Mental & Emotional Health
The Aftermath of Caregiving
About a decade ago, Melvin, a long-time family friend, died of cancer. Catherine, his wife of more than 50 years, had cared for her husband during his many treatments and declining health.
After Melvin’s death, Catherine fell into a deep depression.
When she was her husband’s caregiver, Catherine’s days were hectic, but after Melvin’s funeral her life seemed empty and meaningless. Everyday tasks overwhelmed Catherine. Once been known for her upbeat, friendly nature, Catherine became tentative, quiet and ultimately withdrawn.
Grief had taken over Catherine’s life.
My mother was Catherine’s best friend. Mom was a pragmatic, never-look-back type of person, so it wasn’t a surprise she had a difficult time understanding her long-time friend’s behavior.
Mom had also been a caregiver herself. She was the primary caretaker for my father who had died from Alzheimer’s disease several years before. After his death, Mom felt sadness, of course. However, she was determined not to dwell on her loss, and she didn’t. She was able to put the past behind her and begin a new chapter of life.
Not everyone is that lucky.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports 10 to 20 percent of former caregivers experience chronic depression. From the NIH website, “Despite the generally positive prognosis for most bereaved caregivers, a sizable minority continues to experience high levels of stress and psychiatric problems after death.”
So why can the majority of caregivers, like my mom, navigate through the grieving process and emerge stronger, when others like Catherine, fall into a downward spiral and find it much more difficult to recover?
Often, it comes down to personality and the fact that everyone handles grief differently.
Some caregivers, for instance, may suffer from survivor’s guilt and wish they had died instead of their loved one.
Others may “stuff their feelings” and let their own physical and mental health suffer, thereby causing a recovery to take much longer.
A small number of caregivers experience “anticipatory grief.” This happens when the grieving process begins early in the caretaking. When the loved one dies, grieving has already become a way of life and continues with no sign of relief. Sometimes this grief is so ingrained it causes the caregiver to become emotionally paralyzed.
This might be what happened to Catherine.
A year after her husband’s death, she was still fragile and depressed. Rightly concerned about her well-being, Catherine’s grown children decided she should move across country to live closer to them.
After Catherine had moved, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and I became her primary caregiver until her death. My caregiving duties caused me to lose touch with Catherine, but I often wonder if she was able to overcome her grief and sadness.
Today I’m a lot more educated and savvy about caregiving, loss, and grief.
Grief experts agree the best advice for bereaved caregivers is to reach out to others. If grief lingers for a prolonged period without any progress, the former caregiver should visit his or her primary care doctor for a complete physical and a candid conversation about symptoms.
Although I dismissed this idea initially, I found journaling or writing about bereavement can be surprisingly helpful during the grieving stages. I launched a blog to help me process my personal caregiving experience, and it was important in my healing process.
Additionally, I benefited from individual talk therapy and a grief-counseling group. A group setting allows participants to share their personal story, hear about other people’s experiences and realize they are not alone in the journey.
So much is written about caregiving, but not as much attention is given to what happens when the care journey comes to an end. It’s an especially difficult loss. This is when the caregiver needs care and support so he or she can eventually start life anew.