When your caregiver duties come to a close after the death of a loved one, there’s often a double sense of loss, observes the Hospice Foundation of America. In addition to grieving for your loved one, you also might feel the loss of your caregiving role in his life — a loss of identity as a caregiver. Sometimes your new circumstances can feel overwhelming; it’s not unnatural to experience a cascade of conflicting emotions.
When your caregiver duties have ended and you’re not sure what to do next, here are some suggestions for caregiver support to get you through this difficult time.
How do I handle my feelings of loss?
Grief can be intense and uncomfortable; it’s tempting to look for ways to avoid your feelings or force a time limit on your pain. Caregiver.org reports that intense feelings of grief usually last three months to a year, but can last longer. Don’t try to short-circuit the process or feel guilty because you’re taking a long time to “get over it,” suggests AgingCare.com, along with these tips:
- It’s OK to feel a sense of relief even in the midst of your grief. It’s normal to be relieved that your loved one is no longer suffering, and that your caregiving ordeal is over. Don’t beat yourself up over natural emotions.
- Forgive yourself for any real or imagined times you didn’t live up to your expectations of perfectly performing your caregiver duties. Don’t torture yourself with “what ifs.” Realize that every caregiver feels angry, impatient, frustrated, or unkind at some point. You were there when your loved one needed you, so feel good about the ways you made her life better. If you still struggle with guilt and forgiveness, try writing your loved one a letter, apologizing for things you feel bad about. Imagine your loved one has read it, accepted your apology and forgiven you. Now tear up the letter and forgive yourself.
- Focus on the good memories of your loved one, not on any of the negative times.
- Be open to the idea of counseling to help you work through any difficult emotions.
How do I get on with my life after my caregiver duties have ended?
Caregiving probably consumed most of your time, and now the shift to a different use of your time may seem frightening and overwhelming. As much as you wish it were otherwise, now is a time of change, and you must create a new life. For some, it starts with baby steps — trying one new activity or one minor step each day. Others jump in with both feet, wrapping themselves in a whirlwind of activity. Caring.com and the Hospice Foundation of America recommend that you:
- Be prepared for loneliness, but don’t let yourself drown in it. Find a caregiver support group; meet a friend for lunch; attend services at your church. Let friends back into your life by saying yes to their invitations.
- Reacquaint yourself with old hobbies and interests that you put on hold for your caregiver duties. Take a drawing class; join a book club; get busy planning the garden you didn’t have time for. If you’re ready to go back to work, write a new resume and brush up your interview skills. Begin thinking in terms of the future, starting with “next week” and “next month.”
- Look outside yourself and consider sharing your wisdom and caregiving experience with others. Of course, contributing to your caregiver support group is a good first start, but think about volunteering. If you miss your connection with an older person, volunteer at a nursing home or senior center. Some find that working with children is refreshing and a reminder that life goes on, even in loss and grief.
- Embrace your new life. You’re not being disloyal to the person you lost — you’re creating a new “normal” for this new stage of life. Put away reminders around your home of your loved one’s long illness or disability. You’ve been strong for someone else — now it’s time to be strong for you, so focus on eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly.
There’s no perfect timetable for re-entering your life after caregiving ends. Go slow if you need to, get help when you feel stuck, and rely on your friends and family members to help you navigate the process.
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