Care Giver Grief – Part 2: Dealing with Loss & Uncertainty

  by Glynis Sherwood MEd

In my previous post I wrote about my cat Cleveland who was recently diagnosed with cancer.  As his principle care giver I have many difficult and unclear decisions to make about the kind of treatment to opt for and how to care for him on a day to day basis.  I am also living with not knowing if the choices I am making will help or hinder him.  Hardest of all is not knowing how long he may live – weeks, months or years.  Uncertainty is the constant theme in the job of the care giver.  This is the predicament of those of us who provide care for loved ones with long term, disabling or fatal illnesses.  Living with this kind of uncertainty is a form of loss – loss of predictability and control of day to day life as our loved one’s illness moves to center stage.  There’s also the loss associated with feeling sad over what our loved one has lost – their health, vitality and dreams.  And there is the loss of the relationship as you once knew it.

The Emotional Landscape of Daily Loss

I was not blessed with children, so the animals in my life have become my ‘kids’.  Over the years I have met many people who have discovered that the death of a beloved companion animal has emotional qualities that are simlar to the way people feel when they lose a child.  As a care giver of a potentially terminally ill ‘fur kid’ I find myself grappling with emotions I have not experienced before, or in this particular way.    For instance, I feel a sense of helplessness about my ability to make my loved one better.  In the early days of the diagnosis I felt panicky about this feeling of powerlessness, and frantic in my desire to ‘remove’ the cancer from his body.  Within a few days the panic had settled down, and I no longer feel desperate to be able to reach in a pull the cancer out – as much as I wish I could.  I am focused on holistic care of my patient and what I can do to help him feel better and possibly heal. There’s satisfaction knowing I will not put him through torturous traditional cancer treatment, which does not have a good track record of prolonging life or eradicating the disease, on top of the high risk of inflicting further injury from the treatment itself.  But there’s also fear that in abandoning chemotherapy and radiation I have put Cleveland at risk.

On top of the loss of certainty associated with treatment and outcomes, I am also aware of an intense sadness in me that lingers below the surface, sometimes sitting right on top when I have the time to truly get in touch with my emotions. I often feel tearful at those times.  The tears are those of frustration and not knowing if anything I am doing is really going to help him in the long run.  I feel protective too – mother bear protective, and a deep tenderness towards my charge.  His illness seems like a betrayal of his innocence and beauty.  I am now uncomfortable leaving my home for more than a few hours as I don’t want Cleveland to be left alone.  What if he takes a turn for the worse or dies while I am out?  The thought of him suffering or being alone in his final hours is too much to tolerate.  Like a pre-verbal child or a loved one in a coma or in the grips of dementia, he cannot tell me what he needs.  Instead I must rely on second hand information and my intuition as I leave his side regularly to get on with the business of daily life.

Loss & the Circle of Life

The other thing that has happened as a consequence of Cleveland’s illness is that surprisingly I am more accepting of death as part of the cycle of life.  With each death and fatal illness I have gone through with loved ones,  I ‘know’ more deeply that we are all going to die.  This time I can really sense it or make sense of it.  I’m learning about cancer.  What I have found out is that we all have cancer cells in our body.  Aging combined with sub-optimal self care, preexisting health issues and/or environmental toxins leading to problems with health and immunity make us vulnerable to cancer taking hold.  So death is not so much a result of the aging process, but of the various problems like cancer that can take hold due to comprimised health as we age.

While dealing with this loss I try and stay focused on Cleveland’s quality of life, making sure he has only the best nutrition, supplements and all the affection he wants.  If I am unable to prevent his death from cancer, I want to make sure that he has a good death – with his little body intact, feeling comfortable and as pain free as possible, and surrounded by those who love him.  The rest is unknown, and as a care giver I must embrace my role and surrender humbly to the loss of the known that is long term critical illness.

How have you dealt with Loss as a care giver to elderly, chronically ill or dying loved ones?  I’d love to read your comments on coping and survival as you deal with this difficult challenge.

Need more help?  Check out my Grief Therapy page here

Glynis Sherwood MEd, CCC, is a Counselling Therapist specializing in recovery from chronic grief, anxiety, depression or addictive behaviors related to sudden, traumatic or long term loss.   My services are available online by Video around the world.  I look forward to hearing from you and helping you on the road to recovery!