The Henri Nouwen Society will host a full-day retreat Oct. 27 in Ottawa aimed at helping caregivers care for themselves. Courage for Caregivers aims to identify challenges and gifts by offering new spiritual practices to sustain long-term self-care. Convivium contributor Stephanie Schoenhoff spoke with the Society’s Colette Halferty about hopes – and prayers – for the event.
Stephanie Schoenhoff: What compelled the Henri Nouwen Society to host this event?
Colette Halferty: When the Henri Nouwen Society first began its visioning around this caregiving initiative, we went out to connect with individuals living the reality of caring for someone at home, and to connect with organizations offering such care on a professional basis. We received resounding encouragement that this was an area missing in the support of caregivers – spiritual sustenance. Many of our interviews helped to shape and inform our resources. Many of the stories were captured in our Courage for Caregivers book series. We made a trip to Ottawa to meet with some key people and organizations for these interviews and so it felt right to return to Ottawa to present the fruits of our conversations that have manifested into our rich spiritual resources and these caregiving retreats.
SS: What can a weary caregiver coming to your retreat expect to receive?
CH: We recognize that caregivers arrive tired, vulnerable, and in need of emotional and spiritual support from our retreats. Our hope is always to renew and restore them in this sacred journey of caring for others, whether it be a parent, spouse or child at home, or whether they care for others in a professional setting. We endeavour to create a safe space for them to be validated in their roles and in their own human struggles with grief, guilt, anger or exhaustion, allowing them time to share with, and gain strength from, others who are experiencing similar journeys. We plan the day so as to affirm and encourage caregivers by helping them to explore their own stories. Through sharing the wisdom of Nouwen and others, we try to bring them to a place of hope and equip them with resources to continue reflecting on their own stories and building their own plans for sustaining wellness.
SS: We know that loving the least of these – including the sick or the dying – is a deeply spiritual act, but sometimes it is hard to see what God is doing in the midst of the fatigue and stress of it all. Reflecting on Nouwen's spirituality of caregiving, what's one practice that caregivers can develop to be encouraged in the Lord during the challenging season of helping a loved-one through illness or even death?
CH: Henri spoke deeply from his own personal journey in caring for Adam, a young man with developmental and physical disabilities in L’Arche Daybreak. Henri always brings people back to the core of his teaching, which is that we are all ‘beloved’ sons and daughters of God. Therefore, as caregivers, we need to know that we are loved as equally as the one we are caring for. God does not judge our weaknesses but reminds us that our brokenness and vulnerability can be sources of strength as we recognize our common human frailty. As conduits of God's grace and healing for others, our recognition that we are 'wounded healers' helps us realize we do not have to do it all or do it alone.
The practice of finding daily time for quiet and reflection, even a few minutes, to hear the Divine voice in our hearts calling us 'beloved' and offering us strength and wisdom, is invaluable. It can ground us and keep us focused on what is most important. As caregivers who need to be cared for ourselves, we are reminded of the need to make sure we also find quiet time daily to nourish ourselves and fill our cups, because we cannot give what we do not have.
"Palliative care is not merely the domain of medical specialists as friends and families are a significant resource in end-of-life care. Approximately 3.7 million Canadians report providing some element of end-of-life care to a friend or family member. About 621 000 Canadians contributed to providing palliative care in the previous year. Of those providing end-of-life care, 35 percent did so in their own homes with an additional 17 percent reporting that they would have preferred to have provided care in their own home."
Based on the statistics, many of us know caregivers, were caregivers, or will be caregivers for our family members at some point in the future. As your event page says, "caretakers need care too". What advice around spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being does Nouwen offer us?
CH: So much of what assists caregivers – whether they are family caregivers or professional caregivers – has to do with two things: support and perspective. Nouwen's wisdom reminds us of the support we all need as caregivers in order to stay healthy, but also gives us some new perspectives through which we can examine the relationship of care and draw strength.
When Nouwen talks about support, he reminds us that "caring is not an endurance test," and that we must always try to surround ourselves with a "community of care." This community may assist with actual caring but is also there to support the caregiver through listening, offering respite, or offering emotional and spiritual support. Caregivers can also build resilience and well-being – spiritual, emotional and physical – through self-care, self-awareness, self-reflection and decreasing their own stresses in their lives wherever possible. Sometimes these stresses are self-imposed, as we try to care “perfectly” and continue to add more to our to do lists without removing what we can. Those who are “givers” often find it hard to receive, but givers must also learn how to accept and receive care themselves. These themes are explored in the printed materials and in the retreat setting.
Some of Henri's writings help us to see caring from a new perspective. He helps us to understand that care is not the same as cure, and that there is a mutuality in caring, where the caregiver and the care receiver often help each other towards healing and wholeness. He reminds us that we are all vulnerable, that there is strength in our vulnerability and that we are all essentially “wounded healers.” Henri's wisdom also helps us to explore the many gifts involved in the caring relationship, which must be recognized and reflected upon in order for us to draw strength from them.
SS: If Nouwen's message to the caregiver could be boiled down to one phrase, what would it be?
CH: True caring can be difficult, and caregivers must also learn how to be care receivers if they are to be nourished and have the physical, emotional and spiritual energy and resilience necessary to remain healthy while they accompany and care for others.
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SS: What do you hope will come out of the day? What is your prayer for the retreat?
CH: Our prayer for this retreat is that we can truly meet people where they are at – to honour them in their own realities and provide them with the spiritual and psychological tools that will help their care journey, while learning that caring for themselves is as important as caring for others. We want to care for their needs for a day, providing a safe place for them to share their stories and helping them to know that they are not alone. We hope that coming together with others living in similar circumstances will help them to feel validated in their own unique caregiving role. Ultimately, we pray that they can find solace in Henri’s words of compassion and hope, and leave the day feeling more peaceful and more supported.
Courage for Caretakers will take place Saturday, October 27, 2018 from 9am to 5:30pm.
Woodvale Pentecostal Church
205 Greenbank Road
Those unable to attend can find materials at www.henrinouwen.org.
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