Southern People

The other morning, as I was working with Richard, who is on Hospice, but may be taken off of it soon (He seems to be doing better than expected), I felt sadness well up from within. It happens sometimes when caring for others, I guess it is inevitable. This feeling continued as went into Williams room and took care of him as well. Feelings are different from emotions; at least they are for me. Many people use then interchangeably and perhaps when speaking, I do the same, but when trying to sort things out, I find it very helpful to make them first cousins instead of brother or sister.

© Joseph Helfenberger -

Later that day I had to leave someone off at a doctor’s office for a procedure that would take a couple of hours. Usually I don’t mind waiting, but this particular waiting area is not conducive to reading, so I decided to go to the local Borders book store at Stonecrest Mall. While browsing the books I noticed some very beautiful music was being played in the store. As I was listening, once again, this feeling of deep sadness again presented itself to me and to tell you the truth I did not know what to do with it.

Even though over the last two decades (from my early forties) I have been trying to connect with my more gentle emotions, I have had little luck. Though at times, with the help of music it helps for me get a peek. Or, less often, my work will sometimes break down the barriers that keep me from living and feeling fully. I meet many people who are gentle, and who are in deep touch with both their feelings as well as their emotions and while not envying them, I wish I had what they seem to have so easily. When very young, for some reason, I began to think that certain feelings and emotions were signs of weakness and so I guess I did a good job of locking them away. Which is easier to do than it is in releasing them once again to be felt, allowing warmth to flow in the heart and enhances life and perhaps allows one to breathe easier once again.

There is no permanence. Perhaps that is one of the sources of sadness for me. I help to take care of, for the most part, the elderly who are on the last years of their lives. All of whom I have known for many years; so to see the slow loss of health and at times their mental functions, I believe takes a toll on me, as well as most caregivers. All a caregiver can do is to help those whom they care for be comfortable and let them know that they are safe. For those who are forgetful and losing their memories, well there are moments when they need to be told that it is ok if they don’t remember me from day to day, or the others who care for them, for we will remember for them and not forget who they are and that we will always take care of them no matter what. Or if they get angry and act out, all we can do is to let them know that we understand when they at times feel sorrowful for how they perform at times. The laughter and the gentle moments are just as important as those moments when there is fighting, or when they try to hit or bite us, it is all the same. The sadness perhaps comes when I know that, and there is nothing I can do but strive to be patient and loving and when I don’t, well to act like I am. Or when I fail, to go and let them know that I am sorry. All caregivers go through this, noting unique about my journey in this regard. I would think the police, EMT’s (ambulance personnel), doctors (of all sorts), nurses, and of course parents; anyone in fact who has to deal with humanity in their need, must at times have to deal with sadness. There are seasons in ones life when this sadness seems as pervasive as the air we breathe; it being all around us.

I just got a call from a good friend, her name is Sally and she was an emergency room nurse for many years. She just found out that the son (in his forties) of a good friend just put a gun to his mouth and killed himself. I could tell she was broken hearted over this and is now rushing to be at her friend’s side. Sally knows about the suffering that people have to go through, so while she is not surprised at this, she is still heartbroken for her friend, as well as for her friend’s son. So sadness is part of the fabric of life, just as is joy and hope. For the air we breathe is also filled with vibrant life and we all also partake of that.

People are so precious and each so unique that yes, when they die there is some loss in the world. Some losses are felt only by loved ones, others better known can be the vehicle in which others are allowed to express their own sadness about life, its sufferings and it temporality. Even those who die without anyone to mourn them, still, is not something taken from the world? Something irreplaceable, lovable, gifted (perhaps unknown and not developed in their lives) that can never be replaced? Perhaps one of the forces that keep the world were it is, a place filled with factions and wars and contempt, is the simple inability to see the reality behind the personality, gender, religion and job; which is a person made in the image and likeness of God.

One thing that helps me in my job as well as when pondering upon the world, is that our lives have a purpose, that what we go through has meaning and that our responses to life and its mysteries are seeds that have roots in this life, but whose branches have eternal consequences. So even though at times I can feel deep sadness when caring for a loved person in my charge, I can also see movement and meaning in all that is happening. The very fact that I and other caregivers have the honor of attending to their needs is a gift that the infirm impart to us, even if it is not done consciously. For in caring for others, I believe we are working from our essential image in which we are made, and that image (called God) and nature, is love and giving. We work from our true core when showing compassion, empathy and love. Anyone who does that, no matter what they believe, is working from something so deep and essential that it is often overlooked. We can care in many ways. Some are small, others big, but they are all the same. For in caring, we are freed from the demands of our ego, instead we seek to grow in loving and helping others; though the process is a slow and arduous one. Most people care, no matter what they say they believe. Hearts are easily touched and compassion is common, it is just overlooked at times because it is so common.

In the midst of all the evil in the world, all the cruelty, all the pain and suffering that is inflicted by man’s inhumanity to man, there are also many who care, heal, lift up and simply help along the way. So yes, the more people want to help, the more sensitive the caregiver is towards the sadness and tragedy of life. Yet hope lives on, for faith is not weak, it hopes against hope, that the force that causes so many to be caring, is in reality God at work in the world and in all hearts. There is a species of pain that comes from love, but this pain does not embitter, but enlivens the heart. The reward that comes from loving is simply the ability to love more and to also to endure the pain that flows from that. Just ask any loving parent about that.

For me the most essential question to answer not about how one is to live their lives, though it is of course very important. No, the real questions is, do I want to become more loving and compassionate no matter what route I will take in life. It is love we are made for, and in caring for others the heart is plowed to receive that gift, which I feel is a grace open to everyone willing to take that often painful path; but also one filled with joy and healing.

Mark Dohle

Mark Dohle

I am 62 years old and have lived in the Atlanta area since 1971.  I am Catholic and my faith is important to me, yet as I age the mystery continues to deepen, so I read broadly and try to keep things somewhat open ended. I work with the aged and the dying. I was in the Navy for four years and I guess I am life of center when it comes to politics, but not too far left. Actually, I am kind of a political moron.

I am the third of  11 children; ten still alive, one died in in 1958, three days after birth.

  1. Mark, I was caregiver for my mother until her death 1-1/2 years ago, and my brother who died a year ago. I didn’t move away willingly or happily — would have been pleased if there had been anyone else to take care of Mama, but as it happened, there wasn’t. Besides everything was just perfect for me to be the one: I was retired, and my son was staying with me, so he was perfectly willing to step in and take care of everything up here. Besides, my brother and I were not all that close — so to care for someone with cancer? Not my choice.

    Your last paragraph really speaks to me, even more than the rest of your essay. I didn’t want to be a caregiver, didn’t want to give up my own pursuits, didn’t want to move back to the small town where I grew up. I wouldn’t have done it if I could have avoided it. And today, I am so damned happy that I couldn’t get out of it. In fact, everything about my life is much better now, having been through all of that for four years. It’s amazing.

    Thanks for what you write.

  2. Mark Dohle

    Thank you Mary for you beautiful response. I am glad that you did what you had to do and also for your positive response …..about seemingly being back into a corner, but finding that it was actually life affirming for you to do what had to be done.

    I take it Will is your son? I love his humor and he gets me laughing a lot of the time. Writing humor is a very real talent Will has. I can’t write humor, wish I could.


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