Caregivers Are Only Human
Ten years ago today, my husband, Todd, was diagnosed with ALS.
I’m grateful that our kids have had their dad much longer than we thought they would. When Todd was diagnosed, Sara was 4, and Isaac was just 9 months old, so we thought they might not even remember him. But he’s been here for more than half of their childhoods.
I’ve been blessed with the extended friendship and love of my husband. I’m grateful to be part of a small subset of spouses who spend more than a decade caring for their partners, but it’s been a tough road in ways I never expected.
If I could go back in time, what would I tell myself? What would I say to 32-year-old Kristin 10 years ago, when she was so devastated by the awful diagnosis, when her grief was focused on losing her husband to an early death?
I know what I wouldn’t say. I wouldn’t tell her that life would be harder than she imagined.
I wouldn’t say, “Girl, you have no idea what you’re in for. You’ve lost hopes and dreams, but other losses are coming that aren’t even on your radar.”
That woman wasn’t aware of the physical toll that caregiving would take on her body. She didn’t consider that she would grieve the loss of physical intimacy as her husband became paralyzed.
She could not have prepared if I told her she would lose some dearly held core beliefs about faith and life in a long, painful process.
It would have strained her relationships with friends and family who were supportive at the time if she had known that some would drift away after the crisis became chronic. It would’ve been too cruel to tell her she would grieve the loss of beloved family members, like her father and aunts, long before Todd would die.
While she was focused on her husband’s impending death, she didn’t know that the journey to the end would be so painful —that daily life would be distressing when Todd gasped for air and she’d run to help him cough up mucus so he could breathe.
That woman of the newly diagnosed husband with ALS could not have prepared even if she had known what was coming, so I wouldn’t tell her what the future held. And I wouldn’t tell any spouse caregiver what to expect, because every person’s journey with ALS is different.
But there are a few things that I would tell myself, if I could go back in time.
I would say, “Be kind to yourself, because even though you love your husband and try to translate that love into action, it’s not going to feel like enough. No matter how well you ‘do’ disability and terminal illness, it’s overwhelming. You aren’t going to master this physically, theologically, or emotionally. You’re only human.”
I would tell the Kristin of a decade ago to watch for a new song that would be released in a few years called “Human,” by Christina Perri. In the lyrics, she hopefully considers the things she would do for love: “I can stay awake for days.” She could “be a good machine” and “hold the weight of worlds” if that’s what her love needed.
I would tell my past self to pay attention to the bridge and the chorus, because after the mantra “I can do it, I’ll get through it,” Perri sings, “I’m only human, and I crash and I break down.”
I still don’t know what the future holds as Todd and I begin the second decade after his diagnosis, but I have an inkling, which is terrifying in itself, and it may be harder than I imagine. That is one of the hardest things about this disease — living with the knowledge that the future will be harder than today. But just as the last decade contained joy mixed in with the sorrow, I am hopeful that the next decade will as well.
Whatever happens, I’m telling present Kristin to be kind to myself, because I’m only human.
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