“What am I going to do when he can’t stay by himself during the day?” she asked me. Sherry and I had raised our children together through the youth department. We had cooked Wednesday night suppers together, sung in the choir, and even traveled together. This was something neither of us saw coming. Her husband had been diagnosed with a tragic life-stealing disease, and those of us who loved him were now facing how to care for his family during his final months. So, I took her to lunch.
Sherry was trying to lasso the tornado that had blown her future plans to the ends of the earth. She was grappling with the practicalities of handling the next year alongside the certainty of a future that had been painted for her alone. How can anyone be prepared for that? That day she asked me how she was going to go to work to keep their insurance and still be at home to care for Tom. So, I told her I would take Thursdays.
I became Tom’s “Gal Thursday.” I would pick him up as Sherry was headed out to work and run errands, eat lunch, or go to church for company. I had that privilege for the last six months of Tom’s life. And this is what I learned; caring for the sick takes compassion but caring for a caretaker takes listening skills.
For Tom, my time was a gift to him. He had a rascally sense of humor and a determination to end well. He needed me to be his wheels, sometimes his hands, but watching TV with him was good company. For Sherry, I had to think. I had to hear the fear in what she was not saying and seek a good word into our visit. I had to sense her deep sadness that overwhelmed her at times in order to make sure she knew the depth of love that surrounded her. I had to stay close enough to see what she was wrestling with in order to bring whatever skills I had to the table for support—even if that included construction of a new bathroom! And I had to be as faithful to her recovery as I was to Tom’s end. We had to finish the journey well, too.
You may find yourself in the same position with a friend or a loved one this year. As difficult as it is to put your own life on hold to devote time and care to a loved one during any season, this season of 2020 is unprecedented! Never was it more important for the community of Christ to be vigilant in our care and tenderness of one another. On top of the myriad of challenges that we are faced with, we are experiencing a season of fear and uncertainty that permeates our culture and leaves many of us disillusioned.
Research has shown that caretakers in our society have significant risks to some physical and mental health issues, including heart health concerns and a vulnerability to depression and isolation.1 If you are family or a friend to a caretaker, there has never been a more important time to shower them with intentional love and support. Ambushed by Grace by Shelly Beach is a wonderful and encouraging resource to help. In my various seasons of supporting caretakers, I uncovered three practical things that I think helped: I needed to be specific in my offers, persistent in my attention, and bold in my encouragement.
My love language is “Acts of Service,” according to Dr. Gary Chapman. I score disproportionately high in that expression of love. It isn’t surprising, then, that I volunteered to “do” something for my friend. (I once cleaned the bathrooms on a new-baby visit. Another time, I ripped up old carpeting out of a bedroom on a care visit.) For Sherry and Tom, I volunteered my Thursdays. It was a specific, measured, practical offer of help that Sherry could wrap her mind around. It worked. Other people offered her a day of cleaning; some tiled the bathroom or paid for the plumber. Her church family showered her with help that was specific, practical, and took the “grind” out of daily as much as possible. If you are blessed to be loving on a caretaker, make your offer of help specific.
The next thing I learned was that I had to be persistent. Even though I was seeing Sherry and Tom regularly, I still needed to check in with her about new issues that she was facing. As Tom’s disease progressed, Sherry began to need support in other ways. Those friends who were persistent in their offers of help were positioned to be the most helpful to the family. Caretaking is often more of a marathon than a sprint.
Lastly, never underestimate the power of a good word. Sherry remembered the countless cards and notes she received that were encouraging to her. Caregivers make a decision to dedicate this season of their lives to another’s welfare. They appreciate a comment that notices they are doing a good job. Be bold in your encouragement and tell a caregiver, “You are doing a good job.”
In Luke 10:38-42 when Jesus was invited to His friend Martha’s house for dinner, I imagine He arrived at her home and was welcomed by all and seated in the place of honor at the table. Martha was a great hostess. She was specific and encouraging, using her gifting of hospitality to care for a traveling Preacher who was, no doubt, tired. I have wondered if the story would have turned out differently if her sister, Mary, would have stuck her nose in the kitchen before she went to sit with Jesus and told her she was doing a great job. I mean, think about it. Would Martha have been less resentful of her tasks if she had felt the support of her sister? We won’t know until we get to heaven what the nature of their relationship really was, but Martha was a doer and stepped out boldly to offer comfort to Jesus. She just needed a little support—specific, persistent, and encouraging support.
Sara Dyer is the author of The Battle for Eve: Biblical Combat Training for Women in Spiritual Warfare and Vice Grip: A Woman’s Look at the Seven Deadly Sins. With a Masters in Theology, she has served her local church in women’s leadership for over thirty years and is committed to bringing the Word of God alive and helping teach its relevance in the daily lives of the women she serves and mentors. As a professional interior designer, she and her husband currently flip houses in the Nashville area. They have three married children and two fabulous granddaughters!
1. Mayo Clinic Staff, “Caregiver stress: Tips for taking care of yourself,” Mayo Clinic, March 19, 2020, accessed September 4, 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/caregiver-stress/art-20044784.