Dear Family Advisor

I can't stop feeling that I was an inadequate caregiver to my mom.

Last updated: Aug 18, 2008

I am a 56-year-old registered nurse. I took time off work to care for my 81-year-old mother when she was dying of lung cancer. I had little support from my husband or my siblings: "You're the nurse" was their attitude. I was very close to my mother and talked with her every day. But I feel my care for her was inadequate and I wish I had done a better job. I was emotionally and physically a wreck by the time she died. I miss her so badly, it's ripping my heart out. She was a young 81 and was not ready to die, but she accepted it. Why do I feel like I'm 10 years old? Is this normal? And if not, how do I fix it?

Many people who have given their lives and hearts to caring for a parent have asked me, "When will I feel like me?" Honestly, you'll probably never feel exactly the same as you did before. Caregiving changes you. And even if you aren't a caregiver, a parent's death is a milestone in life -- even more so when a person is as close to a parent as you were.

Although in some ways you may have changed, however, I can promise you your joy, enthusiasm, and engagement with life will return. You just need to give it time.

Right now it sounds like you're coming off "caregiver adrenaline" and dealing with the "emotional drop." The guilt, regret, and remorse that you're feeling are normal. As a nurse, you may feel that you should have been able to do more -- sometimes it's more difficult for healthcare professionals to accept that they have the same limitations as other caregivers. Let yourself feel the pain and know that it won't last forever.

The first few months after my mom died, my arms literally felt out of joint, as if they were hanging useless at my sides. No doubt you'll feel lost for a while -- numb, edgy, disconnected, or anxious -- but stay engaged. Caregiving probably isolated you, particularly at the end. Give yourself a couple of months and then go back to work, take a class, or start another activity even if you don't feel like it.

It might help to write a letter to your mother. Tell her what you wish you could have done differently. If there's something particular that's nagging at you, write about it. Then sit someplace quiet with a picture of your mom and some items that represent her to you, and read your letter out loud. Picture her reading it. Would she be critical of your efforts to care for her? Would she disapprove of the job you did when you were braving it alone? Would she withhold her love and tenderness? Daughter, friend, caregiver -- I think she'd be the first to give you compassion. Then you can leave the guilt and regret there -- there's no need to pick them up again.

Later, you'll be easier on yourself. You'll begin to see what you did well, the moments of intimacy, painful and sweet, that only you two shared. Day-to-day caregiving doesn't always look heroic. It's consistency that counts, and you were there for her every day. It may take months, but you'll remember the good things you did while caregiving for her.

Eventually you'll also see that caregiving was just one part of your relationship with your mother. You were close to her even before you became her caregiver. You may feel that the physical exhaustion and frustration of caregiving took a toll on your relationship, but it didn't. Closeness and intimacy can come through in a look, a gentle touch of the hand, or even when you're fearful, on edge, or exhausted. The further you move from your mother's death, the more you'll be able to see the larger picture of your life together, and the closeness you had with her will return and comfort you.

After any kind of death, there is rebirth. You may find yourself reevaluating your life in the months ahead. This can be an opportunity to make some changes. Do you even want to go back to your life as it was before? As vulnerable as you feel now, trust that caregiving benefited your life in countless ways that you'll carry with you from now on.

Think of this experience as a riptide in the ocean. If you get caught in a riptide, your best bet for survival is not to fight it. Let it take you out, and save your energy. The riptide will eventually release you, and then you can safely swim to shore. But you're not going to land on shore in the same spot where you left it. Do you want to walk back to where you started? Or do you want to explore new territory?