Caring for the caregiver

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Often the work of those who endlessly care for the needs of the sick - in nursing homes or at home - goes unseen. It is easy for caregivers to start to feel weary and despairing carrying countless worries on their shoulders, but a new book asks them to give all the worries to the one who cares for all: God.

A Year of Grace: 365 Reflections for Caregivers offers daily respite for caregivers, "a chance to refresh the mind and lift up the spirit, and to look with gratitude and hope at the value of every human life."

The author, Northern Virginia speaker and writer Laraine Bennett, knows firsthand the highs and the lows of the world of caregivers. She started to write this book while caring for her vibrant, artistic mother who was completely incapacitated by a devastating stroke that "took nearly everything from her but her laughter and her love for her family and nature."

Bennett was visiting her mother, Teje, every day at a 24-7 care facility in Fairfax when she started looking for a Catholic book for a caregiver in her situation, but could not find any.

"I thought, 'Maybe I should start working on this for myself, and it could be helpful for other people,'" she recalled.

Each daily reflection packs short bites of Scripture, quotes from the day's liturgy and Christian writers, and an encouraging reflection. The book is a daily reminder for caregivers of their important role in bringing Christ's love to those in their care.

"(A caregiver's) work is often difficult, physically demanding. They don't receive a lot of commendations," Bennett said. "They need something uplifting and encouraging but that also speaks to the reality of their situation."

Bennett is a freelance writer for several Catholic publications and has co-authored three books on temperament with her husband, Art, director of Arlington diocesan Catholic Charities. For her, the thought that this could help professional or nonprofessional caregivers - like the dedicated nurses and certified nursing assistants who cared for her mother or a person taking care of an elderly parent or children with disabilities - motivated her to work on the book, while juggling her work and family life.

¬Bennett wanted to be uplifting but to have authentic accounts. She related the Scripture passages with the experiences of the people at her mother's nursing home. Bennett tells the story of "Mrs. X," who has to pay somebody to visit her because her family would not. Bennett also captures how Mrs. X would yell at whoever stopped by her room.

Bennett also writes about "Irene," who had a massive stroke that one side of her brain. Also incapacitated but able to talk, Irene embodies positivity and hope, as she applies to job positions teaching in Alaska. Sometimes Bennett writes about moments with her mother - like when she was doing jumping jacks at the foot of her mother's hospital bed just to make her laugh.

The reflections are short. Bennett wanted busy caregivers to have a "contained and uplifting and encouraging insight for each day, without taking a lot of their time."

As Little Sisters of the Poor Paul Mary said in a review of the book, it adds "just enough prayerful reflection to nourish both the caregiver and the cared-for."

"A lot of (the book) is the incredibly positive and hopeful experiences that I found every day in the nursing home," she said. "It reminded me that Christ has come and can reach into the darkest night, the darkest situation, and He can bring out hope and love.

"I was visiting my mom every day, and I would try to bring a little bit more (of Christ's) joy and love to her and to the other people," Bennett said.

As the book went to press, Bennett's mother passed away. She said that she will be forever grateful for the gift and blessing of her life. The time caring for her, though it was not the plan she would have chosen, brought them together in a wholly different way.

Susie Lloyd - author of books like Please Don't Drink the Holy Water and Bless Me Father for I Have Kids - said Bennett's book walks with caregivers, giving them hope.

"Sometimes you just need to know that someone else gets it," Lloyd wrote in a book review. "This book is about suffering, the suffering of the sick, yes, but the more mysterious suffering of the healthy who care for them, already grieving. Certain insights, such as how tired Our Lord must have been when His needy throng of followers drained His last ounce of human energy, were like an illuminating flash."

One of the lessons Bennett learned was to trust in God and remember, while seeing the suffering and pain of her mother, that Christ went through this pain in the garden and in the passion, she said.

"We know this intellectually, but I would see it when I would be most upset for my mom, especially at the end of her life," Bennett said. "I knew that the people at the hospital were doing their best, but you worry about them thinking that her life is no longer of value. Christ reassures us that everything about a person is of value."

A human being is valuable because "our dignity is from God, and He loves each of us, regardless of what we can or can't do," she added.

Bennett also learned to slow down and appreciate what was happening at the moment.

"My mother could only be in a wheelchair for 45 minutes a day, but we would go outside and look at the flowers, deer, seeing the beautiful nature. … We had to really appreciate these moments," Bennett said. "Besides family visits, the beauty of nature that she could experience was one of the things that made her most happy."

God gives caregivers a special grace to be able to discover these "tiny moments of joy and grace," she said. "He helps you through whatever experience it is that you are going through." she said.

"We become angry and frustrated when we are relying on ourselves, but we need to place our trust in God," she said. "Out of that trust comes hope; and from that hope comes the joy in the small things."

Bennett hopes this book will offer caregivers a way to reflect and trust that God will help them notice these everyday graces as they continue their important labor.

Negro can be reached at mnegro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @MNegroACH.

Get the book

A Year of Grace: 365 Reflections for Caregivers (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division) is available on amazon.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014