Whether it happens imperceptibly over time or in the flash of crisis, family caregiving refocuses lives, severing those involved from familiar patterns and thrusting them into a land unknown, where human fears prey on the unsuspecting. Yet it is also fertile ground, where detachment from the past allows a new destiny to take root. Seen from the outside, one loss rolls off another. But from within, caregiving can be the life-altering event by which a person shifts direction from linear concerns of the rational mind to the abstract promptings of the inner world, a turning from the ephemera of society to the calling of the soul.

In Universal archetype, a crisis compels the unsuspecting hero to leave his everyday realm for one less common – the psyche – and confront the phantom limbs of his past: the orphan dreams and desires that were cast away so many years before but that still rumble with life. A Greek legend powerfully elucidates this journey of separation and loss and the way back to wholeness: if you were traveling to Athens, the road to success, you had to pass by Procrustes and be placed on his bed. Any part of you that was too long would get lobbed off; if you were too short, you got stretched.

We are socialized into a mold of what is normal, right, and best – cut off from our true voice when an aspect of ourselves is rejected or doesn’t measure up to one-size-fits-all expectations. All parts of us remain somewhere; the hidden pieces are still linked to us. The task is to recover them and restore balance so that the ordained fears can no longer overtake us. In caregiving, when so much wisdom is required, it is time to listen to those feelings of guilt and helplessness, inadequacy and depression. It is time to bring loss into the light of wisdom so that we will see our separation as illusion and our lives as fluidity. It is time to understand the nature of loss, and our power over it.

“We must allow ourselves to feel the loss and letting go. … There is no way to avoid the transitions of life. The chief means of entering them gracefully is to practice them mindfully over and over again,” writes Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield in A Path With Heart. Family caregiving is such an odyssey, into an emotional wilderness where roles and identities, beliefs and desires, are stripped away by the demands of a strange new calling. We meander over these changes in our personal landscape, looking for road signs to tell us where we are now and where we are heading.

This stage is part of the inner journey: we sway between illumination and impotence in preparation for surrender of self. What appears to be barren is merely dormant, waiting to be wakened. This boundary between old and new states of being melts away cherished dross and leaves us to encounter mortality, often for the first time. Yet these growing pains are a fruitful darkness, says anthropologist Joan Halifax, a threshold when the limits of self are recognized and tested – and broken.

The cycles of grief and mourning

It is natural to feel overwhelmed and out of control – to not even know what or how to feel at all. There is nothing wrong with this state. The question is, how do you allow grief to happen so you can have healing at the same time? How do you make room for the emptiness? In more than two decades as a grief therapist, author Alexandra Kennedy has born witness to the prodigal process of going out and coming back, the transition back into daily reality after great loss. Of the spiritual possibilities she says:

We live in a culture where we don?t deal with emptiness well. … The quiet time alone to be with grief, what I call “sanctuary,” allows the caregiver to explore the changes in values, questioning what matters and working out the unfinished business of relationship with the loved one. Are you willing to sit long enough for this new identity to emerge, or grab at the first thing because it’s so uncomfortable, you want to fill it up? If so, you sell yourself short. Grief is a transformational process that makes possible huge shifts in who you are. You emerge so much bigger than who you thought you were, but you won’t get there if you don’t go through the feeling that you’ve lost yourself. It is a very delicate time; the identity builds again very, very slowly on all the emotions surfacing through grief.

It’s okay to feel empty and alone and to not know who you are and where you’re going. You begin to build the seeds of a new life and you emerge with some sort of idea or creativity that is seeking to be expressed. It’s a much fuller place because it embraces so much more of life. It?s almost as if our loved ones, in their deaths, give us the gift of life – again. And it?s our choice if we take it, the second time.

In the mystical Shambhala, a hidden kingdom of enlightened warriors found fulfillment and prosperity following principles of lovingkindness and fearlessness. To enter this peaceable place, caregivers must realize that the grief inherent in caring for a vulnerable love reveals a broader, cleaner vision of what matters, even if the objective world has not changed one bit. Here is the possibility of equanimity, a means for handling life’s vicissitudes and remaining whole, long after caregiving is over.

It is our choice, in each of these nows, whether to participate fully in joy and sorrow, or to turn away. It is within our power not to possess but to experience; not to hold but to embrace. This is how we transform loss: to be willing to stay open in the midst of suffering, to be strengthened rather than extinguished by it. When we choose an understanding heart, there is no more clinging to that which dies, but merging with that which loves. Out of this union we live again.

Beth Witrogen McLeod


  • Beth Witrogen McLeod is an author, journalist, speaker and consultant on caregiving, end-of-life issues and renewal at midlife, especially for women. She is a double Pulitzer Prize nominee, and has won many national and regional awards for her work. She has written for Good Housekeeping, SELF, Family Circle, and The Wall Street Journal, among others. Her latest book is Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal

    Her expertise grew out of personal experience caring for her parents who were simultaneously terminally ill 1,200 miles away. With a father dying of a rare form of cancer and a mother with Lou Gehrig's disease and dementia, McLeod learned firsthand about the traumas and blessings of this mid-life rite of passage. She turned her experiences into a passion for public service, first writing and producing an award-winning newspaper series, "The Caregivers," for The San Francisco Examiner in 1995. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She developed a weekly column for The Examiner that often appeared on the New York Times Syndicate Web site. Honors for the series included National Hospice Organization, Pew Charitable Trusts, American Legion Auxiliary, Society of Professional Journalists, and many regional and local social service organizations.

    Beth is an Empowering Caregivers featured expert: learn more about Beth