Dealing with the death of a parent when you were their carer
I’ve been intending to write some blogs for people who had been carers for their parents before they died……and have been prompted to do so now as I was asked some advice from someone who has been in this situation recently.
When you’ve been the carer for your mum or dad before they died – due to age or illness/injury – there is a very different dynamic that is going on and some extra considerations when we look at how you feel after they have died. You can seem to suffer a lot more than other family members and be hit a lot harder by the loss.
As a carer for your parent the relationship becomes very different. It can intensify the love you have for them…but also the ummm…dislove. Caring is a very difficult job with a huge amount of responsibility, and for a family member to take on this role can be particularly tough and, at times, incredibly thankless. A ‘child’ who becomes carer to their parent may often have siblings that didn’t want to be involved at all and there can be anger and resentment from both sides around this (stay tuned for my blog next week on this topic).
Now it might make sense (though not always to the other siblings who can seem to grow impatient and insensitive) that the child-turned-carer suffers more. They may (but not necessarily) been closer to their parent, and they certainly spent more time with them than others. I won’t talk about the feelings of pain and loss – you don’t need these explained to you – but there are a couple of very particular added things that are going on here in the grief-puzzle that are making the pain worse.
“What’s my purpose now?”
When you’ve been full-time carer to your parent they have become your full-time work, your job, your reason/mission/purpose. Looking after them is what you do. Like any job it can become how you identify yourself, particularly if you’ve done this for a long time….so when they die there can be a huge sense of ‘what now?’ I worked as a carer with the elderly myself for several years, though not for my own family, and I know the lost feeling very well that you have when the person who you were caring for has passed away. So for a child who has been a carer there is not just the pain, shock, and confusion, etc of the loss….but also the loss of purpose. Carers will often go on to care for other family members – one parent, the other parent, and then often even a sibling.
They will grieve not only the loss of their parent, but the loss of purpose and direction too. It isn’t fun not to know what your purpose is, what the point of you is. What passes itself off as extra grief here is actually sometimes a real fear of the future. A real sense of ‘who am I now? What am I supposed to do next?’ and the danger is that from this people can get themselves stuck in grief, as it can seem easier to cling to the pain than to take a scary step forward into the unknown. Holding on to the past and to your grief can be like holding on to the side of the pool when you’re scared to let go and swim by yourself. You know it, it’s safer, it’s familiar.
I know how scary it can be to look into the future and have no idea what comes next. But, if you allow it to be, this can be your chance to reclaim your life as your own a bit more. The pressures on a family member who is a carer are huge and your needs/wants/plans/dreams can take a back seat. All the way back. This can be your time to think about what you’d really love to be doing….for yourself. Probably a bit of a novel idea for you. 🙂
Take some time to think about what I’ve said. Outside of the pain of losing your mum or dad do you feel like you know what comes next? Are you worried about the future? Are you unsure what your purpose is now? Do you feel lost when you think about what you are supposed to do next?
Your purpose now is to focus on yourself again and figure out what your next purpose will be. Ask yourself questions (and answer yourself honestly) around how you are feeling, what you are scared of, and what opportunities might now be on offer for you that weren’t before, in terms of time and choices. It’s ok to think like this. We are talking about your mum or dad – they would want this for you. Thinking about yourself and the future doesn’t mean you aren’t sad, or aren’t grieving.
There is another huge element often making up your grief-experience when you’ve been your parents carer……
Relief….and the guilt that goes with it
A parent who is elderly, unwell or with dementia can be incredibly challenging, demanding, and draining. I have watched families work around a parent who requires a lot of care….I’ve watched it from the inside. They require a lot of time, care, and energy….and you can get really fed up with them…..just like they can get really fed up with you. Naturally. And when they die, particularly if you were their carer, the sense of relief can be huge. It doesn’t mean you didn’t love them, are a bad child, or are dishonouring them in any way. But the part of you that recognised how hard this was on you and how much responsibility you were shouldering will feel relief. And this relief in itself is no problem at all….except that no-one tells you that this is fine. In fact, if anything, relief is considered not just an inappropriate but a wrong emotion to feel around death. It’s one of those feelings that fits into this statement – “I know this sounds terrible but….I feel (fill in the space)”…..and therefore the tremendous guilt that comes with this is huge and overwhelming and painful. From the outside what looks like excessive pain can be a huge amount of guilt over a feeling you don’t think you’re supposed to be having.
I watched someone who looked after his mother for years grow tired and weary and older. His marriage suffered, his business suffered, and a lot of his plans got shelved. He loved his mum, dearly, but he was still angry and frustrated underneath it all. And when she died the frustrated part of him was so relieved………and his guilt was terrible. But it was just passed off as grief.
It’s ok to feel relieved that you no longer have all that responsibility and stress. Of course you still love and miss them. Know that just as they would love and miss you they would also be relieved not to be in that situation with you anymore.
So often I say that so much of our struggle with death and grief is that we can’t be honest about the way we feel and some of the more uncomfortable emotions we have. Let yourself feel whatever comes up – sadness, pain, loss, frustration, relief, joy. These are all normal and natural. Being honest about how you’re feeling can transform your experience of grief. Totally.
Next week I’ll write a blog on when you’ve been a carer for a parent and none of the rest of the family will get involved. If you’ve been in this situation and have any other questions then feel free to get in touch.