Caring for a dying loved one can be both physically and mentally draining, with all of your energy put into making sure they’re comfortable and pain-free during their last stage of life.
You could be in the caregiving role for months or even years and so would assume you’d be emotionally prepared for the day when they pass away. But while you may have all the formalities in place, such as funeral and financial arrangements, the truth is you can never predict how their death will truly effect you.
Although some may believe it’s easier for carers to cope with death, a study by Curtin University found caregivers can experience complicated grief, depression and anxiety because they haven’t been focusing on their own feelings.
“While family carers might be mentally prepared in the sense that they are aware of their loved one’s symptoms and prognosis and behaviourally prepared because they have planned the finances, will or funeral, many do not feel prepared emotionally for life after their loved one has died,” lead author Lauren Breen said.
“Carers tend to be so busy with the tasks of caring that focusing on their own preparations often takes a backseat.”
While you can never fully prepare for your loved one’s death, there are some ways to help you manage the grief you will experience and make the process a little bit easier.
Arranging funeral plans and finances before a loved one passes is important, but Nancy Pachana, clinical geropsychologist, said you shouldn’t let all of the formalities take over what little time you have left together. Put aside the paperwork every now and then to sit, talk and just be with the person. Your friends and family can pitch in to help with the formalities.
“If you’re always thinking about the loss [when they pass away], then you’re not with the person now,” Pachana said. “There has to be a balance; you can acknowledge that they will soon pass but it’s important to spend time with the person because once they’re gone you don’t want to regret spending time doing paperwork instead of with them.”
Don’t be afraid to talk about your feelings and any sadness you’re experiencing prior to your loved one’s death. It’s never easy to say goodbye to friends and family members for the last time, but keeping everything inside won’t do you any favours.
Liz Forbat, a professor of palliative care at the Australian Catholic University, said many families avoid any conversations about a person’s passing as a way to protect each other – to psychologists this is known as protective buffering, which is never helpful.
“Although it’s well-intended, protective buffering can make people feel less close,” she wrote in a piece for The Conversation. “It’s okay to share worries with each other. Being able to talk about feelings means being able to deal [with the difficult things] together.”
A separate study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management found people who take part in end-of-life discussions are less likely to suffer from depression or complicated grief following the death of their loved one.
Although you’ll want to spend every waking hour beside your loved one, you can’t neglect yourself either. Carers can experience various physical, emotional, financial and social side effects of caring, from fatigue, exhaustion, weight loss and depression, to energy loss, sleep deprivation and social isolation.
In fact, Care Queensland’s Quality of Life Survey found 51 per cent of carers are lonely and 54 per cent feel socially isolated, while the majority of carers experience stress or anxiety related to their caring duties.
When your loved one’s death is nearing, self-care is especially important. Take time out to go for a walk, read a book, catch up with a friend and just relax. In order to give the best care, you need to care for yourself too.
It might feel a little strange, or even guilty, to think about life after your loved one dies, but planning for the future may help you manage your grief. You don’t have to make any big life changes, but it could be helpful to create a list of things you’d like to see, achieve and do, such as travelling or starting a new hobby.
Forbat said this a natural and healthy thing to do, especially for those who need a distraction from the grief they’re feeling.