As Jill witnesses her aunt taking care of her elderly grandmother, she is painfully reminded of how stressful it had been for her to take care of both of her own parents before their deaths. "I was so wrapped up being a caregiver I had neglected to take care of myself, and now I see my aunt doing the same thing. I think that's pretty common for a lot of people. "
Jill was only 34 years old when her mom was diagnosed with lung cancer in April of 2005. Out of the blue, Jill's life suddenly became a whirlwind of travel back and forth from her home in Las Vegas to spend as much time as possible with her parents in Los Angeles. Over a period of eight tumultuous months, Jill's mom went through chemotherapy and radiation. After exhibiting signs of severe speech impairment, the news came that the cancer had metastasized to her brain. "The brain surgery took a tremendous toll on all three of us. I was constantly exhausted and overwhelmed. Not only did I have to take my mom to doctors' appointments and treatments, and assist her with daily tasks like helping her shower and dress, but I had to step in and help my dad as well."
Like many caregivers, it didn't occur to Jill that her selfless devotion to her parents was depleting her physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Most family and friend caregivers are so focused on the tasks at hand that they either don't notice that they are not taking time for themselves or they consciously put lower priority on self-care, reassuring themselves that they will tend to their own needs sometime later. But when does that someday arrive?
And if the caregiver is not caring for herself, who will? When Jill's mom died just before Thanksgiving, it was she who had to call the family and friends to let them know. "It is hard enough to say 'my mom passed away.' But then when they get upset and instead of consoling you, you end up having to comfort them, it's really hard."
Jill and her dad had divided the responsibilities when her mom was alive. However, very shortly thereafter her dad's skin cancer worsened and he developed leukemia. Then Jill felt really alone. "I took him to all his doctors' appointments, got his prescriptions, and shopped for him. I did everything," Jill explains. But still she didn't ask for or receive family support. It hurt when family members would criticize Jill for how she was handling her father's care, like saying she wasn't taking him to the right doctor or I wasn't making the right plan. "I wanted them to trust me. It didn't help when they asked me 'Why aren't you doing this?' Or 'Why aren't you doing that?' It made me second guess myself after they died, did I do the right thing? It was so hard making those decisions alone."
Jill tried not to cry at medical appointments or show emotion to her dad so that she could appear strong. "I wanted my dad to not be upset or scared. I pushed all my stuff aside. But at the end he saw through it anyway." Jill recalls how eventually she got to the point where she could not hold back. "I broke down. I called my aunt and she flew out immediately when I asked her. Now I wish I had taken a little more time for myself sooner."
"Now that my aunt is taking care of my grandma, I can really understand how she feels. My biggest advice to her is 'Remember to take time out for yourself and take care of YOUR needs so you don't lose yourself... because you really do. There are little things you feel like you don't deserve right now... that you should take care of the person 24/7. But you have to be well in mind, body and spirit in order to take care of someone else. So take 20 minutes to take a bath; get your nails done for an hour. Every caregiver needs help once in a while.'"
Today, Jill's heart is at peace. Looking back on the years following her parents' deaths, Jill concludes: "I have come to a place where I know that I put forth all the effort I could. I just wish I had reached out for support sooner."
If you are a caregiver or grieving the death of someone close to you, remember to:
• Attend to your own physical health
• Care for your emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being
• Allow others to share in caregiving responsibilities
• Let your friends be your lifeline
• Consider joining a support group
• Focus on self-care; it is essential to your survival
Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.