According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, about 43.5 million caregivers provide unpaid care to an adult or child in the US every year. Being a primary caregiver to a family member or spouse can be extremely time consuming, and emotionally and physically draining. Many caregivers may set aside their own care and needs in the need to provide care, and that caregiving may last for many years. What happens to the caregiver when the loved one or care receiver they have been caring for passes away? How does a caregiver begin to figure out who they are without their person to care for and grieve the loss of their loved one?
It may be difficult or impossible to truly to prepare for the loss of a loved one; particularly, one you have been caring for years. Suddenly, there is no family member/spouse who needs their medications, to ensure they are fed, or to take care of their hygiene needs. Caregivers may find that they cannot grasp what to do with their available time or energy. The Family Caregiver Alliance offers suggestions to help family caregivers through this time of loss:
Acknowledge and recognize your grief – It is normal to feel a range of emotions including sad, angry, hopeless, bereft, or devastated. Grief is different for everyone, but it often can take one to two years depending on your familial connection.
Relief is not a guilty word – Relief is one of the many emotions experienced when caregiving ends. Caregivers may feel a sense of relief that the burden/ordeal of caregiving has ended and that their loved one is no longer suffering. In some cases, grieving may have started many years before with a gradual letting go process, particularly when the person being cared for has dementia.
Forgiveness and second guessing – Forgive yourself for the times you may have been impatient, angry, frustrated, or unkind. Nobody is perfect. Try not to second guess yourself with “what ifs” or the “could have, would have, should haves.” It is unlikely you could have done anything else or any different. Acknowledge and appreciate how well you cared for your loved one (i.e., feedback from doctors, nurses).
Sleep and recharge – The first feeling caregivers may experience after the loss of their loved one/care receiver is exhaustion. Performing the same caregiving routine for months or even years at a time can be exhausting physically and emotionally. Now is the time to rest, get much needed sleep, and recharge your body and spirit.
Renewing and redefining purpose – Often family caregivers have put their lives on hold to care for their loved one. It is only natural to experience confusion and a loss of purpose after your loved one/care receiver is gone. It is normal feel adrift as you try to move forward, redefine your purpose, and ascertain who you are now.
Grieving and recovering from loss takes time, as does figuring out who you are without that caregiving role. Up next, we share some tips for the next stage, re-entering and re-centering your life.
- Grief and Loss from the Family Caregiver Alliance: https://www.caregiver.org/resource/grief-and-loss.
- Getting Help from the Center for Loss and Life Transition: https://www.centerforloss.com/grief/getting-help.
- How to Find a Caregiver Support Group That’s Right for You from AARP: https://www.aarp.org/caregiving/life-balance/info-2021/support-groups.html.