An article published on The New York Times’ blog, New Old Age, explores the experience of caregivers of terminally-ill family members and loved ones. The essay examines not only the stresses that are present during the finals days of the loved one being cared for, but especially on the toll that end-of-life caregiving can have long after the loved one’s death.
“Is there life after caregiving, and if so what is it like?” This is the fundamental question for Judith Graham, who acknowledges that there is “no single answer to this question.” The impact of a loved one’s death varies greatly depending on the emotional temperament and circumstances of the caregiver, and on the relationship with the deceased loved one.
There are, however, some experiences that are common to many end-of-life caregivers, including physical and emotional fatigue, and feelings of guilt following the death. Caregivers explain the stress that can result when they do not have caring resources for their own struggles. Once death occurs, and the intensity of providing care no longer fills every waking moment, the underlying trauma of the experience can emerge with disturbing force. One former caregiver recounts that, following the death of her husband, “All of the emotions I had kept bottled inside came out – all of the sadness and regret over what happened.”
Despite all of the difficulties that family members face when caring for dying loved ones, for many the experience is ultimately rewarding. The opportunity to be present with their spouses, parents or children in the last days of life is something that many would not forgo, despite the grief they must experience.
For many, the experience of being present for the death of another provides a reminder to appreciate the life and health they currently enjoy. One man explains that accompanying his father during his dying days gave him “a glimpse of what lies down the road for me… So now, if I have the ability to go for a run or lift weights or go for a walk outside, I’m not going to take it for granted.”