Family Caregiving is a Rite of Passage

We meet many family caregivers in our Mindful Caregiver Education courses. Apart from being in the role, what unites most people who join us is the struggle caregiving presents in their already busy lives. For many caregivers, particularly those who are in high strain situations, caring for a loved one can negatively impact physical and emotional well-being. Our courses focus on teaching emotional skills that help mitigate the negative impacts of caregiving.

Caregiving can be deeply rewarding; however, it can also cause intense suffering in one’s life. Many of the caregivers we meet are caring for parents, children, and/or spouses while working full-time jobs. Many have reached a point of overwhelm and even hopelessness. I have found that it can be helpful to reframe the caregiving experience as an initiation or rite of passage.

Rites of passage mark a particular transition in one’s life. It is a doorway that is entered to pass from one stage of life into another. Every culture around the world has some form of rite of passage. When the French ethnographer, Arnold Van Gennep, studied rites of passage in various cultures, he found a common pattern. Rites of passage or initiation rites always follow three stages; severance, threshold, and incorporation. We can identify these stages when we look at caregiving through the lens of rites of passage.

Family caregiving often separates the caregiver from his or her usual activities and extended community. Over time there is a distancing from the life the caregiver once knew, a severance in fact. We see this with elder caregivers caring for a spouse. Social isolation is a common issue faced by family caregivers. Often, the demands of the role get in the way of healthy socializing. Many of the caregivers I have met feel that their friends either do not understand the demands of caregiving or do not want to hear about it. Often, when a caregiver wants to step away to socialize, it can be challenging to find coverage to care for their loved one.

While lonely and even problematic, the severance that takes place supports the transformation that is characteristic of the second phase, the threshold phase. Whether it is welcomed or not, caregiving changes the caregiver. The role asks a lot of us, and the more we give, the more we grow and are changed.

In traditional rites of passage, the threshold phase always entails an experience of suffering or an ordeal. Whether we look at the Native American vision quest, tattooing in the Philippines, the walkabout in Australian Aboriginal culture, or lion hunting among the Masai, the ordeal takes the initiate to the edge of their strength and resources. We find, the greater the suffering that takes place, the more profound the transformation. Initiation rites have always marked one’s taking of a new place in the community.

Surviving the threshold phase means the return to one’s community or entrance into the incorporation phase. It is not possible to pass through the threshold phase of initiation without gaining some positive outcome, perspective, or gift. Such gifts are not for the initiate to keep. The learnings must be shared with one’s community for the sake of its survival. This is how tribal communities have evolved.

Through the challenging circumstances of caregiving, important lessons are learned. The hard-won lessons of caregiving should be shared with others who also will someday be called upon to care for a loved one. Sadly, many family caregivers find themselves thrust into the role with little or no preparation. A wise one who has been in the role can be an essential source of support and inspiration to new caregivers.

At Zen Caregiving Project, we believe in the importance of building strong emotional skills to manage stress and enhance well-being. We also recognize the usefulness of having strong caregiver role models. We know caregiving can be difficult and can even feel impossible at times; this is natural. The mindfulness-based practices we teach to caregivers do make a difference. However, nothing can take away all the difficulties caregivers will experience. Knowing that one’s challenge and sacrifice is an essential part of life helps us see that suffering can be a gateway to a new stage of life in which our experience and wisdom may be of benefit to others. Learning from those who have been in the role is how we will meet the growing demand for family caregiving in our society.