Embracing Gratitude During and After Caregiving
Today is Thanksgiving. Since I always take comfort in Disney, it stands to reason that I would be drawn to a quote from Walt Disney who said, “The more you are in a state of gratitude, the more you will attract things to be grateful for.” I have really tried to embrace that attitude and, for the most part, it helps me.
Thanksgiving has become a bittersweet event for me. It is a holiday that reinforces that I’ve lost the family to which I was so close. I had a lovely celebration with dear friends, but that ride home by myself to my apartment remains painful. I don’t know what I would do without the company of Tinker Bell, who is very vocal in her delight to welcome me home.
I know that I am forever changed and influenced by my experiences as a caregiver for Ben and Daddy, and then losing both of them within a short time. Thanksgiving carries a lot of difficult memories for me. I have flashbacks of my last Thanksgiving with my dad, spent in the hospital, where I schlepped a full turkey dinner that he ate, mostly, to make me feel better because I’d been crying and pleading with him to eat and get stronger. My last Thanksgiving with Ben was melancholy because he was feeling understandably low about so many things regarding his ALS, including not wanting to eat pureed versions of traditional holiday dishes. I still find myself staring at the turkey gravy display at Trader Joe’s reliving the laughter and tears of my making all sorts of combinations of foods for Ben in the Vitamix as eating became increasingly difficult for him. I always had many boxes of Trader Joe’s turkey gravy because Ben liked it mixed with chicken and mashed potatoes, and I mixed it with all kinds of things to create a puree that he liked, including, if you can believe it, teriyaki chicken! Although it was easy to lose sight of it at the time, we did have things for which to be thankful. Being able to change our view and feel gratitude was indeed a superpower, because it gave us perspective that allowed us to always see the love that was there and be present in the moment. Now, reminding myself of the many things for which I’m grateful continues to warm my heart, even if those memories come with tears.
In these times, I turn to Mary Poppins, who said in Mary Poppins Returns, “When you change the view from where you stood the things you view will change for good.” As I have worked through my own experiences, I also recognized that many students were also stressed because they were caregivers, either for family members who were ill or even for siblings who they were helping to raise. In my classes, particularly when teaching remotely, I gave voice to students who were struggling with those responsibilities. I began a club at school to support students who were caregivers. The club attracted a group of students who were not necessarily caregivers but were compassionate and caring. Pre-COVID, we raised funds to help the animals affected by the wildfires in Australia. During the pandemic, we conducted remote journaling workshops for teens in residential centers. I shifted the view from where I stood and realized that these were students who wanted to help others and in fact, they were giving care and compassion. They felt good and the feeling spread. I did journaling and other self-care activities with them, and then I helped them to create their own workshops for other students. They supported each other, with advice about school, family and life. I was thrilled to see their friendships blossom. Also, it was inspiring to listen to their discussions focusing on ways to care for others, through activities, fundraising and volunteering.
We had a club “Friendsgiving” at our recent club meeting with apple and pumpkin pies, cookies, candy and beverages. We talked about possible activities and ways that we want to help and bring kindness to each other, students in school and community groups. We talked about gratitude, and how even when things are not going well, finding one tiny thing to be grateful for can spiral into a mindframe of gratitude. I wished them a wonderful holiday weekend and reminded them to do something kind for themselves. That’s not always easy for my students. But, I like to remind them that self-care is also caring.
Yesterday, one of the students in my club brought me this card. It touched my heart more than she could ever know.
It filled me with more gratitude. I am grateful that I was able to form this club and provide a platform for these lovely students to be the giving and thoughtful people they are. I feel oddly grateful that I was able to channel caregiving and grief in a positive and productive way. I would not have conceived of the club without that experience. As I see it, through my club I am paying loving tribute to Ben and my dad. I am reaching out to caregivers with a safe and compassionate environment and nurturing my club members with opportunities to spread kindness, be supportive, encourage self-care, and help others. I am so proud of my students. At a time when teaching could not be more disheartening, I am grateful to find fulfillment through the students in my club and the possibilities of reaching many others.
As always, Walt was right. Being in a state of gratitude has created an awareness of and continuous expansion of things for which to be grateful. So, in that spirit, I would also like to say that I am thankful for those who read my blog posts and share their own experiences with me. I am grateful for the inspiration of caregivers and carees who bravely and innovatively navigate life with ALS and other illnesses.
Happy, healthy and reflective Thanksgiving. Do something kind – however small or large- for yourself.