Caring for The Caregiver: Becoming Fearless During Illness and Loss

When illness comes, the entire family network starts hurting. Everyone in it becomes sensitized and in need of greater attention and care. Rivalries may begin to develop with family members jockeying for control. A great deal of fear and anxiety can get stirred up. Sometimes an individual becomes intrusive and demanding. At other times unconscious feelings towards the sick family member may get stirred up and be expressed.

Faced with the loss of her sister, Annette clear said, “My sister is very ill. It’s not just her. It’s me, too. I’m also facing all the fear and pain she is going through. Please realize, I need help too. I’m very frightened. Now I have to be extra strong, giving and understanding, no matter what she says. I was never so understanding before. I’m trying my best, but there’s nobody here being understanding of me.”

Often there is an implicit demand by the patient that others come through for them. The expectation is that now a family member will love, support and give to the patient in ways they were never able to before.

This in itself can create a lot of difficulty and be hard to bear, creating guilt. It is very important to bring this dynamic to light. Once it is looked at and discussed, a great deal of pressure may subside for all.

Undoing Guilt

Anything that helps dissolve the pressure of guilt is crucial at this time. Guilt is both powerful and lethal during a time of illness and loss. Guilt itself can be considered to be a form of serious illness that constantly erodes the quality of our lives. Unfortunately, during a time of illness much of the interaction between patients, family members and care givers may be infused with guilt. Some feel guilty that they are healthy, while this family member is ill. Others may blame themselves for patient’s illness, feeling that they did not love them enough or give fully to them in the past.

The guilt is not one-sided. Patients may feel extremely guilty too. They may be feeling helpless, worthless and unable to contribute anything now. Some feel like a drain on others and express a wish to be dead rather than feel this way.

All interaction that arises from guilt inevitably goes the wrong way. It never produces the kind of satisfaction and comfort all are in real need of. In order to care for the caregivers and remove the pressures of anxiety and fear the first step is to help dissolve guilt.

When patients, family members and care givers can learn to become aware of, accept and express their feelings a great deal of good can be done. Individuals no longer feel so alone, patients do not feel so abandoned. By expressing feelings, hopes and expectations with kindness and receiving feedback, everyone can realize that their feelings may not point to the truth. It can be very shocking and healing to bring feelings to the open and get in touch with the reality of what is going on.

Here is a wonderful process for a family (friend, partner or caregiver to use to help dealing with guilt:

  • What have you not yet done for the patient that you feel you really should do?
  • Write it down. Make a list.
  • Now, write down what you think the patient would like you to do.
  • What would you really like to do?
  • Notice the differences and similarities between the three lists.
  • Now, go on. What has the patient not yet done for you that you still want him to do?
  • Write it down. Make a list.
  • Can you ask the patient for what you want?
  • Can you check with the patient about what their needs are?
  • Can you do for the patient what has to be done?
  • What is getting in the way? Are you at least willing to try?
  • Also, make a list of all the things you have done for the patient.
  • Write down all the things the patient has done for you.

Sit down with the patient and discuss your list. Accounts get settled amidst laughter and tears. This process can also be done by a patient who is experiencing guilt with a given family member. The most helpful part, of course, is opening all of this up for discussion with one another. Tremendous relief and renewal are available here.

Relinquishing Blame

Another important of relieving anxiety and fear is helping family members (especially children) to see that their feelings did not injure their family member. Another person’s illness is never created by them. It may greatly help to say that no one is to blame for what is going on. It is surprising how much this may calm everyone down. Just by acknowledging and accepting the truth of the matter, a lot of self blame and guilt can often be dissipated.

Casting blame (on others and oneself) happens so often that it merits real examination. The deep sense of not having done enough, not having been able to save a loved one, leads many widows to die within a year of their husband’s death. They may not feel they deserve to live happily once their beloved is gone.

In the case of a child dying in the family, spouses usually blame each other. All the times they did not love enough now appear in front of their eyes to be reckoned with. Blame cries out to be looked at and understood as a perfect example of misplaced sense of responsibility.

Families and care givers need to realize that they are not in control of the patient’s life, illness or recovery. No matter how much they care for the patient, ultimately each person has their own destiny and life course and must answer for themselves.

Manipulation and Control

There is no one as powerful as a sick person. The weaker and sicker they are, the more they can create feelings of guilt and obligation in those around. What a tremendous trap this can be. Certain patients use their illness to get what they want. Their illness becomes a sudden opportunity to make all kinds of claims upon others, claims they may have had no right to make before. This kind of domination can be so overpowering that family members and care givers need protection from it.

A person may have been needy and hungry for a very long time. Now all of a sudden, their illness gives them the right to let it all loose. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the demands of this needy person.

Another person may be deriving so many benefits and pleasures out of being ill that they can become unconsciously determined not to get well again. Why should they? What’s in it for them?

Some patients become sick in order to “get back”, to make someone else in the family pay. They may be saying implicitly, “Now you have to take care of me, whether you like it or not. You didn’t love me enough before. You just have to love me now.”

The price they pay for this kind of love is sickness and pain. Some pay it willingly. Unconsciously they are pleading, “I’ll stay helpless and weak if only you’ll give me your love.”

Not too many family members are strong enough to remain unmoved by this kind of tyranny. Most feel trapped and begin to comply. They are not trapped by the patient really, but by their own feelings of guilt and fear.

In this case, complying with the demands of the patient can only make matters worse. When we give out of compulsion, the needs of the person to whom we are giving only intensify and may seem insatiable to all.

As the person’s insatiability grows, our own sense of inadequacy deepens. Nothing we give will ever be enough. The more we give in this manner, the unhappier we all become.

Extricating Ourselves from Binds

In order to extricate ourselves from binds it is necessary to understand that if we are giving at our own expense, if we are suffering as a result of what we are giving, or if the person we are giving to is suffering, this is not true giving at all. Eventually it will backfire.

If we are giving (or being given to) out of fear, sadness, obligation, desperation, then that is exactly what the gift contains—fear, sadness, obligation, and desperation.

All we have to give to someone is our own state of being. It is always only ourselves that we are giving. If we come to one’s bedside grim, exhausted and filled with a sense of obligation, then that is what we are giving. However, this resentment will not be present when you can say “no” comfortably, when you can find your own inner rhythm, take the time needed to nourish yourself, find your own balance and determine what you can comfortably give.

Once this is done, give what you can gladly. You will feel wonderful. If the person wants more, you will be able to refuse them clear-mindedly. And what you give will be whole-hearted, beneficial for you and others as well. When you learn to give in that manner, an emotional healing takes place, both for you and those you interact with. Then guilt and fear have no place to hold on.

This article is based upon Brenda Shoshanna’s new book Fearless: (The 7 Principles of Peace of Mind), Barnes & Noble, Sterling Press. Dr Shoshanna’s work is dedicated to assisting you in dissolving your fears so you can reclaim your original, strength, wisdom and resilience. She shows you how to transform fear into courage so that you can live life to the brim. Workshops available. Contact:

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