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Emotional First Aid

By Janet Buell
(Page 2 of 3)

As I interviewed Helen with an eye toward what she might be able to do that would be helpful to her husband, I learned that Frank had experienced a very difficult childhood that he was reluctant to discuss. Part of his reason for insisting that Helen remain at home throughout her illness was that he had been abandoned by his mother as a child and he perceived leaving Helen in a nursing home as a form of abandonment. One of the few abilities Helen still had was her ability to speak and to listen. With her agreement, I taught her some simple techniques to help Frank. These techniques, which are similar to physical first aid procedures, teach lay people to provide effective emotional first aid to friends and loved ones. Helen was an apt pupil and learned the techniques quickly. Using them, she was able to encourage Frank to talk about childhood experiences and discover some of the decisions he had made at the time when the events had occurred.

One of Frankís many realizations was that he had made an important decision at the age of nine. Feeling bereft by his motherís desertion, Frank had vowed that he would never be a person who would walk out on someone else. He also realized that this decision had caused him to hang on to relationships in the past long past the point where it benefited him or the other person. It was a tremendous relief to Frank to be able to have conversations each evening where he remembered his childhood and talked out all those times in the past. Equally wonderful was the effect it had on Helen. She felt able to be useful and enjoyed so much watching Frank experience relief and genuine happiness. With the return of this feeling of usefulness, her suicidal thoughts vanished.

I had planned, once I had helped Helen find a way to feel useful again, to speak with Frank about taking actions that might be needed to lighten his load as a caregiver. I found, however, that there was no need to do this in the end. The coupleís close communication had helped them work out a plan for Helenís care. Frank had realized that the most important moments of the day were the ones when they were talking on a deep spiritual level and he continued to talk to Helen even after she had lost the ability to speak. At Helenís funeral, Frank described those conversations as some of the happiest moments of his life.

What does this story have to do with those of you who are providing care for someone who has lost their mental abilities? Itís wonderful when the person you are caring for has the ability to help you, too, because it gives tremendous happiness to someone who is very ill to still be able to feel useful. But that isnít possible when the illness has stolen their ability to think clearly or communicate fully. Almost all caregivers find that the illnesses they must deal with every day remind them of earlier events in their lives when they suffered other losses or traumas. That fact, plus the fears engendered by the loved oneís illness, makes a caregiver a prime candidate for some emotional first aid. Just as physical first aid, in the form of CPR, can save a life, so emotional first aid can make a life worth living. Pick a friend from a support group who is willing to work at learning a few simple techniques and pair up to help each other out. By taking turns asking and answering the questions in the procedure below, you can each provide tremendous help and support to the other. What follows is just one of the simple techniques available. Try it out with a friend or loved one.

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