A caregiver is someone who regularly looks after a child or a sick, elderly, or disabled person. A caregiver might be a paid worker or a dedicated friend or family member. Caregivers help to meet the needs of those who need additional support in their lives. Serving as a caregiver is a big commitment and can often feel very demanding, but it is also a very meaningful role. Caring for the sick and meeting the bodily needs of others are corporal works of mercy that are found in the teachings of Jesus. When we care for others in these ways, Jesus considers it as being done for Him too. (Matthew 25:31-46)

Is it possible to be a joyful, peaceful caregiver?

Many people struggle with the caregiving role and find it difficult to feel joyful and peaceful. Caregivers are constantly giving of themselves and spending much of their time focusing on the needs of another. Because of this, the emotional and spiritual needs of caregivers often get neglected. However, it is possible to have the best of both worlds and be a dedicated caregiver while also being a healthy, thriving individual.

Caregivers spend a lot of their time caring for the needs of others. As their focus is on the needs of others, many caregivers believe it’s better for everyone else if they just suffer in silence. It’s all too easy for caregivers to neglect their own emotional needs, but this can become problematic and even harmful. When choosing to serve others, there will be spiritual attacks. The devil wants us to feel isolated and tries to convince us that caring for our own needs is always selfish. On the contrary, caring for our own needs is essential for our own wellbeing and for those we serve.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Just think of what Jesus identifies as the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Most caregivers place all the emphasis on loving their neighbor, meaning they believe that they must put other people’s needs above their own needs at all times and at great personal cost. However, we must not overlook the significance of “as yourself”. We are called to love and care for others to the same extent that we love and care for ourselves! This is not selfish; rather, our first stance as Christians is one of receptivity. We can only give to others what we first receive from God. In other words, we can’t give from an empty cup. If we want to love our neighbor well, if we want to be a great caregiver, then we also need to practice self-care. When we feel our own joy and peace fading, it’s a good sign that we may be neglecting our needs. In general, caregivers are some of the most generous and caring people out there. Imagine the difference it would make if caregivers could extend to themselves the same level of care and understanding that they show to others.

Emotional Needs of Caregivers

The first step in caring for our own needs is to recognize what those needs are. Caregivers spend so much time focused on meeting the needs of others that it may be difficult to uncover their own underlying emotional needs. We all have emotional needs; here are some needs specific to caregivers.

To feel like I matter

It can be easy to get lost in caregiving, to become invisible, and to feel like everyone else gets to live their normal lives while you’re getting left behind. A common feeling among caregivers is that people only come to them when they need or want something. Oftentimes, the identity of a caregiver can become completely wrapped up in being the one in control, as caregivers tend to be responsible for handling all the medical decisions, the finances, and the day-to-day responsibilities. Caregivers are also the ones the doctors and family members usually go to first. Although it does feel good to be needed, it makes it even easier for caregivers to lose a sense of self. Because of this, caregivers need to know that they matter and are worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of all their good deeds. At the core of it all, we matter simply because we are the sons and daughters of God.

To have permission to feel

Caregiving sometimes pushes us into putting on a Mother Teresa persona: we endlessly give and serve and strive to be a perfect saint. As we adopt this persona, we begin to believe that we’re not supposed to complain or have negative feelings. We create this story that we’re supposed to be completely content spending all our time caring for someone else, while welcoming criticism and eagerly accepting any challenge. However, this is another lie. There is no doubt that Mother Teresa experienced frustration, anger, sadness, and many other negative emotions. Being a saint and being holy does not equate to having no negative emotions. Negative emotions are a fundamental component of the human condition. Emotions themselves are amoral, meaning there is nothing inherently sinful or righteous about emotions. Instead, emotions are meant to provide us with information about our internal state. If we repress this feedback, we can very quickly become resentful and depressed, and lead to a condition known as burnout. The bottom line is this: caregivers have permission to feel. It would be inhuman to expect otherwise. It is perfectly okay to feel frustrated or upset or agitated or even angry. Feeling negative feelings does not make us any less worthy as human beings and does not mean you are a poor caregiver. It simply means that you are human.

To know that I can be angry at the person I care for and still love them

Anger is a complicated emotion. Many caregivers experience anger and frustration on a regular basis. As a result, they often feel guilty for experiencing these negative emotions. Just because we are angry with a person we are caring for from time to time does not mean that we love them any less. Love is not a feeling; it is choice, and we choose that love every time we show up, run an errand, or make dinner. Anger is a secondary emotion, meaning it always comes with other feelings underneath it. The primary feelings underlying anger are fear, hurt and sorrow, and perceived injustice. Fear says things like, “What will happen to my loved one if I’m not here?” “How much longer do I have with them?” “What will happen if I continue giving to the point of exhaustion?” “What if I can’t handle this?” Hurt and sorrow show up in thoughts like, “No else cares to help me.” “My loved one isn’t grateful for my care.” “I have to watch my loved one become someone I’m not familiar with.” Perceived injustice sounds like, “Why has this role fallen to me?” “I didn’t ask for this.” “This is not fair.” We must acknowledge and process these underlying feelings in order to work through anger and maintain peace.

To be heard

Now that we know we have permission to have feelings, we need those feelings to be heard. We need others who we can share those feelings with, and we need validation and support. We need people who can sit through the difficult times with us without attempting to fix our problems but to simply listen and understand. That person may be a spouse, family member, or friend, and it may include a professional counselor as well. Yes, you can love Jesus and have a counselor as well!

To grieve

Grief is the body’s response to loss. Anticipatory grief is when we know the loss is coming. Many caregivers are caring for someone at the last stages of their life. All caregivers are caring for someone who has lost something, whether that be their memory, their health, or their ability to care for themselves independently. Caregivers grieve a variety of losses: the loss of the future they may have envisioned for themselves or the future they pictured with that person; the loss of their own personal time; the loss of freedom; the loss of comfort; or the loss of friendships and social activites, to name a few. Grief takes on many different forms and brings with it feelings such as anger, denial, and depression. Caregivers need space to process all of the emotions underlying these life changes and strength to accept this new life.

Spiritual Needs of Caregivers

Along with our emotional needs, we also have spiritual needs that require attention. Recognizing these needs will help us unite more closely to God on this journey.

To feel that God has not abandoned us

Some caregivers have united closely to God in their caregiving. They know their hands are God’s hands and they are serving for the Kingdom. However, some caregivers haven’t felt God’s presence in years. They can’t understand why God would allow them to suffer from such difficult trials. Despite all the heartache we face, we need to know God is still with us and that He will never abandon us. Unfortunately, no one can convince another of that truth. It is something that must be searched for in our own hearts and something that is between each individual and God. Give God a chance. Ask Him where He is. Ask Him to allow you to feel His presence. Ask Him for a sign that you’re not alone. And then open your eyes. Look for God. See where He is and picture His gaze upon you. Matthew 5:9 says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” These words are no accident; God is talking about the caregivers. Caregivers are the ones bringing peace to their loved ones. God wants to remind you that you are his children, meaning He is taking care of you because He is the perfect father and the perfect caregiver.

To understand how God could allow suffering

Why do bad things happen to good people? How could a good God allow this to happen to my loved one? The common response is that “everything happens for a reason,” but that’s not quite true and definitely doesn’t bring the comfort that we’re looking for. Romans 8:28 offers a better response: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” God brings good from the suffering. God allows suffering much like parents allow their kids to fall a few times when they are learning to walk. Suffering teaches us, shapes us, and can make us into saints, if we let it.

To trust God

Joy comes from trust. Trust allows us to surrender to God when plans change, when we question if we can handle another day, and when we can’t understand suffering. Trust opens our hands to surrender to God, to let go of worry and control, and to let God take care of all. God is our strength. He will fill our cup. He will carry us in the hard times. Let go and let God take hold of you and all your concerns.

Meeting Our Needs

Identity and worth

We need to be reminded of the fullness of our identity; yes, you are a caregiver, but you are also a spouse, parent, child, teacher, etc. You are more than just simply a caregiver. Caregiving needs to be integrated as a part of our lives, not be the defining aspect of our lives. We need to experience the fullness of all areas of our life to be reminded where our worth comes from. Contrary to popular culture, our worth does not depend on our service, on if someone likes us, or on how many times we visit our mom this week. We are good all on our own because we are God’s. He is pleased with us right now just as we are.

Many of us carry around this fear that “I am unlovable.” We do a lot of things to quiet that voice and to convince ourselves that we are loveable and good enough. What if we believed we are enough? What if we lived feeling that we are worthy and loveable? It wouldn’t matter what people thought of us or the clothes we wear or car we drive or church that we go to. We could give joyfully because our worth wouldn’t depend on our service. We could be at peace with ourselves.

Boundaries

Keeping a full cup and living with peace and joy means having boundaries. We have to know what our limitations are. If we’re feeling burnt out, tired, and frustrated most of the time, it’s time to ask ourselves if we’ve taken on too much. We are not meant to live in a state of exhaustion. We are not meant to sacrifice our peace. It’s okay to say ‘no.’ It’s okay to ask for help. Ask yourself: Am I trying to do it all myself? Am I refusing help from others because of pride? Am I ignoring other options? Giving part time from a full cup is better than giving full time from an empty cup.

Emotional boundaries are equally important. We are responsible for taking care of our own emotional health; we are not responsible for other people’s emotions, and we are not in charge of someone else’s happiness. Much peace can be gained from allowing others to feel negative emotions without us trying to fix or rescue them during difficult times. Having healthy boundaries means making the sacrifices needed to take care of yourself. This means saying no to some things so you can say yes to others. This means making time to take care of your own needs, to do things you enjoy, to care for your own health and home, and to connect with other people.

Social support

Social support is one of the most important factors in coping with difficult circumstances. Who is in your corner? Who do you trust to give you permission to express your feelings? You need those people you can vent to who will sit in the darkness with you and let you know you’re not alone. Counseling and support groups can be extremely beneficial to add to your support network.

Finding meaning

God has called you to the cross. He will bring good out of every situation. Your old self is dying, and you are rising anew. Love is purified in the crucible of suffering. No one knows love in the way that you do as a caregiver. The depth of this meaning will grow deeper for the rest of your life.

Being a caregiver is a challenge and a privilege. Caregiving does not have to be a burdensome task; it can be a joyful outpouring of love that edifies both you and the one you care for. This kind of caregiving requires intentionality, awareness, and sacrifice. Remember that in the midst of your efforts, God is gazing upon you saying, I am here child. Lay your burdens upon me. Take my yoke upon you, for it is easy and light. I am here.