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Suicide of caregiver leaves spouse adrift and friend devastated

"Minding Our Elders" columnist Carol Bradley Bursack hears from a reader whose friend, a longtime caregiver for his wife with dementia, died by suicide.

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Carol Bradley Bursack, "Minding Our Elders" columnist.
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Dear Carol: After years of caring for his wife who has advanced dementia, my lifelong friend reached his limit and killed himself. He had the financial resources to place her in a care home, yet when I suggested this, he said that he couldn’t live with the guilt. Had he viewed outside help differently, he could have returned to his role as a loving husband rather than a stressed-out caregiver. Now, his wife has been moved to a care facility without him to support her transition, and his friends and family are heartbroken.

Keep doing what you’re doing by telling caregivers that practicing their own self-care is also the best choice for all involved. My friend’s determination to give his wife what he considered the best care cost both of them everything. From my perspective, I thought I was doing everything that I could to support him. Now, I’m doubting myself as a friend, and it’s devastating. — SP.

Dear SP: My heart goes out to you. Your private note to me was exceptionally detailed and I can assure you that you did everything you could to support your friend.

Tragic situations like the one you describe are more common than most people know. Sometimes, the caregivers lose their health, if not their lives, to disease. Even worse, though, are those who die by suicide because they’ve reached the end of their emotional resources.

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Of course, we don’t know exactly what pushed your friend to his limit, but we’ve learned from people who have come close. For some caregivers, it seems to be the strain of making difficult decisions for someone who can’t make their own. For others, it may be that they can no longer live without sleep or a break from their duties. Others may feel that they can no longer stand watching someone they love suffer. Most often, it’s a combination of challenges. The caregiver simply reaches a point where there is nothing left to give.

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Now, of course, the very person for whom your friend sacrificed so much is left to be physically cared for by strangers without having him nearby to support her. Even if she could no longer find the words to reassure him, she would have known that he was there for her. Now, he’s not.

I want to be clear that I’m not blaming your friend. The decision to die by suicide out of desperation is not logical. All he knew was that he could no longer handle the pain. No one should judge him for that. We all must remember that no matter what we witness from even an intimate connection, we can’t really know what it’s like to live another person's life.

You have my deepest sympathies, SP. You did all that anyone could have done, yet you’re taking it one step further. What you are doing to spread awareness of such tragedies is invaluable. I’m certain that your courage in sharing your story will lead some overwhelmed caregivers to seek support for their own mental health.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver and a nationally-recognized presence in caregiver support. She's the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” a longtime newspaper columnist and host of her blog at mindingoureldersblog.com. Carol's an introverted book nerd, so you won't see her mugging in viral videos, but you can easily reach her using the contact form at mindingourelders.com.
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