Self Caring

When You Feel Helpless

Last updated:

February 08, 2011
Who's this?

Few caregiver emotions are as frustrating, or as potentially toxic -- as helplessness:

  • Making a choice you believe to be in your loved one's best interest and then being left to sit back and watch the consequences play out

  • Watching an incurable illness (Alzheimer's, cancer, Parkinson's, COPD) encroach

  • Witnessing others' stupid decisions (a parent remaining in an unsafe home, a sibling with legal power making a bad move) and feeling powerless to change their minds

  • Knowing your loved one's body is shutting down and there's nothing you can do but stand by and watch -- as painful as watching "comfort care" can sometimes be

As caregivers of the sick and dying, we can only do so much. Again and again, we reach a juncture. Make a decision. Come to a realization. Face the unfaceable. And then we're left to letting God, doctors, fate, luck, etc. take over, for the time being, or forever.

Enter the helplessness.

Unfortunately, feeling helpless is an opening for doubt, second-guessing, and yes, guilt to seep in. That can make you feel like crud -- which, of course, you don't deserve.

What helps? Try these six thought-changers:

1. Review what brought you here. Think about the rocks you turned over looking for answers, the doctors you consulted, the discussions with your loved one about his or her preferences. It can help to realize that caregivers get to particular junctures for good reason, and it's not usually because we've been dozing on the job.

2. Stop self-blame in its tracks. It's backward-looking and makes you feel crummy. For what? Red-flag phrases: "What if I had?" "If only I.." and "Why didn't I?" Red-flag words: "Shoulda" and "Woulda"

3. Plan ahead. You may indeed be unable to do anything at this moment, but you can make contingency plans for the future. If this outcome happens, then what? If that happens, then what? This lifts your brain out of unproductive negative mode and into a more positive (and useful) mode. (Just don't get too far ahead of yourself with the what-ifs or you'll make yourself crazy in a new way.)

4. Remember your place in the universe. Mere mortals (whether good daughters, loving mates, fine doctors, whomever) can only do so much. Sadly, we're not superheroes.

5. Consider that there might be a time for action and a time for inaction. Entertain the possibility that it's alright to do nothing, just for now.

6. Allow yourself a little grace for what you have done. You may feel helpless in the moment, but simply having that feeling actually says a lot about your true heart. You couldn't feel such anguish if you didn't care so much.

As one member wrote in a very affecting end-of-life forum this week about a mother dying of lung cancer:

"I feel I am letting her down because we don't know what she wants or needs." My Problem is I feel so guilty just sitting here helplessly watching her die....that feeling is heartwrenching...It is breaking my heart, and I don't know if I will ever be able to get over the fact that when she looks at me i am letting her down."

Helpless? Yes. Letting her down? No way.