After Caregiving: The Grief and Rite of Passage of Elder Care

When we think of a rite of passage, we tend to think of coming of age, marriage, having children.  The French ethnographer, Arnold van Gennep, studied what characterized rites of passage and found that they had an element of “transitional space”. “In every passage,” he said, “an individual must leave his own territory, pass through a neutral zone, and finally enter another territory.” The therapist and professor Stephen Levine summarized it by saying, “every rite of passage is characterized by these three phases: separation, transition, and incorporation. Culturally, we tend to hide end-of-life care and death; however, thinking of elder care as a rite of passage for adult children could help us acknowledge and honor the impact elder care has on millions of Americans.

Separation

Whether needs gradually increase or are brought on by a sudden crisis, many family caregivers are entering elder care by taking on the responsibility of caring for an aging parent. It is this type of responsibility that marks a distinct shift in their life. The roles reverse as the child now cares for the parent. Juggling the logistics, bearing the anxiety, and being present to the magnitude of responsibility can all cause a separation from the way life used to be. For caregivers providing the day-to-day care, it can also be a time of isolation from other friends and family members.

Transition

Caring for and being with a loved one unto their death cannot help but change a person. The caregiver encounters their own fragility by bumping up against their own limits at various points in the process. They are also facing their own mortality by facing the mortality of a loved one. Especially when caring for a parent, past relational dynamics can play out between parent and child or adult child and siblings. Much like the beginning of life, the increased needs and lack of sleep can cause caregivers to give more than they thought they had in them. And finally after the death of a parent, caregivers enter a new kind of adulthood, a world without parents. All of this is part of the transitional space of elder care, where caregivers are being changed by their experience and emerge as different people.      

Incorporation

While caregiving may have had a seemingly gradual beginning it has a rather abrupt end. The question becomes what to do after the caregiving ends. Incorporation back into a new way of life is a gradual process. Especially for caregivers that have carried the responsibility for years, it can be difficult to know how to redefine and orient your life. Immediately following the death of a parent there can be a deluge of different tasks to handle from funeral arrangements to filing taxes, and finalizing paperwork. There is ebb and flow to the work as the family executes the wishes of a loved one, sells homes, and goes through possessions. But within these tasks lies a subtle and important work of grieving the loss.     

The Art of Grieving

Grief is an important part of both the human experience and the rite of passage of elder care. While each relationship is different and not all children have a loving relationship with the people they are caring for, grief can still be a present reality. Grief touches many subjects after death including all the memories that have been, what is left unfinished, and what will never be. It is common for family caregivers to feel a mixture of relief and deep sadness after the death of an aging parent.  As part of the grieving and incorporation process, it is important to give yourself time and space to do the following:

  • Find a new family rhythm
  • Process and express the experience you’ve been through
  • Honor your loved one’s memory
  • Reflect on what your experience in elder care and transformation has taught you about yourself and life in general
  • Connect with others affected by the loss and experience
  • Find a support system and allow others to help meet your needs
  • Create a safe place within your home where you are free to feel and grieve. Many times we don’t find a good space to feel what we are feeling as we have to hold it together in the world. 
  • Lean into the activities and people that give you hope and help you feel like yourself
  • Watch for signs of depression and understand how it is different from grief
  • Allow time and space for the adjustment period as things will be changing dramatically. 

Published on April 16, 2014.