A Purple Heart for caregivers

Caring for someone with a terminal or chronic illness is like engaging in warfare. The enemy attacks without warning. Chaos, fear and anger ensue, and there’s a call to arms. Some enlist, some are drafted, but all lay down their lives to serve, leaving behind family, friends and dreams for a season. Some serve on the front lines while others provide support from a distance.

The war rages on, weeks turn into months, months into years, and many become home sick and even entertain deserting. But they remind themselves for whom, and for what, they are fighting and press on. Fatigue and stress take their toll and conflicts may break out in the ranks. Soldier turns against fellow soldier, forgetting they’re on the same side. Some suffer battle fatigue and are furloughed for a time. Most are wounded and left battle-scared in one form or another.

Those who are wounded in military service are presented the “Purple Heart.” We at Hospice honor you, caregivers, with a symbolic “Purple Heart” for laying down your lives for your family, loved ones and friends. Jesus declared, “Greater love has no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13-14)

Homer raised all five of his adult sons on his own after his divorce. I was impressed with their love, affection and commitment to their father. They declared, “He stood by us and we’ll do anything for him.” But five months later conflicts broke out in the ranks. They, like so many families, forgot they were on the same side. Some were wounded by “friendly fire” and the family was divided and scattered. What happened? Where did it start? Could it have been prevented?

Looking back, I believe they allowed competition, jealousy and bitterness to take root. Criticism grew as understanding, patience and mutual support waned. Four of the sons began to question and criticize Jim and his wife, who were Homer’s primary caregivers. Jim, in self-defense, returned fire, “I did the best I could. I’m not perfect. Who needs it? I just feel like chucking the whole thing and just saying the heck with it.”

And so he did. He turned over the care of his father to the brother who was his main critic. Jim told him, “If you think you can do a better job, then be my guest!” After only two days of taking care of his father, Jim’s brother pleaded with Jim to, “Please come back.” It’s sure easy to criticize from a distance, isn’t it? According to a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt, “It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

If you’re presently a caregiver or a family member of a chronically or terminally ill person, don’t allow competition and criticism to separate you. Pull and work together. Resist the urge to criticize from a distance, for those who serve don’t need a judge they need a friend, an ally. Remind yourself frequently that you’re on the same side; and that when it comes to relationships there’s no such thing as a winner and a loser. Either you all win or you all lose. Don’t let a fellow soldier fall. Cover them with a blanket of love, understanding and support.

If you’re a family whose war is over and you’ve been left scattered and divided, take heart, because it’s never too late to do what’s right. Learn from the rest of Homer’s story. During Homer’s funeral, the preacher opened the service by inviting anyone with something to share to step forward. One of Homer’s sons stepped forward with remarkable courage and addressed the crowd, “You know, me and my brothers aren’t talking to each other right now.” Then he looked squarely at his brothers and said, “We have to remember that it was the cancer that did it to us. We are brothers and dad wouldn’t want us to treat each other this way. I want all my brothers to know that I love them.” The other four brothers got up from their chairs, walked to the podium next to their father’s casket and all five embraced one another crying for several minutes. Words can’t describe how moved, inspired and challenged I was. If a funeral can be described as good thing, it was the best funeral I’ve ever attended.

“Let all bitterness, wrath, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)

Loren Hardin is a social worker with Southern Ohio Medical Center – Hospice and can be reached by email at hardinl@somc.org or by phone at 740-356-2525.

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Straight Paths

Loren Hardin

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