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Thoughts for Care Givers

by Sr. Nancy Conway, CSJ

This article is the follow-up to Sr. Nancy’s previous article, “Grieving Their Home”, which focused on what grieving means to sisters. That article first appeared in the June issue of the RCRI News in Brief.

So, if it will take some time for our sisters to feel “at home” in their new space, how might we offer helpful accompaniment along the way? Here are some implications that seem to flow from Atlee’s work and three suggestions for care givers to consider.

1. Because the period of time leading up to helping an older sister move into a new space is typically filled with activities (e.g. helping them decide what to take versus what to get rid of, choices about what to pack, the selection of paint and carpet color, etc.), the period after the move is an important time to re-establish personal connections through conversation. These are the same kinds of conversations that took place before THE MOVE and involve the sister talking about herself now.

"A simple acknowledgement of how difficult this loss is for her while not letting her grief overwhelm her or the group can be tricky, though it is the necessary balance caregivers should strive to achieve."

Sr. Nancy Conway, CSJ

Facilitation & Engagement Specialist

Atlee reminds caregivers that the person who is “re-learning” her world is the subjective center of that experience. During this post-move time, it is critical to re-establish normal one-on-one connections with the sister. This is a way for caregivers to more deeply understand how life is now for that person—post-move. Asking to visit her for a cup of tea and a simple chat is not an invitation that many older people would reject!

This means that those that take care of older sisters need to be intentional about and make it a priority to initiate, agenda-free conversations, post move. These conversations need to be skillfully guided by the caregiver in order to gain a clearer understanding of how the re-learning is progressing for each person.

This kind of personal revelation on the part of the sister is unlikely to happen in a group setting. Remember, no two persons are experiencing this change in the same way. Therefore, hearing from some during a congregational meeting is not likely to produce the accurate knowledge caregivers need to support each sister as she re-learns the world in her unique way.

2. Using the phrase “re-learning the world” might be preferable to suggesting that what each person might be experiencing, is grief. Atlee suggests this change in vocabulary because the term re-learning implies that there is an end in sight to this process. Letting sisters know that the loss of one’s familiar physical surrounding—even though the new space might be more beautiful and appropriate—is a genuine loss and it is possible to be happy again!! This kind of acknowledgement can come as a relief for an older sister who is struggling in her new location and isn’t sure why this is so.

The tasks of assigning spaces to treasured objects in a new apartment and adjusting to the sounds of those who now live in close proximity to her are all part of re-learning the world. Normalizing these adjustments can be consoling. In addition, the term “re-learning” implies a forward movement, while the language of grieving, can imply looking back on and lamenting what was.

3. Grief work—or the process of re-learning one’s world—also involves finding identity and comfort within our spiritual worlds. It is probably not a stretch of Atlee’s theory of spiritual re-learning to include the loss of a chapel, prayer room etc. Atlee notes that experiencing loss on a spiritual level involves a sense of being uprooted and estranged from our deepest selves. By extension, this description could probably be applied to the loss of any space associated with worship and prayer.

Caregivers might be taken by surprise by the unanticipated anxiety and anger that a change in the location of a chapel might unleash in some sisters. Adjusting to a new “sacred space” can be a very complicated additional task for some sisters as they adjust to life overall in their new location. An acknowledgment of this particular loss might be important for some sisters to hear in order to keep moving forward in their re-learning process.

However, it can be difficult for those who might see the benefit of a new space (including a chapel, etc.) not to point out the advantages of the new to the sister who is angry or saddened by the loss of the previous sacred space. This kind of response from the caregiver will probably trigger the sister’s need to list the advantages of the previous chapel, etc. A simple acknowledgement of how difficult this loss is for her while not letting her grief overwhelm her or the group can be tricky, though it is the necessary balance caregivers should strive to achieve.

Atlee reminds us that feeling lost spiritually might seem like an insurmountable loss to overcome. However, he notes that sometimes one of the most important things a caregiver can do—after respectfully observing the sister’s sadness or anger for some time—is to gently suggest to that person that while there is no going back to what once was, all has not been lost. In this particular situation, this might well be accompanied by the caregiver stating her belief that this sister has within her the spiritual depth—and with God’s grace—to“ learn” how to pray and worship in this new space, even though it is not the former beloved sacred space. This kind of statement acknowledges the legitimacy of the past but places before the sister the hope that she will keep moving forward, that she will keep “re-learning” the world she inhabits now.

Sr. Nancy Conway, CSJ, the former president of the Congregation of St. Joseph, is a Facilitation & Engagement Specialist at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc., an Appleton-based, integrated Total Project Management firm serving clients throughout Wisconsin and across the country.