In a previous article, we addressed the issue of managing anticipatory grief as a caregiver. However, anticipatory grief does not preclude the occurrence of grief following the death of a loved one. In fact, while the two share some things in common, they’re completely different phenomena. Here’s a closer look at what all caregivers should know about the grieving process.
Making Sense of Grief
When we hear the word “grief,” we may think of extreme sadness over the loss of a loved one. However, grief is far from one-size-fits-all. Different people experience grief in different ways. Caregivers, in particular, may experience a range of feelings related to the death of a loved one.
“Grief is a reaction to a loss, but it can be -- and with caregivers grief often is -- a multifaceted reaction. We tend to associate grief with strictly negative emotions, but it’s much wider than that. We know that with the death, there’s often relief that the suffering has ended. But there can also be strong feelings of fulfillment.”
Then there’s the fact that not all caregiver-care recipient relationships are positive ones. Some may result in feelings of resentment, ambivalence, or guilt following a death. Furthermore, says NextAvenue.org,
“The perceived failure to restore that relationship, or the anger that the patient never did change, only adds to the caregiver’s grief.”
Not all grief symptoms are emotional. They can also be physical (including crying, low energy, headaches, changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, and recklessness), social (feeling alone, detached, isolated, or needy) and spiritual (changes to faith and/or questioning the meaning of life).
The takeaway for conflicted caregivers? There’s no right or wrong way to experience grief. Rather, recognize that whatever emotions you are feeling are valid and natural. Accordingly, it’s important to accept that other caregivers will manifest grief in their own ways, too. Acknowledging and accepting these differences can help prevent conflict during the stressful time following a death.
Getting through Grief
The immediate days surrounding the death of a loved one can be clouded in a haze for caregivers. It can take some time to adjust -- especially since dealing with the immediate legal and logistical tasks which accompany a death can be a distraction from what’s coming next: Figuring out how to go on with your life without the daily routines of being a caregiver. This can be particularly difficult for caregivers without strong support networks, as well as for those who may have lost touch with friends and family members while dealing with the demands of caregiving.
Planning ahead is crucial. Psychotherapist and trauma specialist Carie Brinton told NextAvenue,
“People really need to be prepared for the eventual loss and have a support system in place. Preparing is the key to a normal grief outcome. Plan ahead so that you aren’t sitting at home after the loss, feeling alone, depressed and empty.”
It’s important to know that the grief is often experienced in stages and that the onset of what is typically recognized as grief may be delayed. Having a support network at the ready, as well as prioritizing self-care during this time, can be helpful.
One last thing to keep in mind? While periods of grief may come and go -- and may be more pronounced at certain times of the year, such as holidays and birthdays -- experts say that the average grieving period is approximately a year. However, roughly 20 percent of bereaved caregivers experience complicated grief and other psychiatric symptoms which can lead to functional impairment. If your symptoms aren’t improving or if they’re interfering with your ability to lead a fulfilling life, talk to your physician. Learn more about coping with depression after grief here.
Ultimately, all caregivers experience and move through the grieving process differently. While you can’t alter the trajectory of caregiving grief, understanding what to expect can be a vital part of supporting a healthy recovery.
mmLearn.org offers a large library of free videos for caregivers of older adults, covering topics pertaining to senior care. Whether you are a healthcare professional or a family caregiver, if you are caring for an older adult we know that you will find mmLearn.org an essential learning and guidance tool for all of your caregiver training needs. For more useful information for caregivers, access our database of free online caregiver videos today.