How can I stop feeling so guilty that I'm not doing enough for my mother?

1 answer | Last updated: Dec 03, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

My 72-year-old mother is in terrible pain and discomfort from battling late-stage cervical cancer. She complains all the time, and it makes me feel guilty that I'm not doing as much for her as I should. But then I get angry and resentful because I'm trying as hard as I can. How can I get her to stop making me feel guilty?


Expert Answers

Phyddy Tacchi is a psychiatric advanced practice nurse at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.
The short answer is that you can't get your mother to stop making you feel guilty, because nobody outside yourself can make you feel guilty. Guilt is one of those things that we have to take charge of for ourselves and make our peace with. There's not a dial on your forehead that someone else can use to dial in guilt.

Among caregivers, guilt is often the primary emotion. You're healthy and strong, and you're caring for someone who's weak, frail, and miserable -- that alone is going to set you up to feel guilty. Then there's the fact that many cancer patients are going to complain and tell you how much pain they're in. That's just the nature of a serious illness, but it makes you feel like you're supposed to do something about it. Except there's not much you can do, so you feel helpless and scared, and that makes you feel even more guilty.

So to start with, you need to lower your expectations for what you can accomplish for your parent. If your goal is for your parent to be free of symptoms or free of side effects, you're going to fail and you're going to feel guilty. So let go of that goal, or redefine it.

Your real goal is to keep your parent as comfortable as possible. Analyze each situation by looking at what you have the power to do and what you don't have the power to do. Every day you need to give yourself the message that you're doing everything that you can. You probably aren't medically trained -- and even if you are, there will be things that come up that you don't have any control over. You may make mistakes; in fact, you'd be unusual if you didn't. But you're doing the best you can, and that's something you can feel good about. And sometimes there's literally almost nothing that can be done. That's part of the disease process, and you just have to accept that.