Welcome. So glad you’ve stopped by. How about a cup of coffee, green tea with honey and lemon, or what the heck, a dry martini?

No one knows better than I that “caregiver” is just one way to describe us. We’re also teachers and artists, writers and readers, students of life, and the bearers of hard-won wisdom. We are parents, pet lovers, siblings, spouses, sons, daughters, and friends who know how to support and encourage each other. So, let’s embrace all the things we are, not only the caregiver part. I can’t wait to get started. Hope you feel the same.

6/16/2017

What’s in YOUR Caregiving Purse?

Truth be told, I’ve had a thing for purses since the age of four. Back then I used to carry candy, crayons, and a picture of my cat, Mooney. Later, my handbag contained the usual keys, a wallet, a makeup pouch, a cell phone, and a damp washcloth in a plastic bag, (oh, wait, that was my mother). When I became a caregiver though, the contents of this over-the-shoulder life support system quickly expanded with my new reality. Now I carried:

Hastily jotted sticky notes, which sometimes stuck to my butt as I ran errands. One evening, I spent an entire hour grocery shopping with a sign attached to my pants that read “Fleets enema.” Trust me, that’s a back-story you don’t want to hear.

A dozen to-do lists. Actually, it’s pretty normal for me to juggle multiple lists, partly because there’s something so damned satisfying in being able to line through something.

A pound of change in a baggie for the parking meter at my mother’s rehab center. Twenty minutes for a quarter, which is about what my time was worth.

A key ring to make a janitor jealous. It held twelve keys, including my office, house, and car; my parents houses and their safe deposit box, along with an assortment of scan thingies from Stein Mart and TJ Maxx for retail therapy.

My cell phone. Instead of salivating like Pavlov’s dogs every time it rang, my body’s response was a spray of adrenaline up my spine that wore me out. To keep my sanity, I would change ring tones every few weeks.

Tweezers, for pulling inch long chin hairs that literally sprang out of nowhere. What’s with that? And of course, I never noticed them until glancing in my car mirror while sitting in traffic. Who can pluck while everyone’s watching??

A pocket calendar with laughably small squares. Does anyone’s life actually fits in those one-inch boxes??

A brochure for an assisted living facility. I picked one up for my mother, but secretly wondered if it might be better for me, instead.

A relaxation CD from a friend. Great stuff, if I only had time to listen. It’s kind of like a lottery ticket. You have to play to win.

Mooshed up Kleenex for those times I was so exhausted and a stranger would say or do something kind. I’m not a crier, but that would always bring me to hot, messy, nose-running tears.

My parents’ healthcare forms including: HIPPA letters, durable powers of attorney; healthcare surrogate documents; and living wills. I didn’t think it the least bit odd to also carry their DNR’s (Do Not Resuscitate), as well. It is always about being prepared.

A list of my parents’ doctors. Unfortunately, my dad was doing a great job of alienating most of them, so the list was constantly changing. One physician told him he had an anger problem and suggested counseling. When my dad actually called to schedule a session, he got a voicemail recording, and left a string of four letter words that I can never, ever repeat.

Last, but not least, I rarely went anywhere without a twisted sense of humor; because, as we caregivers know, despite all our preparation and planning for the unexpected challenges of this role, sometimes laughter can save us when nothing else will.

So, in the spirit of sharing, tell us what’s in your purse today?

 

 

6/3/2017

Faith, friends and fur babies

What do these words have in common? According to the amazing caregivers who answered my FaceBook shout-out, these are all ways of finding peace when you’re between a rock and the hard place of caregiving. Read on for even more wisdom from caregivers just like you. Many thanks to everyone for being so generous with your time and your words!


I kept a list of goals accomplished, because you do accomplish things . A brief list of achievements reinforces that you are indeed effective. Cathy G

You must find someone to take over your caregiving for an hour, a day, or a weekend so that you can do something for yourself. Ginni B

One word – family. My mother’s illness and eventual death brought my brothers and me such closeness that I almost think she planned it that way. Brenda B

Laughter is THE best medicine. Look for it. It’s there! Cathy S

Make a self soothing box. Find a pretty box (any size you prefer). Put inside the box things that soothe you Like: candle,scented lotion,picture of your loved one when they were young, rock from a vacation, cork from a bottle of wine that holds a story etc.  Sheila A

Reaching out for help. I simply asked people to text me to relax, or breathe, or pray…whenever they thought of me randomly during the day. Becky D

Only the grace and mercy of God keeps me going when I want to quit. Ruth H

Without laughter where would we be?  In the end it’s the only thing that helps us hang on longer. Cathy C

Watching Master of None and laughing till it hurts!!! We are more than the fixer, the caregiver, the one who must make decisions. Enee A

My “calm” has always been music. Whether studying it, playing it, or merely listening and appreciating it, music transcends all boundaries. Chris A

I’m still working on that. Jen K

Taking time to look through pictures of past memories. Remembering wonderful times with friends and family. This can renew your soul. Denise H

“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Liz L

Scheduling 15 minutes of “me” time. Catherine B

I cry, I call my friends who lift my spirits up, I hold & kiss my cat, I sit on my deck admiring the beautiful view, I read late at night, I make a dessert…… it’s little things that add up that gets me through. Eve T

The peace is found knowing that what you are doing is the ultimate labor of love. When it is over, you will miss so much of what you did so lovingly. Elizabeth M

Prayer. Jac D

“Recognize the Lord’s presence in the difficult times, and give Him the glory. See how even the things we think of as setbacks are all part of His perfect plan for our lives. Susan C

Sometimes all I can do is simply breathe and rely on the only One who can see me through that very moment. Jana S

My sweet golden and chocolate help me work through it. Each of us has to find our own path to acceptance of hard choices. Debra R

I no longer think of myself as a caregiver, which implies duty, but rather as performing the work that He has given me for today. Tom M

My favorite bible verse “I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me.” Helen H

The motto we used through 5 brain surgeries and subsequently 6 months in the hospital: TODAY IS NOT FOREVER. TODAY IS JUST TODAY. Lori R

I pray, then get busy with what God would have me do for that day. Roxanne M

I can stand anything for a little while!! Good times do not last forever and neither do bad ones!! Sharon D

I love him more than enough and I can love him through this. Judith R

On-line support, friends, and prayers. Michele L

A walk or some outdoor activity. Nanette H

The beautiful tile painting of a dove was found at a friend’s home. 

 

4/28/2017

A Caregiver’s Caregiver

Colleen Kavanaugh headshot

If you feel like you’re wading through quicksand sometimes, here’s Part Two of my interview with Colleen Kavanaugh of The Longest Dance. Relatable and compassionate, her experience in helping other caregivers find solid ground offers a sense of hope that you can see this caregiving journey through and come out stronger on the other side. It’s reassuring to know that’s possible. 

What is your advice to someone who is new to this journey? Get help. I like to use the example of hospitals and other care facilities to illustrate that it takes a village. These communities have a staff of hundreds to handle the care of each patient or resident. One person isn’t assigned to care for another. One person handles a component of care. And, that person doesn’t work 24/7. In whatever way you are able to supplement care or hire out for certain chores and responsibilities, do it. Have experts you can call on for certain issues like legal and financial matters. Think of your caregiving role as a manager building a team of support for you and your caree. Try to remember that you don’t know what you don’t know. But know that you know enough to know you need help.

It’s easy to lose our other selves when we’re caregiving.  Share something about you that is unrelated to the caregiving role. Being at the beach, any beach, is my happy place. And I love eating fabulous food. In fact, I am doing this interview with you while waiting in line at Franklin Barbeque in Austin, Texas. While I wouldn’t have flown to another state for barbecue as a caregiver, I did allow myself to rent a beach town’s teeny tiniest bargain rate cottage 8 blocks from the ocean that was just a 20-minute further drive to my Dad, who was at that time in a nursing home during what would be his last summer. I was able to be with him daily, but return to my happy place and give my son a bit of a vacation. I share this story to show that there are ways to creatively sneak in your own joy during what can be the most difficult time of your life. Maybe it’s a class that meets at a time when you are able to get care coverage, or a two-night getaway when a sibling comes to town and can stay with your parent or loved one. Even just a quick manicure before you head into the grocery store can make a difference.

Artists aren’t the only ones with creative gifts. For some, it’s painting or music. For others, it’s making people feel comfortable or cared for. What’s your gift? Maybe a bit like you, Judith, as a “hyper-responsible oldest child,” I have a gift for being hyper-organized. I love connecting with others, and when that connection comes with the opportunity to help them organize their desk, sock drawer or now – medical records, I am in heaven. I am invincible with a well-crafted list and was known at my parent’s doctor’s offices as, “That girl with the clipboard.” Inefficiency drives me wild, and as you can imagine, the unpredictability of caregiving tested my patience like nothing else. Organization was truly my best friend. Don’t underestimate the power of your natural gifts to assist you during your time as a family caregiver! Reflecting back on my experience, if I had to do it all over again, I would tell myself each day to:

 

  • Acknowledge your role
  • Prepare as best as you are able
  • Look for the light within the dark – it is there
  • Subversively sneak in joy whenever and wherever you are able
  • Lead your team to support you and the person for whom you care
  • Use your natural talents to help in your own uniquely empowering way

And know, above all else, that you’ve got what it takes.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. I am living proof, and you will be too!

 

 

4/21/2017

What’s In A Name?

Colleen Kavanaugh super-denier

For my guest, Colleen Kavanaugh, being a working mother, a daughter, and a partner are a few of the identities she’s comfortable with. But, when taking on the heavy responsibilities of advocating for a mom with Stage-4 breast cancer and a dad with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, she wasn’t quite ready to add “caregiver” to the list.  The result was a situation where she ended up doing everything on her own, with no safety net of support. Sound familiar? Founder of The Longest Dance , both a certified caregiving consultant and a certified dementia communication specialist, Colleen is also a daughter who has walked a mile in many of our shoes. I’m so pleased to share her story and the powerful lessons she’s learned in this first of a two-part interview. 

What were the circumstances in which you found yourself in the role of caregiver? This question always puts a line from The Talking Heads song, Once In A Lifetime into my head, “And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” During my decade of caregiving I asked myself that question, in David Byrne singsong cadence, over and over again. Caregiving was certainly never an activity on my list of things to do, that’s for certain. I look at my tenure as a family caregiver as what insurance policies call an “Act of God”, like a storm that you hear happening to other towns but never yours. My parents were diagnosed with diseases and needed care. Period. No choice. No picking what is behind door #2 after door #1 had been opened. To reductively sum up my caregiving storm in one run-on sentence…. I was a 34-year old newly divorced parent of a toddler, working full time when I began caring for my mom who was diagnosed (and lived a prognosis defying 3 years) with stage-4 breast cancer and within 9 months of her dying, I began caring for my widowed dad who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, all the while attempting to live my own life (which now included a new partner and his two children) while dismantling my parent’s very complicated lives.In the midst of it, not unlike being in the middle of a catastrophic storm, I was unable to control the forecast (the diagnosis), but only able to control how I dealt with storm prep and clean up.

What was the most difficult part of caregiving? Was there a positive side to it? If so, please describe. The most difficult part of caregiving, for me, was acknowledging that I was a caregiver. This denial was detrimental to my getting the support I should have gotten in order to manage the stress that I wore around my neck like an invisible barnacle. Even during the times when a parent’s care consumed my life, I was still a mother, partner, daughter, employee, volunteer and active daydreamer. I think part of denying my role was that I ultimately did not want to be doing what I was doing. And what I was ultimately doing was watching my parents die from terminal, degenerative illnesses. Who wants “Death Sherpa” on their business card? I certainly didn’t. That said, the flip side of my business card would have read, “Life Igniter” because, amid the intensity of the worries, endless to-do’s, and perpetual grieving, I truly learned how to live. I met death close up and it whispered to me that I needed to make the most of the unknown time I have left. The intensity of emotions and situations that exist within caregiving are a nonstop roller coaster ride of grueling climbs to a pinnacle that once reached, hurl you off the top into a descent that you can not prevent, control, or escape. It’s nausea inducing at first but slowly, over time, it becomes your new normal and you are no longer getting motion sick at each free fall (or in a caregiver’s case, each health decline, hospital visit, 911 call, or middle of the night crisis). When my caregiving ride was finally over, I knew I could not just walk away from all that I had learned. If an ounce of my experience could be of value to another family caregiver, I needed to share it and give others the practical support and encouragement I so often wished I had, but didn’t know I needed.

 

Please come back for Part 2 of our interview on Friday, April 28th. In the meantime, be sure to check out Colleen’s website to learn more about the services she offers to caregivers, and sign up to receive some valuable (and free) organizational tools for making life a bit easier.

4/3/2017

A Recipe for Caregiving

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A giving heart
A very large purse
Strength you didn’t know you had
Enough humor to get you through tough times
Headlights and Dramamine for this roller coaster ride in the dark
Compassion – not just for others, but for yourself
Confidence that you’re doing your best in situations where no easy answer exists
A nickel for every time you have to keep your mouth shut to keep the peace
A belief that you will be ok, no matter what

What would you add?!?

2/5/2017

An Interview With April Koontz

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I’m so pleased to post this recent interview with April Koontz, creator of  DaughtersUnite, “a place where daughters can turn for streamlined information and support from other daughters who have already walked this journey.” April’s open and honest story is one that many of us can relate to as we care for a family member, or two, or three. And I love her belief in the collective wisdom and knowledge that we can share to support and encourage each other. I also want to thank April for the beautiful illustration she designed especially for this piece. It’s a true reflection of warmth and spirit.    

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You’ve mentioned before that identifying as a caregiver came as a surprise to you.  What were the circumstances when you first realized that you were a caregiver?  I was the primary caregiver for my younger brother who suffered from severe bipolar disorder and polysubstance addiction for over 15 years prior to his sudden unintentional overdose in 2010. During his illness I never once identified as his “primary caregiver”. The term was never brought up by any of his treatment providers and it’s actually not a term that is used as much in the mental health arena. All I knew at the time was that I was his sister who happened to have a Masters Degree in Social Work and knew better than anyone else in my family how to navigate the mental health system. Five years after my brother’s death, my mom’s sister (my aunt) who lived in St Louis and was the primary caregiver for her husband (my uncle) who had Alzheimer’s, fell and broke her ankle. It was Christmas Eve and my aunt and uncle had no children and were fairly isolated because of my uncle’s hoarding disorder. Subsequently, my mom and I flew from Raleigh to St Louis the day after Christmas to provide as much support as we could. When we arrived, we realized there was no way the two of them could continue to safely live in their home. Within two months, we moved them across the country which was truly the most monumental job I’ve ever had in my entire life. My aunt has a multitude of chronic medical conditions herself so establishing medical providers, transferring their Medicare and actually providing ‘hands on’ care to both of them in addition to managing the sell of their home, cars and financial accounts was indescribably stressful. It was during this time that I was exposed to the ‘primary caregiver’ label and the plethora of caregiving resources and support available. The issue then was there was so much information that I was completely overwhelmed again.

What has been the most difficult part of caregiving? What has been the most positive? The most difficult part was the all-consuming nature of it. My mind was completely hi-jacked by every aspect of two other people’s lives including their physical and emotional health needs, their legal and financial needs and their 1800 square feet of wall-to-wall ‘stuff’. For two years I was sorting through mounds of bank accounts, IRAs, credit cards, life insurance policies, subscriptions, prescriptions, utility accounts, car titles and filling out new patient forms for every new provider each one of them established treatment with – which was a total of at least eight. Oh, and the grocery shopping, rides to and from their medical appointments, coordinating their care with their specific providers, picking up their prescriptions and remembering to have them refilled, bathing them, cleaning up their incontinence episodes, figuring out why their TV wouldn’t turn on or why their Internet was down and rushing over when one of them would fall. My uncle died of a sudden heart attack three months after their move which was definitely a blessing in disguise since his Alzheimer’s was worsening – however, I was then tasked with managing all of the activities that go along with a person’s death.

The most positive part was that I knew I was supposed to be helping them. The day my aunt called to say she had fallen and broken her ankle, I felt compelled – like I was being divinely nudged – to go help them. Throughout the process I’ve learned that stepping in as a primary caregiver can often be a very sacred experience. For me, it was about the human experience of walking along side a person during their darkest hours. Even though there have been many days that I’ve questioned where I’d find the strength and perseverance to make it through the day – it’s somehow always been there. Another incredibly positive aspect has been what I’ve learned and the amazing  tribe of caregivers out there who have been transformed by their own caregiving experience and want nothing more than to help others.

What would your advice be to someone who is new to this journey? Get armed with knowledge. Get real about who you are and what you value most in your day to day life. Get connected with others who have walked or are currently walking this journey. And, last, but not least, get clear on your personal boundaries. The last one is a huge one. We’re often thrown into the role of ‘caregiver’ as a result of a crisis. Our loved one falls or has a stroke or is diagnosed with cancer or dementia, etc. and we’re flooded with emotions and adrenaline that fuels our desire for action to help in any way we can. This is a great gift, but, it’s not sustainable over the long-haul. If we jump in with both feet without having established a support network ahead of time that can fill in when we need rest – we burn out very quickly. And there’s nothing worse than experiencing caregiver burnout. It’s exhausting, depressing, anxiety producing and leads to our own serious health issues.

What’s the biggest challenge facing caregivers, today? From my experience, caregiving happens in stages and there are challenges in each stage, but the biggest challenge is not being prepared. We’re not taught (at least in the U.S.) about how to embrace – much less, face the fact that if we don’t die suddenly we’ll all eventually get sick and die. As a result, we don’t take the time to think through and plan for how we’ll manage the caregiving duties we all will eventually face in our lifetime. There is no getting around it. Unless we’re complete loners who live in the wilderness or extraordinarily wealthy and can hire a personal staff of caregivers we’ll eventually end up in the caregiver role in some way, shape or form. We also don’t think about who will care for us and the demands our caregiving needs will have one those we love. I was deeply struck by a question a dear friend of mine named George Fuller, the founder of Silver Compassion asked me: “Who in your life will change your diapers?”. That’s a profound question and speaks to the need to think ahead and actually have these types of conversations with our core people in our lives. If you don’t want a loved one changing your diapers then you better save enough money to ensure that doesn’t happen. The reality is most of us won’t be able to financially afford 24/7 professional care and someone we know and love will fill this role. Who will that be for you? Whose diapers will you agree to change?

What made you want to create Daughters Unite? What’s your vision for Daughters Unite moving forward? In June 2015, I was sitting in a continuing education seminar about elder law. At one point, the attorney who was facilitating the seminar starting talking about the fact that it’s typically the daughter who ends up in the primary caregiver role for the family. On average, the daughter is 49 years old, employed, married and, according to one Metlife study, experiences a negative inheritance of $324,000 due to giving up promotions, moving to part-time hours or leaving the workforce altogether. I was completely stunned. I had managed my brother’s care, moved my aunt and uncle across country and have aging parents who I’m certain will need my help at some point down the road. It was at that point that I decided I needed to somehow pull my fellow daughters together. Since launching Daughters Unite, I’ve now realized three very important things: 1) Daughters don’t recognize themselves as caregivers until well into the caregiving process; 2) Since they don’t initially know they’re a caregiver – they miss the tons of information and support that’s available for them as “caregivers” when they need it most; and, 3) There are way more Millennial Daughters in the role of caregiver than we knew existed. That being said, I’ve had the privilege of meeting several amazing daughters turned caregivers turned entrepreneurs who have written books about their caregiving experience, developed training programs for caregivers and/or offer caregiving coaching services. The ultimate vision is to build the Daughter Dream Team and introduce the products, programs and services these experienced Daughters have created to the Daughters who have yet to realize they either are or will be a caregiver.

It’s easy to lose our other selves when we’re caregiving.  Share something about you that is unrelated to the caregiving role. I’d say my greatest passion in life is music. Beginning in my teenage years, throughout every decade so far – I’ve been singing in rock bands and writing songs. I’m actually in the studio right now working on a collection of songs that have really been my saving grace as I’ve worked through my grief over the sudden deaths of my 34 year old brother and 53 year old cousin who was a close friend of mine. I’m thrilled with how these songs are turning out from a production standpoint and can’t wait to launch the album.

Artists aren’t the only ones with creative gifts. For some it’s painting, or music. For others its making people feel comfortable or cared for. What’s your gift? I believe one of my gifts that I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older is my ability to show up for people in their darkest hour and actually ‘stay’ with them in their sadness and grief. I’m comfortable walking with others through the sudden hospitalization or death of a loved one and helping oversee the detailed arrangements or other logistics that are needed. The ability to do this is actually an incredible gift to me.

April can be reached via:

FB:  https://www.facebook.com/daughtertribe/

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/DaughtersUnite

Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/daughters_unite/

Website:  https://daughtersunite.com/

 

10/21/2016

Living An Artful Life

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When someone asked my mother who or what was most dear to her, the two-fold answer was given without any hesitation. My siblings and I came first, and art was second.

Always focused on the positives in her life,  she embraced family, friends, and a variety of painting mediums, in much the same fashion – with profound appreciation and attention to the qualities that made them unique. Her signature work was all rich jewel tones and welcoming flowers, which, over time, offered a visual reflection of her personal journey as both a woman and an artist.

When she died in 2013, her supplies came home with me. It didn’t matter if, or when they might be used again. What I needed most were her well-worn paintbrushes standing at hopeful attention in a favorite coffee mug, and those boxes of brightly smudged tubes of paint.

Working through the grief, I threw myself into writing a guide book about caring for both my parents in their final years; giving workshops on the topic; and even creating a writer’s group especially for caregivers. It has been soul work for sure, but at the same time, I’ve yearned for something less end-result and more about finding joy in the process.

Just like the Zen saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher arrives,” this month I found my way to a glorious collage and painting class called Big Bold Blooms, given by Lynn Whipple, one of my favorite artists. The irony is not lost on me since I could kill a plastic plant if given enough time.

The old paints and brushes are thrilled to be needed again, and my collection of tissue paper and oil pastels are calling out, “Pick me! Pick me!”  Feeling my mom’s presence close at hand, the first piece emerges in a mix of ripe purples, greens and turquoise, with a few tiny buttons thrown in for good measure.  Is it perfect? No. Do I care? Not a bit. Discarding judgment and being open to wonder are the real goals here.

Thanks to Carla Sonheim, a private Face Book page has been created for Bloomers, as we’re known, to share our progress. The wildly diverse styles and colors are breathtaking, and so is the generosity of spirit towards sister painters, from newbies to professionals, around the globe.

Starting with the warm and wonderful Lynn, our gifted guide, everyone’s words are kind, the encouragement is enthusiastic, and for those going through difficult times, there is comfort and compassion to be found.

Every day, I become more enchanted with each creative session, and with my gracious teacher and classmates, as well.  Like my mother, they understand that living an artful life is not just about learning to paint. It’s about celebrating each other with an open heart.

Carla and Lynn’s websites: You’ll want to check them both out.

http://www.carlasonheim.com

http://www.lynnwhipple.com 

10/3/2016

The Cone of Uncertainty-What I Know About Grief

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When I first moved to Florida many years ago, the expression “Cone of Uncertainty” caught my attention. During hurricane season, it refers to the cone-shaped path that a storm might potentially follow at any given time. In other words, the weather forecasters can’t really pinpoint when or where it might land.

Turns out, that’s also a way to describe how we grieve.

Those familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross know that she divides the process of grief into five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. To that neat package, I say, “If only it were so simple.” Imagine being able to identify that you’re angry with only two more stages to go, or feeling depressed, but relieved that acceptance is just around the corner. Unfortunately, it’s not that linear. Grief will pinch your heart months or years later walking into the hardware store and smelling pipe tobacco, or driving in the car listening to the radio and hearing a parent’s favorite tune. It is not always loud or obvious, and surprisingly not a constant.

Sometimes deep sadness is coupled with a mix of other emotions. If a parent was suffering you feel at peace knowing their pain is gone. You may be relieved that the stress and challenges of caregiving are at an end, yet at the same time feel unmoored because the concentration and energy you devoted to this job are no longer required. For caregivers in particular, grief can sometimes seem insurmountable for this very reason.

In times of great loss, regret can often keep us stuck. The death of a parent is the death of hope. You may have longed for a different relationship with them. One in which you said or heard, “I love you,” or “thank you,” more often. Our parents also tend to be the keepers of family history and with their deaths we lose our connection to the past.

Guilt is another difficult emotion to overcome. You wonder if you did enough or should have done things differently. Harsh words were spoken and apologies are too late. Now is the time to remember you’re only human. Being the perfect child is just as unrealistic as being the perfect caregiver. Stop judging yourself. Instead create something positive out the negative. Maybe your father liked his cats more than his kids. Make a donation to The Humane Society to honor his memory. Maybe you wished your mother had spent more time with you as a child. Look into becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister or volunteer as a reader to kids at the local elementary school. I’m not suggesting you leap into anything immediately, but there are ways of softening the guilt and regret that attach themselves to the death of a parent.

Keep in mind that the experience of losing a mother or father will be different for every sibling. It depends on your relationship with that parent; what words remained unspoken; and how you viewed your contribution to their well-being, not just at the end, but throughout their lives.

Anniversaries of a death or certain holidays can be tough. A year after my Dad died, I raised a glass of wine, played Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (our favorite opera) and said, “Daddeo, wherever you are, I hope it’s interesting.” He was fond of telling me that heaven seemed like a very boring place. On Mother’s Day, I do all the things my mother loved to do – thrift shopping, listening to Barbara Streisand CD’s in the car, eating lunch at Too Jay’s, then I come home and tell her ashes all about it.

If you don’t want to be alone, plan ahead to get together with people who will be emotionally available for you. Just like everyone grieves differently, your friends, family and co-workers will support you in different ways. Not everyone can be a good listener when you need to talk through the grief. Some people are better with concrete tasks like bringing over dinner or taking care of a chore you’ve been putting off.

Midway through the experience of attending to both my parents, what concerned me was something that often occurs with caregivers. Our identities merge with the task of caring both physically and emotionally for an aging parent and at some point the question arises – “Who will we be when the caregiving ends?”  You might discover this type of service is something you’re really good at and you want to do more. For someone else, the idea of being responsible for another living creature, even if it’s just a pet, is way too much. The point is to be gentle with yourself, no matter what you feel.

Keep in mind, there’s no set timetable for grieving and no right way to do it. Give yourself permission to experience moments of joy amidst the mourning. It does occur. Don’t try to be all things to all people. If that means a moratorium on helping others deal with the loss, so be it. If you need help, ask for it – from clergy, from friends, a support group or a grief counselor.

Grief, which is so often muddied with guilt, regret and anger, can be exhausting. Doing what we can to make things right with our parents before it’s too late, opens us to the possibility of experiencing what Mary Pipher, psychologist and author, refers to as “good, clean sorrow.” It’s certainly something to hope for.

Excerpt from The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving

Photo by Carlos Koblischek