I had no children together, I often thought about children who were watching a parent with ALS or any other terminal disease. I volunteered with my local ALS chapter to conduct an event for children with a parent with ALS. We did crafts projects, they had pizza and ice cream, and everyone had a chance to talk. I was invited to speak with a group of ALS caregivers to share my experience, try to answer their questions and offer encouragement. I wanted to do more events, and still hope that will happen, but the organization focuses on other important services.
I discovered another wonderful organization called Hope Loves Company. This organization offers programs- particularly weekend camps- for families affected by ALS. I volunteered to do scrapbooking workshops with children at two of these camps, and those have been fun and rewarding. It’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking to look at the photographs that the children put into their scrapbook and to hear their memories and experiences. These camps offer a unique and invaluable opportunity for children who have ALS in common to be with others who understand their situations without explanation. Since many return to camps, the bonds established among children and adults are strong. I feel grateful to be a tiny part of that. I hope and plan to continue to volunteer with Hope Loves Company, though the camp locations are a bit of an obstacle.
I tried to convince myself that I was embracing my destiny, yet I was not feeling the sense of fulfillment I would have expected. Maybe teaching and caregiving are simply well aligned to my personality. Teaching is my current career, and it is rewarding, but there has always been a tug within me to do more. I feel positive about my blog and the feedback that it brings joy, comfort and guidance to readers, but have been feeling frustrated and stressed that I need to expand it without knowing exactly which way to go. The volunteer opportunities to reach children who are caregivers have felt like a genuine movement towards my destiny. I have struggled to find a perfect fit, though my background in arts, education and teaching clearly lend themselves to working with this audience. I have toyed with the idea of starting a meetup group for children who are caregivers, but the obstacles leave me somehow stymied. I continue to brainstorm with myself and others about ways to reach children who are caregivers. I have frustrated myself that I can’t seem to get where I want to go, and that has left me wondering- or even worrying- that I don’t know my life’s destiny. I skeptically wonder if the whole idea of a destiny is just a Disney kind of ideal, yet I thrive on Disney dreams and wishes. I have not been able to let go of the idea that there is more that I am meant to do, but I have felt lost, and without confidence, about how to move forward. I have questioned if I have the ability to move beyond dreams and creative ideas.
Last summer, as I was doing some planning before the school year, I thought about my population of students. Over the years, I have seen that many students are caregivers, either for their younger siblings or for a parent or other close relative who is ill. These are the students who sometimes attend class and fall asleep or cry with their heads down. Or, they may be the students who act out with negative behaviors. Their grades sometimes suffer and academics keep moving down their list of priorities. These were the students whose attention I got when I mentioned taking care of my dad or Ben. They were students who loved the opportunity to do an art project and express themselves. I was someone whom they knew understood their experience. It occurred to me that while I was searching for ways to help children, I had children right in front of me who needed guidance and compassion.
I spoke to my principal about reaching out to kids who are caregivers, and at his suggestion and encouragement, formed a club designed for kids to participate in crafts and activities that let them care for themselves and for others. I talked to the guidance counselors and some teachers about my club so that they could suggest it to students who might benefit. The club has brought together kids who want to make friends, who may be a little shy, and are also interested in volunteer opportunities so they can help others. We have been doing crafts activities and exploring volunteer opportunities. Unfortunately, an after-school program is not always feasible when a student has caregiving experience. I remember running home as soon as school was over to take care of Ben and calling my dad on my way home to check on him, too. The club was a start, and that was good, but I kept focusing on what I was NOT doing and that I was not exactly fulfilling what I had determined was my destiny. I need to learn to work on that in myself.
After the Australian wildfires, students came to school very upset about the suffering animals. I am an animal lover and was also devastated. I approached my club members about doing a school fundraiser on behalf of he animals. It was short notice, but there was a school play coming up in just under two weeks, and I thought it was a perfect opportunity to engage students and their families. I was delighted to see the kids come together with such enthusiasm, along with other former and current students, to support the idea. Colleagues also joined our effort. The kids helped in many ways- brainstorming how to market the idea, designing social media posts, baking, and working at our booth after school for the two days of our school play. So far, in just two days, we have raised more than $300 for the Australia Zoo’s Wildlife Warriors program. We will continue this effort for a few more weeks. The kids feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction, which will hopefully motivate them in the future.
It thrills me to see the students feel positive and successful. It makes me happy to see them socializing and making new friends. They want to help others. They have shared some of their personal stories about issues that have affected their own loved ones and we are seeking ways to volunteer to support those issues. In fact, the students even said that they would participate in an ALS walk to support me, which touches my heart. Though, at this time, children who are actually caregivers are not members of our club, the members are kids who are caring and compassionate and are using those skills in positive ways. They are, in fact, a group of children who are givers of caring!
I think that as we navigate grief, particularly after spending a lot of time as a caregiver, we flounder with where we belong. I have met so many former caregivers who cannot get far enough away from that experience. I understand and don’t judge that or any other response. But, if we delve into anything, even if it is a return to work and not a change in direction, it is so easy to become shaken. And, changes in routine and structure often lead to floundering. I knew that I wanted caregiving and volunteer work to be a part of my life without really knowing what that meant. For me, there is always the fear that trying different ideas will lead to failure, and that the failure will mean that I was on a wrong or unachievable track. Participation as a volunteer has given me insight to what I can do, but also raised obstacles that made me question myself. I began to feel that spent a long time seeking to fulfill a desire to help caregivers, never feeling that I was grasping this vague idea I had of destiny. I was been pleased with my accomplishments, but I also questioned my goals, my strategies and what I thought was my fate.
Merida was right- I had to be brave and open to look within myself and see not only what I perceive as the failures, which hold me back, but also the positive things that, actually, have been leading me forward. I am discovering that it’s the concept of fulfilling my destiny that needs to shift. There is no finish line, no check-off list to that end. My destiny is within me and can be seen in the evolution of activities along an ever-changing trajectory that lets me know that I have touched lives in a meaningful way. I have had to stop searching for this unattainable destiny and let myself be brave enough to look within and know that regardless of the activity and its success or failure, I feel most invigorated, rewarded and purposeful when I am working with and for caregiving and promoting caring. For the first time, I am beginning to embrace the destiny that I’m already living, optimistic and open to bravely recognizing and tackling new opportunities.