Caregiving, Empathy, and Storytelling
today at 5:22 am
Whether I am caregiving for my mother, working as a professional writer and consultant, or as a New Pulp author, one of the statements I frequently hear is some variation of “storytelling is an engine of empathy”. Regardless of my roles as caregiver/ marketing professional/or writer, I find myself dismayed that storytelling (especially digital storytelling) often gets misused as a buzzword. In the spirit of National Family Caregiver Month, I thought I would write about caregiving and storytelling.
Stories matter, both in how we identify with ourselves and each other. As caregivers, we deal with a wide variety of tragedies and triumphs while (hopefully) managing some semblance of stability. Every opportunity to share our experiences with other caregivers to find connection and understanding. However, like many organizations who have adopted “storytelling” as a buzzword, there is one key concept that often gets misunderstood:
Effective storytelling comes from a place of authenticity as well as empathy.
It is easy to use storytelling as a way to foster an ideal image, to suggest that we want to hit “key messages” with the listener or reader. Hiding behind a facade of “everything’s all right” can be easy for someone caregiving for a family member or loved one. Yet there’s something seemingly “off” when someone shares from that facade. Not sharing every negative or painful aspect of experience out of a sense of propriety is one thing; engaging in “happy talk” or expressing caregiver issues through a rose-colored view is another. As human beings, we sense when something is inauthentic, choosing to “tune out” and dismiss the narrative. We know something’s “off” and we find ourselves emotionally distancing from the storyteller. (Or worse, offering inappropriate advice and feedback to a caregiver)
Storytelling from a more authentic place allows the listener/reader to feel greater connections. One of the reasons many caregivers (including myself) avoid sharing our total stories is that reactions can often be unnecessarily dismissive. Despite the number of caregivers increasing in our country, there is still some sense of shame and feeling that something has been “lost.” For many caregivers, finding some room for adequate self-care can be difficult when dealing with extreme situations. Those stories, however, need to be heard. They’re not necessarily pleasant or optimistic, but can be a lifeline for those who need it. Sharing from that space is difficult, but can mean the world when someone feels truly heard as a result.
One example: pre-COVID, I had attended one of AARP Illinois’ caregiver gatherings. Like many other gatherings, there were people new to caregiving and confused about where to start. It was like many other AARP caregiver gatherings: small group conversation followed by sharing and open questions. During the open discussion and sharing, many caregivers discussed how they considered self-care as “pampering”. At one point, a caregiver disclosed that she never had any issues because “she turned her troubles over to God.”
Ironically, no one had bothered to offer the newcomers any advice…until it became my turn to speak. I had limited time (the woman with no caregiving issues dominated a large amount of time), but I simply spoke from the heart. This isn’t an exact transcript, but comes close to it:
“When I started caregiving for Mom, it wasn’t easy. Luckily, we worked with the social worker at her hospital to help her get a home care aide and supportive services. One of the things that helped us was contacting the Departmentsof Aging for Chicago as well as Illinois. But caregiving isn’t easy and can be overwhelming, and nobody expects us to get it perfectly. There’s going to be a lot thrown at you, but the only way to handle it is one at a time. For caregivers, self-care is a strategy and not an indulgence, and taking care of yourself is vital. I’ve learned to find comfort in my friends, but there are other resources like counseling and community groups. It’s not easy, but you will make it.”
Unfortunately, I never made it back to another session before COVID hit. But it was a good reminder for me about the power of storytelling. Professionally, I sometimes have to advise against focusing on selling a positive image to drive that mysterious quality called “engagement”. (Simply put, I avoid selling the sizzle at the expense of the steak). But the only way I have found to do that is through authenticity: seeing oneself for who one actually is and not some internal ideal. For caregivers, this is a challenge given the overwhelming nature of caregiving. It can be done, and sometimes, the reminder is very welcome.
And as always, thanks for reading!