Thankfully, many people do not know what it feels like to have a long-term illness or to take care of someone who does. However, with more life experience, most people eventually do enter into this world of the care marathon. In our family, we had a seriously ill 5 year old last year who was out of school for 5 months. It was, without question, the most stressful time of my life so far. In our case, she has made a full recovery and we all got our “healthy normal” back. Every single day we feel indescribable appreciation for the miracles of modern medicine and for our sheer good luck. It also gave me a completely new appreciation for those who do not.
As the primary caretaker, I felt the kind of stress that at times was completely overwhelming. For a disturbing period of time, I did not have the luxury of sufficient energy to do much to take care of myself. I am completely aware that I wasn’t even the one who was sick! I am also aware that I had an enormous support system of family and friends backing me up. Even with all the external support, I still had the outrageously long night time hours alone with my thoughts. Those thoughts could make the difference between starting the next day with shallow breath, a racing heart and utter exhaustion versus starting the day with love in my heart and a smile of appreciation for the tremendous blessings that greeted me. I had little control over the conditions of my situation, but my demeanor and experience were what I could shape. I should also note that the number of things I could control were infuriatingly small and that made them all the more precious.
During that period of time, I had decades of experience with meditation to draw upon. Some techniques, or meditative tools, were more effective than others. I refer to them as tools because like a hammer and saw, they do no good on the shelf. With practice, these tools can be a life saver. Those months of long nights led me to make a distinction between the tools that could help me slow down a bit and those that could actually rearrange the thoughts in my head.
For example, if you start to think of all the stressors in your life, notice how it makes you feel. You could also notice how your body responds to those thoughts and feelings. If you give your body a deep breath, close your eyes, and connect with all the reasons you have to be grateful to someone or for something, that probably has a very different effect on your mind and body. Setting the intention for your own mental focus is a powerful tool that improves with practice. Using some simple visualizations to initiate and enhance this ability can also make a big difference.
Life’s priorities get much clearer when the limitations arise. Severely limited time and energy had the benefit of forcing me to be more conscious about how I use them. I now find that sharing the tools I have used to navigate these major life challenges is a high priority. Everyone has many ways of coping with stress. A regular practice of meditation can enhance everything else you do. I encourage you to give it a try.