It was February 2019, a dark and gloomy night, and I was nervous. I suspect this was true for all of us who turned up that night for the brand-new Callanish Supporters’ Circle. It was hard enough to be supporting my partner through her journey with metastatic cancer—to talk about the complicated feelings that go along with that role (and with complete strangers!) seemed nigh impossible.
Typically, those of us supporting loved ones have become used to staying optimistic, or at least seeming to be so on the surface. It can feel difficult, or even disloyal, to find the words to express our nuanced deeper feelings. These include the stress of seeing one’s child, partner, or parent suffer pain, one’s own fear of impending loss and loneliness, the strain of sounding calm and positive in dire situations, the work of managing medical appointments and procedures that often dehumanize both patient and caregiver. For me, perhaps more than anything else, were the subtle changes in the dynamics of my relationship with my wife, Joy—not a reduction in intimacy, but a difference in our dynamic. I didn’t have cancer. I didn’t undergo chemo or surgery. I wasn’t faced with the prospect of death, but still, I lived with those realities every day, usually keeping my fears and sadness to myself.
Our circle was small in those first meetings. Callanish staffers, Janie, Susie, and Justine took turns facilitating, following a simple structure. First a poem, then a silence, broken by whoever felt moved to speak. The one and only rule at Callanish is that everyone who speaks has room. This is significant because, when you speak, you do so in the knowledge that no one will interrupt, comment, offer advice, or move the conversation sideways. There is space and time for your half-formed thoughts, your contradictions, tears, and laughter, as you stumble to understand and name your exact feelings.
We talked about everything over the next months. We were men married to women, same-sex partners, mothers, and daughters, but these differences—often seen as so important in the rest of our lives—stopped mattering as we found commonality and developed trust. We brainstormed answers to questions from neighbors at the mailbox—well-meaning but difficult to answer in two superficial minutes: How are you doing? How’s your partner? What can I do to help? We discussed strategies for managing time, including time for ourselves, and what this might look like. We shared war stories, medical notes, and new diagnoses. We laughed a lot, and cried quite a bit, too. Both felt healing, and however tired we felt going into the circle, we left feeling lighter and more ready for the next mile in the marathon of caring.
After a few months of this, we became tight enough to take good care of the new people who joined us. We understood their initial anxieties. “I’m here because my wife made me come” became a kind of standard joke, and we were able to reassure newcomers that yes, talking about it would actually help. The ceiling would not fall. They were not alone.
The new people came back, and the group grew, but without losing its sense of safety and trust.
My wife died a few months ago, and I have graduated to a new circle for those dealing with immediate grief. The Supporters’ Circle has helped me navigate this loss, and I know that I will always be able to count on the friends I made there over the last eight months of Wednesdays. They are friends who showed up at Joy’s Celebration of Life, who still email to check in on me, or arrive with soup. They are still there for me and always will be fellow travelers on my journey.
I am more grateful than I can say to everyone at Callanish for making this happen for me. I encourage anyone who is walking the lonely path of caregiving to take those first tentative steps through that open door.
Header photo courtesy of Callanish