My mother was diagnosed with leukemia in 1993. She died from complications in June of 1995. I was a new wife, a new mother, and a second-year medical student. Needless to say, the one commodity I did not have in surplus was time. While I could spend quality time with her on occasion, I wasn’t around as much as I would have liked. I didn’t play an active role in caring for her. After she passed away, I had a lot of guilt. I began to remember occasions where I cut my time short with her so that I could get back to studying. “Did those extra test points really matter?”, I asked myself.
Almost 20 years later when my sisters and I became caregivers for my father, the guilt returned. I experienced guilt when I didn’t feel like going to his house to check on him. I felt guilty when we had to move him to an assisted living facility. I felt guilty about my frustration when he wasn’t moving fast enough. I felt guilty about my anger when he would complain about his life. Because my mother had died at the age of 49, I felt he should be grateful for being alive. Ultimately, I had to learn to move past my guilt so that I could be there for him in a way that was both loving and productive. If you are struggling with guilt, my hope is that this article will help you move forward as well.
It is very common for caregivers to feel guilt. We regret the things we did or said as well as the things we didn’t. We regret not spending more time with our loved one. We feel guilty for not being patient and compassionate 100% of the time. When our loved one passes on, we run through a laundry list of the things we could or should have done better.
These feelings of guilt are not only counterproductive, but they can be harmful to your own health. They can lead to feelings of depression and hopelessness. They can lead to emotional exhaustion and subsequently, to physical illnesses that will render you unable to care for your family member.
So, my prescription to you is to give yourself a break. Forgive yourself. Inevitably, you will fall short of your own expectations because you have set the bar very high. But none of us is perfect. You are likely doing your very best. Every day is a new opportunity to recharge, to reset, to try again.
They say doctors are the worst patients, but this time I will take my own medical advice. I hope you will too.
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