There was a time in my life when I contracted with the correctional system in Victoria, British Columbia to treat inmates for alcoholism and drug addiction. The warden of the prison was the Director of the Board of Directors of the treatment center where I was director. Because there were a shocking number of people in jail for drug and alcohol related crimes, we had worked out a program where the prisoners could be released on day parole to receive treatment for addiction. One day I was sitting in the warden’s office when a group of local clergy stopped in the hallway. The warden commented, “Tina, do you ever notice that they never come without their clerical collars, that the only services they provide are religious services. They never come just as people to really ask what the needs are and to get to know the prisoners.” The Shepherd of the lost sheep would never hide behind a clerical collar or a practiced narrative. The Shepherdess would go to any lengths to find her lost sheep, and she would know each of her sheep by name. The loving shepherd keeps no safe distance from his sheep, rather leans in for conversation and learning. The shepherdess takes care of her sheep, and goes out of her way to connect with any who are lost.
I can’t help but mentioning that there were, indeed, shepherdesses in the time of Jesus, and during Jesus time it was believed that possibly half of the shepherds were women. Shepherdesses were responsible for the same tasks as their male counterparts, including keeping their flock intact, protecting it from predators, and guiding it to market areas in time for shearing. Shepherdesses commonly milked their sheep and made cheese from the milk.
There are those who spend weeks, months, years, lifetimes taking care of others. The caregivers of the world carry a burden of their own, and the weight of the responsibility is unknown to casual passers-by. Listen to the familiar story of a family with a mentally ill member: “The phone rang at 3 am. Her first response was to ignore it because it was probably a crank call. When she did answer, it took a moment to identify the familiar voice. “…Your son is standing under the streetlight, Marge,” he said. “What? Who is this? She asked. “John…your neighbor. Marge, David is standing under the streetlight without a stitch of clothing.” “What? Oh, my God, is he still there?” “Yes, I can still see him standing there. He’s just as still as death and looking up at the light. I thought we should call you. It’s forty degrees out there. My wife wondered if we shouldn’t call the police or something. I though tit best to call you.” “Right. Thanks, bye.” Marge wakes her husband and in the process of trying to get David in the house, the other three children are awakened. The crisis begins. They gaze a teach other, wondering what to do, wondering what to expect and whom to call for help this time. The last time they tried to get him into the hospital for treatment, he threatened to burn the house down when he got out. But he wasn’t being helped at home, not as sick as he is. Three in the morning quickly turns into 8 am, time for the other family members to deal with their own lives of high school, work, and day care. But it’s hard to carry on the activities of a normal day when something so tragic looms over you. For Marge, her day includes explaining to John and his wife, her neighbors for twenty years, that her son David is mentally ill” (Hidden Victims by Julie Tallard Johnson)
And how many caregivers are our neighbors whether they are caring for a handicapped child, a chronically ill spouse, a cherished friend, an elderly parent or a mentally ill family member.
Who are the shepherds and shepherdesses and the lost sheep in our real lives?
During COVID we witnessed people risking their own well being to take care of others: doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, chaplains and many others. I was sometimes baffled by the difference between frontline workers and those who huddled in their homes caring only for themselves. There were so many ways to serve while keeping safe: sending pizza to a nursing station, writing cards to shut-ins, thanking first responders.
In addition to first responders, many caregivers are quietly living their lives behind closed doors, and are tending to sheep who have been diminished by health challenges and deficits. Imagine for a moment the day-to-day life of a caregiver who is living at home taking care of a loved one. Sometimes caregiving is triggered by a major health event such as a stroke, heart attack or accident. Sometimes a loved one’s memory lapses have become dangerous. Life as the caregiver once knew it stops, and many people find themselves devoting all of their time and energy to caring for a loved one. Caregiving becomes a new career, a career for which most of us are not prepared, and a drastically new normal emerges. The care giving shepherds and shepherdesses leave behind their prior lives to search and care for a lost sheep.
The “to do” list of a caregiver is long and requires daily attention and energy: buy groceries, cook, clean house, do laundry, provide transportation, help the care receiver get dressed, take a shower and take medicine, transfer someone out of a bed or chair, help with physical therapy perform medical interventions such as injections, feeding tubes, wound treatment and breathing treatment, arrange medical appointments, drive to the doctor, sit in during appointments, monitor medications, talk with doctors nurses, care managers, manage crisis, handle finances and other legal matters, being a companion, being on call 24/7.
Caregivers are in a state of constant vigilance, and are always listening, watching and feeling for any threat to the well being of the person for whom they care. Will the temperature spike? Will they fall? Will they wander off? Will they act out? Will they get lost? Will they have an outburst in public? Will they sleep all day or not sleep at all? The list goes on and on and the caregiver is constantly checking each item on the list. This state of hypervigilance is exhausting, anxiety producing, and demanding. The toll is often not externalized, so even those closest to the caregiver do not see the stress and strain. Unfortunately, sometimes the caregivers become very ill themselves or escape through hastily prescribed pharmaceuticals.
As we reach out in love to our congregational sheep, we must act as the shepherd and shepherdess and take note of those among us who are lost in the role of caretaking for others. We must learn together what is helpful and what is not helpful in reaching out to the caregivers in our midst.
It never helps to speak for God. We must never say that God thinks you’re wonderful or God thinks you’re beautiful. How do we know what God thinks? These kinds of comments are very off-putting, and will quickly cause the recipient to glaze over and check out.
We must also avoid is what is called “toxic positivity.” This is a cheery way of avoiding what is really happening in a person’s life, and changes the subject with off-putting statements such as: “God doesn’t give us any more than we can bear,” “Look on the bright side,” “I don’t like to dwell on it,” or “Just try to get along.” One of the major ways that people avoid painful subjects is to believe that if people are getting along in a polite country club sort of way that everything is ok. Toxic positivity pushes the receiver into silence and retreat. Sometimes a caregiver needs to cry or be irrationally angry. Toxic positivity results in the recipient feeling dismissed, and it prevents the growth that results in true emotions such as grief and sadness. The avoidance of emotion can be abusive or even cruel. A more appropriate response is to acknowledge that sometimes bad things happen, and ask how we can help. We can validate emotions with statements such as: “I understand you are feeling overwhelmed,” “I’m here for you,” “Please tell me more.”
When I served as a hospice chaplain, these were some of the comments that I heard from caregivers who talked about what was most helpful to them:
“My neighbor offered to sit with my husband while I took a bubble bath.”
“Someone from my church showed up and mowed the lawn.”
“Casseroles were left on my doorstep every day for a week.”
“My son’s best friend’s father picked him up every day for school for six months.”
“A friend of my husband’s changed the oil in my car.”
“My Bible study group cleaned my house while I was taking my daughter toa doctor’s appointment.”
“My mother sent me silly cards in the mail just to brighten my day.”
“My friend from out of state called and listened to me vent for over an hour. The only words he spoke were ‘I love you.’”
The shepherd does not walk away from hard times or avoid difficult subjects. The shepherdess learns the quirks of each of her sheep. However, the care of the caregiver is critical. The Caregiver has a spiritual responsibility to practice self care. Too often the caregiver becomes more ill than the care receiver. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes encourages us to see self care as both a divine right and a sacred obligation. I pray that all of you who are caring for others whether they be family or if your work is caring for others to discover ways to stop, breathe, refresh, step away, and renourish. Other-wise we become empty vessels with nothing more to give.
Maywe always find comfort in knowing that God is our shepherd. Amen.