Every life has its changes, but caring always has a few more bumps than expected – and sometimes they seem nonstop. When we become carers, there are losses we can feel and losses we don’t even know exist yet. In the face of this loss, it can be hard to cope. But, as Shakespeare wrote, to weep is to make less the depth of grief; learning to express the feelings of loss and grief that caring has brought is the first step to letting them go.
People don’t need to have died for you to grieve
Grief isn’t just for people who lost someone they love, it is the emotional reaction to any loss that is painful. When you become a carer – no matter who you care for – you experience losses that you might not even recognise or think about. A loss of the life you once imagined for yourself and the person you care for; diminished social opportunities and lost friendships; lack of privacy and ‘me-time’; loss of personal identity as you focus on caring for someone else; and a loss of financial security are just a few.
My son’s disability affected everything: where we lived, our work, how much money we earned, our friendships, where our children went to school, where we went to church, whether we could have holidays and leisure, and how. Things that were no longer possible kept cropping up… There have been gains. Each day is an achievement. But the losses nevertheless go on accumulating.
To grieve for these losses is healthy; grief is much a part of our emotional spectrum as happiness. Sometimes it is transitory; sometimes it lasts longer than you think you can bear. But grief can be survived, especially with support from those around you.
Don’t sweep things under the rug
It can be hard to get the support you need from your family and friends, because often the grief experienced by carers is ‘invisible’ and unrecognised.
I looked after my husband for seven years… People would come to my house and say, 'How’s John?' No one ever asked about me. I felt like putting my hand up and saying I’m here too, you know.
As a society, we often sweep ‘difficult’ feelings aside. People might feel uncomfortable asking you about what’s happening, and you may feel reluctant to talk about the losses that have occurred in your life. No one can ever know exactly what you’re going through - but the better your friends and family can understand your feelings, the more they can support you.
Don’t worry if talking about your feelings isn’t really your cup of tea, but finding a way to express yourself is part of dealing with grief; whether it’s talking to a professional or taking up a hobby like painting, it all helps.
Exercise – like walking, swimming or yoga – can help your body and your mind; studies have shown that people who engage in regular physical activity recover from mild depression faster, and exercise has even been linked to better brain health as we get older.
Growing through grief
Writer Henry Rollins once said, Scar tissue is stronger than regular tissue – it may seem improbable, but grief can make us stronger. You may never be exactly as you were, and your life may never be what it was, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find happiness and a new sense of inner balance. Sometimes grieving for what we have lost can open our eyes, minds and hearts to what we have; embrace the potential to learn and grow on your journey.
It took months to come to terms with Herbert’s loss. But we learned so much from him, that he left so much good behind him, he didn’t know but he was actually our teacher, to make us see what’s really important in life.
Caring for yourself
Often your time will be consumed by caring for someone else – but it is equally important to be mindful of your own emotional wellbeing. Listen to your mind, heart and body for signs that you need something, and make sure you fulfil those needs in some way.
Talk to someone
Holding in your feelings is not good for you or the person you care for. Talk to a support group, another carer, or just a friend. Call the Carer Advisory Line or Lifeline. Just make sure that you have someone to talk to who can listen, in a non-judgemental way, to whatever you have to say.
If you need help, ask for it. Ask for it as often and as loudly as you need to – as the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Tell people how you feel, or that you need help. You have needs, and you might be the only person who can stand up for you. Do it without guilt.
Take a break
Respite might seem impossibly daunting, but it can be done. Work out how you can take breaks throughout the day for a sit down and a cuppa, and move towards taking longer respite breaks. Talk to the Carer Advisory Line to find out what options are best for your individual situation.
Looking out for the signs
If you are grieving you may experience some or all of the following signs:
- changes in sleep patterns
- tightness in the throat and chest
- feelings of confusion
- deep, ongoing sadness
- feelings of anger
- resentfulness towards the care recipient
- deep feeling of aloneness
Because some of these signs can be symptoms of other problems too, they should always checked out by a doctor. It is important that you inform the doctor that you are a carer, so that they understand the stresses and added responsibilities in your life.
For more information or emotional support, the Carers Victoria Carer Advisory Line is available from Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 4.30pm on 1800 242 636.
This article first appeared in Carers in Victoria and is reproduced with permission from Carers .Carers Victoria is a not-for-profit incorporated association with a mixed core funding base provided mostly by the Victorian and Australian governments.
© Carers Victoria Inc, 2012
Reviewed 21 November 2022