The unpredictable nature of managing someone else’s world and medical condition often feels beyond the caregiver’s control. However, controlling the situation remains their responsibility. Battling emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, and frustration can overwhelm a caregiver given the chance. These emotions threaten to rise to the surface as the caregiver struggles to fight against letting go of their dreams and losing themselves to caregiving responsibilities. Keeping their sanity at times means keeping their emotions tightly under their control, thus, preventing their despair from descending on others.
Then, one day, whether from exhaustion or a song heard over the radio, the weight of their unstable block tower built to hold the emotions inside, shifts. They lose the battle. All the blocks they so carefully constructed come tumbling down. At that moment, grief for the life left behind hits them. The reality and finality of their circumstances hits home. This life they live belongs to someone else. Somewhere along the way, they lost their life.
Emotions Constantly Present
Emotions are a constant companion for a caregiver. In the early days, emotions focus on current events because circumstances change rapidly. Feelings of fear, hope, dread, anxiety, grief, or relief dominate the day based on the latest news update. However, as time progresses and the shock wears off, fatigue becomes the dominant obstacle as short-term recovery evolves into long-term caregiving.
Over time, the emotions become about fear. “Can I sustain this pace.” “How will I endure another sleepless night.” “How will I pay for this?” How much longer can I stay out of work before I lose my job?” Anger, resentment, guilt, disappointment, and depression become frequent companions. Plus, the further away from the initial date of the crisis, the less outside support remains available.
Entire Family Affected
Caregivers need a lot of support, both emotional and assistance with doing things. Unfortunately, people often forget that when someone in the family becomes severely ill or injured, the entire family suffers. The sick one seems to get all the attention, but everyone needs help. Offers of prayers, support, and well-wishes pour out to the sick member but others aren’t mentioned. Both the one who needs to recover and the family need support. The caregiver needs extra help. Children are often neglected and afraid. Siblings fear loss and blame for things going wrong. The entire family is in pain. Everyone experiences loss.
Dedicated to the care of the family member, the caregiver often must let go of dreams once held, loss of social interactions once a daily part of their lives, depleted bank accounts, and physical decline related to caregiving. From their window seat, looking out at the world, they watch life passing them by.
Care Under Duress
Under some circumstances, caregivers provide care under duress. Not all families love and support one another; sometimes the ones receiving care harm through physical and mental abuse. Caregivers who become responsible legally for the care of a formerly abusive family member face serious emotional trauma when confronted by such an expectation. Legal or mental health resources may be necessary to help the caregiver resolve such situations.
Privilege to Care
In other situations, family caregivers feel privileged to provide their loved ones with the care they need. The opportunity to love, care and support a mother or wife as she lives out her last days allows them to remember the good times and cherish fond memories forgotten long ago. The one receiving care is very appreciative of all efforts provided. Other family members pitch in to help, neighbors and friends drop by to offer support, and the caregiver receives the encouragement needed to keep going.
Change Over Time
With a long-term caregiving situation, both scenarios described above could occur within the same family unit. Caregiving emotions are complex, and circumstances evolve over time. The desire to hold on to the past struggles with the reality of day-to-day exhaustion, trials, triumphs, and unknowns. Yet, at the same time, they fear to hope that tomorrow will be better, an intense longing to move beyond where they are now grows in intensity. At best, the caregiver craves a routine, but usually only manages to tread water as each day brings with it new challenges.
Financial pressures and 24/7 responsibilities cause some caregivers to give up trying to dream. They fear that if they hope for anything, disappointment will occur. Therefore, hope seems pointless. So instead, they choose to become numb in the belief that pain cannot live where numbness abides.
Adapting to caregiving requires a realistic look at finances. Very often, more money goes out than comes in, and the amount of time spent on essential duties far outweighs the non-essential. Memories of former lives and dreams tumble through their brain, reminding them of the past. At such times, it’s tempting to let fear take control and defeat it.
Change Doesn’t Have to Be Bad.
Caregivers need to allow themselves to grieve perceived and real losses and accept the changes that occur. The only way to work through grief is to allow yourself to work through it. You don’t have to “sit in it” and dwell on it but allow yourself to feel sad. Acknowledge the loss and pain you feel. It hurts. Take time to heal and allow yourself to grieve the loss.
What Happens if You Ignore your Emotions?
Emotions are like a volcano. They simmer and brew under the surface, building steam and creating pressure. The pressure builds and builds until it can’t expand anymore. Then, a crack forms, a break follows, a crevice appears, and finally, an explosion of emotion erupts.
At some point, the body is going to release the pressure building up inside. What happens if you don’t provide a method for a controlled release of the pressure? An emotional eruption will likely occur unexpectedly, resulting in an extreme reaction to a minor situation. Afterward, you have a lot of explaining to do and maybe some severe consequences. Try handling it as a firefighter would. Try a “controlled burn” first before letting the forest burn out of control.
Emotions Lead to Suffering
If you’re someone who stuffs their emotions away without too much effort, don’t think you can escape. While you may hold your emotions deep inside, they are still doing their dirty work where you can’t see the damage. Once they get stuffed away, the pressure attacks your body like corrosion, eating away at pipes. As a result, you develop pain, illness, depression, or other forms of suffering. Sometimes, the effect is dramatic. Ever hear of someone under stress seemingly fine one minute but dropping dead from a heart attack the next? That’s stress.
You honestly have no choice but to deal with emotions. Once you fill up your emotional bucket, emotions must go somewhere. Something is going to happen. How the bucket gets emptied is, therefore, up to you.
If you work through emotions, you gradually release the pressure and reduce the bucket’s contents. The temporary emotional grief is cleansing and can provide space for new dreams to grow. With the help of a therapist, faith, a healthy lifestyle, and other self-care techniques, you can learn to cope with the stress, anxiety, and fears of caregiving so that you can have a happy future as a caregiver.
One of the best lessons I’ve learned as a caregiver is to deal with today’s problems today and let tomorrow’s issues deal with tomorrow. That’s not to mean I don’t make plans, I still do that, but I don’t dwell on the “what if’s.” I think Jesus said it best, “Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matt 6:34.