As a life celebrant, families trust that I will hold space for them, free of judgement and full of compassion. My role as a celebrant goes far beyond officiating ceremony, it extends to providing support and understanding during some of the most challenging times. As a celebrant I am often meeting with families in the immediate days after a loved one’s passing; a time when they are navigating an overwhelming avalanche of emotions that have come crashing down around them. The stability of the ground fragile beneath their feet.

Grief carries with it a complex mix of emotions; not the least of which is guilt. In my role as a life celebrant families, will often find a safe harbor with the stranger sitting across the table. They seek solace and understanding as they share their most vulnerable thoughts; most often this includes overwhelming feelings of guilt. Guilt is our natural response to loss, it carries with it a reflection of how much we cared. It leads us to examine our actions and our choices in the context of our love for someone we have lost.

Even when the death of a loved one is expected, people will often be left wondering if they could have done more. They wonder if they provided enough support to their loved one and if that person knew how much they were loved. This is especially true when families have had to make the excruciating decision to place an aging loved one in a care facility rather than care for them at home.
Caring for a loved one, such as an elderly parent, is hard. It brings with it physical, emotional and financial burdens, burdens that even unconditional love and the overwhelming desire to “do the right thing” cannot overcome.

This brings me to a question of who decides what is “the right thing?” Is caring for an aging parent at home at all costs a self-imposed expectation that we place on ourselves, or one that society has placed upon us? Are we expected to “do the right thing” at all costs? What if safety has become an issue, either our loved one’s safety or our own wellbeing?

People do not need to be told that they have no reason to feel guilty for placing the matriarch of their family in a care facility, or for not visiting Grandpa every single Sunday. These are the feelings they have and they are valid; it is not my role to tell them their feelings are unjustified.

I can, however, with permission, explore an alternative narrative with them. What if the narrative is that it was no longer safe to care for dad at home? What if his needs had become higher than anyone in the family could physically and safely satisfy? Hiring full-time care was not financially feasible, nor was it possible for anyone to quit their job to stay home and care for him. Maybe the narrative is, sometimes we need to love someone so much that we make tough decisions to do what is in their best interest.

Perhaps going to visit the family’s favorite aunt in a care facility when she did not remember who anyone was, was just too hard on some people’s hearts. Despite all the fond memories of things she did - the home-made mittens every Christmas or the memories of the fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies when you walked through her front door, the memories of being enveloped in her embrace - they cannot overcome the sadness felt when she believes you are a stranger in the room. The choice is made to remember who she was not who she has become. The choice was made to protect one’s own heart and mental health.

What if matriarch of the family was not a nice person? Maybe through her life she was abusive and mean. Aging does not take away hurts that were caused, so no one in the family felt inclined to care for her at the end of her life.

Often, however the feelings of guilt over how family’s elder lived the final years of their life come to fruition when they recall how much this person had carried the family through the years. They ask themselves how they could place their mom in a care facility when she literally gave them life, healed all their hurts, provided unwavering unconditional love and in her time of greatest need they could not care for her. Or how they can rationalize the need to place dad in a care facility when he was the person who could always be counted on to carry them on his shoulders, both literally and figuratively.

All of these scenarios have one thing in common and that is they are all ok. Each family, each individual, has a unique set of circumstances, emotions and capacities used to guide their decisions. Giving people permission to accept that they acted with harmlessness and compassion can bring with it a sense of acceptance and validity. It validates their feelings while providing a path to acceptance of what was, rather than the tumultuous path of what could have been.

The act of holding space and allowing people to be vulnerable without fear of repercussions and judgment should not be undervalued. It is within this space filled with simple compassion and empathy, and yes often silence, that one can find the most healing. It is my honor and privilege to be the holder of such a sacred space for the families that I have been chosen to accompany on this journey.

Two people's hands intertwined

I encourage all families on the journey with an aging family member, do the best you can with the resources you have and let it be enough; do not compare your journey with an elder family member with the neighbor, friends or colleagues. Remember each family, each individual is unique, as is the unavoidable journey you find yourself on. Trust in the process and know that our elders have prepared us for this day.