Understanding Loss & Grief as a Caregiver

Being there for a loved one when they need us is a matter of both privilege and overwhelm. It feels rewarding to be able to serve your loved ones, but the role of a caregiver can often feel like an emotional rollercoaster. Caregiving can be isolating or demanding, straining on your limited resources (financial or otherwise), triggering anger and frustration, especially in cases where caregiving may feel less like a choice.

Constantly being there for someone—usually either a senior person, or an ailing relative in hospice—isn’t easy in any way, and the anticipatory grief of the inevitable can be stressful. Even on your best day, it can feel like you’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even the most resilient people can feel overwhelmed in such situations.

As a caregiver, so much of your life becomes intertwined with the person you’re caring for, that losing them might leave you feeling rudderless.

The complexity of loss as a caregiver

The grief experienced as a caregiver comes in various forms and at different stages.

One, there’s the anticipatory grief that a caregiver starts experiencing before the cared-for has even left them. When death and loss become inevitable or when the illness changes their loved one beyond recognition, the caregiver lives in a state of grief over losing what the person used to be. The loved one seems to be emotionally gone even before they die.

Second, loss as a caregiver is experienced through a plethora of emotions, not just grief alone. Sometimes, there’s a sadness about a future without the person. Often, it is a feeling of loss of direction and personal identity crisis because of how much of the caregiver’s routine was tied to the deceased. In many cases, the lingering emotion can also be one of relief, mixed with guilt over such relief, that they’re not being “held back” or “tied down” anymore.

How to handle loss and grief as a caregiver

Be Honest About Your Feelings
Relief and hope aren’t exactly emotions that our society attaches to mourning. So, it can feel uncomfortable sharing them out loud. Because the nature of this loss is so complicated, caregivers are likely to feel emotions beyond just sadness.

Feelings of relief or independence are common and so is the guilt that follows them. Grief can also manifest as anger or frustration. The first step towards healing is being honest about your feelings. If you feel that people around you might judge you on how you grieve, consider joining a support group.

Join a support group
A support group can provide a safe space where you feel free to express your honest feelings, without fear of judgment. In addition, support groups provide validation, connections, and problem-solving or acceptance strategies. Since others in the group have also been in your position, they will likely understand your situation better than others.

Know that you are enough
When a loved one who you cared for a long time dies, it’s also possible that your feelings of guilt make you believe that you didn’t do enough. It’s important for you to remember that you did absolutely everything you could to serve them in the best way possible, that there’s nothing more you could have done.

Seek professional help from a counselor
Dealing with this double-edged sword of a huge life change and a loss can get overwhelming if you are doing it alone. Professional counseling can help you explore how you can meaningfully work through the barrage of conflicting feelings.

As a caregiver, it can be easy to get into a habit of overlooking one’s own emotions in favor of the loved one’s needs. That makes it all the more important for you to have safety, validation, warmth, and professional support in the aftermath of their death. Take the time you need to process your trauma and chart your life’s future course.

Photo credit: Pixabay, sabinevanerp