Now What? Your Post-Caregiving Grief Guide

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Grane at Home

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Feb 15, 2024

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Pennsylvania - Greater Pittsburgh Area

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Now What? Your Post-Caregiving Grief Guide

 By Gary Bruland, Bereavement Counselor - Grane Hospice Harrisburg

“Now what?”  You may be asking yourself this question if you served as your late loved one’s primary caregiver. You dedicated your time and talents, lovingly and sacrificially giving yourself, having offered your heart, soul, mind, and strength. You put your own needs and interests on hold.  

Now that your loved one or friend has died, you may feel sadness, loneliness, and an enormous void left by the loved one. But you may also feel a measure of relief. You’re not only grieving the loved one or friend that was lost, but you are also at a loss. You’re likely grappling with two basic post-caregiving questions:  Who am I after having been a caregiver? What shall I do now?       

While grief often seems like a long and solitary journey, be assured that you are not alone. According to the AARP Public Policy Institute from 2017, there were an estimated 40 million caregivers in the US caring for another adult, such as a parent, spouse, sibling, son, daughter, other relative, friend, or neighbor.   Today, many of these 40 million Americans are now former caregivers who are walking their own post-caregiving grief journey. What follows are some strategies for journeying through grief for you who have served as compassionate caregivers. In our Harrisburg-area “Growing through Grief” sessions, we focus on the four tasks of healthy grieving as set forth by Dr. J. William Worden. One of these tasks involves an effort to identify who you are as an individual apart from your late loved one. In other words, you will want to begin to reinvest your life in ways consistent with your own personal interests, vision, and values.

But how do you do this? You can begin to identify who you are apart from your loved one by asking yourself three questions: Who were you before your loved one came into your life? Who were you when he/she was in your life? Who are you now without that person in your life? Asking yourself these questions to help determine who you are as an independent person is an essential part of making it through your journey of grief.

Borrowing a principle from career counseling may also be helpful in your grief recovery. This principle asserts that you can find your new calling or new identity at the intersection of your strengths, your interests, and what most benefits others. Work on finding this intersection, as you drive the detour of grief, and you may very well discover ways to reinvest your life.

 Others may come alongside you to give care, comfort, and support for a time. But your grief journey will continue until you define and redefine yourself after their death. Death changes the roles we play, and these roles help to define us.

Another factor in identifying who you are independent of your loved one involves reviewing the various interests and activities you may have participated in because of, or with, your loved one. Will you continue to do these things without your loved one?

As you work on your grief recovery—and as you work on finding a new sense of purpose post-caregiving—let me close with a word of encouragement. You may still be feeling mad, sad, or bad about your loved one’s death; or, you may feel as if you died with them; or, you may still feel that you’ll never adjust to a “new normal” without them.  While feeling adrift or at a loss, “Now what?” is a perfectly natural and, sometimes necessary, response.    

You can be assured that as you do your grief work, the heaviness of your grief in these days will lessen and get lighter in days to come. The fog of grief will lift. You may discover that part of your new purpose in life is to be an advocate for a special cause. New advocacy or activism on behalf of an important issue or cause may become a powerful and positive part of your growing through grief. It may help you heal from your pain and loss.

Be assured, you’ll always remember your loved one. You’ll also remember your grief and pain, but as you work through your grief on this long journey, the pain will decrease and not be as intense.  In time, you will heal.   In time, you will move into a new normal, enjoying a revitalized life.

In his booklet Rebuilding and Remembering, Kenneth Haugk talks about rebuilding your life: Give yourself permission to live again, to laugh again, to enjoy life again. Living again affirms your loved one, who would want the best for you.”  Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge and Robert DeVries in their book, Traveling Through Grief, offer some helpful insights for you to consider: “How can you know you are done grieving?”

While there are many evidences which suggest that your grief journey is drawing to a close, here are four major evidences you’ll want to look for:

 

You are able to talk about your deceased loved one and recall special memories without strong emotional reactions like breaking down crying or feeling significant pain.

You have dealt with all the feelings (such as anger, guilt, or sadness) that you may have felt about your relationship with the deceased.  You can be by yourself and not feel intense loneliness or yearning for your deceased loved one.

You made decisions about the disposition of their things and have chosen few keepsakes, having sorted and stored special memories to be retrieved and reviewed.  

You feel confident as a complete and whole person in yourself.  You are able to smile again, and you feel you have positive things to contribute to others.

On behalf of the compassionate staff of Grane Hospice Care, I wish you well as you continue in your journey of growing through post-caregiving.

 Gary Bruland, Bereavement Counselor, Grane Hospice Harrisburg

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Often, grieving is about being separated from our loved onesregardless of our beliefs.Id love to hear your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment in the comments box. I also invite you to subscribe to this blogwhich will cover a variety of healthcare topics.A short post cant cover everything, so if youd like more information on this topic I encourage you to research the Five Stages of Grief by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Also, see the U.S. Governments excellent A LifeCare Guide to Helping Others Cope with Grief. If youre concerned that your friends grief has developed into thoughts of hurting themselves or others, please contact a mental health professional.This post is dedicated to the memory of Bailey Rae Bullock, Matthew Bullock, Dan Bishop, Joe Adams, Michelle Pereira, and the many others who's passing profoundly affected me.