Grief is a universal experience that makes us human. The role of caregiving can be all encompassing and when a care recipient passes away it can lead to deep feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and loss. It is often an extremely emotional and uncertain time following the death of a care recipient and because grief is intense and uncomfortable, we often try to find ways to avoid feeling the overwhelming sensations through distraction and staying busy. There is not one way to grieve the loss of the person you cared for; grief is an individual process. From our Caregivers Out Loud podcast conversation with Tricia Wallace, Clinical Counsellor, she shares some common feelings and questions that accompany loss and grief of a care recipient. These include:
Guilt, Anxiety and Depression
When a care recipient has died, it is not uncommon for a caregiver to feel relief. If the care-recipient was in pain, they may be relieved they are no longer suffering. A caregiver may also feel relief from not being in the demanding caregiving role. Relief, however, can quickly turn into guilt for feeling relief, and ruminating thoughts may arise around “could I have done more?” These feelings can manifest in different ways and has a very physical presence, with anxious thinking or worrying to lethargy and depression. If you are feeling overwhelmed and concerned about your own grief process or feelings, please seek professional support.
Loneliness and Loss of Caregiver Identity
Caregivers often sacrifice many areas of their life to attend to their care recipient. It is a demanding role, that can be all encompassing, which leaves less time for social connections and outings beyond the relationship with the care recipient. Following the loss of the care recipient, caregivers lose their role that may have given them purpose and a focus, and their social/physical relationship with their care recipient. Without someone to care for, the caregiver may feel confused or lost without a sense of purpose or usefulness. This can cause intense feelings of loneliness.
Life After Caregiving
In the Caregivers Out Loud podcast, Grief is a Human Experience episode, Tricia speaks about building an island around the all-encompassing ocean-like feelings of grief. These can be small rituals, connections with others, and lifelines to help cope with grief and then rebuilding emotionally after caregiving ends. Emotional and spiritual healing is a gradual process and there are valuable practices that can support a caregiver’s healing during this time of recovery and self-discovery. We offer some considerations to support your healing, including:
Restorative activities and rituals can be small and simple acts that allow you to remember and cherish the memories of your care-recipient. Rituals are routines that are driven by intention and imbued with meaning. Rituals ease us through challenging transitions and create a code for handling them. They can provide grounding, reassurance and stability. Many people know and practice the more formal and public displays of bereavement such as funerals, wearing black for a period following the death, or religious and cultural customs and practices. These public mourning rituals allow people to gather around the bereaved and to provide support and strength in a very challenging time.
Personal, private, and emotionally moving rituals are also very sacred and can provide a place of solace and connection to their lost care recipient. Many caregivers have shared that by performing their own private rituals often, they can start to regain their footing in a new realty that feels a little emptier than it was before. These are some examples caregivers have shared, watching their weekly favourite show and remembering their loved-one during this time, singing, or listening to a song that they both loved, or talking and connecting with them on a regular walking route you both enjoyed. These rituals and activities can bring you a sense of peace and connection as you go through the grief process and rediscover yourself.
Pause and consider what rituals or activities could support you in a challenging transition like death and grief. Are there any rituals that have been passed on in your family? Do you follow any religious or spiritual rituals? Are there new rituals or activities that are meaningful to you that you would like to try?
Acknowledge and allow your feelings to flow. Grief is a unique journey, and it brings a large range of emotions. Quite often caregivers ask, “am I doing this right?” or “is this normal?” It can feel like a confusing experience, with emotional changes day to day and even moment to moment. Try to be gentle with yourself, acknowledge the feelings that arise (sadness, anger, fear, relief, etc.) and let yourself feel it. We often try to bypass the hard and intense emotions; however, they only present themselves in different ways (often in louder ways) at another time. Be honest with yourself and your emotions during this time of healing.
Take a time-out from the feelings of sadness. Tricia mentioned the ‘breaker switch’ that can go off in the body and mind when you may need a break. Grief is exhausting. It is okay to give yourself time to pause and take a break from grief by taking a walk, watching a movie with a friend, or going to a favourite bookstore. It may help to take your mind away from your sadness for a time – it is okay to embrace and find some pleasure and enjoyment during this time.
Connect with others slowly and in small doses. Social connection can happen in small ways initially, like a phone call with a family member, a virtual (or in-person) coffee with a friend, a walk-in nature with your social group. This might also be re-establishing connection within your community or religious groups. You can start reconnecting with those that are close and important in your life – it is a blessing what a little positive social connection can do to your spirits.
Lean on your circle of care. You may have had friends, family and community members that supported and assisted you during your caregiving journey. They can continue to be a great source of support and connection in your grieving process. Although friends and family members may not be able to relate to the emotions you are experiencing, you may find comfort in being able to share with and depend on them during this time. You may also want to join a caregiver support group, grief support group, or seek support from a clinical counsellor or therapist.
Family Caregiver Alliance, Grief and Loss, https://www.caregiver.org/resource/grief-and-loss/