Apr 19, 2021

Five approaches for caregivers to work with loss and grief

We all experience loss and grief throughout our lives, but as caregivers loss can be very prominent in our day-to-day experience. Caregivers experience our own loss and also witness the losses experienced by the person we care for, e.g. loss of physical or mental health, loss of work, loss of social role. 

In the 30+ years since our founding, we at Zen Caregiving Project have learned a lot about loss and grief while caring for others through our work supporting people living with a chronic and terminal illness. We have developed a Buddhist-inspired approach to facing inevitable loss which we believe can support caregivers to more easily withstand the strong emotions that loss can bring.

Five approaches to exploring and working with loss and grief

1. Remembering that loss is universal

It can be comforting to remember that loss is a natural part of being human. While the particular circumstances of loss may differ from person to person, we all experience loss. It is unavoidable. If nothing else, the shared experience of loss is what reminds us that we are connected to everyone else. 

2. Understanding the value of exploring our feelings on loss

We may not like the idea of looking into our own feelings of loss and grief but as a caregiver it is important. Why? Well, exploring our own emotional response to loss will help us to tell the difference between our own suffering and the suffering of the person we care for. By untangling our emotions from the emotions of our care recipient it makes it easier to decide what is best for the person we are caring for. 

For example, a caregiver is caring for her father who is experiencing memory loss. She experiences strong emotions around her father no longer remembering who she is or remembering who he has been for so much of his life. This caregiver’s relationship with her father is shifting into completely new territory, so such feelings are natural. When she is able to step back and look at the situation, she sees that her father is in fact not distressed. Since he is not very aware of what is happening, he is not upset by it. Actually, he seems confused when she tries to comfort him about his memory loss. She is able to see that perhaps comforting her father is more about her strong feelings than his. 

3. Using mindfulness in processing loss and grief

Experiencing loss and grief is not easy and can bring up powerful and unpleasant emotions. It is normal to want to avoid these feelings, push them away or pretend they are not there. 

A mindful approach to loss attempts to meet grief directly. We can learn to simply observe our natural response to loss, at that moment, without judgment.  We can become curious: where do we feel emotions in our body? What color are they? What texture are they? In this moment, what is the nature of our emotional landscape? When opening to our emotions in a given  moment we may feel sadness, resistance, anger, vulnerability. Over time, we can accept that such emotions are natural and okay, and welcome them all in. None of the feelings associated with loss are “wrong,” nor should they be excluded. 

Being with the emotions of grief allows for their processing. We can build our capacity to be with strong emotions and over time the emotions can begin to quiet. The sadness of loss may not go away. However, we may begin to find it is not as disrupting or overwhelming as before. We begin to integrate the loss into the normal rhythms of our life. (See our free webinar on Working Mindfully with Grief)

4. Building compassion in the face of frequent loss

Compassion is an essential part of caring for others, but there can be times when it is difficult to express compassion to the person you care for. Caregivers commonly confront a lot of barriers to expressing compassion, including exhaustion, hunger, frustration, and feeling like what we are doing is not making a difference. 

Cultivating self-awareness through mindfulness gives us the mental space and clarity to identify when we come up against one of the common barriers to compassion. In recognizing these barriers (e.g. hunger), we can more easily overcome them (e.g. prioritize getting some food). It can be helpful to remember that we are not alone in facing barriers to compassion; all caregivers will experience some version of these barriers from time to time. Struggling to maintain compassion is a common part of caregiving, yet compassion is like a muscle, the more we work with it, the stronger it becomes. 

 Practicing compassion means also including oneself. For many, it is easier to experience compassion for others than it is for oneself. However, self-compassion is essential for caregivers to build resilience and avoid burnout (see our free webinar on Deepening compassion in challenging times). 

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.“
– Jack Kornfield

5. Inviting a conversation with those we are serving

Conversations with care recipients about loss can feel awkward, but there are ways of approaching these conversations that support openness and care. We suggest approaching the conversation as a peer; another human being who experiences loss and grief. In this regard, we are all alike. Being aware of this common experience naturally brings increased empathy and compassion for the person we care for and can also make us feel more comfortable talking about loss with them. 

It is also helpful to notice if there is attachment to a particular outcome for a conversation and if so, try to let go of any goals and follow their lead. This will make it easier to meet others where they are. If the person we care for isn’t quite ready for a big conversation on loss, we can start by talking about change. This can provide an opening for a bigger conversation on change and loss in the future, if that’s where the care recipient wants to go as they get more comfortable with the topic.  

On a more practical level, we can set an intention to listen generously. This includes giving our full attention, using open-ended questions, allowing for silence, and checking our eagerness to express our own thoughts. 
We at Zen Caregiving Project hope that these approaches to working with loss help in your caregiving journey. We have more free resources on mindfulness and loss on our Resources pages, and our Mindful Caregiving Education courses also explore this important topic in a group setting.

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