Private Grieving

2011 April 11

Most people believe grief begins after the person you love dies. However, for primary caregivers, anticipatory grief begins well in advance of a loved one’s physical death. While the label of anticipatory grief is helpful in acknowledging when grieving begins, it doesn’t capture the special nature of grief that is felt most intensely by caregivers. The name I use to describe the special kind of grief caregivers experience is private grief. Private grief refers to the loss of expectations that caregivers must make sense of alone and with no recognition or awareness from others.  You know you are in the midst of private grief, if:

  • mental images of the person you love are so very different from the actual person in front of you
  • hope concerning what would happen or could happen for your loved one are overcome with what is happening to your loved one.
  • framed pictures of your loved one, smiling and without a care in the world, now seem to stare back at you as cruel reminders of what life used to be like
  • you punish yourself for not being able to access mental images of your loved one walking or running or laughing, free of illness
  • others talk of your loved one as if they are the same person they once knew and you wonder if they are talking about the same person you spend almost every hour of your every waking day with

The private grief that you inevitably experience as a caregiver doesn’t begin with a memorial service or a funeral. It doesn’t begin when others begin to grieve.  Private grief makes us doubt everything we thought we once knew to be true. It deludes us into believing that our private grief can’t be communicated, not only because others won’t be able to get it, but because they seemingly don’t want to get it.  Others’ thoughts might be able to sustain themselves on memories alone. Our thoughts, as caregivers, however, cannot live on what used to be. We don’t have that luxury. The person in front of you needs you to accept who they are, rather than who you want them to be, to adequately care and provide for the moment-to-moment needs.

Private grief compels us to doubt ourselves when tears do not run down our face at the funeral or memorial service. Little do others know that tears changed our thoughts long ago, way before others even knew we were grieving. In these moments of solitude, our tears fell down our cheeks without an audience and they were born and evaporated in silence while caring for the person that was still with us.

In the Unprepared Caregiver’s next installment of the grief series, we will talk about how best to cope with the private grief of the caregiving experience that too often makes us feel even more isolated, alone, and different from others around us.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Vickie Fine permalink
    April 11, 2011

    I am my fathers caregiver and I didn’t understand why I was feeling this way. Thank You for sharing this as now I know that it’s okay for me to have all these feelings flooding my thoughts!

  2. terri permalink
    April 11, 2011

    I can now put a name on how the kids and myself have felt for the last 6 yrs. Thank You!!!

  3. September 20, 2012

    as a caregiver, there is aalyws fear am I doing enough? and then there is guilt when I get tired or short, it is about me not the one that I am caring for because in a way it is an honor to be a caregiver of someone you love. Not that you wouldn’t do anything to make your love well, but sharing the journey is a privilage because you really are 2 halves of a journey. Pilot and co pilot, road and map. But it is hard and stresses of the world get in the way of wanting to be the sunny supporter of someone you see being a couragous, steadfast, tough person of incredible resolve and character. You kinda want to say I am sorry for not being better all the time, but you can say I love you and am so in awe of you all the time.

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