Relationship Grieving—Caregiver Style

2019 February 12

“Who would you most want to share a meal with?” is the question.  If the answer is not a celebrity or famous person, the response almost always involves wanting to share a meal with a loved one whom you can no longer laugh with, interact with, or learn from.  Someone you care about who is no longer present.  When caregivers hear this question, they know of another option. But it’s not an answer most would understand or feel comfortable with. What if the response to this question involves naming someone you love whom is still alive, yet different than they used to be?

When most people think of conversing with another, they think of talking to one person. Caregivers, however, know that interacting with one person is a misnomer.

It’s simply inaccurate. In intense and long-standing relationships, like caregiving, we are always interacting with a composite of past experiences and memories that we can’t help ourselves from bringing with us into every present, unfolding interaction.

When our loved one changes because of illness or incapacity, we too are changed.  The person in front of us is different than they were in the past. And if we are changed and the person we care for is changed, then our relationship is inevitably different.  And what can live within this difference is a profound kind of loneliness and disorientation called relationship grieving.

“I am with someone I know so deeply, yet, it is because of our shared history that I feel more alone than I might ever have felt if I was actually, physically alone.”

 Giving voice to the deep awareness of what is no longer possible in your relationship is difficult to translate.  If you were to proclaim the loneliness you feel when interacting with the person you care for—this very person you love so dearly—then what would others think or say?

Yes, you are interacting with someone you know but you are also interacting with someone you do not know. It is in this ongoing tension that you may grieve in ways that others won’t notice because they only see what is present, not the fact that absence and presence always disguise themselves as one another for those of us in the midst of relationship grieving.  Caregivers interact with their loved ones on a plane of multiple dimensions. They are never just communicating with the person before them.

You are aware of multiple possibilities that most others can’t see or know.

The awareness of what is happening between you and your loved one provides the foreground of your interactions and appreciation of what used to be forms the background.  The challenge of relationship grieving is that background and foreground are constantly shifting.

They don’t arrange themselves based on chronology.  Instead, they blur into one another, defying time but always becoming more prominent and difficult to let go of when in the company of our wants and needs and desires.

Relationship grieving means trying to convince ourselves that we need to adjust our relationship expectations even as we are hearing the sound of our loved one’s ever-familiar voice. The relationship habits we had originally created with our loved one don’t simply fade away.

Relationship habits have to be rebuffed and silenced, time and time again, as if they live beyond us in ways that require us to repeatedly say ‘no’ to our relationship memories so we can continue to say ‘yes’ to the person we are interacting with now.

Relationship grieving means believing that one smile, one laugh, or one moment of connection is evidence that the way your relationship used to be is now, again, within reach.  And then your expectations go headlong into another interaction with this same loved one that sounds and acts nothing like you had expected. Hope quickly runs into perceived absence. And connection is overwhelmed by an unwavering awareness of difference. These realizations are jarring, not outwardly, but within us, as new realities seem to take away from us what we most wanted to happen between us—but doesn’t or can’t.

Relationship grieving means not being able to explain why you are grieving even though your loved may be next to you.  Yes, you are with someone you love but the person you are with may no longer be the person you remember. Or the person you once loved. Or the person that made possible the you and us of your relationship so special and distinct.

Relationship grieving involves being constantly aware of the simultaneous presence of your loved one’s absence and the absence of your loved one’s presence.

The question, “How is _________?” is so much more complicated than it sounds because it’s missing something.  It’s missing a vital, but almost never asked follow up question. “How are you adjusting to your new relationship with someone you already know so intimately?”

Asking this one question may just open the possibility of understanding as it recognizes that caregiver relationships don’t just change how we interact with someone we love, they also impact how we understand ourselves in our evolving relationships.




5 Responses leave one →
  1. Nancy permalink
    February 12, 2019

    Very good in sight. One could even add – chasing after new relationships in an effort to fill that emptiness.

  2. February 13, 2019


    This is a brilliant post. Thank you for helping us with these insights.


  3. Kate Fulkerson permalink
    February 13, 2019

    Indeed, the most accurate description of what happens that I have ever read. Thank you for these insights. Kate

  4. Sharon permalink
    February 17, 2019

    Perfect way of describing these evolving and complicated relationships. Thank you for putting into words what is so hard for many to grasp.

  5. February 18, 2019

    Thanks so much for your insights, Sharon. And thank you for participating in the Unprepared Caregiver community.

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