How Writing About Caregiver Grief Can Help Ease the Pain
Caregiver grief is complicated. When a loved one gets diagnosed with a terminal illness, we enter Preparatory grief, which is the process of adapting and adjusting to ongoing losses and changes. As we go through Preparatory grief, we mourn the loss of what we once had. We grieve the loss of the life that we hoped to be living at this point in our lives, and we grieve the losses that we know are still ahead. When the end finally does come after a long, progressive decline, our grief changes.
I was reminded of this when I visited with my friend Dorothy who helped care for a favorite aunt until her recent death. We talked on the phone shortly after the memorial service, and she was very distraught. I encouraged her to write about her feelings. She said, “I can’t do that! I wasn’t always nice. I was even really hateful!”
I assured Dorothy that anyone who has ever taken care of a terminally ill loved one has said and done things they regret, and I promised her that that writing about it would be cathartic. I told her that she didn’t have to share it with anyone, and it would be okay to burn it after she wrote it.
She did write about her experiences and feelings during the last several months of her Aunt June’s life, and I’m so happy that she sent me a copy of it rather than burning it. I thought this paragraph was particularly poignant:
“I’m more afraid of sadness than anger. I think I chose to be angry with her because it seemed so much easier than facing the fact that she was leaving me. Loneliness terrifies me. Anger makes me feel strong and powerful. Loneliness makes me feel totally powerless – like a wet noodle. Once the tears got started I couldn’t stop them. I thought I would drown.”
Dorothy didn’t drown. Instead, she went to her computer and she wrote about how it felt to lose a woman who had been a very dear friend and mentor for many, many years. She acknowledged that her aunt was sometimes incredibly selfish and demanding during her illness, and that there were times she was very thoughtless about the burden she was putting on her daughter and Dorothy and other family members. Dorothy admitted to saying things in a moment of frustration that hurt her aunt’s feelings. At one point she was afraid she might have even broken the relationship beyond repair, but that didn’t happen.
Dorothy went through the process of Preparatory Grief during her aunt’s long illness. She’s now suffering a different kind of grief now that it’s over. She’s aware that grief isn’t a linear process. There is no definitive timeline.
Dorothy will continue to feel the void in her life for a long time, but there will come a day when she will remember who her aunt was before the illness. She will remember her intelligence, her poise, her good-nature, her beauty and her honestly. She will remember all of the good times they shared, and she will let go of the cross words and her disappointment in her aunt as well as herself. There will come a time when the emotion attached her aunt’s memory is pleasure rather than pain, and she will be at peace.