"I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness. It’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude." —Brene Brown
In 1989, Susanne West’s daughter Heidi, then 18, was diagnosed with a progressively debilitative and degenerative form of arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
During that difficult year, when Heidi was told that this disease, Ankylosing Spondylitis, and Crohn’s disease progressively eat at her spine and sacroiliac joints, eventually causing fusion of the spine, Susanne, a professor of psychology at John F. Kennedy University in California, became a primary caregiver for her daughter.
“I was obsessed with doing everything humanly possible on all practical fronts and with providing emotional and moral support for Heidi as well,” she says. When she had any free time, Susanne felt guilty that she wasn’t doing more. “I felt I should be investigating treatments, or looking for books or tapes she’d enjoy.
“Throughout, I was highly stressed because of the severity of her symptoms, the pain she was experiencing, and the complications around finding the right treatments and practitioners. Getting entangled in the health care maze and dealing with insurance was another huge stressor.”
Fast-forward more than 20 years. Heidi was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fifth month of her pregnancy. Susanne dove into the deep sea of full-time caregiving again. Caregiving included going with her to chemo treatments, watching the new baby during the treatments, being available to Heidi post-chemo, spending more time with the other children, purchasing items she needed, working with others to organize the house, make schedules, etc., and helping her navigate issues with insurance, doctors, and medications.
“I knew by then that self-care had to be a priority for me if I was to serve her and her children in the healthiest ways possible,” she says.
That is where gratitude stepped in. Instead of stressing out, as she knows she did the first time her daughter was ill, Susanne had developed a tool kit for self-care. It was time to draw from its bank again.
“After the initial shock, and fully facing a wide range of feelings, I found myself grateful that I had come to understand and practice so much about self-care,” she remembers. “My caregiving during that time was based on Heidi’s needs as defined by her and her husband, always making sure that I balanced my own needs with hers and the children’s.” She chronicles her gratefulness and journey to the soul in her book, Soul Care for Caregivers: How to Help Yourself While Helping Others.
Susanne says that she grew more spiritually as a result of Heidi’s illnesses than she did from over 25 years of spiritual practice. She is deeply grateful for the qualities that she inadvertently developed over the years: “presence, empathy, courage, strength, acceptance, resilience, generosity, trust, mindfulness, and compassion.”
“Is it possible, I wonder, that her diseases really are blessings in my life, catalyzing transformation in ways I never could have imagined?” she asks herself. “I see that just about everything about me has changed over the last few years—my understanding of what’s really important in life, beliefs about who I am and what I can and cannot do, old patterns, illusions, coping strategies, ways of being in the world and with others, and beliefs about health and healing, life, death, and suffering. The other important insight, which is why I wrote the book, is that, because caregiving can be very stressful in many different ways, self-care is imperative. “I am deeply grateful that I have learned how to very fully ‘show up’ for my daughter and her family, and not lose myself in the process,” Susanne says. “I understand the value of self-care now from my head to my toes. And these lessons about self-care that I have learned as a care- giver for my daughter (and over the last two years with my 87-year-old mother) have spilled over into every area of my life. I take self-care breaks of all sorts, no matter what I’m involved with, and everything that needs to get done, gets done—a lot more easefully than ever before.” To access her inner wisdom, Susanne employs writing and self-guided imagery practices, which she says she “uses all the time, especially when I am ‘stretched’ ” with regard to caregiving. Here, she shares a self-guided imagery practice for tapping into thankfulness and relieving stress.
Grateful Life Practice: Meditation
Bring to mind a time when you felt very grateful. You may have received good news about a friend or family member, or perhaps you were surprised by a wonderful gift from someone you care about.
Relive that experience as if it’s happening now.
Notice feelings and physical sensations as you vividly recall this experience of gratitude. Experience this from your head to your toes for two to four minutes, or as long as you would like.
Then let go of this particular memory, but continue to relax into the positive sensations that feeling grateful evokes in you.
At various points throughout the day, take a minute or two to bring this experience into your awareness.
On another day you may choose to recall a different memory of gratitude.
You will likely have many bright moments on the days that you do this practice.
Excerpted from The Grateful Life: How to Cultivate Contentment and Discover the Meaning of Happiness by Nina Lesowitz and Mary Beth Sammons Reprinted with permission from Viva Editions.