Beyond Sophie’s Choice

By Paul Dunion | February 1, 2017

In the 1982 film, Sophie’s Choice, Sophie, played by Meryl Streep, is a Jew sentenced with her two children to Auschwitz. The Germans place her in the horrible predicament of having to choose which of her children will live and which will be gassed. She chooses the life of her son, sacrificing her daughter, condemning her to live with an overpowering guilt.

Adult children of aging parents as well as parents of special needs children often find themselves facing the unimaginable predicament of Sophie’s choice. The only difference is that the choice is whether to sacrifice the caregiver or the person receiving care.  Let’s look at how caregivers find themselves locked into Sophie’s choice where someone must definitely be sacrificed. More often than not, it is the caregiver whom is sacrificed.

  • Fear of getting it wrong. Needs created by aging, a neurological or physical disorder can be immense.  The concept of special needs is just that. It can be extremely challenging to know exactly what the needs are or when they are adequately being met.  With no convenient road map, the caregiver easily becomes hypervigilent; worried that making a serious mistake is inevitable.  The caregiver can become more myopic. When the person being cared for is also fragile, the caregiver becomes more vulnerable to self-neglect.
  • Deep feelings of inadequacy. When the person receiving care has many needs with some of them being ambiguous, the caregiver is not only prone to fear but also to being exceptionally self-critical. There is an amorphous sense of success that seems unachievable.  The result is often caregivers giving more, resulting in self-sacrifice.
  • Exceptionally capable. When the person receiving care is a family member, the caregiver can easily fall into believing that they alone are capable of at least approaching some reasonable offering to their family member.  The feeling of being exceptionally capable is driven by love and duty.  Whether the caregiver is exceptionally capable or not, the caregiver runs a high risk of not soliciting enough help, resulting in burnout and/or their own medical issues.
  • Self-sacrifice is more righteous. Shared sacrifice easily get lost when caregivers are convinced that only they should sacrifice, accompanied by the belief that unlimited sacrifice makes them better people.  In this case, the righteous path almost guarantees that both caregivers and the recipients of  care lose. Caregivers become depleted with no more to give.
  • Unidentified projections. When caregivers project some part of themselves onto the folks whom they support, they easily lock into a self-sacrificing path.  One example would be a parent who as a child suffered a challenging illness and hospital stay. They begin to unconsciously see their medically challenged child as an opportunity to do their own childhood experience over again. Only this time, making sure that all needs get met appropriately. Their efforts aim at supporting their own childhood as well as their biological child.  These offerings traveling in tandem constitute a large psychological load, accompanied by the mandate that the biological child must not suffer some unmet need.


Mindful Sacrifice

There are a number of ways that caregivers can support remaining mindful of the sacrificing they are experiencing.

  • “Put your oxygen mask on first.” Employ this airline protocol as a way to prioritize care for the caregiver. When caregivers neglect their own care, they run a high risk of burnout, resulting in having little or nothing to offer those whom they care for.
  • Maintain a viable support system. It is critical for caregivers to have a support system where they hold themselves accountable for how effectively they are meeting their own needs. It is easy for devoted caregivers to deny how much they are giving and the price paid for such giving.
  • Uncouple self-sacrifice from personal worth. It is important to separate sacrifice from self-esteem. It means regularly acknowledging that a caregiver’s goodness is much larger than the measure of what is given.
  • Get honest and accepting of the size of the task. It is only too easy for caregivers to deny how large their caregiving task actually is. The more honest they can get, the more likely they can accept their limits, ask for help and minimizing self-criticism when the care needs to be augmented by others.
  • Commit to working with projections. Working with projections is a critical way to support mindful sacrifice. Projections typically come from two places in our psychology: 1) unfinished business from our childhoods, 2) Characteristics we criticize about ourselves, deny and relegate to the unconscious.  Both sources of projections tend to be accompanied by some form of compensation. The unfinished business source entails excessive involvement on behalf of the caregivers.  They are attempting to remedy some aspect of their own lives as well as those of whom they care for. Caregivers tend to be under involved and detached when they project traits they deem unacceptable abut themselves.  A father of a ten-year-old son diagnosed with severe Cerebral Palsey explains, “ It took a while for me to    see how much disdain I had for my own vulnerability. When I saw how vulnerable my son was, I could not help but move away from him, move away from my own vulnerability I could see in his contorted body.”


Whether it be an over-involved, burnt-out caregiver or one that has distanced from a loved one, the issue is the same. Both believe that someone must be sacrificed. The former are accepting of sacrificing themselves, while the latter sacrifices the person challenged with some infirmity. I am reminded of the old definition of the word sacred, which is “to sacrifice”. Since life will inevitably ask us to sacrifice, the hope is that we can more mindfully approach sacrifice, moving beyond Sophie’s Choice.


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