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Posted: April 29, 2004

Redefining Normalcy

Help for Grieving Caregivers Dealing With a Great Sense of Loss

It?s difficult to rearrange one?s entire life around providing care for a loved one. It?s even harder to attempt to move on after the loved one?s passing.

Not only is the caregiver losing someone dear and mourning their loss, they are suddenly thrust into a vacuum as the high-wire act of balancing life and caregiving for the past several months or years takes another, final and sudden turn. Just how does one return to normalcy after so much time devoted to caring for a loved one?

First of all, be ready to redefine normalcy, says Jane V. Bissler, Ph.D., LPCC, a noted grief counselor. ?The work is not to return to normalcy, it is to create a new normal,? Bissler explains. ?It takes a lot of time and a lot of hard work to assimilate (caretakers?) loss into their lives. When that assimilation is complete, (if ever)?life will never be the same again.?

Russell Friedman, executive director of The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation, agrees. ?Normalcy is the ability to develop a new norm in light of the changes that are both explicit and implicit following the death of a loved one. Since things can never be the way they were before, it is important to establish that new habits and actions must replace old ones, in light of the fact that someone important to you is no longer physically alive.?

The adjustment process may be tougher for caregivers than others. In addition to the caregiver?s grief and loss, a large part of their daily routine changes upon the death of a loved one. ?Often caregivers do not know what identity they have or even want after their loved one dies,? says Bissler. ?They also usually have more time on their hands, and although for some, this time can mean freedom, many caregivers feel guilty that they can now do things that they enjoy.?

It?s important to work through that guilt using activity and productivity. Friedman advises caregivers who have experienced loss to ?retake a productive place in their lives, even though their lives have been massively affected by the death of a loved one.?

Although the days of caring for the loved one will never resume, they can be replaced with other productive and pleasurable activities. Caregivers may try volunteering their time to take care of elderly or animals in the community. It may also help grieving caregivers to retain some of the familiar daily habits to which they had become accustomed -- for example, if the caregiver took morning walks with their loved one, continuing to take the walks with an understanding friend may ease the grieving process.

It?s important to grieve in a healthy way, allowing yourself to remember happy memories. Friedman recommends that caregivers ?remember their loved ones the way they knew them in life rather than in death. Too often, an accident, a dreaded disease or some form of tragedy has altered the way people look when they die. Since the physical ending of relationships is so powerful, grievers find themselves with sometimes gruesome pictures etched into their memories ?. It does not do justice to a long-term relationship to have it frozen in one last horrible picture.?

This will prevent wonderful memories from turning sour. It may be a good idea to put together a memory book or corner of a room in honor of your loved one, creating a place of happy remembrance for the grieving caregiver.

It is equally essential that caregivers confront an imminent death before it actually happens. Stay ?in the moment? with the loved one, Friedman advises, and be sure to talk openly about what is forthcoming. Though death is extremely difficult to prepare for, experts advise caregivers not to lose focus of the fact that death is inevitable. ?Though denial is primarily associated with the dying person, whose mind refuses to accept the diagnosis of a terminal condition, it is not uncommon for those who are emotionally attached to the dying person to share the difficulty of believing what is going to happen,? says Friedman.

Bissler agrees: ?It?s hard to deny a death when you are making arrangements, fielding phone calls, answering the door, standing at the calling hours, attending the funeral, and writing thank you notes. People often suffer greatly if they have denied the death while it was happening.? It may be helpful for caregivers to have an outlet away from the loved one, such as a neutral person who will listen or an outside activity that will help the caregiver through this rough time.

Finally, it?s important that caregivers seek help during the adjustment process. Don?t grieve alone, says Bissler. ?I often (ask) my clients, when they say they should be able to do this on their own, if they taught themselves to drive. Most of them say no. I then tell them that they were riding in a car for 16 years, (yet) still didn?t know how to drive well enough to teach themselves. Now, they are faced with a situation for which nothing in their lives prepared them, but they expect to know how to deal with it.?

Some resources that may be helpful to caregivers are clergy of the staff at hospitals, hospices and funeral homes, many of whom will graciously refer caregivers to support groups and other sources of help in this situation. ?Family members and friends who have not experienced a like loss are often not the most helpful, although they may want to be,? cautions Bissler. ?Bereaved caregivers are well advised to seek those who have had like deaths and network with them. They are the ones who truly understand.?

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Ursula Furi-Perry is a freelance writer based in Woburn, Massachusetts. She can be reached at perry11@rcn.com.

RESOURCES

For more information on this topic, check out these resources:

The Grief Recovery Institute, visit www.grief.net or phone (818) 907-9600.

The Center for Loss and Life Transition, visit www.centerforloss.com or phone (970) 226-6050.

Counseling for Loss, visit www.counselingforloss.com.

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