Caregiving presents to the caregiver opportunities for joy, exhaustion, satisfaction, frustration, and a multitude of other emotions, all within any given day. One emotion that is not always recognized by caregivers on a day to day basis though, is grief. The average person associates grief with the powerful emotional response someone has to another person’s death - and you'd be correct to assume that. However, grief is a perfectly human response to all kinds of loss, be it the death of a loved one, the passing of someone you admired but did not even know, the loss of a marriage through divorce, the loss of hopes and aspirations you once held close or even the change of a loved one’s personality due to a cognitive disorder (sometimes called dementia).
I’m going to focus on that last loss mentioned for a moment today. As caregivers, we sometimes recognize the little ways in which it seems that such cognitive diseases as Alzheimer’s, Lewy-Body Dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and others slowly take away parts of the person we have known and loved for a lifetime. These little losses add up over the days, months, and years of caregiving, and before we know it, we start to miss the “old” person, the person “before dementia”. This loss is real, the hurt is causes real, and in the counseling world, we call it ambiguous grief. It may seem strange to label this emotion grief, because after all, your loved one is still very much alive, but understand that you may be feeling a loss, even if you haven’t been able to put your finger on what exactly is causing those feelings of grief.
And how does grief manifest in your life and in the body? How will you know that you may be grieving even if you have never labeled it grief? Here is a brief, but not completely comprehensive, list of some feelings and behaviors associated with grief:
· Tearfulness (with “reason” or unexplained)
· Problems sleeping
· Drinking/smoking more than usual
· Wanting to isolate yourself
· Having a “short fuse” or being irritable
· Anxious feelings
· Depressed feelings
All these reactions are common, but they can also get in the way of functioning. It goes without saying that all of these things can interfere with the tough task of caregiving and can have long term negative consequences on the caregiver. If you think ambiguous grief is having a negative impact on your role as a caregiver, or your overall well-being, please reach out to your personal support system, a caregiver support group, or a helping professional to help you work through some of the complicated feelings that come up when you are caregiving. Even if you are feeling lonely and isolated, please know that there is help out there, and you are not alone. Take care.