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Grief and depression: A caregiver talks moving on after a loss

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Posted at 12:25 PM, Apr 30, 2023

PORTLAND, Ore. — For millions of Americans, the America they know includes a life dedicated to someone else. They are caregivers, but what happens when the person they were caring for passes?

Christina Keys was caring for her mother, who died last year.

“Around Thanksgiving, she got really sick, and her body was just declining rapidly,” Keys said. “We celebrated Thanksgiving in the hospital. Christmas Day came. She passed December 28th. I am absolutely 100% still crawling.”

“I don’t think caregivers realize what an identity crisis they’re going to have. I don’t think they are prepared for not knowing where their place is or what their purpose is,” Keys added.

Approximately 20% of bereaved caregivers will experience depression, complicated grief, and other psychiatric symptoms.

“My nervous system is still in survival mode, still in be-on-call-for-a-crisis mode,” Keys said. “You know, when the phone rings— it’s going to take a while before me doesn’t think, ‘Is it an emergency?’ There’s grief. There’s heavy grief. There’s guilt. Did I do a good enough job, you know? There’s guilt of, ‘If I’m happy, does it mean that I don’t miss her?’”

A study found 18% of caregivers for a spouse with dementia died before their spouse.

“It was 100% about my mother. It was about my mother, and I came second. Now I’m here and I’m allowed to come first. But as a caregiver, allowing yourself to come first when you have put somebody first for almost ten years – and it was a heavy ten years, it does not feel comfortable, ” Keys added.

Family caregivers average spending more than $7,200 a year on out-of-pocket costs.

A study found chronic stress can shorten caregivers’ lives by as much as 4-8 years.

“There’s no 401K for me. You know, I’m 54 years old. And even if I start now, you know, how much time is that going to give me?” Keys said, “I don’t want to be one of those statistics that pass within five years.”

“I made a promise to my mother that I wouldn’t give up. And I’d keep going and I’d make her proud,” Keys added. “As hard as it was to be a family caregiver. I would still do it all over again because it was worth it, you know? There were so many beautiful times, you know? So, I would do it all over again.”