Most of us have been there: being the main support for a friend or family member going through a tough time. And while the nature of crises can vary widely, they all exact a heavy toll, not only on the person suffering, but also their support system.
I know the situation well. My mother has been in delicate mental and physical health for several years, as she suffers from dementia along with several other serious physical conditions. As a result, my mom lands in the hospital frequently, necessitating daily visits from my sister and me to ease her disorientation due to the strange surroundings. None of this is easy, but through years of helping her through these extra-tough times, I’m learning how to be there for her without losing myself. While I don’t always succeed in following every tip below, when I do, the difficult times seem a little less so:
1. Stop resisting the situation.
Beyond the worrying when my mom’s in the hospital, the hardest part for me has been the long waits for answers in emergency rooms. After being in more ERs than I can remember, I now realize that my frustration was making my mom’s hospitalizations more painful for me and I was likely passing on the anxiety to my mother. While I still get stressed when my mom is ill, I find accepting the situation for what it is has made things easier.
2. Find shortcuts to eating healthy.
When you’re getting someone through a hard time while handling the rest of your life, it’s easy to neglect yourself, especially when it comes to eating healthily. I’ve been there many times myself — skipping meals or grabbing a pizza slice at the hospital cafeteria. But we all know that going on this way for too long can lead to getting physically run down, and not being able to be there for anyone.
The solution? Until your life normalizes, get your nutrition wherever you can, even if it means splurging at juice bars or throwing together salads with prewashed greens.
3. Ask for people to help in whatever way they can.
As I write this, my mom is in her 17th day of hospitalization for pneumonia and a fractured hip, and I’ve been with her almost daily. Needless to say, much of the rest of my life has been neglected. Luckily for me, my husband has taken over the shopping, cooking and other day-to-day household tasks during this period. So, while he’s not one to want to wait with me for hours at the hospital, having him keep the fridge full and the counters clean helps lighten my load.
4. Carve out time to de-stress.
As much as you may feel compelled to always be available to the person suffering, you need to take time to ease your own anxiety about what’s going on. Decompress in whatever way works for you, whether that means taking a long walk, playing the guitar, watching ridiculous pet videos on YouTube or getting out your yoga mat. Yoga works best for me, especially an ultra-relaxing form of it called Yoga Nidra. This practice, meaning “yogic sleep,” is a guided meditation that some practitioners say equals a few hours of actual sleep. If you can’t find a class in your area, there are numerous free Yoga Nidra recordings available online.
5. Watch for signs your support has become codependency.
Several years ago a friend’s life was thrown into turmoil when his longtime boyfriend became addicted to cocaine. Those of us close to him became accustomed to receiving his late-night panicky phone calls when he didn’t know where his partner was. While trying to support my friend, it became clear that while his boyfriend’s weakness was drugs, my friend’s dependency on his partner was equally unhealthy.
My situation with my mother is much less dramatic, but I still catch myself at times feeling like my sense of well-being depends on her being OK. It’s been very difficult during this current hospital stay because my mom frequently cries out in agonizing pain, making it almost impossible for me to focus on anything but her suffering. But even during this heart-wrenching time, I’ve made it to a few yoga classes and done some writing, both things that help ground me. If you’re losing touch with yourself while assisting someone, I encourage you to make time for what feeds your spirit.
I hope these suggestions will ease your struggle as you care for someone in distress. If you’re in this situation currently or have been in the past, I’d love to hear what you do to help yourself while helping a loved one through a rough patch.