Dear Carol: Both of my parents were ill for years. Mom, who died two years ago, fought several types of cancer and then developed dementia. Dad, who died three months ago, had a massive stroke right after Mom’s death and his last years were full of physical and emotional pain. My brother and I grieve our parents, but we saw them wear out from health struggles and feel that they are now together in a better place, so there’s quite of bit of relief, as well. Knowing our parents are no longer suffering is part of the relief, but I’m also relieved that I can now spend more time with my husband and children without feeling that I’m taking something away from my parents. I confided this to a friend who has healthy parents and has never been a caregiver and she became really upset with me. She implied that I was a terrible person to have such feelings and said that since life is sacred, I should confess to our priest. Her response stunned me. Am I wrong to feel some relief that it’s all over? — KH.
Dear KH: You sound like a loving, compassionate person and I’m sorry that you were treated in such a callous way. Even though your friend has had a much easier time with her parents, she could have offered empathy. Unfortunately, she chose to judge you. It seems that she’s misinterpreting church teachings since natural death is part of the life cycle, which most religions understand and honor.
In my view, it’s normal to have shifting and even competing emotions after the deaths of your parents. I know that I did. My parents, too, had long, slow declines, and I was involved every step of the way. They died within five months of each other, and yes, I grieved their loss, but I also welcomed their release from suffering. Feelings of grief and relief would cycle through my emotions daily.
Sharing our deep feelings with others is always risky, but it’s also healthy, since burying them can literally make us sick. Unfortunately, you learned a harsh lesson about the risks. The last thing that you needed was guilt-inducing criticism and the implication that your feelings are sinful was cruel. Consider this person a fair-weather friend and leave it at that.
While you may be ready to move past caregiver support groups for now, don’t completely block out the idea of joining an online group should you continue to feel conflicted. I’ve moderated several through the years, so I've seen many caregivers join such groups after their loved ones have passed. Generally, they join because they feel conflicted by their emotions. Other caregivers can often lend strong practical support in ways that non-caregivers may not be able to do.
Meanwhile, enjoy your husband and children. Keep your parents in your family life by sharing stories of them as they were before sickness took over. That is how you’ll want them to be remembered.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.