A caregivers guide to grief
Understanding the stages of grief and strategies for coping
Grieving is a natural and inevitable part of caregiving. Although most often associated with death, any loss can cause feelings of grief.
For example, when providing care for someone with a life-limiting illness, you may experience grief as your care recipient loses certain abilities, such as walking or talking. If you are caring for a spouse or life partner, you may grieve the loss of intimacy or the future life you had imagined together.
Understanding the stages and types of grief and how we process grief can help you prepare for and overcome the challenges that arise during these difficult times.
What are the stages of grief?
There are five stages of grief, but everyone’s experiences with each stage may differ. Some people may experience the stages in a different order, get stuck in a stage, or skip a stage.
- Denial – the first reaction to learning about a terminal illness, loss or death is denial – the inability to process or accept that loss has happened or will happen. Denial is a defence mechanism we use to rationalize our overwhelming emotions.
- Anger – feelings of anger or frustration at the unfairness of the loss – you may feel angry with yourself, your care recipient, their doctors, or your religious beliefs.
- Bargaining – a normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is a need to regain control through a series of “if only” statements, such as “if only we got a second opinion.” Some people may make a deal with their religious beliefs or higher power to postpone the inevitable and the accompanying pain.
- Depression – during this stage, people often feel overwhelmed with feelings of sadness, loneliness and helplessness.
- Acceptance – this is not about no longer feeling the pain of loss. It simply means we are no longer resisting the reality of the situation, and we are not struggling to make it something different.
What are different types of grief?
There are different types of grief and other ways people experience grief. Two kinds of grief that are common but also complicated are:
- Anticipatory grief – this refers to waiting for or expecting a loss. Feelings of guilt or shame are often associated with anticipatory grief, but it is a part of the grieving process and allows us to prepare ourselves emotionally.
- Delayed grief – is grief that is experienced at a later time. Dealing with the loss of a partner or parent involves a lot of decision-making, funeral arrangements, legal paperwork and more, which may delay full feelings of grief.
What are some strategies for coping with grief?
Before and after a death, each person’s grief is very personal and must unfold in its own time and way. There are no quick fixes to help you through, but here are some things that may help:
- Accept your feelings – accept that a range of emotions, from sadness to anger to relief are normal
- Be patient with yourself – give yourself time
- Pay attention to your physical needs – a physical activity can give you a sense of routine
- Don’t compare yourself to others and how they’re handling it
- Know and accept your limits – you cannot provide all the answers, solve all the problems or provide all the care. Accept help from others who want to be involved
- Talk it out – share your feelings and concerns with someone you trust and who understands your situation such as a family member, friend, counsellor or religious adviser
- Find ways to relieve tension – try various exercise and/or activities
- Look for resources such as an online support group or webinars
- Seek professional counselling
The above content was adapted, in part, from an Ontario Caregiver Organization webinar presented by Sam Miller, president of Sam Miller Consulting and a registered psychotherapist with extensive experience in Trauma Response and Treatment and Wellness Initiatives. Additional content was sourced from a Caregivers Guide to End-of-Life care. To learn more, visit: https://hospicetoronto.ca/PDF/Acaregivershandbook_CHPCA.pdf