My mom had a part-time job she loved, but gave it up to provide care for my dad. He recently died and she won’t go back to work because “it would make her feel guilty.” Is this normal?
What she is experiencing is a form of what psychologists call “survivor’s guilt,” often experienced by those who are coping with loss and have survived some catastrophe in which others died. It stems from feeling guilty that they did not do enough to save those who died or they aren’t worthy of being one of those who did survive. For example, people who escaped from the Twin Towers on September 11 reported feeling survivor’s guilt and some, to this day, can’t shake feeling guilty.
Losing a spouse is also catastrophic – it may not involve many other people and the death may even be expected, but the end result is a dramatic loss that deeply affects one’s sense of self and the world around them. Add an intensive year of caregiving, as in your mom’s case, and she’ll feel another kind of guilt coming from a sense of relief. Suddenly, the stress of taking your father to one doctor after another, keeping up with his medications, and helping him bathe, eat and dress is over. Over the last year she has lost sleep, has felt tired and – in her darkest moments – was resentful at life’s turn of events. Now she’s been freed but feels that if she allows herself to be happy that she’s no longer a caregiver, she’s betraying your dad. She might even think that going back to work is tacit acknowledgement to others that his death is a good thing.
You and I know this isn’t the case, but it’s hard for your mom to see clearly through a storm of conflicting emotions when coping with a loss. Nor does she see the exacting toll that caregiving has had on her and those she loves. The “Evercare Study” by the National Caregiver Alliance revealed some pretty alarming results: three out of four caregivers found their health failing and couldn’t find time to get to the doctor; most felt aches and pains; eight out of ten weren’t getting enough sleep, felt drained and depressed; and six out of ten admitted they weren’t eating right. Chances are your mother’s health isn’t in the best state of affairs either.
Now it’s your turn to do for your mom what she did for your dad. Tell her you want to look out for her. “Just like Dad needed to let you help him, I need you to let me do the same for you.” Explain to her that she needs to heal, not only in her grieving, but in recovering from a very long year of caregiving. Take her to her doctor to get a good physical check-up that should also include a heart-to-heart talk about how she’s feeling. If she shows signs of clinical depression, her physician should treat it.
She may need you and her doctor to give her “permission” to go back to work. Tell her doing so is really about getting well – it’s about her health. Being active, getting out of the house, and engaging socially with others are the best antidotes against sadness and depression. Assure her that your father would want her to be well and there’s nothing more important to you than her wellbeing. If you frame it this way, you’ll help her let go of some of the guilt so she can escape its paralyzing grip. Going to work will also give her a sense of purpose that can fill the void she’s feeling now that no one needs her for care.
Tell your mom she should let her co-workers and supervisor know that she may have to ease into her old job. It would be helpful if she also let them know how they can best support her. They might think that bringing up your dad will make her feel sad or if they don’t say anything your mom will feel they don’t care. But if she’s having a particularly hard day (it might be your parents’ anniversary), she should let coworkers know how they can help. This should ease her anxiety over any unrealistic expectations that she can only go back to work if she’s at 100 percent.
Going to work might very well be just what the doctor ordered. And that’s something your mom should be able to accept after a year of following doctor’s orders for your dad