Editor’s note: Sometimes the best way to be present at the bedside of a loved one who is ill is to be with them exactly as they are, letting everything you see, hear, and experience be just as it is, without avoiding it or expecting it to be different. My sense is that a deep acceptance of what is happening in the moment actually helps us to be more helpful to others, as we tune into their needs and surroundings.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading “The Courage of a Caregiver,” in which Toronto scientist and Good Robot founder Alan Majer explores a bedside scene in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. His article is reprinted below by permission. — MAB
Caregivers possess a rare and special kind of courage. Leo Tolstoy, one the greatest writers of all time, captures its essence perfectly in his novel Anna Karenina…
Levin, the main character, receives a letter from the city and is confronted with news of the grave illness of his brother.
Being a man of action, Levin immediately decides to head to the city to do what he can. Kitty, his wife, insists on coming along, saying, “I know that my husband’s brother is dying and my husband is going to him, and I go with my husband too…“. But Levin disagrees. At first he makes excuses, but ultimately reveals his true feelings, “this is a matter of such importance that I can’t bear to think that you should bring in a feeling of weakness, of dislike to being left alone.“
In the end, Kitty gets her way, and Levin grudgingly accepts it, believing that he now has to look after two people, not one.
Yet what happens when he gets there, catches Levin by surprise:
Levin went to his brother’s room. He had not in the least expected what he saw and felt in his brother’s room. He had expected to find him in the same state of self-deception which he had heard was so frequent with the consumptive, and which had struck him so much during his brother’s visit in the autumn. He had expected to find the physical signs of the approach of death more marked – greater weakness, greater emaciation, but still almost the same condition of things. He had expected himself to feel the same distress at the loss of the brother he loved and the same horror in face of death as he had felt then, only in a greater degree. And he had prepared himself for this; but he found something utterly different. [snip]
“It cannot be that fearful body was my brother Nikolay?” thought Levin. But he went closer, saw the face, and doubt became impossible. In spite of the terrible change in the face, Levin had only to glance at those eager eyes raised at his approach, only to catch the faint movement of the mouth under the sticky mustache, to realize the terrible truth that this death-like body was his living brother.
In short, Levin panics and doesn’t know what to do. While he prides himself on being able to handle all kinds of situations, Levin’s rationality, his physical strength, and all the other resources at his disposal fail him. When Levin returns to Kitty, he tries to spare her from what he just witnessed, telling her, “Oh, it’s awful, it’s awful! What did you come for?”
But instead of recoiling, Kitty goes to his brother’s bedside, grabs his hands gently and speaks to him with calmness and understanding, then rapidly attends to his comfort. Tolstoy describes the contrast:
Levin could not look calmly at his brother; he could not himself be natural and calm in his presence. When he went in to the sick man, his eyes and his attention were unconsciously dimmed, and he did not see and did not distinguish the details of his brothers position. He smelt the awful odor, saw the dirt, disorder, and miserable condition, and heard the groans, and felt that nothing could be done to help. [snip]…To be in the sick-room was agony to him, not to be there still worse. And he was continually, on various pretexts going out of the room, and coming in again, because he was unable to remain alone.
But Kitty thought, and felt, and acted quite differently. On seeing the sick man, she pitied him. And pity in her womanly heart did not arouse at all that feeling of horror and loathing that it aroused in her husband, but a desire to act, to find out all the details of his state, and to remedy them. And since she had not the slightest doubt that it was her duty to help him, she had no doubt either that it was possible, and immediately set to work. The very details, the mere thought of which reduced her husband to terror, immediately engaged her attention.
Caregivers go daily where others fear to tread. In situations which reduce others to fear, caregivers find strength through their ability to make a difference. …that is the courage of a caregiver. — Alan Majer