If you’ve been reading Caregiver’s Survival Blog very long you know that I was a Lutheran Pastor for over 30 years. I became a pastor because I really believed that no matter what we face, Jesus will give us strength for each day. I do believe God has a plan for each of us, which is to bless everyone with eternal life. This is because God has great love for all people and wants to spend eternity with us.
The Question then comes up, if God loves me so much why am I going through this hell called dementia? If the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God really cares about me, my marriage, my life, why did he bring me to this, and now that I am in it, why doesn’t he heal my wife? These ideas were why I did the four-part series on did God foreknow this was coming or did he cause it?
A few years ago, Harriet gave me the book, The Survivors Club, by Ben Sherwood. At that time, I read the first few chapters and then laid the book aside. I found it in a stack of books, last month, and decided to read it. It is a great book with a lot of stories of people who survive impossible situations. Sherwood looks at the how and why of survival and what we can do to improve our odds in any situation. Chapter 6 is entitled, Rescued from the Lion’s Jaws, Prayer, Miracles and the Power of Faith.
Since this blog is entitled, the Caregiver’s Survival Blog, I want to share what Ben Sherwood has discovered about faith in God and illness. He writes, “What about people in survival situations? How does prayer help someone like Anne Hjelle or Stan Praimnath? [their stories are told earlier in the book.] Dr. Koenig replies that belief is the most powerful survival tool in the world. Faith give you hope that no matter what you’re going through, something good can come out of it. It also gives you a sense of meaning and purpose that can help you overcome incredible adversity. Almost anything is possible, Dr. Koenig says, when you believe that God loves you, that He has a plan for your life, that He will never leave you alone and will give you strength to handle your hardships. Faith and religion, he says, empower you with “the kind of strength that nothing else that I’ve ever seen can give.” (pg. 140-141)”
So far, this chapter gives me great hope for all of us who wish to be a survivor; that is, for those of us who want to have a life after this time of caregiving for our loved one. However, on page 144 Sherwood writes about believers who lose their faith because of something terrible coming into their lives. It is this section that made me return to this question, “Where is God when bad things happen to good people?” Before I go on, I want to say, I am so sorry if anything I have written about this question has caused you to feel abandoned by God. It seems that that this feeling of abandonment could be the first step towards an early death. However, it could also be the first step towards a deeper understanding of who God is and how deep is God’s love.
Sherwood continues, “If faith prolongs your life, what about the opposite? What if you’re struggling with your beliefs? It turns out that if you’re wrestling with God it could kill you. Yes, it’s a provocative proposition, but one that is supported by science. Dr. Kenneth Pargament is a psychologist and professor at Bowling Green University in Ohio. He’s spent twenty-five years studying spirituality and how people cope with life’s toughest challenges. “For the large majority of people, faith is a potent—if not the most potent—resource that enables them to withstand and, in some cases, grow from the most critical traumas in their lives,” he tells me. For a smaller percentage of people, difficult life events like cancer or accidents can shake their faith and beliefs in a profound way. They wonder: Where is God? Does He still love them? Is He forsaking them? Pargament also discovered that struggling with God isn’t good for your health. Along with Herold Koenig and other colleagues, Pargament studied 596 people who were hospitalized for a variety of illnesses. They were fifty-five or older, and they reported that they felt unloved, abandoned, or punished by God or believed that the devil’s work was responsible for their health problems. Grappling with God put patients “at increased risk of death,” Pargament concluded, compared with those whose faith remained strong. More precisely, patients in religious turmoil had a 6 to 10 percent greater risk of dying compared with those who weren’t. Pargament also figured out which kinds of struggle are especially unhealthy. For instance, patients who felt alienated from or unloved by God and attributed their illness to the devil, were 19 to 28 percent more likely to die during the two-year period.” Page 144.
When I read that part of the chapter my response was, “Yikes!” because this is what I hear from so many Caregivers in various support groups. They talk about despair, anger, rage, and emptiness because God has abandoned them to this living hell. Paragament wonders is the early death is in part because people who feel these negative emotions tend to isolate themselves from others which gives them an even greater feeling of abandonment. He goes on to say that these people often turn to the false gods of alcohol, drugs, materialism, or other behaviors that they used to say was immoral. They wind up, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.”
Sherwood goes on, “Pargament asks the question, “Why do some people grow spiritually in a time of crisis while others struggle and decline? The answer he believes, lies in the nature and maturity of your faith and how much you’ve integrated it into your life. Pargament says the key question is: “How big is your God?” By that he means, “Do you have an understanding of God or things sacred that’s broad enough to encompass both the good and bad things in life?” pg. 145
Every faith tradition has struggled with the question of pain and evil but some people in those traditions have not. This is because when things are going well it is easy to feel loved, blessed, and even special in God’s eyes. Sadly, there are some Christian groups who teach that if you have enough faith, and take God at His word, nothing evil will befall you. Pargament says, “For some people they have a sugarcoated picture of God—God will always be there for them, God will never let anything bad happen to them, that kind of thing. And then when they end up in some kind of trauma or tragedy, they don’t have anyplace to put it. . . so something has to give.”
The book continues, “On the other hand, Pargament says, some people believe in a larger God “capable of encompassing the most positive and the awful experiences in life. And they are the ones who are more capable of assimilating terrible tragedies and growing and moving on.” In tough situations, Pargament says, people with the most mature, integrated, expansive view of God seem to handle their tragedies the best while those who worship “false gods”—alcohol, drugs, materialism, narcissism—tend to fall apart.” Pg. 145
The question is, do you know what your faith tradition has to say about the problem of pain and evil? It’s kind of like getting your flu immunization, you do it before you come down with the flu. This year, in the United States, there have been thousands of people who have come down with the flu and wound up in the hospital. Sadly, 4,500 of these people have died and we’re only half-way through the flu season. Was this because they didn’t trust the immunization or was it because they just didn’t get around to get vaccinated? With the flu vaccination, you must get it before you come down with the flu. Once you have the flu it’s too late, the vaccine will not help you at all. Happily, this is not the case with our situation. Yes, it would have been better to study your faith and gain a greater understanding of God when things were going well. However, there are many thousands of stories of men and women who because of the tragic events in their lives have drawn closer to God and lived to tell the tale.
Dr. Koemig is Catholic. Dr. Pargament is Jewish. I am a Christian who has been Pentecostal, Baptist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic. In spite of our different faith traditions all of us take strength from our faith traditions and teachings about pain and evil. These teachings give us hope. No matter what your faith tradition: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Atheist, you can find writings, or leaders to help you through this situation. find a pastor, rabbi, imam, priest, or counselor to talk to. Draw near to the Lord and He will give you strength.
I don’t know of one caregiver who was ready for this; most of us are flying by the seat of our pants. However, there are books, CDs, DVDs, and training seminars available. If you find reading to be helpful ask around what books have given comfort and strength to people in a similar situation. If you feel completely incompetent at being a caregiver there are several seminars, or you tube presentations available to bring you up to speed. Two of my favorite presenters are, Dr. Natalie at Dementia Careblazers Community, and Teepa Snow, Positive Approach to Care. Both women are wonderful and have great insights on how to deal with your loved one with dementia.
I want to wrap this up by saying, that God promises that he will never leave you or forsake you no matter what you’re going through. Do not believe the lie that God has abandoned you. Please, get help, reach out, get educated, do whatever it takes to make it through this alive. Dementia seems almost like the personification of evil in that it wants two lives, your loved one with dementia and yours. Will you join me and FIGHT this damnable disease? When the dementia finally takes your loved one will you still be alive to attend their funeral? Once they are gone will you stick around and see what blessing come after this horrible time? Please join me and fight for your life. Standing together we can survive and thrive. By the way, the book I quoted extensively from is: The Survivors Club, the Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, by Ben Sherwood, C. 2009, published by, Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017. http://www.HachetteBookGroup.com
Please continue to pray for me and be sure that I will be praying for you.