by Amanda Romaniello
So often in my work I hear the word guilt used to describe the experience of caring for an aging parent or loved one. It is an emotion that overwhelms — one that is unfortunately self-imposed and therefore difficult to overcome.
Guilt is a perception that we are responsible for some wrongdoing, that we in some way violated a social, moral or legal code. The guilt that my clients feel is most often associated with the belief that they are in some way inadequate in caring for their loved ones. They feel as if they have made the wrong decisions regarding their care, and it seems as if any decision that is made can be second-guessed, resulting in intense feelings of remorse.
This back-and-forth type of thinking commonly occurs after a decision has been made to place a loved one in an assisted-care facility. I have heard a number of clients describe the emotional turmoil associated with this process. The guilt of possibly going back on a promise made to your loved one when they were still healthy, the relief of no longer being completely responsible for their well-being, the guilt for feeling a sense of relief . . . it goes on and on. This results in a perpetual disquiet, in which you never fully accept your decision and you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Another common caregiver experience is the guilt that comes from feeling any level of resentment or anger related to the often-overwhelming responsibility of caring for a sick loved one. The truth is, being a caregiver is difficult, time-consuming work, and it is simply impossible to manage everything. I have heard it equated to being a plate juggler at the circus, where the main focus is to keep everything moving. It’s ludicrous to think a person can maintain this juggling act indefinitely — at some point the exhaustion sets in and the plates start to fall. So, initially, there is guilt for being overwhelmed by the process, for feeling inadequate. Then there is guilt for not being able to maintain the pace.
Ultimately, the person’s inner dialogue sounds something like this: “I feel like I am doing everything I can to care for my loved one, but I can’t overcome this nagging feeling that I haven’t done enough, and so I feel guilty about that. Now I’ve become overwhelmed by this enormous responsibility, and I am frustrated and angry, and that leads me back to guilt for even feeling resentment.” It’s like being on an emotional hamster wheel that just keeps spinning but never actually gets you any closer to acceptance or peace.
The good news is that since guilt is so often self-imposed, it can be overcome. Whether you’re running on your hamster wheel or juggling your plates, you CAN stop.
Here are a few things you should remember:
- YOU ARE HUMAN: You are fallible and imperfect. You are emotional and you have a right to feel frustrated, angry and overwhelmed. You do not have to feel guilty about this because you are not going to stop taking care of your loved one. You will always do your best, but you can’t control everything and their health may decline, but this has nothing to do with you. You have to remember that and remind yourself each time you start judging yourself.
- TAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF: You need self-care — we all do. Go to the gym, get a mani-pedi, go out with friends, do something that is only for you. Recharge your battery and don’t feel badly about doing it. When you are on a plane, they instruct you to put your oxygen mask on first before helping someone else. The same applies here — you need to be your best self before you can take care of anyone else.
- ACCEPT YOUR LIMITATIONS: You cannot do everything. Know when to ask for help or guidance. This does not mean you are inadequate — asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. Remember that.
- AND, FINALLY, BREATHE: You can only do one thing at a time. Focus on today, the here and now. Take time once a day to just breathe — ground yourself in the present. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true. When you start to feel overwhelmed, ask yourself, how does an ant eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Not only are you grounding yourself, you may even laugh.
Have you experienced any of these feelings? Share with us your thoughts on caregiver guilt and any ways you’ve found to handle these disquieting emotions.
Amanda Romaniello is a clinical social worker at Family Centers and the agency’s Coordinator of Clinical Services for Darien and New Canaan, CT. Romaniello also oversees clinical work at the Center for HOPE, Family Centers’ program for critical illness and bereavement support. Serving Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, New Canaan, CT, and Westchester County, NY, Family Centers is a United Way, New Canaan Community Foundation and Community Fund of Darien partner agency, offering counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.