Forgive Me Please!

Question: How can I forgive myself for not being there for my mom 24/7?

When I was 5 years old, my Mom made me promise I would never put her in a nursing home. At that age, I couldn’t even imagine not being with my Mom the rest of my life, so it was okay with me. This promise was extracted because we would go every week to visit the nursing home down the street. Nursing homes were like “wards” back in the day, so it was understandable Mom didn’t want to be in one. I took my promise seriously. Fast forward. Mom developed Alzheimer’s and lived with us for a while. Eventually, I had to put her in a nursing home. The guilt and shame washed over me. It took me years to forgive myself because my Mom deserved the best life and I couldn’t give it to her.

Forgiveness is hard. Learning to forgive is an amazing feat, especially forgiving yourself. From my own experience, it takes accepting I did the best I could under the circumstances. Or did I? The doubt creeps in. Not to mention, learning how to be gentle and compassionate with self seems superficial at best. Furthermore, once your loved one dies, the grief is complicated as you work through the death of the person and your role as carepartner. Not to mention, others don’t seem to understand. You feel alone.

Where does this unforgiveness come from? According to George Jacinto, researcher and author of The Self-Forgiveness Process of Caregivers After the Death of Care-Receivers Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, a carepartner can experience helplessness and frustration throughout their care journey. These feelings are triggered from guilt and shame stemming from the current situation as well as past experiences with your loved one. As a carepartner, perhaps you weren’t able to be with your loved one at all times of the day. Or, perhaps you feel like you let them down and didn’t live up to their expectations. Essentially, you beat yourself up and unforgiveness sets in. It is important to recognize this is normal.

Carepartners experience a different type of grief called anticipatory grief. This means carepartners experience grief throughout the care journey with their person living with dementia. Most people grieve after the loss of a loved one. In their article, An Assessment of Anticipatory Grief as Experienced by Family Caregivers of Individuals With Dementia, Drs. Ross and Dagley explain anticipatory grief as a “grief process of individuals who are losing someone slowly, expectedly, and, many times, in stages.” The carepartner is continuously “anticipating” and living with unending anxiety and stress. Carepartners are so busy, we forget to care for self throughout the care journey. And, once your loved one dies, unforgiveness is front and center.

There are 4 points to embrace self-forgiveness according to Jacinto & Edward’s research article, Therapeutic Stages of Forgiveness and Self-Forgiveness:

• Recognition: Confront you are in a cycle of ruminating about an incident or unfinished business. For me, I had to acknowledge I felt guilty for putting Mom in a nursing home. Not recognizing it kept me cycling in the “what-if” alternatives.
• Responsibility: Take personal responsibility and recognize you (and everyone else) have imperfections. For me, I did put Mom in the nursing home, even though I had promised not to do it. I wasn’t perfect.
• Expression: Express feelings of self-blame with self or another person. Clarify the negative feelings and let go. For me, I blamed myself for not taking care of her the way she or I wanted. The reality is I couldn’t keep her safe because I needed hip surgery and couldn’t walk well. If she would have fallen on me, it would have been a disaster. The nursing home kept her physically safe.
• Re-creating: Recreate your life by accepting your imperfection in the world of other imperfect humans and incorporate your past. Live in the present. Find a new direction for your future. For me, I kept Mom safe. She even made friends and developed a social circle! It was a blessing.

You deserve to live your best life. Your mom would want you to.