Tips and resources to help you throughout your caregiving journey

Grieving the loss of a parent: it’s personal

Let mourning stop when one’s grief is fully expressed” – Confucius

Nancy Kriseman, author of The Mindful Caregiver, draws on the concept of “finishing well” to describe a way to approach loss.  What does it mean to “finish well” and what is required of you as a caregiver, as a daughter or son, to do this?  First off, it means working on your “unfinished business.” Alright, so what is that? For caregivers, it means when you are stuck in negative feelings about your caregiving situation and experiences such as guilt, anger, regret, resentment, etc.  When stuck in these negative feelings, the natural flow of grieving is blocked and this can, in Kriseman’s words, “…wreak havoc on your mind, body, and spirit.”

Let go of all judgements and criticisms. Yes, all of them!

In truth, you did the best you could as a caregiver. Period. If you could have done better, you would have.  Your parent also did the best they could. If they could have been a “better parent” or “better care receiver,” they would have. Period. This is a time to let go. If you are stuck in anger, guilt, or resentment, for example, the natural feelings of grief that typically come with loss become blocked. And in essence, you create more “unfinished business.”

As with all other LifeStages of caregiving, you will experience this Closing Lifestage with more ease if you allow the feelings to come up and flow through you. Caregivers are no strangers to loss. In fact, the entire caregiving journey is often defined by various types of loss. When the end of caregiving is approaching because your mom or dad is nearing death or has already died, there is also the loss of a caregiving role/identity as well as the loss of a father or a mother.

What is the best advice?

Grieve it out. Complete the experience. Grief is a natural response to loss. While we usually associate grief with the death of someone, any loss can trigger grief including the loss of the caregiver role (loss of identity) and the loss of a cherished dream (how you imagined your life would be, your relationship with your parents or aging would be, retirement would be, etc.).

Some people may refer to the stages of grief and this may be a helpful type of map for you to make sense of how you are feeling and may feel in the future. Be careful, however, not to impose a rigid way of grieving onto yourself.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, widely known as the expert on grief and grieving in North America, wisely states that the stages of grief “…were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages…there is not a typical response to loss , as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”

The messiness of grief makes us acutely aware that the processing of loss cannot be controlled, and is, by definition, untidy and complicated. The only thing you can do “wrong,” so to speak, is to push your feelings away, ignore them, dismiss them, or judge them.

Common grief responses

Even though there is tremendous variability, there are some common grief responses:

  • shock and disbelief
  • sadness
  • guilt and remorse
  • regret
  • anxiety
  • fear
  • doubt
  • heaviness
  • anger and blaming
  • frustration
  • dread
  • feeling of being separate
  • feeling lost
  • loss of interest
  • feeling helpless
  • hopelessness
  • a yearning
  • tiredness/fatigue
  • lack of appetite
  • insomnia
  • dreams and/or nightmares
  • relief
  • peace
  • joy

I know. The list is long! You may be surprised to see relief, peace and joy on the list. Grief and relief can, and often does, show up at the same time. Caregivers who are grieving are often reluctant to publicly acknowledge these latter feelings and can even judge these feelings and then feel guilty.  Yikes! Add this guilt to your “unfinished business.”

The process of grief and grieving

So-called ‘normal’ or common grief often begins with the experience of highly intense, time-limited periods of distress that are sometimes referred to as grief bursts or pangs and metaphorically as a (tidal) wave of grief. The experience of grief symptoms tends to occur less frequently, with a briefer duration and lesser intensity over time. Again, be cautious about imposing or accepting someone else’s imposition of a time frame for your grieving. Experts have no agreement on any specific grieving time period, and the best that can be said is that grieving symptoms resolve within the first year or two.

How you grieve, and even if you grieve, depends on many factors including your personality, your coping style and strategies, your life experience, your values, your faith and/or spiritual belief system, the quality of the relationship with the person you were caring for, and the nature of the loss (its significance to you). These factors (and perhaps others not cited here) are exactly what make grieving a highly personal and individual experience.

If you have questions as to whether you are experiencing ‘normal’ grieving, you can consult a health care professional. It may also be beneficial to access a bereavement group or bereavement counselling.

Loss is inevitable in life. Bookmark this page for future reference.

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