What does grief have to do with the challenges that caregivers face while providing the needs for family members who are living with a serious chronic illness? As a culture, we have come to have tunnel-vision when it comes to grief. Even though there are many contexts where there is grief experienced, it is really most commonly associated with death. That may be the reason why grief does not get addressed in contexts other than death. In order to associate grief with the caregiving experience, we need to be open to viewing grief differently.
There are many situations we may find ourselves in that give us a fair amount of “grief’ – and we may ourselves describe it as such. For instance, a situation may involve having an overdemanding boss, a colicky baby or experiencing a difficult relationship breakup. In these contexts, ‘grief” is considered synonymous with ‘aggravation’, ‘frustration’, ‘sorrow’ and ‘depression’. Such is also the case for those who are struggling with the demands of caring for chronically ill family members. Many are left caregiver-challenged. For instance, a wife who has been catered to by her husband throughout their 40 year marriage is going to really feel the pressure when she has to be the one doing the catering after her husband becomes chronically ill, also, a son who does not have a strong business sense is going to be caregiver-challenged having to close up his father’s business after his father has a severe stroke and moves in with him and his family. Much of the “grief’ of being caregiver-challenged is also caused by the fact that this is not a role-by-choice but rather a role-of-obligation for family members, unlike healthcare workers who made the career choice of providing care for others. Having said that, even those who have made that choice can experience ‘grief’ and burnout.
More often than not family members and the professionals who service them will attribute heavy care demands as the source of ‘grief ‘. A practical remedy is to lighten the load by giving the caregivers more support and relief. There is no dispute that support relieves the caregivers’ tension. Those of us who are really struggling as caregiver-challenged may also need to dig deeper within to help ourselves – to process the grief that stems from witnessing the health decline of a ‘loved one’.
By definition, grief is considered to be a reaction to loss. In the caregiving context, there is a significant loss occurring for individuals who are losing spouses and parents to chronic illnesses such as MS, Alzheimer’s disease or other related dementias. Due to the loss being to illness rather than death, the impacting grief reaction gets overlooked, buried under the demands of care.
The 3-A’s, Acknowledge, Assess, Assist is an approach that was developed to serve as a coping tool for addressing the losses and adversity that caregivers experience. By acknowledging the loss(es), assessing the impact and assisting in processing the grief, caregivers are utilizing a powerful resource for strengthening their resiliency and well-being. By coming to terms with the grief, the caregiving role can be carried out with a resolved feeling of being more at peace with the situation, hopefully making the challenging job easier.