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The Residual Trauma of Caregiving

Sunday, February 28, 2016
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The Residual Trauma of Caregiving


A year or two ago, during a visit with my sister, I recall being at a bookstore where I came across a book called Leaning Into Sharp Points: Practical Guidance and Nurturing Support for Caregivers. Having been a caregiver for Aric for most of our fifteen years together, and thinking the book might be of interest to a good friend who was a caregiver for her mom at the time, I picked up the book and scanned the back. And, as I read the brief description of the difficult burdens caregivers endure, I began to weep.

That was a moment of crystallization. In that moment, what I had been ignoring—and sometimes willfully denying—erupted in a sudden, overwhelming, visceral reaction. And, in that moment I knew I would some day have to face the reality that my years of caregiving had done more than physically exhaust me, they had emotionally scarred me in ways I had yet (and have yet) to fully understand.

But, in that moment, I also knew I was not yet ready to examine those scars.

So I set the book down and I walked out of the store.

I went on with living my life in the moment, doing my grief work, moving forward … and leaving the emotional pain of my caregiving in the past, largely unacknowledged except in instances where some random trigger would briefly cause the trauma to resurface.

Recently, however, I was asked to contribute an essay to a book of advice for new professors in the years leading to tenure. Preparing for tenure is a stressful process and there are steep learning curves, workplace politics, and work-life balancing acts for junior faculty to navigate on the way. Having gone through Aric’s most extreme health crises during my final years in graduate school and first years as an assistant professor—and then his death early in my third year of teaching—I volunteered to write an essay on coping with traumatic life events. (It seemed a topic about which I would have a lot to say!)

I’m hopeful I’ll have some useful advice to share so that others might benefit from my hardship and loss. And, I have some sense of things I’d like to say: be open about your situation; ask for help; don’t isolate yourself; make connections at work and in the community—they will become your lifelines…

I think these are good bits of advice—even if harder to follow than to dole out—and the final essay I write will likely include some combination of these items. But, before I can get to the point of giving advice, I have to give context, I have to tell our story. And that means I have to write about my experiences of caregiving as well as having been widowed.

Having successfully avoided reliving those many years of traumatic caregiving experiences thus far, I had no idea how hard this would be. Aric died over three years ago, and I’ve made a huge amount of progress in moving forward. I’ve been very open about coping with grief and have written quite a bit about widowhood, so I simply assumed I would be similarly able to talk about the hardships we endured while Aric was alive.

And, yet, when it came time to write the essay, I found myself procrastinating.

When I finally forced myself to sit down to begin to write, already well past the deadline, I wept my way through as much as I could before finally having to walk away. Again.

The essay is now almost three months behind schedule. It’s a mere 1500-word requirement (only about twice as long as this blog post), and yet it somehow feels insurmountable. I know it’s a story worth sharing, and I hope that it will be helpful to others once published. And yet again and again I find myself stalling.

In a week it will be spring break. And, during that moment’s reprieve from the semester turmoil, I’ll try again. I will.

Hopefully this time I’ll make it all the way through and will finally begin the process of facing the hard reality that the trauma I’ve endured began long before Aric’s death. My healing needs to as well.


So true is this blog, I would love to read the essay when completed, I can say the trauma started for me at the time of my husband's diagnosis. March 1, 2013 is when it all began, to be open about coping with the entire experience to others who have not lost a spouse is very difficult, and makes moving forward so much harder

Some great insights here. I also think that we bury deep those care giving days because we don't want to remember. It was painful watching our loved one endure those events and all we could do was helplessly hold their hands. I used to know the kidney numbers like a hawk - what level of creatinine would trigger Steve's kidney failure. Now I draw a blank and think, oh yeah I used to know that, or I had to do that. Pushing wheelchairs, running IV's, doling out meds, it may be hard to write about because we truly WANT to forget!?

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