How Being a Caregiver Helped Me With Grief

 In Advice, Patient & Family Stories

As a hospice doctor I have often worked with families caring for a dying loved one at home. But I have only once had the opportunity to switch places and be the caregiver myself when my mother died. That was a profound and educational experience for me as I suddenly understood personally what it was like to be with a dying loved one around-the-clock.

While before I had imagined what it felt like to sit up all night at the bedside holding vigil before the moment of death, I can now vividly recall the exhaustion and the uncertainty of that experience. Now I know far more than ever before what the act of being a caregiver takes and what it gives back.

The greatest blessing of being a caregiver for me was the opportunity to experience grief even before my mother had died. I was able to let go of little moments with her one-by-one: the last time she ate a spoonful of the custard she loved so much, the last morning she brushed her own hair, the last afternoon she shuffled through the kitchen with her walker, the last evening she sat on her recliner and listened to the news, the last night she touched my face and kissed me goodnight.

With the arrival of each new day, something else had been lost and the little world we were sharing became a bit smaller until we were left with only the bed she rested upon and the chair where I sat next to her. But I was able to let all of it go gradually while she was letting go of life and the pain I felt was somehow bearable.

There are other ways that the act of being a caregiver helped me:

  • Providing hands-on care and keeping my mother comfortable in her last hours gave me comfort as well. I was not just passively observing her dying process but I was helping her and it was a tremendous relief to be able to do something for her at that time.
  • I knew I was honoring her wishes by keeping her at home because she had talked with me about what she wanted at the end of life. Everything I did and every moment I spent with her felt “right” to me because I understood her preferences.
  • I was there for special moments when Mom spoke a few words or opened her eyes and smiled. Those tiny little experiences mean everything to me now as I remember our journey together to her last breaths. I am forever grateful that I didn’t miss a single moment.
  • I could give her one last gift of gratitude by enabling her to stay in her own home and have the kind of death she wanted. While there is no way to ever repay a mother for all of her years of nurturing and tender care, being there when Mom needed me was one small gesture I could make to show her my deep love.
  • We forgave one another. Our relationship had not always been easy and there were some painful memories between us that we could never discuss. But in the middle of the night when Mom nearly fell out of bed and I was frantically trying to lift her back to safety, we connected in a moment of pure human frustration and love. Without saying a word we looked at one another and both understood somehow – life is difficult and we hurt one another along the way but nothing really shakes the deep love that resonates between our hearts. We both let go of all our resentment in that brief moment.

These opportunities were only possible because we had enlisted the aid of a home hospice team, who made regular visits and assisted me with the care that was needed. I could not have done the work without their help and I understand more than ever the important role played by hospice staffs all over the world.

I am a new person since caring for my Mom at the end of her life. I am a better doctor, a more compassionate wife, a more fun-loving mother, and a much wiser woman as I face my own aging. Life and death and grief … they are all what we make of them and how we take care of ourselves and others during the journey. I know this for sure now and the rest of my life will be blessed by that knowledge.

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