A client of ours once told us about the three years he spent careing for his father, who had recently died at age 93. “My father and I had never been very close.” he said. “When he first moved in with me and it was incredibly hard, but now I wouldn’t change it for the world. I finally got to know my father.” Caregiving can be a rich and rewarding experience, but invariably there is grief and loss intertwined with the joy and the hardships.
The grief that people experience as caregivers can be different from the grief that people experience when a loved one dies, a job is lost, or a marriage is ended. Caregivers’ grief happens within an ongoing relationship.
There are three different kinds of grief that caregivers may experience.
Recurring grief occurs as the result of the person we love deteriorating slowly, seemingly going through stages. A husband will get used to his wife being at one stage, and then she gets worse, and he loses another “piece” of her. Then she deteriorates again, and another “piece” is lost. Each time, he goes through grief.
Ambiguous grief occurs when a caregiver is caring for someone who physically is still here, but is so changed, usually cognitively and emotionally that ” she is not my mother” anymore. The problem becomes–“How do I grieve the loss of someone who is still there?” “How do I let go of someone who hasn’t gone?” Emotionally and psychologically, it creates a conflict. Someone may feel guilty grieving over a loved one who has not really gone.
Anticipatory grief occurs when one anticipates the loss of a loved one (or object) before the loved one has died or left. Often that is what allows the person to say they are relieved that their loved one has died,and apparently not feel so devastated–they have let go of the person in their heart before they lost the person in fact.
Sometimes all three types of grief occur with caregivers at different times. Grief also may be occurring without someone knowing that they are grieving. They may not understand that they could grieve before a loved one is actually lost, that feelings of being angry or numb, or of trying to “re-organize” how they think or feel, may be grief . It may help to simply name the process-grief–for them to begin to receive help
One of the most helpful things someone can do for someone else who is grieving is to just be there and listen. You don’t have to know what to say or what to do, just give the grieving person your time and a listening ear. In this case, listening is doing.
Stages of Grief and Families
A number of authors have described grief as a process of several stages through which people pass.The best known of these is Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who originally described five stages–denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Other people describe three, seven, or ten stages. A couple authors speak of shock and yearning as initial stages of grief. Some talk of reorganization or re-entry as stages occurring as grief recedes. What is clear is that grief is a process.It is a process that is unique and personal. People react to the same event and grieve at different speeds and different intensities depending on who they are, what their relationship with the person is/was, and other stressors or events which are occurring in their lives at the same time. This means that, within one family, the different family caregivers will be reacting differently to the decline and loss of a loved one. One may be in denial, one may be depressed and one may be feeling mostly anger. It is these differences that sometimes lead to stress and conflict among the family members. They may see each other as uncaring, selfish, out of line, etc., and not understand that they are actually all expressing different aspects of the same thing–grief, but in different ways.
When conflict arises among family members, a family counsellor can help facilitate communication which can lead to understanding and change hostility to mutual support and closeness. This can enable them to work together to make decisions that may be called for as a loved one is ill, dying, or has already passed.
Resources on Grief
- “On Death and Dying;” by Elizabeth Kubler Ross. “What Dying People Want: Practical Wisdom for the End of Life;” by David Kuhl. “The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness;” by Jerome Grooper.
- National Funeral Directors Association –www.nfda.org/page.php?pID=21
- Grief.com – http://grief.com/