The Sacred Dance of Caregiving During Dying and Loss
All relationships are a dance. We do our best to keep in unison to the rhythm, and try not to step on our partner’s toes. Some partners have danced so long with each other that the movements become almost second nature. Others are just getting the hang of the steps, when tragedy strikes. Living with dying changes the music for everyone. Couples, parents of young children, adult children with aging parents, siblings, friends and family must all learn how to move with the new rhythm, and clashes and tense negotiations will happen in the best of relationships during a terminal illness.
As a caregiver, watching your loved one living in pain and deteriorating before your eyes brings a helpless feeling. Grieving the loss of their independence, a loss of their cherished activities, loss of cognition, loss of future dreams, loss of their identity, loss of our own identity, and the immeasurable other losses is agonizing and heartbreaking.
Experiencing your loved one fading away a little more each day brings another fresh layer of grief for the new loss, chipping away at your fragile endurance. The mental and physical toll of hyper-vigilance, anxiety and dread of the weighty shadow of the ultimate loss adds to the exhaustion. There may be an anticipatory grieving of death and a melancholy wish that the beloved would die to end their pain and your battle-like fatigue.
Consciously Transforming Suffering
Navigating your way through the process of dying while still living your life can be a sacred time for you. Often partners will try to protect each other from the pain, which onlsy increases the feeling of isolation. Finding your way toward honesty with your dying loved one so that you can share your authentic feelings can be part of the sacred process.
End of life can be a time for love, reconciliation and transformation. You will likely evaluate your life and reflect on your past experiences and relationships. The search for meaning in our lives is a deep-seated human need. This time can be a jarring gift of openness to mend fences and say the things that may need to be said to work through family dynamics and conflicts.
Practical considerations can be discussed and carried out in arranging personal affairs, saying goodbye, and passing the torch, giving a feeling of some control, which can be especially comforting for those who don’t like change. Spending time with the dying person and allowing them the space to tell you their thoughts and make their own decisions, or to simply quietly sit with them and hold their hand can be a profound experience.
As the caregiver, moving through your loved one’s final months of life, you may feel relief that the end is near or feel glad that they have finally died. You may also find yourself in retrospection of how you could have done things differently. You may confront thoughts of your own death, and life without your partner or loved one, and your own shifting identity.
It’s important that the caregiver take some time off so there is a release of the build up of emotional pressure and a pocket of normalcy. Therapy with a counselor on the phone or in person can also be a tremendous help in sorting through complicated emotions, and transitioning from caregiving through bereavement to the next hopeful chapter of life.
In the aftermath of caregiving, your story continues as you learn to cope with anniversaries, birthdays, and special holidays. Allowing yourself to feel the grueling pain of grief can help open the space for the wisdom that sharing the intimate experience of dying can bring, eventually opening doors for finding new meaning and fulfillment in your own life — and in the process discovering a revitalized dance that celebrates your renewal.