Friendship and Caregiving: Smart Strategies for Staying Connected

At some point in our lives it is likely that we will be a caregiver to someone we love: our
child, our spouse, our parent(s), or a relative. It can happen suddenly, we find ourselves needing to give care to a family member who has become acutely physically and/or mentally ill, or we might slowly become a caregiver to a relative who has a chronic illness with its ongoing ebb and flow.

Being a caregiver is the kind of role and responsibility that can be both purposeful and all-
consuming. Caring for another human being, especially someone who is ill, is deeply emotional and physical work that the toll it can take has its own term: caregiver burnout. It takes energy to care for a person who is unwell. Someone recently said to me that, “it can feel like our energy is being taken by them because s/he needs it for themselves.”

We often want to turn to our family for help and support but there are many reasons which can make this challenging: family members may feel stretched to their limits, our relatives might live far away from us, there can be an emotional distance or estrangement, and unfortunately our family members, like many people, can feel uncomfortable with frailty and illness.

Caregiving can be an opportunity to deepen our friendships, especially when finding the time to get together with those very friends can be difficult. It is at these times that we, as friends, can step in and show up. We can give care to our care-giving friend, which can go a long way to help him/her keep their energy positive and stay well. It is a time when we can show that “I am with you in this.”

There are all kinds of ways to be supportive and stay connected with friends in a way that is comfortable for us and helpful to them. Offering our time and our ears to listen are gifts in themselves. Here are some other possibilities that I have found helpful in my life:

We can acknowledge that we need help. Sharing what we are going through can be helpful in letting our friend know that we are feeling stressed. Thinking about and asking for the kinds of support that will help us is a radical act of vulnerability and intimacy, the kind that brings friendships closer.

We can offer practical help and support in terms of running errands and doable actions. 
It might be offering to pick up or deliver the dry cleaning, return library books or videos that are due, mow the lawn or shovel the sidewalk, pick up the mail or water the houseplants, feed the cat or dog, or go grocery shopping for them.

We can feed our friends and their family by preparing or dropping off easy-to-reheat meals, offering a home-made treat made with them in mind.

We can pay a visit to our friend and their loved one. It does not need to be long, even a brief visit will give a burst of joy and caring to a friend.

We can invite our friend and their family member to a movie, to an amusement or
show, for a meal, over for the holidays. Extending an invite to include a friend’s family member is a generous, caring gesture that will be cherished and remembered, even if it does not happen.

We can accompany our friend when they visit their relative in a health or residential care setting. Care settings can be stressful environments and sometimes just being there  with our friend during a visit is support enough. Or we can connect with our friend for a conversation afterward to find out how the visit(s) went.

We can connect via Skype or speakerphone with our friend and their relative. Technology can be really helpful to stay connected. Saying hello to your friend’s relative can make a huge difference and put a smile on everyone’s face.

We can offer to connect with or check in on their family member when they are away
(so that they can go away with added peace of mind).

We can share something that we think will make them laugh: a joke, a cartoon, a
video.

These are just some ideas and suggestions. Each situation is unique, sometimes we might have to think outside the box and be creative. Even discussing this with a friend, asking them to choose out of a few options that are doable for you, will be a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge this time of need for support and connection.It can bring friends closer together, to bond in a special new way, perhaps to become family.

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

~ Brene Brown

Year End Reflections on Friendship

Here we are at the end of 2013, in the depths of winter, and like the cycle of nature and time, I find myself reflecting on the births, losses, deaths, rebirths and cycles of my friendships.

When Amy and I first began collaborating in 2011, we talked about friendship transitions in general as well as the ones we personally experienced. We discussed the importance of friendships to our well-being and in our lives but how the skills and tools to make new friends, deepen friendships or navigate friendship transitions are not taught to us. We talked about the ways in which we stumbled, fumbled, and learned along the way.

As we co-created events and wrote posts for this blog, we spent time reflecting on our own friendships and sharing our experiences with each other. I remember talking about what I wanted in my friendships, thinking about how I want to experience myself in friendship, and noticing which friendships lit me up and which drained me.

It was a “growth-full” year for me – a year of reflection, clarification, re-evaluation, re-defining and re-visioning what I need and want in my friendships. It was a big year for me as a friend, in my friendships and my notions of friendship. I discovered new insights, new possibilities, new edges and new boundaries.

It opened my eyes, ears and heart to noticing those friendships that enrich me and those which have been dissatisfying for a while but that I have not been ready to acknowledge or address. In the process of becoming aware, I have also made choices and decisions.

Once I realized that certain friendships were too distressing or painful I went through a tough decision-making process. Tough decisions because I love these friends. We had history and lived our lives together. Yet I knew I had to limit contact or spend less time with them for my own emotional health. I felt my energy and emotions signaling to me, telling me what I needed to do or say to feel at peace and re-energized.

As I did, some friendships faded away or ended while others deepened and became even richer. That adage “when one door closes another opens” also came true. As soon as I – with great sadness – made the decision to do something and experience closure for myself, there was space in my life and in myself for new people and healthier friendships. I opened my eyes to new acquaintances and created opportunities to deepen already existing friendships.

Still, ending or limiting contact with a friend is a sorrowful loss without any formal way to grieve. There are no common rituals, no ways to mourn the end of a friendship, yet it is a relationship that can be as, if not more, intimate as our love or family relationships. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that breaking up with a friend is an important loss and transition too.

Perhaps the best part of this learning journey has been getting to know Amy and building a friendship with her while making the significant decision to work together on this collaboration. As anyone can imagine, each type of relationship – friendship and business partner – requires a set of skills, a level of maturity, emotional and social intelligence. Being able to communicate about work issues, especially during “sticky” moments and continue to hold our friendship, or vice versa, has been powerful and positive learning.

The silence where lost or terminated friendships are suspended is a curious space. Sometimes it is unclear whether it is for now or forever, whether something specific happened or if the silence was born out of a vague uneasiness. That silence offers us an opportunity. Perhaps it is to reflect or to experience life without that friend or friendship or something else.

These reflections bring me at last to the nugget of my learning: how creating the space to be more conscious, clear and mindful about my friendships — by listening, sharing, exploring, and making the time — helped make them even healthier. And that has been great for my emotional, mental and spiritual health.

Copyrighted 2013:  The Smart Art of Friendship- Ruth Tamari and Amy Greenleaf Brassert