Caregiving Lessons I Learned from Mother Teresa

“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa

In 2002, after 12 years of volunteering in Mother Teresa’s homes and working with the dying, I was no longer able to continue. In 1996, I was diagnosed with a progressive neurological disease, peripheral neuropathy, which I inherited from my mother. This disease was—and is—slowly destroying the nerves in my arms and legs, ultimately making it impossible for me to meet the physical demands of the work and the three flights of stairs at Mother Teresa’s hospice “Gift of Love.”

When I had to stop my volunteer work for Mother Teresa, I realized that one thing I could still do was share with others what I had learned during my years of working with the dying, including how I had dealt with the deaths of those I loved in my own family. The next step in my journey would be to write what I hoped would be of help to others.

Tony Cointreau Mother Teresa

Me with Mother Teresa

After Mother Teresa’s death, I sat in front of the computer and silently asked her to help me to write about caring for loved ones. I could immediately feel her presence over my right shoulder, and it felt as if I had entered another dimension for the next several hours. When I “awoke,” I was astonished to read what I had written. It was then that I knew how much help I had been given from a higher source. What a blessing. Thank you, Mother!

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It seems that our society considers what should be the normal transition of death to be a taboo subject. We tend to pretend that it does not exist. But in denying the reality of what is happening, we not only rob the dying person of any feeling of comfort, we also insist on creating a make-believe world where nothing ever changes. The truth is that all life is change—constant change. Without that, life would be stagnant and not really worthwhile.

What we often think of as the most complicated of situations is really very simple. With a little common sense and a lot of love, facing the fearful situation we call death can be transformed into one of the greatest of gifts for ourselves and our loved ones.

Of course, in no way would anyone imply that there is no emotional pain involved for the caregiver. The pain of loss can be excruciating, but it never needs to defeat you. It can tear you apart, but you can rise again. If given the opportunity to aid and participate in the final days, hours, and moments of someone’s life, you, the participant, will never be the same either. Any love and comfort that we give leaves both the giver and the receiver in a different realm than before.

There are many taboos born of our fear of the unknown. However, with some basic information, and the opportunity to break out of the mold for even a few moments, we can open the door to a new understanding of others and to the reason we are put on this earth in the first place.

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My not having been able to face the reality of death and dying throughout my early life is not unusual in our society. But during my 12 years volunteering in Mother Teresa’s homes for the dying, I learned the invaluable power that exists in:

  • Listening
  • Touching
  • Choices
  • Humor
  • Taking nothing for granted
  • Non-judgment
  • Respect
  • Music
  • Unconditional love
  • FaithA Gift of Live Mother Teresa

Because the patients at Gift of Love were given the freedom to express their thoughts on the process of dying as it was happening, no one was forced to feel alone—ever—thereby lessening the fear of the unknown and even sometimes the physical pain. If the mind is at peace, the physical body will not feel the same agony as it would if it were rigid with fear.

In my years of working with the dying, I—who had been so filled with terror at the thought of human mortality— helped more than 100 men during their final months, days and hours. A Gift of Love is a distillation of some of the things I learned that helped them.

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If I can reach just one person who is flailing around in panic and fear while trying to help a loved one at the end of their life, my journey will have been worthwhile.

Whatever happens, I will try, in my own way, to follow Mother Teresa’s simple words, “We can do no great things only small things with great love.”

I always say that Mother Teresa was an ordinary, extraordinary woman. I believe that, although she lived her life according to the teachings of the Catholic Church, she lived as much by the Buddhist philosophy as she did by the dogma of Catholicism.

Mother Teresa believed in the simple words of the great teachers such as Jesus and Buddha and lived not a “Christian” life but a Christlike life—two very different things in my eyes. She tried to teach us all the simple philosophy of unconditional love for one another and the importance of being non-judgmental. Oh yes, and above all she wanted us to learn the joy of being of service with our two hands.

Very simple and very beautiful. Whatever may happen in the years to come, I will never forget the many wonderful men and women I helped in their final hours of life, and how much more they gave to me than I could ever have given to them. Their friendship and love will live with me forever, till we meet again in a far better place where we can all rejoice together. What a reunion that will be!

 


Copyright ©2016 Tony Cointreau

About the Author

author image

Tony Cointreau, author of A Gift of Love: Lessons Learned from My Work and Friendship with Mother Teresa, is a member of the French liqueur Cointreau family. He was born into a life of wealth and privilege, growing up among the rich and famous. His maternal grandmother was an opera star, and Tony’s own voice led him to a successful international singing career. His paternal heritage put him on the Cointreau board of directors. But he felt a need for something more meaningful in his life—and his heart led him to Calcutta and Mother Teresa.Tony’s childhood experiences—an emotionally remote mother; a Swiss nanny who constantly told him, “Mother only loves you when you’re perfect;” an angry, bullying older brother; and a sexually predatory fourth-grade schoolteacher—convinced him that the only way to be loved is to be perfect. He set out on a lifelong quest for a loving mother figure and unconditional love, and he found it with Mother Teresa and her work. She became another mother for him, as he describes in his memoir, Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa... and Me.Tony volunteered in Mother Teresa’s hospices for twelve years, learning to give unconditional love, and helping more than one hundred people while they were dying.For more information please visit http://tonycointreau.com

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