Parental care giving: Confronting guilt from relief

Post-parental care giving can bring guilt-ridden relief. Is feeling relief natural and acceptable? Of course it is. Read on. Photo: thjty

WASHINGTON, April 5, 2013- “God gave burdens-he also gave shoulders.”-Yiddish proverb

Children see parents as personification and embodiment of perfection. They birth children, provide shelter, food, love and guidance.

As children grow, they realize parents are perfect by virtue of the fact they are imperfect humans trying to make their way in this world. Through the disagreements of choices, generational principles and just about every facet of the vicissitudes of life, parental love seems confusing by being simultaneously unconditional, judgmental, subjective and objective.

Parent-child relationships later evolve into something resembling friendship. The relationship survived the conflicts of life using reason and love as compasses for guidance.

Children later realize the inevitability that their parents are aging and, ultimately, that they will die.  

Dealing with an aging parent also can create a situation where the child becomes the caregiver. Other circumstances, such as an ill spouse or sibling, may also require an individual to become a caretaker.

Medical science is a fantastic source of humanity and caring with persistent efforts to keep us alive and well despite our insistence to not heed optimum health advice. As we age, many of us eat too much with the wrong foods, smoke, drink, and exercise is not a priority. People complain of the high cost of medicine but fail to recognize many of today’s medications are prescribed to address years of poor lifestyle choices.

The medical community aggressively treats people well beyond a point in time when many should succumb to nature. The key is to focus on health span not life span. What is the point of living to the age of 90 when at 70, you become a barely functioning, depressed and oppressive shell of your former self and require round the clock care complete with bed pans, diapers and burdening everyone around you?

Sadly, the medical fraternity and black letter law can force us to face circumstances the terminally ill do not wish to endure.

Extending life beyond natural limits can cause financial and emotional burdens on those providing care.

The National institutes of Health (NIH) tell us of the 2.4 million annual deaths in the United States, about 70 percent are from lingering disease such as respiratory, cardiac, cancer, stroke etc; and the out of pocket cost for extended yet unavoidable debilitating life support runs over $5,500 annually.

An extended disease such as Alzheimer’s can deplete every resource a family has worked to accumulate and strain caregiver’s physiological resources beyond acceptable limits.

Most of us choose to never abandon our loved ones and try to keep them at home until nature takes its course. However, the strain, time demands, rollercoaster style conflicting emotions, role reversal of parenting or providing for your life partner creates caregiver anger and guilt combined with quiet moments of wishing nature would run its course quicker.

The efforts can be overwhelming and prolonged as to interfere with our own mental and physical stability.

Many caregivers experience relief after the burden of caregiving is lifted. For some, relief is a substantial burden.

When the end finally comes, caregivers can feel a myriad of emotions. Grief, bereavement and sadness combine with a strong sense of relief that confuses, embarrasses, depresses and angers us with guilt. This guilt is rarely discussed and can be carried for years.

Caregivers can access support groups and hospice care when caring for a loved one, but often have little opportunity to explore and understand the lingering guilt that comes from a sense of relief when the ill expire. 

To assuage the guilt of caregiving and the feeling of relief when burden of caregiving of a loved one runs its course, consider:

~ You are an absolute hero. You are an angel of the earth.

~ Despite your misgivings and doubts, you did the best humanly possible.

~ You are probably exhausted and deserve a long time away from the environment that oppressed you for so long.

~ You answered the call to duty to the best of your ability.

~ You have every right and reason to feel relief. It is your mind’s way of telling you enough is enough and though you loved this person, it was a most difficult burden that may trample and impair the balance of happiness in your life if you allow relief guilt to seep in.

~ Feeling relief is natural, normal and well deserved.

~ Guilt is a self-imposed and unnecessary burden. The longer you carry it, the heavier it gets.

~ Forgive yourself for being angry at life, perhaps angry with your Deity and your loved one for imposing the burdens placed on you.

~ If at some point you lashed out at the ill, they understand.

~ Be thankful the ordeal has past then jump back into a productive, happy life after allowing ample time for grief.

~ If you get stuck in any of the five stages of grief or relief guilt, consult support groups or a mental health professional.

The authors well understands the emotional rollercoaster of providing care for a parent.  His mother fought a seven year battle with Alzheimer’s. The author was the sole caregiver as she died in his home. His father fought a two year battle with esophageal cancer also dying at home.

Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based writer and a member of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science.


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