Caregiving: Grief as Self-Care

Each month I lead a support group for family caregivers.  Our discussions cover a number of topics about the art of giving care:  spirituality, ambiguous loss, grief, family dynamics, compassion fatigue.  But there’s one topic I haven’t introduced since the early days of the group: self- care.

Why?  Why have I avoided this important topic?  Surely self-care is an important and necessary facet of avoiding burnout.  Surely the wisdom of self-care teaches us to take respite time, do something enjoyable, exercise, eat nutritiously, link up with supportive friends.

So why not talk about it?

I haven’t talked much about self-care because each person in the group, being the wise and experienced caregivers they are, knows all the typical advice.  And they practice it well.  They don’t need a refresher course.   In fact, they could teach it to others.

But recently I read something new about self-care, a thought I hadn’t considered.  It comes from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom.* She states:

People who really don’t care are rarely vulnerable to burnout.   Psychopaths don’t burn out.  There are no burned-out tyrants or dictators.  Only people who do care can get to this place of numbness.  We burn out not because we don’t care but because we don’t grieve.  We burn out because we have allowed our hearts to become so filled with loss that we have no room left to care. In my experience burnout only really begins to heal when people learn how to grieve.  Grieving is a way of self-care.  (pp.52-53)

I read this to my support group and asked them what they thought about this perspective.  They agreed with Dr. Remen.  And so do I.  Trying on stoicism, pretense, or toughness doesn’t help us work through the myriad feelings of grief. Expressing our grief does.  Grieving is self-care.

The hard work of grieving releases pain and opens up an inner space for the life-strengthening attributes of relief, comfort, and even peace.  While we may not want to be in touch with difficult feelings, or express them, it is by engaging in our grief that connects us to our deeper selves.   And when we do this, we discover a strength that carries us forward into the hard work of caregiving.

Grieving is a form of self-care.

*Published by the Berkley Publishing Group, 1996.

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