Disease & Illness

‘Eat, Pray, Love’ Author Elizabeth Gilbert Shares How She ‘Had It All Wrong’ When It Came To Caring For Her Terminally Ill Wife

She said, "Well, friends: I failed at it. Again and again, I failed."

Elizabeth Gilbert became a household name when she published the memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” in 2007, and her bestselling book about finding herself through travel went on to become a 2010 film starring Julia Roberts. However, her marriage to the man she met in the book ended, and in 2016, Gilbert announced she was in a relationship with one of her best friends, Rayya Elias.

Elias, who is also an author, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in spring of 2016, and her terminal diagnosis spurred the friends to come together as a romantic couple. In June of 2017, the pair celebrated their commitment to each other in a non-legally binding “love ceremony” amidst family and friends.

Then, tragically, Elias died in January 2018.

View this post on Instagram

Nothing is stopping me from loving her forever.

A post shared by Elizabeth Gilbert (@elizabeth_gilbert_writer) on

Gilbert, who has never shied from sharing her life’s journey with others, is now opening up about her struggles caregiving for her terminally ill partner. In a Facebook post published on June 10, 2019, the author wrote candidly about how she felt that she “absolutely failed” as a caregiver.

“I absolutely failed at being the perfect caregiver for Rayya when she was sick and dying,” she began, continuing:

“As soon as she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I decided that it was my job to take care of her, and I intended to do it with excellence, honor, patience, skill, spiritually, grace, and unconditional love. I decided that being the perfect caregiver to Rayya was my soul’s mission and the entire purpose of my life. Well, friends: I failed at it. Again and again, I failed.”

View this post on Instagram

Happy New Year, everyone. You made it. We made it. Blessed be. #2018

A post shared by Elizabeth Gilbert (@elizabeth_gilbert_writer) on

Gilbert went on to explain how she felt “overcome by exhaustion, by my own grief, by anger at her for being an uncooperative and ungrateful patient, by resentment of anyone who disagreed with me about her care, by anger at God for letting her die.” She also struggled with feeling as though she was not needed, or not doing a good enough job, when other loved ones cared for her partner.

“By the end, I got so fragile, I became somebody who other people had to take care of, because I was such a wreck,” Gilbert wrote.

View this post on Instagram

My heart. My phoenix. ❤️

A post shared by Elizabeth Gilbert (@elizabeth_gilbert_writer) on

Yet her partner taught her something important in her dying weeks: Gilbert was not meant to be the perfect caregiver. Right before Elias’ death, Gilbert apologized to her for not being “a perfect caregiver.” Elias let her partner know that she “had it all wrong,” and that being a perfect caregiver was not her purpose at all. In fact, being a “perfect” anything was not her purpose at all.

“My job on this earth (according to Rayya in her last days) has only ever to learn how to find mercy for myself,” Gilbert wrote. “Mercy for the difficult — sometimes impossible — dilemma of being human.”

Elizabeth Gilbert photo
Getty Images | Michael Loccisano

Gilbert directed readers to her “Super Soul Sunday” interview with Oprah Winfrey about this whole subject if they would like to learn more. (“Super Soul Sunday” is an interview program on Winfrey’s TV network OWN, and full episodes can be viewed on Oprah.com.) The author is also promoting her newest novel, “City Of Girls,” which was published earlier this month.

As a caregiver and now widow, Gilbert addresses a universal experience of feeling a tsunami of emotions regarding a loved one’s suffering. Experiences like caregiver burnout, such as when the caregiver feels emotionally exhausted, are common, as are experiences of guilt or regret.

View this post on Instagram

This is the memorial that my love, Rayya Elias, requested for herself…and it is so perfectly Rayya! She didn’t want a headstone. She didn’t want any sort of traditional memorial. All she wanted was a plaque on a bench in Tompkins Square Park, in the East Village of NYC. This park is at the center of a neighborhood where Rayya—over the course of 30 epic years—lived, loved, hustled, created, became a heroin addict, overdosed, got arrested, got sober, found dignity, started a business or three, made music and films, got married, thrived, prospered, and faced cancer. She never stopped being inspired by this place. And this very bench—in the jankiest corner of the park—is where she actually lived for a while, back when she was a homeless junkie. Rayya never got over the wonder and miracle of having survived those years as an addict. She used to love to get an ice cream from Ray’s Soft Serve on Avenue A, sit on her old bench, and marvel at the trajectory of her life. Naturally, she wrote this epitaph herself. ❤️ If anybody would like to go visit Rayya, she would always love the company. You can find her bench located in the southwest corner of Tompkins Square Park, just a little bit in from the chess tables. Bring her a cigarette, bring her your story, sing her a song, introduce yourself. And especially those of you who are trying to get sober, or who are white-knuckling your way through recovery—go talk to her. She will help you. She wants you to know (to quote her favorite Vince Lombardi line) that it’s not how many times you fall down, but how many times you get back up. She always said: If I can get clean, anybody can. Nobody loved life more. Onward. #rayya #restinexcitement (And thank you, @ro.looks.for.america, for the photo. She loved you, Roey.)

A post shared by Elizabeth Gilbert (@elizabeth_gilbert_writer) on

Gilbert’s Facebook post garnered thousands of reactions:

Grief and death are not subjects that are talked about particularly openly, so hopefully Gilbert’s openness about caregiving and her emotions around it with help others feel somewhat less alone.

You can learn more about caregiving support groups through the AARP and the U.S. government, as well as local resources such as social workers and counselors.