Reading: Creating Your Caregiver Circle of Support: Who’s In?

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Creating Your Caregiver Circle of Support: Who’s In?

What caregivers need most is a tight-knit circle of allies to help them through their grief

By Kathy Koenig

“I didn’t expect to be so alone…” a friend grieving a loss shared with me. She felt surprised, alone, and angry about living in her unchosen, new world.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard this; I’ve had those experiences too. 

Caregiving, short- or long-term, often comes with grief and loss. And the associated emotions can be confusing and compound our stress. Too often, we try to rationalize our feelings and minimize them, thinking this will help. When the feelings persist (as they always do), it’s better to acknowledge the emotions, embrace the stressful situation, and look for support. When we’re in crisis mode and experiencing grief and loss, the thing we need most is a circle of support. 

We commonly think that our family, friends, and those closest to us will be by our side during difficult times. They know what’s happening in our lives because of our connections and conversations. But too often, they aren’t always the best source of support and aren’t ever-present. That’s what’s so perplexing. Why leave us now when we need them the most? 

It’s a good question with many complicated answers. Understand that even when people you love and care for say they will “be there for you,” it can be unrealistic to hold them to vague expectations. It helps you avoid anger and frustration to understand that you’ll get the support you need, but it might come from unexpected sources.

There are steps you can take to create your ultimate circle of support.

Step 1. Understand the meaning of a system of circles.
Circles have been used in societies for a long time. The form allows us to clearly see one another, there’s no hierarchy, and communication can flow equally. Our support circles don’t have to be very big and can be layered. I like using concentric circles to demonstrate having a close inner circle with supporting outer rings.

If your family members are grieving too, they will likely be unable to offer you the support you require. You’ll all need to take care of your energy, and you may find there are different ways to express feelings, including no expression. Instead, find external support. This creates the freedom to express feelings, concerns, and thoughts without conflicting agendas. 

Step 2. Decide who to invite into your circle.
Within caregiving, I offer grief counseling and support. One program I offer is the B.R.E.A.T.H.E. Coaching Model for Grief™. A step we use in the method is taking time to become relaxed and quiet. Then, asking ourselves questions about who should be in our support system.

Rather than responding to an immediate impulse, allow yourself to stay with the question. You can do this over days or weeks. Which names come to mind? The possibilities can be endless: a close friend; therapist; counselor; coach; spiritual advisor; community member; a neighbor or a co-worker; a healthcare provider. 

When you’ve come up with a few names, ask yourself these questions: 

  • What qualities do these people possess that make them suited for this role?
  • Do you feel renewed, secure, or relieved after using these names?
  • Are there specific roles you’d like them to fill? For example, helping to organize tasks, an exercise partner, or someone for socialization?
  • Can you ask them to be helpful?
  • Will they be available?

Step 3. Let your circle of support know your needs.
“I don’t know what I need!” Many of us relate to this statement. It’s common to hear, “Let me know what you need.” And more common to feel at a loss for what’s needed and what will help. I believe that most people are very well-meaning and would like to help. So how do we allow ourselves to know what we need and learn who and how to ask? 

When we can assess how we’re functioning, we begin to know our needs. How are we doing physically, emotionally, spiritually? How is our self-care, home life, work? How is our intimacy with others? How are we feeling socially? How are we doing economically? 

Checking into these categories can help us see if we feel depleted, anxious, or unsure about how we are feeling. What are the current needs and areas that require the most attention and who in our inner circle can fill those voids?

It’s vital that caregivers find the care they need too. One CoveyClub member recognized this and founded Motivity Carea custom concierge service that supports the caregivers themselves by dealing with some of the logistics of caregiving, including handling vital documents and coordinating appointments, so that the caregivers can focus on what they should be focusing on: spending time with their loved one. Finding help like this is crucial to staying afloat during this difficult time.

Step 4. Invite your circle of support in.
Often we’re reluctant to ask others to help us. In many cases, it’s because that’s the role we’re used to playing. The vulnerability of need is hard. Yet, there’s a point in which it will find us. 

Even if you haven’t identified specific needs, find a time to contact the people you’ve identified. Let them know you’d like their support in either straightforward or non-specific ways. It is essential to secure some commitment that they are willing and able to fulfill your requests. This may be one-time or ongoing. 

One way is engaging your team via an app, such as ianacare or i-Ally. The beauty of using an app is adding information in real-time or when it’s convenient. You determine who is included and what amount of information is shared. It allows you to add a request or update at 11 p.m. without calling or texting. When your circle of support sees it, they can respond by checking off a request, such as needing a ride to chemotherapy or needing help preparing meals for the week. 

If anyone declines, it is also a time to have gratitude for their honesty. While it can feel like another hurt, betrayal, or loss, it’s also a gift that can help you be realistic. Does it mean you won’t get the help you need? No. It means you need to explore your options a little more deeply. Often this is where you find the gold. It’s not uncommon for me to hear someone be happily surprised by who did show up or the people they met along the way.

Step 5. Be a part of someone else’s circle of support.
It’s valuable to assess where you are in your capacity to be included in a care circle. Perhaps you’ve recently ended a caregiving experience and need time to recover and process the event. Or, your current stress levels mean you can’t currently offer someone else the support they need.

We might feel guilt about saying “no” or setting limits. But it’s better to be honest with yourself and others so that agreements are healthy and arrangements are clear.

Recently, I felt like there was an increase in the cascade of friends and family with illnesses and requests for help. It’s been a pattern in our household since my husband and I are both in the helping professions.

When I did a series of concentric circles as stress points, we were astounded to see 18 individuals and families within those circles. The circles did not include our professional clients. Looking at it on paper was sobering, and we resolved to create new agreements and arrangements with people about our availability and what we could offer. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s felt better to know we’re preserving our energy and abilities and are still able to help at times. 

Why Your Circle of Support is So Valuable
“The only thing that is constant is change.” –Heraclitus, 500 BC 

If the philosopher is correct, change is inevitable and has been for eons. However, our response to change depends on our history, emotional state of being, societal norms, and our needs at any given moment in time. During these times of change, our need for support and community is universal.

When we’re experiencing hardship and loss, a circle of support is vital. 

This need for interconnectedness allows us to recognize we aren’t as alone as we feel. When it comes to grief, everyone’s experiences are more common than not. Individual needs might be different, but everyone needs a support team.

We’re always telling caregivers or those grieving to “take care of yourself.” But what does that mean or look like? One possible way to offer yourself care is to realize you don’t have to do this alone. Creating a circle of care around you reminds you you’re not alone, and perhaps welcomes new friends and opportunities into your life. 

Kathy Koenig, MS, is a therapist and coach who has helped hundreds of families deal with caregiving and loss. Her work includes community-based services at an integrative cancer center, business consulting, and retirement communities. She is a member of CoveyClub, supporting community members through the grief process. You can connect with Kathy at The Caregiver Connection 

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