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Redefining Yourself When Your Role as Caregiver Ends

Last week I met with a client who had been a caregiver for her mother for many years. It has been five years since her mother died and my client has spent the last couple years exploring what she wants to do next.  Many of my clients find that when their ill family member passes, they are left with the process of grieving and a big void in their lives that led them to ask, “Now what?” Caring for another adult, as explained in the article “What Happens When Caregiving Ends” from AARP Bulletin,can be so consuming that caregivers put their own lives on hold.

When their duties as caregivers end, it takes a while to adjust. Some say it takes from six months to a year to start feeling like themselves again. Here are some lessons learned from caregivers:

Stay busy and don’t let yourself become isolated. If you loved to travel before becoming a caregiver, return to that passion. IT might be good to travel with friends. Others find comfort in passions like writing, which can be soothing after years of coping with constant emergencies.

Expect unexpected emotions. Caregiving is an emotional process as well as a mental and physical one. A range of emotions, from sadness and grief to anger and frustration, often emerge when your daily existence includes free time. There’s also a lot of guilt, which is very normal. Years, months or weeks of not sleeping regularly, giving up your own interests and enjoyment in life, can lead to frustration. Then, when the person dies, you may feel guilty about the relief you feel.

Don’t expect the strong and often conflicting feelings to go away overnight. It often takes years for people to work through all the emotions surrounding the loss of a loved one. That is especially true if they were the primary caregiver. We tend to think in terms of one-year anniversaries, but for many people the first year is wrapped up on settling estates, distributing possessions and dealing with the business end of someone’s life. In the second year, when those tasks are done, or less time-consuming, the emotions can start flooding in. You might expect yourself to be “over it,” but you can’t force yourself to recover. It takes a very long time.

Delay any big decisions. If you’ve been putting off big decisions until after caregiving ends, give yourself permission to continue to delay them. You’re still in a fragile state and need to move slowly. Selling a house, getting a divorce or remarrying is best done when you are healed. Patience is not easy, especially when you want to make a fresh start, or move away from a home with painful memories. However, going slowly will provide you with time to heal, and to gain perspective that will allow for better decisions.

Give yourself permission to move on. When the time is right, you’ll be ready to move on. If you devoted years to taking care of your spouse and grieving when he or she died, at some point you may be ready to enter another relationship. Many people are surprised when this happens, and realize that you can love someone else, or even simply enjoy their company, after a loved one has passed.

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