Focus on Caregivers: Caregivers can help bring insight to a nation's griefBy ETHEL M. SHARP
© St. Petersburg Times,
After the tragic events on Sept. 11, friends from New York asked whether I was as sad as they were that we would never again be able to enjoy the dining or the awesome sights from the World Trade Center. They went on talking about the good times we had there. Yes, I assured them, I was sad, as all of us are. We grieve together.
Then, I realized that in my friends' grief they were connecting with me to express this grief the best way they could. As we talked, they shed tears and talked about their concern about their son-in-law's continued involvement with the digging-out effort and the shock the experience would have on him. They spoke about their many friends with family missing.
I felt fortunate to be able to discuss my own pain with them. I had been involved with two daughters from New York who were here to visit their mother in the hospital and to take care of their father, who was at home with dementia. While here, they lost their brother at the World Trade Center. I suggested that they stay here; they could do nothing by returning to New York, and they were needed here. Their frail mother could barely accept the news. Two days later, she died.
Is there any best way, when you are seeped in sorrow and disbelief, to express grief? Most of us can't even admit we don't know what to say or think; we need help to express how we feel. We have fears. We are angry. Some are stoic, some defensive. Grief runs deep and is very personal.
Many people think that grief starts after someone has died. But as caregivers, seniors, adult children, even young people -- all of us have experienced many losses and the grief that comes with them. It's part of life. Perhaps, when you were a child, your dog or cat or favorite goldfish died. I was 8 when my best playmate died, the result of a fall. Maybe you moved away and had to leave your little friends. Maybe your parent died or your brother or sister -- but life went on. Sometimes we never consider our reaction.
Now that we're older, many of us have experienced loss through divorce, a relationship breakup, a war experience, bad health, the death of a child, an abusive childhood or partner, a job loss, the loss of perceived power and control, the death of a spouse or a parent.
For us as caregivers, it is important to understand the unique losses of older persons. When we're middle-aged, we can handle loss a little more easily. Adapting to the multiple losses of aging is the primary developmental task that older people must face; those are significantly different because they are irrevocable. An older person's loss can be much more upsetting, even critical, compounded by lack of physical mobility, strength and health and loss of financial security, status in the community, family ties, self-determination and self-confidence.
We have all experienced grief to some degree, but it's necessary and very important for our well-being to be able to talk about our feelings and not not run from them.
Grief is unique for each of us. It crashes in on you like a series of shocks, with many mixed emotions. It tears at you with numbness, denial, disbelief, confusion, resentment, sorrow, anger, guilt and regret. Some feel intense pain; others, cool detachment. Some can't do anything; others work physically harder. Some get sick. It's okay to feel these emotions, to express them and talk about them.
These shocks can be felt evenly or they can feel like jagged edges. You can feel as though your very core has been torn apart and that you have a gaping hole in the center of you. You feel that life will never be the same again, and it won't be. Only with time -- how long differs with individuals -- will the hole begin to close up and become less painful, but a small portion of the scar will always remain.
If we have talked about our pain to others, we can become better because of it. I have always loved the Ernest Hemingway line that says, "We become stronger at the broken places."
As caregivers, we have to realize we can't reverse the losses or take them away from our loved ones. Neither can we pretend they don't exist. Our major task as caregivers is to listen and help people share their feelings.
Caregivers experience ongoing grief. We may not be consciously aware of it, but it is always with us. This kind of grief comes upon us slowly and advances gradually. After all, it's not easy to stand by helplessly and watch decline and the advanced aging process in a loved one. This kind of pervasive grief cannot be denied.
However, there are many who will not move from the impact and aftershocks into the beginning of "letting go" and acceptance. Although we still may have sleeping and eating problems, and the crying bouts may persist, this time is also a period of reflection and growth. Those who refuse to let go, who feel they must hold on to their old ways of holding a grudge, running from fear, punishing others, resentment, anger, guilt and trying to control the reality, will prevent themselves from moving on with a developed sense of adaptation, a willingness to accept change and a life lived in the present.
The grief process is built into us, and we have to allow it to happen, in our own way and at our own pace. It is the only way for us to deal with loss, emotional turmoil and pain. If we internalize painful feelings or ignore them, we'll carry heavy baggage through life.
To abort the grieving process or to diminish its importance by telling ourselves it doesn't apply to us causes us to end up in an atmosphere of emotional dishonesty that can lead to physical illness, psychological reactions or to substance abuse.
Unresolved grief with anger and resentment will affect our attitude about life, cause problems with relationships and can make us sick in many ways. Often this anger is, at root, an expression of loneliness and fear. It's healthy to identify and be honest with your emotional anger: Get to know it for what it is. In this way, you can take control of anger instead of having it control you. Bouts of depression can spring up. Depression, in this case, is anger turned inward.
There can be constructive coping mechanisms in this process of loss and change in life.
Read about and understand grief and its different stages. List your losses, starting from the earliest age you can remember. Acknowledge your feelings -- feelings are neither right nor wrong -- they are our feelings. Be patient with yourself.
Allow yourself your painful emotions and turn them into a positive experience -- discuss them with a psychologist, licensed mental health counselor or clergy member.
Connect with sources of strength within the community such as support groups, worship services or bereavement groups.
- Ethel M. Sharp is executive director of Aging Matters Inc., a non-profit network for family caregivers and elder care. You can write to her c/o Seniority, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. When seeking more information, please enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope and include your telephone number, with area code.
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