The Sometimes Emotional Side of Caregiving

  • Taking care of a loved one who is ill with a disease like cancer is a rewarding, but also challenging, job. Caregivers frequently have complex feelings about the situation.

    Being a caregiver doesn’t automatically make someone a saint. And caregivers can experience emotions that feel, well, bad. Instead of unlimited patience and love, they have a full range of feelings—some of which can be hard to admit. Paula H. Finestone, PhD, a psychologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, describes four sometimes difficult emotions that you may experience if you’re a caregiver.

    1. Guilt. Many caregivers may feel that they haven’t provided the best possible care for their loved one. Or they might be upset that they didn’t manage to prevent the illness in the first place. This is guilt, and it isn’t always rational.

    “Guilt is all about the past,” Dr. Finestone said. “It’s done, and you can’t go back there and change it. Let it go.”

    Letting go can be tough. But try hard to forgive yourself. And know that you’re doing the best that you can for your loved one.

    2. Worry/Anxiety. “Worry is all about the future, and the future is a big question mark for all of us,” Dr. Finestone said. “So what you have, is what you have now and today. The important thing is to stay mindful and flexible. This is really hard for caregivers who are planners because cancer is a bolt out of the blue—it’s truly a surprise.”

    That worry about the future and a lack of control may make you feel anxious.

    Pay attention to your anxiety. When it appears, take deep breaths. Do something to take you away from those worrisome thoughts. Make tea, meditate or go for a walk.

    3. Grief. We often think of grief in terms of death. But we can also grieve for what we thought was the future or for how life has changed.

    “It can be the grief of, ‘We were going to have this beautiful retirement together and now we’re in the hospital,’ or ‘Now the dynamics of our family are messed up,’” Dr. Finestone said. “It’s ambiguous grief—it’s different than losing someone or something where there’s closure—this is about uncertainty.”

    Sometimes it helps to find a therapist or a caregiver support group to talk about these emotions and to find ways to cope.

    4. Anger. You may think that getting angry isn’t what good caregivers feel, but that’s not the case.

    “People sometimes feel anger towards the disease and the patient.” Dr. Finestone said. “The sneaky thing about anger is that it’s very much an emotion shown on the outside. What’s really under there is hurt, disappointment, feeling sad. Those are very normal emotions.”

    They may be normal feelings, but they can still be painful. Learn to walk away when you feel like you’re going to lose it—don’t be afraid to put yourself in a time out. Also, develop a support system of people who will listen when you need to vent frustrations.

    Caregiving that works for you

    Caregiving isn’t one size fits all.

    “There are no right or wrong ways to do it,” Dr. Finestone said. “Caregiving can be absolutely overwhelming. But be true to yourself and who your family is.”

    And don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Professionals are available to help you navigate the emotions and logistics of caregiving.