By Carol Zernial, WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director
Caregivers with the lived experience of providing care often share pearls of wisdom. At a recent caregiver workshop about the positive aspects of caring for a loved one, a woman emotionally asked, “What do we do with the extreme grief that we feel?”
A wise and helpful caregiver responded, “Grief is a detour. Allow yourself that time to grieve. Stop and do it. Experience it. Then, go back on your way.”
Grief is a difficult topic for many of us. As a society, people don’t like to talk about it. Many of the opportunities to express grief publically are fading in a fast-paced world. Grief can occur before a loved one actually passes away.
The grieving caregiver who asked the question was dealing with the loss of the husband she knew due to Alzheimer’s disease. The man she married was disappearing before her eyes. This is also true with other illnesses that reduce the vitality of a robust, active person. Grief is not only about death; it is about any kind of loss.
I liked the notion of grief as a detour on the caregiving journey. A detour means that we are now taking a road that we didn’t plan on taking, that isn’t on our “normal” route. We don’t have a choice when we come upon a detour; we are now sidelined on that road.
What else do we know about detours? It is temporary; we will eventually get back on our way. Many detours parallel where we were going in the first place.
As caregivers, we may find ourselves on the detour of grief multiple times. It can hit us like waves repeatedly, rising up unexpectedly. This experienced caregiver is recommending that we take the time to do the work of grieving as it comes.
Many of us don’t realize that we store this type of trauma inside until we do the work of dealing with it. Having regular appointments with a therapist, counselor, or religious/spiritual leader can help us to work through our grief.
At a minimum, taking the time to stop and experience the grief as it comes is a healthy way of approaching it. It’s okay to have a down day or week and acknowledge that we’re feeling sad. This is life, and grief is a common experience we share as humans.
It is important to note that when grief goes from being a detour to becoming a road that we are constantly driving down, we need to make getting help the new detour. Prolonged grief can rewire our brains and leave us susceptible to illness. We should not stay on the road of grief indefinitely.
How do we treat grief as a detour when it hits us on our caregiving journey? We stop and experience it. We might quietly ask ourselves what it was that gave us joy in this relationship, give thanks for that joy, and acknowledge that losing it is painful. Breathe deeply as we give thanks. Then, return to the road.
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and emeritus Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs affecting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.