Dealing with the death of someone you know is never easy. For caregivers, the loss of a favorite client can be as heartbreaking as the loss of a family member. And in circumstances like these, it can be critically important to find the right balance between coping with your own feelings and maintaining an appropriate relationship with the family of the deceased.
Loss and Healthy Coping
To shield themselves from grief, many caregivers try to maintain an emotional distance from their clients. Some caregiver agencies have policies in place to support a professional distance between caregiver and client. But for caregivers working one-on-one with someone in their home, it’s often inevitable that you’ll get to know and develop an emotional attachment to someone who you’re caring for.
In a recent New York Times article, Marla Lahat, director of care agency Home Care Partners, summed up the situation: “we probably don’t address it as well as we should… [caregivers are] expected to keep on going. That’s their job.”
Just because you’re a caregiver doesn’t mean you have a superhuman capacity to cope with your feelings. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what most caregivers are expected to do. And while self-care can seem selfish in the face of death, it’s also all-too-obvious that your ability to care for others hinges on your ability to take care of yourself. That also means that when you allow yourself to grieve in a healthy way, you’re in a much better position to care for future clients.
If you’ve dealt with death in the past, it may be wise to reflect on the things that helped and didn’t help you back then. Did you have rituals to help you cope? How expected was the death? Asking these types of questions can help you discover your own emotional triggers, which can be useful both personally and professionally.
Tips for Dealing with Family Members
As part of the five stages of grief, it’s normal for family members to get angry. That anger is often misdirected on care providers, even when no one is at fault. In circumstances like these, you can’t lash out or take things personally. Don’t try and fix someone else’s grief because we all grieve in our own way, and at our own pace.
You should also avoid comparing your experiences to what others may be dealing with because it can seem belittling. Never become a part of the problem that the family is facing. Sharing tears and emotions can be good, so long as your care does not become compromised in the process.
As for the things you should be doing: try to create a space where people to express their loss. Listen closely to what they have to say, and get a better sense of how the family feels and what they need. Show an honest effort to understand their feelings, and don’t assume you know them — because we all grieve differently.
Grief vs. Caregiver Depression Symptoms
Grief is a natural response to loss. But managed poorly, grief can lead to caregiver depression. Many people start to recover from grief after about two months, but others may experience grief for as long as four years. Everyone grieves differently, but it’s important to distinguish between grief and depression.
Feelings of grief might include sadness, crying, mild guilt, fatigue, loss of appetite, and loss of sleep. Many of these same feelings accompany depression, but depression includes feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem, helplessness, agitation, exaggerated guilt, and a loss of interest in hobbies.
While grief will gradually erode over time, the feelings of depression may seem unremitting, and carry a serious risk of suicide. Coping with death can be a challenge to anyone, and it’s not uncommon for professional caregiver stress to lead to depression. Grief is a natural part of loss, and can be used to form stronger bonds of friendship with those sharing the loss with you. But depression is a serious health risk, and it needs to be promptly addressed for the sake of a caregiver’s well-being.
Caregivers have to care for themselves, too. There’s no single correct way to respond to a death, but it’s important to practice healthy coping as part of caring for yourself and others. Dealing with death is easy, but being able to make a positive difference in the lives of others is part of what make can make caregiving so rewarding.
Are you a caregiver who has experienced the death of a favorite client? How did you cope? What advice would you offer to other caregivers who might be going through something similar? We’d love to hear your story in the comments below.