When my mother died in a local nursing home, my “career” of visiting this exceptional facility nearly every day for almost 15 years ended. Shortly after Mom’s passing, one of her nurses whom I’d become quite close with said to me, “We’ll still be seeing you up here. You won’t be able to quit.”
It turns out she was wrong on that one. However, my case is a little different from most, since I’d spent nearly two decades caring for multiple elders. Also, my role hadn’t totally ended—I still had a family member at home who needed my care. Yet the loss of a loved one brings on many different emotions. Some of these we expect, such as sadness or even anger, while others can take us by surprise and leave us feeling conflicted.
Understanding How Relief and Grief Can Coincide
Many of us start our caregiving journey by assisting an elder in their home or looking after a spouse in our own home. As their care needs increase, we explore sources of respite, such as in-home care and adult day care. Eventually, the move to an assisted living community, a memory care unit or even a nursing home may become necessary for everyone’s well-being. Regardless of where our care recipients reside or what supports and resources we use, we remain family caregivers. Many of us continue to see our loved ones on a regular basis, manage their care and advocate for them.
No matter how difficult or stressful caregiving becomes, we can wind up feeling lost once this job inevitably comes to an end. Our natural grief may even be accompanied by a sense of relief, especially if we cared for loved ones who suffered physically and/or mentally. Not everyone can admit feeling relieved—to themselves or to others—because they are afraid they will appear callous. We encourage the bereaved to accept their losses, but relief certainly doesn’t fit into the oversimplified (yet widely accepted) stages of grieving.
Of course, caregivers who breathe a sigh of relief when an elderly parent dies (or a spouse) are not uncaring or unloving. Quite the opposite in fact. Who among us wants to watch someone they love decline? Witnessing this becomes even more heartbreaking since we strive to bring our care recipients joy and comfort. These responsibilities come with a tremendous amount of pressure. Our family and society as a whole already expect so much of caregivers that we may fear being judged if we were to share the complex range of feelings we experience after such a loss. The truth is that a weight is lifted for many when caregiving ends, but a new burden can take its place: guilt over this perfectly normal spectrum of emotions.
Caregiving often becomes an enormous part of life and even part of one’s identity. This is particularly true for those who were in the role for a long time or who made great personal sacrifices for it. While there is no “right way” to grieve, family caregivers endure a great deal that can complicate the process.
Navigating Grief and Life After Caregiving Ends
Regardless of our personal caregiving experiences and feelings following the loss of a care recipient, one thing is certain: life as we knew it has changed. Moving into the next stage of our lives requires patience, a change in attitude and unique steps for each of us. Many of us need outside help to guide us through our grief, and there is no shame in that. The following suggestions helped me process my feelings and heal after losing each of my care recipients.
- If your loved one received hospice care at the end of life, you may benefit from the bereavement support that most providers offer. Participating in a grief support group allows you to share your innermost feelings with others who understand what you are experiencing. Other sources of support might include asking a spiritual leader for guidance or seeking counseling from a mental health professional. Caregiving can actually be traumatic for some people, which may result in “complicated grief,” an intense and persistent form of grieving that does not improve even marginally over time. A specialized treatment called Accelerated Resolution Therapy may help family caregivers heal and rebuild their lives.
Read: Grief & Bereavement Top Tips: Where to Find Grief Counseling and Support Groups
- Do your best to drop any guilt about things that you feel you could have done differently. Regrets are normal following a loss, but dwelling on your shortcomings, whether real or perceived, benefits no one. We are all imperfect people and imperfect caregivers. What matters is that you did your best. Compare notes with other veteran caregivers, and you will likely come to realize that you did just fine. If you still have certain incidents that you can’t seem to let go of, write your late loved one a letter of apology. Then, consider the apology accepted and tear up the letter. You have been forgiven by them, now it is time to forgive yourself.
- Acknowledge the uncomfortable mix of grief and relief you feel, but don’t judge yourself for it. Many caregivers have wished their loved ones would be released from their pain and suffering, and many caregivers have also wished to be released from the anxiety, stress, and exhaustion of providing care. It is only natural to feel some degree of relief when that time comes. In fact, feeling relieved when caregiving ends is indicative of the all-consuming nature of the job you took on. Recognizing that you met the demands of caregiving all the way to the end is one of the best buffers against undeserved guilt.
- Focus on positive memories of your relationship with your care receiver, and relegate the negative ones to a compassionate place on the side. For those of us who helped a loved one through years of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, this can be a challenge. Forgive your loved one, if that step is needed. Most of us can only truly move on if we’ve forgiven people for mistreating us, regardless of whether they had their faculties at the time. Here, again, counseling may help. This may be painful, but do some reminiscing to revive positive memories of life with your care receiver. Make a pact with yourself to keep these memories at the forefront of your mind instead of the less pleasant ones.
Read: Forgiveness Helps Us Live and Die with Serenity and Peace
- Sometimes looking outside of yourself can help with the grieving process. Volunteering is a good way to do this. Volunteer at a nursing home or senior center if you want continued contact with elders in need. Or do the opposite and volunteer with children. If neither of these options appeals to you, consider working with animals or doing something outdoorsy that is beneficial for the environment. Activities like these function as a gentle reminder that life goes on and it is possible to find a renewed sense of purpose.
- Consider connecting with active caregivers to share the wisdom you gained on your own journey. Or, again, do the opposite: leave caregiving behind you. However, try to continue channeling the compassion that you practiced and the patience you honed while caregiving. I believe that nearly anyone who has been a family caregiver has gained some deep insight into themselves, priceless skills and information, and a valuable perspective on life. Although it may require some trial and error, recognizing these strengths and abilities in yourself and finding new ways to use them is incredibly rewarding.
Self-care is crucial throughout all stages of caregiving—even after this role comes to an end. Allow yourself to grieve, and allow others to help comfort and guide you throughout this process as needed. Grieving is hard work and each person processes loss in their own way. With time, it is possible to move forward successfully.