Life After Caregiving: Finding Your New Normal

With my eyes still closed, the sleep fog begins to lift and the fact that it’s Saturday creeps into my awareness. Saturdays are the days I make the three-hour drive to visit my 81 year-old mother in the skilled nursing facility that she now makes her home. The fog lifts a little more and I now remember that my mom passed two weeks ago and I don’t have to make the journey today. I never have to make that journey again. Now, another kind of fog moves in. The fog of grief. Since I don’t have to get up, get dressed and hit the road today, I stay in bed – hoping that sleep will visit me again. Thankfully, it does for another two hours. I finally get up and move to the couch in the living room. I turn on the TV and watch show after show. During each one I tell myself ,“I’ll get in the shower when this episode is over.” I don’t. I find myself sobbing – ugly crying. I made the journey to visit my mom on Saturdays for three years. In fact, I had been my mom’s care partner for 22 years. She was only 59 years old when she had the massive stroke. I was only 19. I lost a part of my mom back then, but I still had the essence of ‘the loving mom’ I had known for 19 years. Now she was ‘gone-gone’, not just a part of her. Here’s the thing: I didn’t just lose my mom, I lost the person I had been caring for all those years.  It was like I lost two people at the same time. It was a double whammy. My biggest surprise? The deep sadness I felt. I thought I was ready for her to go; and a part of me was ready. The rest of me, though, wasn’t and I wasn’t prepared for that. Even though she was gone, I still loved her. Thank goodness for my job. While I had a hard time doing anything on the weekends, my job gave me a reason to get up during the week. I threw myself into a new project and would work seven days a week for 10 or more hours a day. While it helped get me through the days, it didn’t help me deal with the loss. The sadness didn’t go away, it stayed just under the surface. People suggested I get grief counseling. As silly as it may sound, I imagined I was like Humpty Dumpty. What if I started to talk about it and crumbled into a thousand pieces and wouldn’t be able to put the pieces together again? Eventually, I went to counseling and during one session, I suddenly felt lightheaded. I felt “light.” I realized I had been carrying the weight of grief for so long and I now could feel that it was lifting. I wish I had listened and gotten help sooner. Here is what I learned by this experience:
  • Grief, sadness, loss, anger, and guilt are normal feelings when someone passes. Allow yourself to feel your feelings and grieve.
  • There is no set timeline for grief. Everybody’s journey is personal and individual to them.
  • Grief is something you have to move through and you can’t go on with your life until you do. You can’t go around.
  • You might feel alone, you are NOT. Let people help you. Tell them what you need and don’t need. Let them know when you’re ready to join the world again.
  • If it is appropriate, get professional help through a support group or counseling.
  • If you are employed, talk to your boss and let him or her know what you need, whether that is to lighten your load or to dive into a project.
  • Keep a journal; it helps sort out emotions.
  • Love doesn’t end when a person passes. Love is truly forever.
  Jodi Hempel is a daughter turned caregiver for her mother. Now she helps people prepare and plan for assisting their aging parents so they can gain peace of mind. She is the lead author of “Life: The Next Phase. Navigating the Issues of Caring for Your Aging Parents or Loved Ones.” She is also the creator of the “Walking the Path with Your Aging Loved One” training program. She holds an MBA in Strategic Leadership.

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