We who are privileged to know Susan Comeau Nguyen, recognize that she is an amazing woman. She is facing one of life’s most difficult challenges with dignity, aplomb and the wisdom of one who knows many of life’s secrets. It is no surprise then that she practices so beautifully the art of helping others. Susan has much to give. Today, however, I want to talk about another aspect of her arduous battle. That is the demanding, gut-wrenching role of loved ones who must watch terrified from the sidelines, unable to stop the monster from advancing…unable to stop the heart from breaking…unable to make it all go away.
Just as Susan gives of herself from a heart that has been scarred and made wiser, I too speak from difficult experience. I was not made to watch my daughter fight cancer. My war was with a monster of a different color. During the 1990’s, two of my three daughters were hospitalized with anorexia. Suzanne, my oldest, started her battle with food at 12 years old. Sue’s best friend moved away. She fell into a deep depression that was manifested by turning away from all pleasure, including eating. Soon her new-found sense of control ran away with itself and my daughter found herself drowning in a problem she could not fix. We adults in her life cried, agonized, suffered in a way that words can not describe, and eventually sought the therapeutic help that my daughter needed to become whole again.
During those 8 years my youngest daughter felt alone and out-of-control. She, too, began to starve herself. At 18 years old and 5’6” my precious child starved herself down to 71 pounds, was asked to leave her college (for health reasons) and was hospitalized with malnutrition and dehydration. From my perspective, she for whom I would lay down my own life, was throwing her life away. Broken and battle-weary, I sought to understand my own feelings in this disaster. I searched through libraries and book stores trying to find words of wisdom for those who must watch and weep. There were none. Finally in desperation I interviewed 100 families slogging through the same mess I was given and wrote the words myself.
Much to my surprise I found that although these families had their own unique stories to tell, ALL families had several things in common. And their insights are universal for those of us who are part of our suffering loved-ones journey.
The first insight applies to caretakers everywhere. Take care of yourself! No matter how impossible it seems to find time for yourself amidst all of the responsibilities your loved-one’s battle causes for you, you must find “YOU TIME.” If you do not refuel you will not run the race set before you. The more you are needed, the more you will need to refuel.
Next, remember to communicate. Ladies, if your daughter who was once a great pal and talker can no longer share with you, then you develop friendships and communicate your hurts, your fears and your joys there. Your needs have not changed just because of your new circumstances. Now more than ever you need to see your needs met. Most women need to share. Let that sharing carry you forward.
Men. You want to fix things. After all, you fixed your child’s toys. You fixed their bicycles. You made sure to have a college fund. You provided a safe automobile. Please understand that you can not fix this. This monster (whatever the monster may be) is your loved-one’s battle to fight. That knowledge will make you angry. It will frustrate you. It will make you feel like a failure. But the fact is your warrior needs to hear your heart. He or she needs to feel your support and encouragement in the battle. Do you wish you could make it all go away? Say so. Do you hate what is happening with a passionate, vengeful hatred? Tell her. Your communication will fix broken self esteem and a battle-weary soul.
None of us will leave this earth unscarred. We who love others will all face times of watching our loved ones bear things we never wanted them to bear. Those who love us will also go through the same thing as we must face our own trials. It is my prayer that the principles I learned in my hard times will be helpful to you in yours.