A conversation with author Laura Michaels
Laura Michaels knows all about living in limbo. She has experienced this as a caregiver and as a counselor whose clients find themselves navigating the terrain of illness for their loved ones.
Michaels’s new book, Living in Limbo: Creating Structure and Peace When Someone You Love Is Ill (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017), provides a fascinating account of the caregiving journey. For Michaels, life upended when her husband, Bill, was suddenly diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. It seems almost implausible that only three weeks earlier, Bill completed his 25th marathon.
Living in Limbo is unique in that Michaels’s personal experiences caring for Bill are interspersed with clinical insights from coauthor and psychiatrist Claire Zilber. Michaels details her fears and feelings while being present at her job and parenting the couple’s three children.
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, approximately 43.5 million caregivers have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the past 12 months. For Solo Moms, in particular, the responsibility of caring for a spouse, sick child, or parent can feel paralyzing.
ESME’s Nancy Sharp, herself a longtime caregiver and Solo Mom, sat down with Michaels to learn more about what it really means to live a peaceful and purposeful life in the throes of constant uncertainty.
Q: Just so we’re on the same page, can you define what it means to live in limbo?
A: To live in limbo is to confront the uncertainty of living with a serious diagnosis or disability. Some of us dwell in this space for months; others, for years. The question we must ask is this: How do we care for our loved ones while still embracing a quality life? Living in limbo is about facing the unknown—with all our doubts and fears—and still showing up for life.
Q: I’m curious as to why you wrote about being in a state of limbo as opposed to grief?
A: I wanted to write a guide for people experiencing hardship, since it’s so tempting to forego happy moments with your children, your work, your friends in the midst of adversity. It’s this process of living wholly while in a state of limbo that interested me.
Q: What about hope?
A: Hope matters! And hope can shift and change. One month, for instance, we might find ourselves hoping for a cure; later on, we hope that our loved ones’ symptoms can be comfortably managed. Finding hope in the present is key. One of Bill’s oncologists put it best: “All we need is the next piece of pavement for you to put your foot down on. We don’t need the whole highway yet.”
Q: What coping strategies did you find especially helpful?
A: I worked hard to appreciate the good things in my life even while fearing the worst about Bill. I practiced loving all that was still right in my world—my family, devoted friends, the first snowfall of winter. Bill and I even learned to redefine good in terms of his cancer. “We are lucky we have a good doctor,” we’d say. “We are lucky it hasn’t spread to the other lung.” That kind of gratitude guilds resilience.
Q: What words of wisdom can you offer overwhelmed caregivers?
A: When life feels out of control, we have to reduce the universe into tiny fragments. We do this by focusing on one thing, even a small thing. I intentionally had to bat away unrestricted thoughts about Bill’s demise in order to keep my concentration at work or when talking to my son’s teacher. It helped me get through the days.
Q: Solo Moms are particularly susceptible to caregiver burnout. What advice can you offer?
A: People with life-threatening illnesses may be angry, exhausted, and depressed. As such, they don’t always think about the impact of their illness on the loved ones caring for them. That is why caregivers must learn to be gentle and compassionate toward themselves. In broad terms, this means respecting limits, getting proper rest, taking breaks, and reaching out for help.
Q: It strikes me that emotional resilience is key to navigating life in limbo. How can readers cultivate more of this?
A: I’m a big fan of visioning work. We can learn to become more resilient, for example, by actively picturing resilient people, even public figures. At especially hard moments, I thought a lot about my maternal grandmother who was widowed with three children. She never went to college, never worked, and had no income of her own, but somehow found the gumption to start her own interior-design business. She became successful enough to travel to roughly 90 countries by the time of her death at 82 years old. My grandmother, like many resilient people, figured life out because she had to. Sometimes it helps to “act as if” we already have the trait we aspire to, like trusting in our own emotional resilience.
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Nancy Sharp is an author, a keynote speaker, and a storyteller who frequently speaks publicly about loss, transformation, and bold living. The author of the award-winning memoir, Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living, she lives in Denver with her second husband, her twins, and her two stepsons. You can find her on Twitter at @BoldLivingNow and Facebook at Nancy Sharp.
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