Caregiver Grief

When Someone You Love Dies

Having to face the challenges of declining health and the end of life are common crossroads for some of the families profiled in Your Turn to Care. When someone dies after a long period of decline or illness, survivors, especially their caregivers, may be surprised by their grief response. Even when death is expected, the force of grief can be overwhelming.

If you've been immersed in the work of caregiving, it is now time to attend to your needs in ways that you may not have been able to while your loved one was alive. Allowing yourself to grieve involves a great deal of self care. This may be a challenging shift for caregivers whose focus has been on the needs of another. It's important to give yourself permission to grieve in your own way, in your own time. Understanding something about the grieving process may help you to approach your experience of grief with compassion and patience.

Common Grief Reactions

While sadness may be expected after a death, many grieving persons are uncomfortable with their feelings, and surprised by how their minds and bodies are affected by their grief. There is no right way to grieve. Everyone's grief is unique. However, there are experiences of grief that are common to all losses. Grief is commonly felt physically:

  • Hollowness in the stomach
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in appetite (increase or decrease)
  • Fatigue, low energy level
  • Dizziness, feeling short of breath, sighing
  • Tightness or heaviness in the chest
  • Tightness in the throat

Grief involves experiencing many feelings, not just sadness. Some common emotional reactions:

  • Shock/numbness
  • Intense loneliness
  • Relief
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety
  • Sudden changes in mood, crying at unexpected times
  • Yearning or longing for the deceased
  • Disbelief

Remember that all of these grief responses (and many not listed) are natural and normal. Part of healing is talking and crying with someone you trust, whenever you need to.

Getting Through the First Year

The first year will likely bring many ups and downs. In general, most people do find that the "downs" become less intense over time. The first year of holidays, milestones, and other important dates will likely be painful. Making plans for how to care for yourself through some of these "firsts" can help. Getting the support of others is an important part of coping and healing as you grieve.

If your spouse or significant other has died, your world has profoundly changed. Our relationships and history with a partner leave deep imprints on how we live day to day and on our identities as a couple, lover, best friend and parent. Your spouse or partner is often the person you have leaned on for support and shared the most intimate aspects of your life, for better or worse. Again, everyone's reaction to the death of a spouse is different. What remains common is the need to find new ways to connect to the people in your life, to gain the strength and support you need to continue the hard work of grieving.

Accepting help from family and friends can help you adjust to life without the person who has died. Some of the people in your life will be supportive, while others may disappoint you. If possible, choose to spend time with those who can respect your need to grieve, and to not be "okay". If your family and friends are not able to be supportive in the ways that you need, you may want to consider joining a bereavement group or finding a therapist, minister or rabbi who is experienced in grief related issues.

Holly EvansHolly A. Evans MA, MSG, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Pasadena, CA. She specializes in working with people in their middle and later years who are commonly coping with issues related to caregiving, relationships with aging parents, grief and loss, and other issues that arise during times of transition. Contact: (626) 808-5463. Website:

Photo Credit: The image associated with this entry was taken by Flick user ajagendorf25. It was used under Common Commons license.

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