Letting Go: The Healing Power of Grief
Grief is the emotional process we go through when we lose a loved one. Though people who are grieving do not necessarily move precisely through set stages of grief, grieving does have some common characteristics.
First comes a sense of numbness or unreality that can last from several hours to several days. The numbness is then replaced with a profound sense of loss. To grieve is to feel that loss and come to terms with it. This stage of acute grief for a close loved one can last from a few days to many months, depending on the relationship and circumstances. It is common for those suffering acute grief to exhibit signs of depression: loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, sadness, restlessness and lack of interest in life.
Navigating grief doesn’t have to be a lonely task. Here are suggestions for someone who has lost a loved one:
- Allow yourself to feel all you are feeling, and express those feelings. Many people find that keeping a journal helps them work through these complex emotions.
- Access your support system. Your family and friends want to be helpful. One of the most important roles they can play is to listen. If you aren’t comfortable sharing with friends or family, a support group, faith community leader or counselor may help you through the work of grief.
- Take care of yourself. Eat balanced meals, get enough sleep and do some form of physical activity every day. It may be hard to motivate yourself to do these everyday tasks. But this self-care will support a greater sense of well-being and peace.
- Avoid alcohol and other substances not prescribed by your healthcare provider. They may initially numb emotional pain, but may prolong and complicate your healing process.
- Seek help if you seem "stuck" in the grieving process. There is no timetable for grief recovery. But if significant physical symptoms of depression persist over the course of months, it may be time to talk to your healthcare provider. Your doctor will probably begin with a physical checkup. He or she may prescribe medication or refer you to a grief counselor.
- Don't judge your grief by any standards but your own. The path of grief is different for each individual and every set of circumstances. Each person grieves in their own way.
The Experience of Caregiver Grief
The final suggestion in the list above applies in particular to those who have been caring for a loved one over the course of a long illness and declining health. When the loss of a loved one is sudden and unexpected, shock and overwhelming sadness usually follow. But for family caregivers whose loved one has been ill for some time, grief often takes on different characteristics. Caregivers may feel guilty that their emotions include feelings of relief—both that their loved one’s suffering is at an end, and at the lessening of their own burden of caregiving.
If you are a family caregiver, be reassured that this sense of release doesn’t mean that you don’t care, or that you loved the person any less. You have already experienced what psychologists call "anticipatory grief" in journeying with another toward death. By the time your loved one passes on, you have already grieved the loss of much of your relationship with that person. It does not mean that you will not grieve after the death itself; it only means that the circumstances of serious illness gave you a head start. Especially if your loved one suffered from Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia, you have most likely experienced and processed much of the loss of the person you loved.
Grieving a Lost Role
Even though they may feel relief at the end of the stressful and emotionally demanding aspects of caregiving, many family caregivers also experience a surprisingly profound sense of loss of their caregiving role. A recent study from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, showed that family caregivers can feel disoriented and lost during this period. Study author Prof. McCarron said, "The findings identify the significant emotional, social and financial impact of the transition from being a full-time carer to a former carer. As one participant described it, you’re in no world, your pre-caring world is gone, your caring world is gone, you’re left with no world."
McCarron reports that some of the study's participants took comfort in a different kind of caring: They volunteered in a support group to help others who could benefit from their empathy and advice.
Part of letting go is learning to find joy and comfort in your memories, in the stories you recall of your loved one. Memory is a wonderful gift. Savor your memories. Share your stories with others. These recollections are a treasure, both for you and your family. They are the cord that links generations and gives strength.
Though the end of your caregiving role may feel like a large hole in your life, go cautiously. You may be exhausted in body and spirit. Caregivers need some time to rest, to heal, before taking on new major commitments. Give yourself time to replenish your emotional and physical reserves before you decide what to do with the extra time you now have. Grief for your lost loved one doesn’t pass overnight.
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