Written By: Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MBP Consulting, LLC, Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin – Extension
Caregivers experience grief from the losses experienced when their service member or veteran has a chronic illness or severe injury. Examples of these losses are, a spouse is no longer able to manage finances because of post-traumatic stress disorder, or the loss of intimacy due to injuries or the loss of a military career. I often hear caregivers say, “I wish my life could go back to the way it was before the illness or injury.” “I never thought my life would end up the way it has.” Grieving over losses can lead to depression or other health problems if the caregiver doesn’t find a way to accept the new reality of their current life. Many military families refer to the acceptance of their losses as their “new normal.”
Adjusting to their “new normal” takes time and can be easier if the caregiver understands the grieving process. They may physically react to grief by crying more, not sleeping well, eating a lot or nothing, having more headaches or other physical reactions. Grief is also exhibited emotionally when the caregiver is more aggressive or passive, they feel as if their life is out of control or they are sad or depressed. Some caregivers question their faith and are angry with God while others return to their faith for support and become more spiritual. Many experience feelings of being alone, they isolate themselves, or become envious of others and their life. Since every person shows grief in different ways it’s helpful to talk about how caregivers are feeling and how these feelings are different since their service member became ill or injured.
Stages of Grief
The differences can also happen as the caregiver moves through the grief stages. The grief stages are not linear and the caregiver may skip around them. They may find themselves going back and forth between the stages of the grief process multiple times. Grief comes and goes and often takes the caregiver by surprise when its least expected.
Grief starts when the caregiver first learns about the medical condition of their service member or veteran and do not want to accept what they are hearing. Denial includes shock, which is the body’s way of helping the caregiver with what is happening to them. The caregiver is in disbelief, thinking they are living a nightmare and hoping to wake up and find out what they heard isn’t true. It is during this time that the caregiver is uncertain about what to do but manages to get through each day. Denial will eventually go away and for many the next stage is anger.
Anger can be felt as helplessness, powerlessness, rage, hurt, fear, irritation, or frustration. The caregiver may ask questions such as why me? Why us? Feelings of anger should be expected as it’s a normal part of the grief process and helps caregivers with their pain. Caregivers begin to ask more questions to learn about the injury or illness, they often make changes and even become an advocate for themselves, their service member and others in similar situations. What isn’t healthy, when experiencing anger, is keeping it inside and expressing it in unhealthy ways by turning to drugs, alcohol or hurting themselves or others. Since anger takes a lot of energy and emotion, caregivers often move next into the bargaining stage of grief.
Bargaining is when the caregiver tries to change their situation by making “deals” with God or friends with hopes of making the situation go away. They ask questions of what could have been or what should have been done differently. Sometimes caregivers get stuck in this phase. When caregivers share the deals, they want to make with “God” with friends or a counselor, reality begins to set in and they realize they can’t change what has happened. This moves the caregiver into the stage of depression. The reality of their situation overwhelms them as they experience sadness, fear, anxiety and lost. This stage of grief is necessary in order for the reality of their situation to “sink in” and be understood. By experiencing feelings of hopelessness and sorrow, they move into the last phase of grief, which is acceptance. Acceptance does not mean they like their situation but they realize it’s their “new normal” and begin to think and find ways of adjusting and moving forward. The caregiver may even begin to think about ways to do the best he/she can in their situation and may reach out to help others. Caregivers who go through the five stages of grief come out a different person. They are stronger, have a better understanding of themselves and their situation, and are wiser on how to deal with other life losses (Family Caregiver Alliance).
Tips for Professionals
As professionals there are numerous ways we can assist caregivers through their grieving process including:
- Listening to their stories without judgement. Asking probing questions to encourage caregivers to clarify what they are feeling.
- Encouraging them to journal their thoughts and feelings. Asking them to think about their feeling. Are they different than before their “new normal”? Why? How?
- Supporting the caregiver where they are at in the grief process. Don’t force them to share feelings if they don’t want to. Be patient with them as it may be difficult for them to name what they are feeling.
- Recognizing that the grief process isn’t linear and helping the caregiver realize that acceptance doesn’t happen overnight.
- Allowing the caregiver to experience their pain and helping them recognize it. If they have trouble naming it try to have them describe it. See if the caregiver can’t give it a name as naming it could give the caregiver a sense of control.
- Helping them realize how other life events are affecting their current reactions to their situation. It could include values from their family, culture influences, or religious training.
- Allowing the caregiver to express their anger, frustration, or bitterness as they try to make sense of what has happened to them and their family.
- Suggesting positive coping strategies for caregivers that they might want to explore such as a support group, an educational class on grief, or reading resources on the topic.
- Sharing with the caregiver the grief stages and discuss where they are in the grief process.
- Sharing resources, the caregiver can utilize as needed. Some potential sources include:
By helping caregivers understand their grief, professionals can guide them to creating their own “new normal” and accepting the reality of how it will shape their life.