Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Caregivers Carry the Weight of Grief; We Can Lighten the Load

If you or your aging parent is caring for a loved one, you know about stress.  It may seem like your middle name.  It sends your heart racing and your stomach aching. But what about grief?  That set of emotions that we usually connect with death actually comes much sooner.

"Grief starts when the person who takes care of a loved one begins to experience loss," says Carilyn Ellis, PhD, in a seminar for Certified Senior Advisors entitled "The Long Goodbye:  Grief and Caregiver Stress in End of Life Care."

Losses mount over time, Ellis says.  And these impact body, mind and soul. Often a caregiver will experience idiopathic (physical) symptoms such as headaches, backaches or insomnia that seem to spring up suddenly without any apparent reason.  Grief does numbers on our physical bodies.

That's not all.  Caregivers, whether you or your parent, tend to lose social networks as the caregiving role spirals and encroaches into every waking minute. 

Other losses are spiritual in nature.  Often caregivers ask the "Why" questions:  "Why is this. happening? Where are the sources of comfort?"   Grief has psychological implications, as well, as the caregiver experiences sadness and anger.

Caregivers must process the various stages of grief at specific losses:  for example, the loss of roles the ill person played in the family; and the loss of companionship that this phase of life often brings.

"This 'anticipatory' grief is an ongoing process," Ellis says.  "It's grief after grief."

How can we help the caregiver (either ourselves or loved ones)?  Ellis gives the following advice:

ASSESS.  Discover the caregiver's beliefs, values, fears, concerns. 

Ask how the caregiver is feeling:
  • Physically.
  • Emotionally.
  • Socially
NORMALIZE.  Talk about the fact that these feelings of anger, guilt, frustration, etc. are normal and that others feel this way.  And the physical feelings of fatigue, aches and difficulty sleeping are also shared by many people in grief. 

VALIDATE.  Listening is one of the best gifts the caregiver can receive. 

ENCOURAGE SELF-CARE through support groups and supportive friends.

What is your experience with anticipatory grief? 


  1. Hi Alice! We featured this post in our Weekly Digest. You can read it here https://www.ltcoptions.com/weekly-digest-family-caregiving-pet-therapy-and-working-in-care-settings/. Thanks for sharing tips on how caregivers can cope when they experience emotions like stress and grief. This is a good read not only for them, but for their loved ones and friends as well.

  2. I'm glad you found this post helpful. Much of the content came from a webinar from Carilyn Ellis, phD, called "The Long: Grief and Caregiver Stress in End of Life Care." Good stuff!


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