“The second year is harder,” I heard myself saying to the still-grieving 55-year-old woman whose father had died the year before. It was one of those psychotherapist aphorisms I’ve been offering to bereaved clients for three decades. I point out frequently that, during the first year after a loved one’s death, most people brace themselves for fresh waves of pain and loss with each impending holiday and major event —Thanksgiving, Easter and their loved one’s birthday and death anniversary. But then Year Two finally rolls around and they do it again. And then again the following year. For this woman, the finality of her father’s death would likely fully set in during the coming months with the aching realization there will always be an empty seat —figuratively or literally — at her family dinner table.
As the end of the second year of my own bereavement approaches, I’ve been thinking about my typical advice. Is the second year following the end of family caregiving truly harder? It has been for me, though for reasons I wasn’t anticipating.
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From 2010 to 2017, I was the primary caregiver for my mother as she declined from kidney disease and vascular dementia. While she and I had never been particularly close, I had approached caring for her as a way for us to get to know each other as adults. If anything, however, our tense relationship became more fraught. The more she resisted my overeager assistance, the sterner and more insistent I became. We argued a lot about her habit of spending money she didn’t have. When I recently reread the AARP.org column I wrote upon the first anniversary of her death, I was struck by my tone of lingering resentment.
Today feels different. The anger has faded. (After two years, perhaps it’s time.) Its absence has revealed to me an underlying emotional layer of mostly sadness — about her terrible decline, her death, and our lost chance to understand one another.