Caregivers Have Feelings, Too: How to Cope When a Beloved Client Dies

When a loved one dies, family members aren’t the only people who grieve. Caregivers, too, can experience a profound sense of loss for someone they spent many hours supporting and tending. From private aides to Geriatric Care Managers, those who devote their careers to helping ailing individuals are often deeply affected by a client’s death—especially when a professional relationship has evolved into a friendship.

The situation becomes all the more complicated if you now find yourself in the role of supporting grieving family members through their loss. It’s essential both to understand how best to be present for the family, as well as how to give yourself needed time to grieve.

You may feel that you should put your own feelings aside and focus solely on the family. But if you don’t acknowledge your own relationship to the deceased and what that means to you personally, your ability to heal and help others may be compromised.

“Mourning in our culture isn’t always easy. Normal thoughts and feelings connected to loss are typically seen as unnecessary and even shameful,” says Dr. Allen Wolfelt, Founder and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transitions. “But grief is not a disease. Instead, it’s a normal, healthy process of embracing the mystery of the death of someone loved.”

How do you find the right balance between experiencing your own grief and maintaining an appropriate, supportive and professional relationship with the family of a lost loved one?

Brandi Hackett, LMSW, C-ASWCM, of SeniorCare Options in Atlanta, Georgia, has these suggestions:

Understand Your Emotional Triggers

It’s essential to acknowledge the losses you’ve experienced in your own life and what they meant to you. How old were you? Was the death sudden or expected? How did you feel at the time? Did any specific rituals help you to come to terms with the loss? Was family response supportive or damaging?

Knowing the answers will help you to identify your own emotional triggers, and how you might be responding—appropriately or not—to how family members are processing their loss. Hackett notes that caregivers’ ability to be supportive depends on the ability to be “present with and open to difficult and raw emotions.”

Before entering a situation where you need to support clients, she recommends you “take a moment to pause, gather your thoughts, feel your feelings, compose yourself, and then enter with a conscious knowledge of how to be most helpful.”

Take Time Out to Grieve

Compassion fatigue is a real and present danger for all caregiving professionals. Don’t expect yourself to be infinitely able to cope calmly all the time. Especially for women, who dominate the caregiving professions and are socialized to put others’ needs before their own, self-care can seem selfish. But your ability to care for others actually depends on your willingness to tend to your own emotional and physical needs, first. The process can be even harder if you are managing several client losses at one time.

Take the time to take stock and give yourself space to grieve for a beloved client. As Hackett notes, “It is wrong to think we will NOT have an emotional response to the loss of someone we care deeply about!”

Be honest with yourself about your feelings about your client’s death and seek out the support you need. “Allow for the free flow of emotions,” Hackett advises. “Develop your own expression of the loss, embrace the painful feelings—and, in turn, become more available to those under your care.”

Be Present, Don’t Try to “Fix” Others Who are Grieving

Among the most important guidelines for supporting grieving family members, Hackett offers these, based on Dr. Wolflet’s teachings about bearing witness and serving as a companion to those who grieve:

  • Stay present. Don’t try to fix others or make it all better.
  • Create a safe space for others to express their loss.
  • Offer concrete assistance, rather than open-ended, “If there’s anything I can do . . . “
  • Encourage and listen closely to stories that survivors need to share.
  • Sit with the family’s pain—allow them to tell you how they feel, what they need.
  • Avoid problem-solving or comparing to another’s experience. Never belittle.
  • Reach out on an emotional level; show a genuine effort to understand. Don’t assume you “know just how they feel.”

Above all, be as kind to yourself as you strive to be for your clients. Loss takes time to process. Grief is real and a necessary part of the healing process. Learn from this loss as you seek meaning and cherish memories that will enable you to evolve your relationship with the loved one you have all lost.

Thanks to Brandi Hackett, LMSW, C-ASWCM, of SeniorCare Options in Atlanta, Georgia, who presented “Ethics for Grieving GCMs—How to Explore and Experience Personal Loss with a Professional Response” at the Annual Conference for the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers, Nashville, Tenn., May 2014.

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified geriatric care manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in geriatric care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsGCM.

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