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Strength and Growth of the Bereaved Caregiver

I know an elderly gentleman. He is 85 years old. He is a physician, and he is my friend. One day, he joked about his mother. She died 60 years ago. He said with a slightly wry smile, “I think I’m over it!” He isn’t. He knows it. I know it. And he knows that I know. He likes that. It is our special secret.

Mark is also one of my friends. He was 20 when his grandfather died. The two were very close. Mark wrote a letter of thanks and sorrow to Grandpa. He folded it into the box with the ashes. That letter was buried with the ashes. Then we hugged each other and he cried. Of course we know Grandpa didn’t read the letter…unless he did. I know Mark still hurts. He knows I know. It is something we share. It is good. Mark will not “get over it.” He will grow with it. He will grow into it.

Every loss changes us. We incorporate the experience. It revises our concept of who we are. Self-concept. Self-identity. Every loss is finally a growth experience. In that sense, every loss also makes us more fully alive and unique. That deserves recognition.

Too often, we think of strength as a stoic disregard for feelings. It is the no-tears approach. “Move on,” we say. “Get over it.” Not so fast! That attitude makes it nearly impossible for the bereaved caregiver to feel accepted – accepted by himself and by others. It is an unrealistic expectation. Grief is for keeps, not for weeks. And that’s OK. It needs respect. It is normal. Even in the best circumstances – the well-planned “good death” – the caregiver is left to cope with a weight of conflicting emotions. Each of us has our own time line for grieving. That time line needs permission and appreciation, both from the grieving person himself and from those who surround him. If given a chance, then, emotional strength will show up. Strength comes from working with those feelings in an atmosphere of dignity and compassion.

What is strength? How does it show? In broad practical terms, it looks like this:

1. Having strong feelings that are not necessarily pleasant;
2. Having the courage to become aware of those emotions and look at them squarely;
3. Not being afraid to express them openly – belief in self-resilience.

These are almost inseparable qualities.

The “good stuff” is easy to take and to express. It is the happier feelings. The “good stuff” is the sense of having done it “right,” of having conducted the passage to a “good death.” Pride of accomplishment feels fine. All the details of dying receive attention: advance directives, place of dying, pain control, gentle care, promises made and kept, forgiveness requested and received and offered, permission to die granted, goodbyes said, important people present, after-death care given as expected. More. All of that is a distinct source of self-congratulation, self-esteem, and growth for the bereaved caregiver. It is an achievement. It feels grand and extraordinary. It feels just. It feels moral!

Dealing with the “bad stuff” is not as easy. What’s the bad stuff? At least some or all these:

Guilt (for any suffering that might have been prevented – the what-if’s; survivor guilt);

Anger (at the loved one, because he left);

Sadness (of course);

Fear of abandonment (by the whole human world);

Fear of losing one’s mind (becoming insane; uncontrollable repetitive thoughts);

Fear of inability to recover successfully from the loss (sense of enduring emptiness);

Preoccupation with health (exaggerated concerns about physical illness and dying);

Flashbacks, nightmares, and restless nights…

At first, it is hard for the bereaved caregiver to differentiate these feelings. They are overwhelming. They are usually irrational. They are always excruciating. They are also natural.

Even under the best circumstances, recovery for the caregiver is tough. The “bad stuff” needs attention and expression. The feelings are mixed up, and they are powerful. They feel more than a little crazy. The caregiver needs to be able to face these feelings. Strength is not stoic silence. It is not the buck-up stiff-upper-lip way. It is not denial of pain. And it is not “forgetting” about death and dying.

Strength is having the energy to reach out, to show pain, to ask for a sympathetic ear or two or three. It is unashamed tears. It is the guts to talk about the unspeakable and to know, at the same time, that those words and that talk are survivable. It is the belief in the adaptability of the self. It is the maturity of insight. It is trust in intuition. It is confidence that life will return to some sort of balance, an equilibrium. It will be a new and different balance but a balance nonetheless. It is knowing that the relationship to the loved one endures, but in a different form. Strength is the caregiver’s ability to gradually rearrange the relationship in his mind, internally. It is knowing and accepting that he will never exactly “get over it.” The process takes patience and perseverance. All of this is strength. All of it contributes to recovery – to a brand new and higher level of being well. It is a level that has included healthy grieving. Inner resources have been enriched. Life will feel OK again, and renewed. Refreshed. Death shows us how.

Yes, it’s OK to die. And yes, it’s OK and clearly wonderful to live on.

Dying is a pre-existing condition: we all do it someday. A fundamental fact of life is that it ends (to paraphrase Dr. Murphy). Dying is not a mental disorder, although it is an unprecedented event in the life of every human being. Grief is not major depression. This is so obvious that it hardly deserves a footnote. Grief is a normal occurrence in our lives. By definition, it hurts. It has no automatic timetable for ending. This essay is not an effort to address or rewrite any part of the controversial Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), nor does it reflect on the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Rather, it is an attempt to broadly view the sense of grief as it is perceived by the close caregiver(s) after the death of a loved one. In addition, it is intended to help the bereaved caregiver to cope with, and understand, various intense emotions – some of which reoccur every year, on or near the anniversary date of the death.

Here is a Dr. Murphy “mantra” from her excellent book, It’s OK to Die. Read it and then reread. Memorize. It will make mourning easier to bear.

Life is fleeting and fragile. Live and love as though every day is your last, or your mother’s last, or your child’s last. Leave no words unsaid, leave no plans unmade. (pp. 19 & 21)

Rea L. Ginsberg is a retired Director of Social Work Services and a Hospice Coordinator