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Don't feel guilty about wishing your loved one could let go

Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist

Dear Carol: My mom is 94 years old and frail. She has a weak heart and bad lungs, yet she hangs on. I'm a 73-year-old widow. I took care of Mom at home for more than five years, but two years ago I placed her in a nursing home. I felt terrible guilt about doing that because I'd promised her that I wouldn't, but my own health was deteriorating and I couldn't physically transfer her anymore. There was no other choice.

Apparently, we both had outdated ideas about nursing homes or we would have done this sooner since we are both pleased. But Mom is now bedridden and can barely murmur a few words. There is no quality in her life that I can see, and I find myself wishing that she could just let go. Then I feel ashamed. She's very religious and isn't afraid of death, and neither am I, but I'm still confused about my feelings. Guilt and shame nag at me even though I know that her current situation is miserable. How do I deal with this feeling of disloyalty about wanting her life to end? SL

Dear SL: I'm sorry about your mom's decline as well as about your understandable feelings of confusion. You are a loving, compassionate person who doesn't want to see her mother suffer or simply exist with no quality of life. Yet, like most of us, you were likely taught that allowing death is always bad, so your feelings have a component of shame.

Nearly any caregiver who has witnessed the slow decline of a loved one has had feelings like yours. If you could read my mail, you'd see how often this question comes up. You are most definitely not alone.

Everyone dies. Yet, many caregivers have a feeling of guilt and even failure when the person for whom they've given much of their life follows the natural course of life, which for all of us must eventually end. Many doctors used to feel that to lose a patient was a failure.

Now, fortunately, most seem to be trained to be more realistic about elders who are going to die no matter what treatment is given. Accepting natural death when a person's quality of life is gone is a sign of compassion.

Of course, your brain knows that death is part of the life cycle and your mom is nearing her time, but knowing and accepting are two different things. You hate seeing your mom linger when the most that can be said about her life at this point is that she's apparently not in obvious physical pain. Her life is coming to a natural end. The fact that at times you wish the process didn't drag out so long is only natural, yet accepting reality is hard.

I don't have the feeling that you'll carry this confusion with you for long. Your mom has lived a long time and you know that her time has come. You will be better able to care for yourself once the worry about her is no longer a part of your life. You'll also know that you did your very best to care for her through it all.

It's normal to feel confused when lifelong beliefs conflict with what we see in front of us, but often it helps to talk it out. I hope that writing your feelings down like you did in your letter eased your feelings somewhat.

I'd suggest that you follow up by talking with your spiritual leader and/or the nursing home chaplain. I believe strongly that they will support you in that hoping for your mother's release is compassionate, not disloyal.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carolbursack@msn.com.

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