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  • Sean O'Leary

The Complexity of Caring

Last year, I was told by well-meaning advisers that it is difficult to give up a rewarding career to care for an elderly parent, that there are always other options and that I was entitled to a life of my own. All true but I didn’t listen.


Instead, I listened to others who said that it was a generous act of Christian charity. I also listened to close family members who said that they would support my decision regardless of whatever challenges emerged down the road. This is faith!


Abandoning a fulfilling job to become the main carer for an elderly parent means navigating more closely the complexity of family dynamics; depending on the goodwill of others for practical, emotional and spiritual support; acutely feeling the loss of personal independence; setting aside personal and professional interests for the greater good; and reshaping the many other relationships in one’s life.


It is to lose track of the rhythm of your life to embrace a new rhythm, one that you aren’t as knowledgeable about or comfortable with. But, the hardest part of all is coping with the heartache of ongoing losses in the health of the parent who you care for, witnessing small losses over time that you cannot help noticing as a carer; but which others can generally be blind to. This is the soulful grief that comes with caring for a parent.


Why do it? The simple answer is love.


I can’t describe the convoluted experience of becoming a family carer except to say that it is a response to a profound call to begin a new vocation, a sort of holy endeavour, a mission of love. At its core, caring for someone who needs help is a calling to serve. The word ‘vocation’ comes from the Latin word vocare, which means ‘to call’.


What keeps me going? Family and faith.


We should not take for granted the radical message of care that was introduced into the world by Christianity. Christ healed the sick, which spread the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness. Christ’s spiritual calling led to many holy men and women to build hospitals, study medicine or nursing and shape the growth of healthcare as we know it today.


Becoming a family carer might be different; it certainly feels more personal and intimate than regular acts of charity especially in today’s world where work outside the home comes with the strong message of personal liberation. Still, life is not all about personal liberty.


And becoming a family carer is not about servitude, but it is about creating mutual relationships of good faith and trust especially between yourself and the person you are caring for. In this light, becoming a family carer is a rich blessing. It also offers a path to holiness through the mutual sharing of Christ’s love.


The path is not smooth and there are inevitable challenges. Personal challenges for me have been overcoming the lingering effects of my former professional pride, seeing past my own way of looking at the world or coming to terms with new fears that I’m on a path that I know little about.


Feelings of resentment and self-pity can surface, which are difficult to acknowledge, ugly to contemplate and impossible to ignore. Taking on the role of caring has made me look at myself in new ways and I don’t always like what I find. We all bear the heavy burden of our sins. Talking or writing helps as does confession.


A quote from C.S. Lewis captures the complex nature of reality: ‘God intends to give us what we need not what we think we want’. How true this is!


There are of course many blessings, many of which I cannot articulate properly but which certainly involve bright moments of togetherness, spontaneity and hope. When my Mum and I attend Mass in Bride Street Church, we sometimes find ourselves sitting beneath the fourth Station of the Cross.


The text beneath the picture states simply: ‘Jesus meets his Mother’. I find it strangely consoling because the overall picture illustrates the strong currents of emotion that must have been swirling around in their hearts. Saying a quiet prayer while siting beside my Mum, beneath the fourth Station just before Mass begins, reminds me that grief and sorrow are not linear or ordered.


In finding truth, we have to navigate between emotions, instincts, memories and reasons that are both painful and joyful. Our journey is never a straight path and I wonder about the ability of the Stations of the Cross to speak to our changing lives; always relevant, always fresh, always challenging.


Amidst complex life decisions, the Stations of the Cross help us to discern a way forward. For now, it doesn’t really matter what comes next. We are committed to the journey and we are joyfully exploring the blessings of the present while always keeping an eye on what direction leads us to God.


Thank God for family!