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Taking care of your caregiver guilt

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By Teresa Ann Thompson

[Don’t forget November is Caregiver Month. The nation and our state recognize caregivers at this time. Two out of five adults are now considered family caregivers.]

Most family caregivers I know have experienced guilt to some degree, either before, during, or after their time of service for their loved one. As a matter of fact, I would not hesitate to say we are experts at guilt, due to the nature of caregiving.

There are myriads of situations we wish we had handled differently, decisions made that did not have the intended outcome, and tons of time we spent on ourselves that should have been reserved for our loved ones.

Therefore, we all have felt it, recoiled from it, and yes, some have even wallowed in it…this ugly thing called guilt. Whether it’s just an inkling of regret or a mountain of remorse, it behooves the caregiver to know that these feelings are normal and O.K., given their context. And there are ways to deal with it, minimizing the negative impact this thing called guilt can have on our lives.

The last thing a caregiver wants to hear, especially if he or she is struggling with feelings of guilt at the time, is to “take care of yourself.” But if guilt is affecting your relationships and your sense of peace, then perhaps this advice is not misplaced. But let us re-word it a bit: “take care of your GUILT.”

Guilt becomes toxic when it means that you can’t forgive yourself. So how does one “take care of their guilt”?

For many of us, if we were able to live up to all our expectations of ourselves, we’d be right up there with God, and hardly any of us would want that job title. So simply lowering our expectations can help us forgive that person we see in the mirror.

Another way to alleviate toxic guilt is to share it with others, especially other caregivers. This may sound odd, but may truly be the best antidote for the guilt that is present in your already stress-filled existence.

Therefore, I’m going to share some situations from guilty caregivers. Names and details have been changed…to protect the “guilty”.

  • Sharon had just spent a year taking care of her father, who ended up passing away from cancer. Her mother was not doing well physically and was still in the process of grieving, but there was an opportunity for Sharon to go out of town for a few days to a conference with a non-profit she had been working with for years. Sharon left her mother, only to find her extremely ill on her return, requiring an emergency room visit at the hospital. Naturally, Sharon felt guilty about leaving her mother in her time of need.
  • Bill and Tammy knew that his grandmother was not doing well with her heart disease. But with their three small children, there just didn’t seem to be enough time to visit her in the hospital, when once again she had to be admitted. She passed away within days there, and they both felt guilty about not making it to her bedside at least one more time or just making an effort to visit her more often when she was still home.
  • Jane took care of her husband Phil, who had never fully recovered from a bad fall. They were both seniors, but she often felt guilty about leaving him alone when she went to meet her friends for their weekly lunch date. Wasn’t she allowed some social time for herself? Why did this simple pleasure make her feel so bad?
  • Connie and Sue, sisters, were talking on the phone one day, four years after their mother had passed away. When mom was mentioned in the conversation, Connie brought out that they may have been wrong in taking out her feeding tube when they did. Perhaps her last decline would not have been so sudden and so soon if they had waited. This feeling of remorse still remotely plagued her after all that time.
  • Don and Betty had a severely disabled, wheelchair-bound child. They worried that their two other children were suffering from the effects of the unbalanced parental time and attention this special needs child required.

Feel free to add your own experience of guilt to this list, and be sure to share it in person with someone who matters. You may both feel better for it.

Teresa Ann Thompson is a caregiver for her husband since 1999. They live in Lincoln, NE and you can see more of her articles at She and other caregivers also share their experiences at Contact her at

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