Caretaking: More on Grief

A visit to my niece and nephew-in-law in New Orleans elicited more thoughts about grief, as did a conversation with a theater friend today who started reminiscing about the passing of his father around the time mine died.

On the Torah ark of the New Orleans (actually, Metarie) synagogue they had newly built after the devastation of Katrina, the words are engraved: “Many waters cannot extinguish love.” This verse, from the Song of Songs, of course relates to the power of romantic love but also the destructive waters of the hurricane.

But for me, the words resonated in a different way: The passage of time does not necessarily extinguish the pain of loss. As another friend said the other day in response to the horrible, incomprehensible shootings in Newtown, Conn.: “No one gets over that, but the truth is, with any death of a loved one, even an old person, you don’t really get over it. You simply move on and get past it.” No lessening of the nightmare the family members are going through–simply an acknowledgment that loss of a loved one is in the best of circumstances, painful. In other circumstances, like Sandy Hook, it is excruciating.

Again, though, there are so many components. One might think that a very close relationship with a loved one would mean more-intense grief, or that an indifferent one would lead to a rapid dissipation of grief. But that would not be taking into account the fact that (as in the case of my friend) someone might be “relieved” that a loved one is no longer suffering, or that a person might be overcome with guilt for what he or she didn’t do while the family member was alive. Nor does such a conclusion consider that a caregiver might react with anger and frustration despite a previously warm relationship or that, alternatively, he or she might be swept into deeper feelings for the family member because of the very act of caregiving. Sometimes the emotions follow the actions.

My friend is a case in point. He considered his father his “best friend,” yet, after his father suffered from cancer for a year, he found himself wishing that the suffering would end. He was at peace with his father’s passing because they had spent a great deal of time together during that year and had said “all I wanted to say.” They had expressed love for one another, and were together when his father passed. In contrast, many people told me that I would feel a great sense of relief after my mother had died, because of the exhausting process of caring for her from afar and her dual diagnosis of lung cancer and dementia. They also pointed out that even though she still recognized family members and aides, the time would probably come when she wouldn’t–and I should be “glad” my mother (and we) did not reach that point. The relief somehow never came; in fact, as exhausting, expensive, and terrifying as the caregiving was, I found myself missing it–being uncertain what to do with myself afterward. Perhaps, too, the anger at and fear of dementia–which some day might plague me–overcame any sense of relief.

So, as with any other emotion, it’s complicated.