THE BLOG
02/25/2012 12:54 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2012

Lessons For Caregivers, Part 3: Survivor's Guilt And The Memory Room

I recently self-published a book called "Tough Care." It's the story of how my wife Celia and I struggled through a four-year period during which she was stricken by serious illnesses. Celia was a young-at-heart and vivacious woman, former soldier, wife and mother. We were married 39 years. Celia now rests proudly and peacefully in Arlington National Cemetery where our sons and I have interred her with full military honors.

During your seemingly endless time as a caregiver, you will experience many occasions when you will want to halt and reverse the movement of time. As you watch a bright, strong, energetic person make the slow, steady slide of physical, mental and emotional deterioration, you will curse the hands of time. But you cannot change time. You cannot stop it. You cannot reverse it. You must survive it.

When Celia finally passed, I felt guilt; survivor's guilt because I was still alive and my mate was not. The two of us shared every good thing and every bad thing that had occurred for a very long time. We faced it all together. Now I felt guilty that she no longer had the opportunity to experience the things that are still to come. She will not be there to watch her granddaughter write the alphabet for the first time. The trick is to not let this guilt turn into blame. Celia's life ended due to circumstances beyond our control.

You should feel free to continue to communicate with your loved one even after they have gone. It will probably be you communicating with yourself about what transpired over the decades you were together. But that doesn't matter. Communication is communication. Face your thoughts and feelings directly and straightforwardly. Avoiding direct, honest talk will be just as harmful now as it was when you were both alive.

A 39-year-long relationship generates a lot of memories. In our case those memories span a great deal of geography in addition to time. We travelled a great deal. Sometimes it was due to military transfers and sometimes it was vacation travel that we undertook to be sure our sons grew up knowing the world rather than just their neighborhood. We swam in most of the world's oceans. We were in the Alps, the Andes, the Pyrenees and the Rockies. We traversed pretty much all of the 50 states.

I find myself dealing with my memories the same way my two-year-old granddaughter handles her toys. She has a toy room where her toys stay most of the time. When the mood strikes her, she grabs an arm full of toys and drags them out to the living room or kitchen or hallway to focus her attention on them.

Our travels together began with our honeymoon in June 1972. It consisted of a three-week car trip around continental Europe. We started from our home base in Heidelberg Germany and drove through Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and France.

We drove in a 1969 Mustang coupe that I had purchased from an Army sergeant who had brought it over from the states. It was a great car and was much more powerful than the average European sedans that were built mostly for fuel economy. It was also physically larger than the average European car.

As we planned our route for the leg of the trip from Barcelona, Spain to Paris, France we decided to avoid the high-speed highways along the Mediterranean coast and instead travel more directly over the Pyrenees Mountains. The terrain was very similar to that in northern Arizona near the Grand Canyon. It varied from arid desert plains to rocky pine covered hills and finally to steep canyons.

At one point in the upper levels of the mountains, we passed through a small Spanish village. Its main street was more like an alley. It was a vestige of the years when most traffic was on foot or on horseback. Automobiles of any size were still pretty rare occurrences here. In order for us to travel through the village in our Mustang, someone would need to go to the other end of the village and stop any traffic coming from the other direction. For the price of a cold beer, an older gentleman sent two young boys running through the village to tell another older fellow at the far side of the village to hold anyone up who might be heading toward us. My Mustang's two side mirrors were within eight inches of the walls on either side of the street all the way through, except for the small central square that held the village's communal water fountain. In the end, it came in very handy that my new wife's maiden name was Mendez. Her native Mexican Spanish worked quite well in the Catalonia area of Spain.

I have established a large memory room in my mind. The memories stay there most of the time. At odd and random times, I drag out a memory (or an armful of memories) and focus on them. I then put them back. The room is a large one. I never lock the door.