Grief and Bereavement
In this last section we will look at:
1. What is so-called "normal" grief?
Grief is as unique as the individuals who experience it, and it is unwise to examine someone else’s grief process and compare it to your own. Expecting to experience the same level of grief on the same timelines as someone else is not realistic. Whatever form grieving takes, it requires effort, patience, and expecting the unexpected.
Your grief may be impacted by many things, for instance:
• your life experiences
• your relationship with the person who has died
• your emotional intelligence
• your level of mental and physical wellness
• the support you receive after the person’s death
• what your community demands or expects of you
• your ability to give yourself time to deeply experience grief
In some cultures, the outward expression of grief is discouraged. In others, keening and wailing are seen as a healthy part of the grieving process. Colchester East Hants Hospice Society states that “... it is not until we experience the acute pain of mourning a loved one that these emotions come together in intense and confusing combinations. And in the midst of all this, we are likely expected to get on with things.” They have a Grief Library on their website that you may find helpful.
There have been individuals who have put a time limit on their grief or that of others, presuming that in six months, nine months, or one year it should be under control. Others have reported that their grief seemed manageable for quite a while after the death of their loved one, only to have it jump up and level them with no notice. Grief has been, after a time, compared to working with a business acquaintance whose company you don’t really enjoy. Others will say that it never ends, but the sharp edges eventually wear off and it becomes a comfortable companion. As Nora McInerney says in her 15-minute YouTube video, "We don't ‘move on’ from grief. We move forward with it.”
We also have an opportunity for younger generations to model healthy grieving. To the mother who is reluctant to cry or grieve the death of her parent in front of her young children, how else will they learn what is healthy and acceptable and how to experience their feelings? To the spouse who grieves the death of their life-long partner, sharing their sadness with adult children reinforces that this is an important part of life and of being human. It may also be comforting to reinforce the belief that you will make it through; you will come out the other end of this experience changed, but whole, healthy, and intact.
2. Shifting the Focus to You
All caregiving eventually comes to an end. When your loved one has died, the focus of the story shifts to YOU. What you have been through has likely changed who you are, what is important to you, and how you relate to others.
Although many of us have longed for freedom from our caregiving responsibilities, the end of giving care can be disconcerting. Caregivers have told us:
- “We look at each other over breakfast and haven’t a clue what we are going to do today. We feel lost with no caregiving schedule to guide us.”
- “I catch myself feeling relieved that she has died. Then a huge wave of guilt knocks me down.”
- “I don’t know how I got through these past years.”
- “I wake up in a panic that he hasn’t stirred all night. And then I remember that he is dead and it hits me again.”
- “This is so damned hard, but I am going to live well to honour her.”
It’s been said before, but it bears repeating – you are not alone. Not even when caregiving ends.
Over the coming days, you will likely look back at your caregiving experience with a critical eye, getting caught up in what you could have done, what you should have done, or what you would have done, if only … You may question your every decision. Now that you have time to reflect, we urge you to be gentle with yourself. You may find a helpful reality check in the article The Tyranny of Should.
Although processing what has happened to you while caregiving is important, so is finding a new normal that brings focus back to you.
3. Sharing advice from former Caregivers
We would like to share advice offered up by other Caregivers Nova Scotia members who have come to the end of their caregiving journeys.
a. Schedule a thorough check up with your doctor.
After many years of putting the care recipient’s needs first and neglecting themselves, caregivers often find they are worn down, in ill health, and unable to enjoy reclaiming their lives. It may have taken many years to deplete your energy and wellness, and it may take some time to regain your health and a sense of balance. Like any good habit, this requires focus and effort.
The first step is scheduling an appointment with your doctor or nurse practitioner. If you haven’t had a thorough check-up in the past 12 months, it is wise to do so now.
Caregivers often report feeling stressed, tired, and unwell, and they attribute those symptoms to caregiver stress and fatigue. Some are shocked to find that they have a long-standing, chronic issue that is treatable, even curable, but it has never been recognized or diagnosed. Whether the issue is high blood pressure, diabetes, or needing a knee replacement, the first order of business is seeking treatment for yourself.
If you are fortunate enough to get a clean bill of health, wonderful! You can begin the road to reclaiming your life with one more thing checked off your to-do list.
When no longer tasked with being vigilant and on duty round the clock, often the greatest need caregivers express is the need for sleep. Even feeling deep fatigue, some find it difficult to sleep and need to retrain their body rhythms.
Be patient with yourself. Your sleep patterns may well have been disturbed for a long time, and it may take an effort to regain restful sleeping. It is important not only to sleep but to rest in your waking hours.
There are a number of things you can try to help resolve sleep difficulties. You may find some of these suggestions helpful.
c. Find yourself again
As individuals, we have many sides or facets that make us healthy and whole human beings. That may include hobbies like quilting or dancing, or things that connect us to our communities such as volunteering. Maybe during our caregiving journey, we haven’t had time to socialize with friends, to play golf, go to the gym, or attend church. Over the years of caregiving, these activities are harder to maintain. As they are given up or chipped away, we become less 3-dimensional and more 1-dimensional. We become caregivers to the exclusion of everything else. We can begin to forget who we are.
Now you may want to take some time to be quiet and reflect on all that you have done. Perhaps journaling would be helpful at this time to help you sort through your feelings. Many caregivers struggle with their identity when caregiving ends.
-- “I feel like I’ve just been fired from a full-time job.”
-- “I don’t know who I am anymore. I look in the mirror and don’t recognize the person I see.”
-- “I feel like gravity is gone and I am floating and scared. I have no anchor.”
These thoughts are not uncommon, and caregivers sometimes report that these thoughts make them feel foolish. Not so! You have come through a major life event. Of course, it is going to alter you. And you may need to find a new normal. It may be a difficult road ahead to reconnect with who you are, to rediscover what makes you happy, and to find a new purpose.
d. Make time to grieve
Perhaps you have a friend upon whom you can rely to hear your feelings, keep your confidence and not judge you for anything you say. Everyone Needs a Grief Friend identifies the qualities needed in that person who will become your sounding board.
When grieving the death of your loved one, you may wish to contact the Social Work Department of your local hospital and ask about Bereavement Support Groups. Some communities offer them as an 8-week series a few times a year. Other communities have ongoing groups. MyGrief.ca has nine free online modules to learn about grief and how to move through your grief at your own pace. MyGrief.ca also has an online module specifically regarding grief in the 2SLGBTQ+ community. What's Your Grief is a website that promotes grief education, exploration, and expression by providing resources on grief and loss, guidance on how to help others who are grieving, online courses about grief, a grief podcast, and a supportive community.
You may wish to check out some of these resources from the IWK:
- Grief groups and counselors for adults
- Online grief support for children
- Online grief support for youth
If you are still feeling the effects of giving care, perhaps continuing with your Caregiver Support Group for a while will be beneficial. Or you can contact a CNS Caregiver Support Coordinator to talk about bereavement services in your area.
Grief counsellor Dr. Alan Wolfelt is with the Centre for Loss & Life Transition. You may benefit from his material, The Six Needs of Mourning, including:
• Acknowledge the reality of the death
• Embrace the pain of loss
• Remember the person who has died
• Develop a new identity
• Search for meaning
• Receive ongoing support from others
There are a number of articles and resources below in Caregiver Tips that may be helpful.
If you are interested in a more spiritual approach, you may wish to check out Tara Brach's video called Grieving and Timeless Love. In this video, Tara explains the importance of being an apprentice to sorrow and really opening yourself up to feeling a loss.
e. Begin anew
Now comes the time to rebuild your life; remember what interests you and find new activities that will allow you to socialize and rejuvenate. Much of this can hinge on your attitude and how open you are to remembering what a healthy life entails. It is up to you whether you move forward, but it will take effort. This could be an exciting new chapter in your life.
“The reality is you will grieve in some fashion for the rest of your life. Once loss touches you, you are forever changed despite what society tells you. Stop looking at the expectations of an emotionally numbed society as your threshold and measuring stick for success.” Read on for examples of expectations and realities of grieving, Stifled Grief: How the West Has It Wrong.
The reality is that only you can decide what you need and what makes sense. Do what feels right for you, what makes each moment liveable and gives you the strength to keep going.
Grief can last for long periods of time, it can ebb and flow and it might hit at the most inopportune of times, like when grocery shopping, in church, at a concert, driving your car, at a party etc. You will likely hear people refer to the stages of grief, eluding to a straightforward linear path through one’s grief but as anyone who has grieved a loss knows this is not the path of most grievers. There is nothing straightforward, easy or linear about it. This chart depicts what is the more common experience of grievers. Understanding that grief and grieving can be messy hopefully will give you some small comfort knowing that you are not crazy, you are in fact human, you are just suffering.
“It is the way your love outlives your loved one,” The Day I’ll Finally Stop Grieving.
Because losing someone is hard. MyGrief.ca helps you to understand and work through your grief covering topics such as making sense of emotions, managing difficult situations, caring for yourself to name but a few.