by Robert Martin
This past summer, as we do every summer, my family (myself, my wife, and our two daughters), met up with my father, his siblings, and all of their families down to grandchildren—The Reunion of the descendants of Clyde and Fanny Martin. As always, it was an amazingly fun affair with many in-jokes being retold, those friendships that only cousins can have being renewed, and all the old stories being brought out and dusted off.
But one thing struck me this time that I wasn’t sure I had noticed before. Without exception, everyone who was there had been through, either recently or in the not too distant past, some event of suffering and pain. Cancer was present in the room. Broken relationships were inscribed in the faces of spouses and children. Long term illnesses were still taking their toll. While poverty itself was not an issue, certainly finances were difficult for many. Mental illness was not unheard of in our gathering, either. Parents were dealing with difficult children, and even the children were impacted by all of these things as they had been watching and observing their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and siblings struggle through the many different aspects of pain.
This was, and is, my family. I don’t know if there are any other families out there like ours, but I would expect that in any such gathering, it would be a rarity for there not to be some form of suffering taking place. It may not be widespread, it may just be one or two people, but it will be there. And, along with those experiencing the suffering, there will always be someone close to the situation who, while the suffering is not their own, must deal with it every day as caregivers.
The attention in these family gatherings, many times, is on those who are experiencing the pain directly. We defer to the grand aunt facing chemotherapy. We give space and grace to the grand uncle wrestling with depression. The spouse having to break off the marriage is given comfort by many loved ones. But, what about the grand uncle who drives the aunt to chemo every week? Or the grand aunt who has to diligently be aware of her spouses depression? Or the parents of that broken marriage, tending to the many feelings of pain and anger? What do they do?
My family has managed to answer these questions. Although, it wasn’t something that we distinctly chose to do, consciously. There was no declaration of “This is what we will do”. It was simply what happened. For us, it was a natural effect of us being family. When a family member is suffering and another family member is a caregiver, the whole family rallies. Prayer, emotional support, finances when needed, a shoulder to cry on, a caring ear, all these things, freely given. We are family. There is no question that we care for each other, both the person needing the care and the caregiver.
In The Caregiver’s Beatitudes, one of the primary themes I express is the role that community plays in caring for a loved one and for the support of the caregiver. Alone, we will struggle, we will fight, but it will take everything that is in us. There are those who make it through alone, but those are extraordinary situations, I believe. Instead, I believe that the community plays an immense role in this dynamic. What do we do when a loved one suffers? We gather around them, we gather around the caregivers, and together, as a community, we support each other. This is what we do.