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The Alchemy of Caregiving

Tulip in The Snow


Carl Jung compares the process of psychological transformation to the magical operations of alchemy.  Change begins with a period of dissolution and chaos—a time that alchemists called the Nigredo.  Pain and confusion are the emotional hallmarks of the psychological Nigredo.  Everything seems to be falling apart both in outer life and within.

Half in fun, I began to note the similarities in Jung’s alchemical stages of transformation to the phases of our recent kitchen remodel.  Ripping out walls and tearing up the floor, accompanied by loud banging  and grinding noises—this is the Nigredo of home improvement.

The Albedo is the second stage of the Great Work.  It is a period of cleansing and purification.  In psychotherapy, the Albedo corresponds to the long process of becoming conscious of dysfunctional life patterns and to the work involved in the healing old wounds.  It is as if we are clearing the decks psychologically to allow deeper and more authentic qualities of the true personality to emerge.

In the kitchen, once the demolition was complete, the framers, electricians, drywall hangers and plasterers rebuilt, enclosed and smoothed walls, floor and ceiling.  This is like the work of the Albedo—the creation of a firm and stable foundation for the next phase of the project.

The final stage of the alchemist’s Great Work is called The Rubedo.  Jung understood the alchemists’ goal of changing base metal to gold to be a metaphor for a profound transformation of the psyche.  Something unplanned and unexpected emerges from the depths of the personality.  Jung called it a new organizing principle.

The corresponding stage in a kitchen remodel is the installation process.  This is the time when all the parts—cabinetry, linoleum, tile, lighting, and appliances—come together to create a new space and a transformed kitchen.  Now, the new organizing principle becomes visible.  I have to find new ways to store my pans and supplies.  I need to organize my work differently and even learn new skills that will enable me to use the advanced technology of our new oven and cooktop.

When he set out this theory, Jung wanted to give us a map that could guide us through the lifelong task of individuation—the quest to discover who we are within our deepest being.  We can also see the same process at work in smaller ways in ordinary daily life.

Just as with the alchemists’ Great Work, the path of aging parent care inevitably leads to a period of decline into death—the Nigredo of caregiving.  I remember feeling confused and overwhelmed during the final months of Dad’s life.  As death drew nearer, I tried ever harder to keep Dad alive and happy–as if it were up to me! 

Eventually there was no denying that death was upon him, but still the end came too soon.  Although I told Dad that it was okay for him to let go, I wasn’t quite ready for him to leave.  I wonder if any of us can ever be completely ready for such a loss?

Suddenly there was no more caregiving.  What remained were the thousand details that demand attention after a death.  Underneath all the busyness, I remember feeling an emptiness and a sense of dislocation.  Dad was gone.  Caregiving was over.  Sorrow moved in to take its place. 

The dark time might last a year.  It could be longer; or it might not be quite so long.  In the second year after Mom’s and Dad’s deaths, I found myself in a period of letting go and of healing.  This corresponds to the alchemical stage of the Albedo.  Judi, Bill and I, like many former caregivers, had neglected ourselves during those years, and now we had own health problems.  Each of us underwent one or more surgeries.  Bill and I cleaned the oven for the first time in several years.  I took a lot of naps.

We tried to put our affairs in order, making new wills and updating our living wills.  We held family meetings where we used the Five Wishes as a guide to an open discussion of everyone’s end of life preferences and concerns.  We talked to our friends about death—our parents’ and our own.  We continued to blog about caregiving and grieving and recovering from the deaths of our parents.

Looking back I see that caregiving has transformed us all.  Now we are living in the Rubedo stage.  It is a time of emergence into a new life where the question each of us must answer is “who am I now?”  What is the new organizing principle of my life now that caregiving is over? 

It’s a little easier for me to see how caregiving has changed Judi and Bill than it is to see it in myself.  Bill retired from his long career in water treatment to take up the role of a living history enactor for school children, their teachers and parents.  He has become a writer as well–something he has always aspired to.  Judi has committed herself to marriage and to building a new on-line business that she can take with her wherever her husband Willie’s work takes him.

While I may not see the transformation so clearly in myself, I do know that I have learned some things about growing older.  I see myself working to create a comfortable nest for Bill and me to age in place together.  I understand now that some form of caregiving will be a part my life for the rest of my days.  But presently I simply want to “be” for awhile and see what comes up.  

All of this brings me to the point of saying “good-bye” to Inside Aging Parent Care.  Being a blogger has been delightful.  I’ve learned new skills and made terrific on-line friends.  We’ve connected with writers, teachers, musical performers and many others–all courageous caregivers–through this blog.  For awhile it seemed like everyone we met had an aging parent that they were caring for.

I hope we have met some of our original goals for the blog.  I know that your company on this journey has helped me more than I would have ever imagined at the beginning. 

Thank you.

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