Lynn came to see me a few years back for depression. Her mother had died a few months before after a long illness and Lynn had nursed her for the last years of her life.
The final years of her mum’s life had been very difficult. After the death, friends and family continuously commented on how thoughtful a daughter Lynn had been for devoting herself to looking after her mum. They said that her mum was now looking down from heaven, so grateful for all the care Lynn had bestowed on her. Everybody was just so kind. They all told her that they “understood” how devastated she must be feeling.
What distressed Lynn most, however, was that she didn’t feel any of this at all. Towards the end, all she could remember was praying that it would all end soon. And when her mum finally died, she felt a huge sense of relief that it was all over.
Sure, she was sad that her mum had died, but the last few years had been very difficult for Lynn. At times she had felt very resentful that she had to care for her mum and put her own life on hold. Similarly, she also had to take more than the lion’s share of caring for her mum.
Some of her brothers and sisters were supportive in part, they helped when they were free, but the buck always stopped with Lynn. She didn’t have the luxury of only helping when she was free. For years, she had to put her own needs aside to look after her mum.
She was grateful to everyone for their kindness, but she was nowhere near as sad as she felt people expected her to be. She had tried to talk to her sister about how she felt, but stopped herself as she felt so guilty about the way she was feeling.
This conflict of feeling guilty for having her own needs had prevented Lynn from ever putting herself first. For the last few years of her mum’s life, whenever there was a conflict between what her mum needed, and what Lynn needed, her mum’s needs always won out.
The more she thought about it, the more depressed she got. By the time she came to see me, she had totally convinced herself that she hadn’t really loved her mother at all: that she was only looking after her because of a sense of obligation and as such, must be completely selfish. She found it nearly impossible to reconcile this attitude with the feelings of emptiness and loneliness that she was actually feeling and was thinking that maybe this was a punishment for being such a fraud.
As I listened to her story, I remember feeling more and more lost as to what to do. All I could do was ask her as gently as I could what way she thought she should have been feeling. You see, before I was ever a therapist, I was a nurse for over 20 years and like all nurses, had dealt with my fair share of death. I knew that the emotions Lynn had during her mum’s illness and at the time of her death were not only entirely normal, but also very usual.
Not only can it be very difficult to watch someone you love suffer, it can be even more difficult to cope with having to carry the weight of your own emotions as well.
That is why it is very normal and common to find yourself feeling both angry at others and selfish for having your own needs. This is not a sign of uncaring, but a symptom of the stress you are under. The more you care about someone, the harder it is to carry the cross of these conflicting emotions.
The emotional reality of caring
There is no such thing as a normal emotion, or indeed an abnormal one. Society has an expectation that it’s ok to have certain emotions in certain events, but if you have others, that these are abnormal and must be “treated”.
Carers often describe feeling anxious/stressed, sad/depressed, helpless grief and exhaustion. These emotional demands of caring for someone can be high. As a carer, it is vital to look after your own emotional needs. This is important so you can continue your caring role and maintain your own emotional resilience.
Friends and family can offer significant support, but you may find it helpful to speak with a healthcare professional such as a counsellor. They will understand exactly how you feel and can help you develop strategies on how to balance caring for your own needs along with your caring role.
You might feel selfish for putting your own needs first or feel guilty asking for help. However, if you don’t look after yourself first, then you can’t look after anyone else. Similarly, you are a vital part of the care team. You also have needs that must be met if your loved one is to be cared for.
If you are feeling distressed, frustrated, guilty, exhausted, or annoyed, it is important to know that these feelings are normal. If you find your role as a carer overwhelming, talk to your public health nurse or GP. They might be able to offer some respite or home care to support you.
If you know someone who is in a caring role, you can support them with simple gestures like doing some messages or preparing a meal for them, inviting them around for a cup of tea, or even offering to stay with the person occasionally whilst the carer gets something else done.
Looking after yourself
Looking after your own health both physically and emotionally can help give you the energy to be able to cope. Accept any help that you can find. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’re of no use to anyone if you are burnt out. So, take any opportunity to take a break from your caring role.
1 Get lots of exercise: Like walking or even stretching if you can’t get out. Yoga, pilates or prayer (if so inclined) helps you focus on the now and helps get you out of your own head.
2 Get enough sleep: Even though you might be finding it really hard to sleep, there are lots of things you can do to help. Cut down on caffeine and alcohol in the evenings. Maybe take a long bath or listen to some soothing music before bedtime. If you are finding it hard to get to sleep, get up for 20 minutes, do something relaxing and try again.
3 Eat healthily: Try to eat a balanced diet. But don’t forget the occasional tub of Ben & Jerry’s too.
4 Do something for yourself each day: Think of 10 things you would enjoy and try to do at least one daily. Try to socialise at least once a week. Above all, try to take one day at a time. While thinking about the future is normal, try and focus on each problem as it arises.