By Sherri Snelling
So much is written and discussed about caregiving, but so little is written about after the caregiving has ended.
During caregivinig your life is focused on activity and responsibility. In some ways, caregiving becomes your anchor in life. It grounds you, although it can also grind you into dust. It is something to which you belong – you have a purpose.
But after the loss of a loved one, life is quiet. All of a sudden there is this void where once there had been no time for anything other than caregiving. Your caregiving life may have been a constant merry-go-round. Now, everything has stopped. This can be very unsettling for some caregivers.
Many adult children who lose a parent, especially a second parent, report feeling like an adult orphan. A widowed spouse who had his identity wrapped up in being a couple now suddenly feels desperately alone.
And yet, some caregivers report feeling relief after their loss. It is the end of months or even years of watching a loved one decline – stricken with cancer, enduring the slow-motion death of Alzheimer’s .
In truth, your grieving process didn’t start at death – it started at diagnosis. And it will continue for a good amount of time. You won’t magically change your feelings because friends try to cheer you up or tell you to “snap out of it.”
In a groundbreaking book, On Grief and Grieving, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, say that t this time of grieving you should “lean toward solace and soothing for yourself.” If you want to eat ice cream in bed, do it. If you want to watch endless hours of bad TV, do it. This is the time to truly indulge yourself in whatever way you please.
On the flip side of indulgence, Kubler-Ross and Kessler advising postponing any life-altering decisions. In other words, don’t sell the house, quit your job or join the circus. You may eventually do any or all of those things, but give it some time.
If you feel you absolutely can’t wait to make a big decision, get advice from friends, spiritual advisors, professional therapists or others you can trust and who can give you some perspective. A therapist I worked with always advised people to give things “the four seasons” – a year.
Beyond grief, another side effect from caregiving is the chronic stress and possible neglect of your own health. In fact, illness after caregiving is very common. This is a time to take all the focus you put on caring for your loved one and bring it back to you. See the doctors you need to see, exercise, eat a healthy diet.
As time passes and you become more accepting of your loss, that does not mean that you are “OK” with the death of your loved one and what you both went through. The truth is we may never feel OK about it. However, we do need to get to a place where we create a new normal – where we can accept a world without our loved one.
Full acceptance and healing will come in how you answer this question to yourself, “You are alive, but are you living?” If you can find joy again in certain life activities, even if that resides side-by-side with your loss, then you are healed and whole again. Not the same whole person you were; the new whole person you are now.
Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club (www.caregivingclub.com), is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance self care while caring for a loved one. She is the former chairman of the National Alliance for Caregiving and is the author of A Cast of Caregivers, a book about celebrities who have been caregivers. To order A Cast of Caregivers, click here. This article is adapted with permission from A Cast of Caregivers.