Caregiving can be challenging, overwhelming, and exhausting. Yet, when caregiving ends, emotions are fraught too.

Not only do caregivers feel grief over the loss of their loved one, that loss may be compounded by the loss of their caregiving work, which after years of focused effort had become central to their identity. Family drama may further complicate matters as there may be old and festering disagreements about the care of their loved one along with new difficult decisions about funeral arrangements and the distribution of assets.

Sometimes, these issues can take years to process emotionally. For example, one grieving daughter found herself unable to let go of her resentment toward her siblings who she felt had not helped their dying mother as much as she had. A friend’s mother, who lost her spouse, found herself disoriented by her new life, which no longer revolved around her husband’s intensive health needs, and she needed substantial help to get her bearings.

Grief, which caregivers often experience even while their loved one is still alive, can become even more intense after death, but it also may be mixed with relief because the extreme need of their loved one has ended as has any pain they may have endured. Nevertheless, this combination of loss and relief can cause guilt, confusion, and sometimes depression.

If you are struggling to reorient yourself after such a loss, you’re not alone, and if you’re in the middle of your caregiving journey, it’s worth thinking about how your life may look after this period has ended. Here are some things to consider:

1) No Timeline
Grief experts typically recommend taking at least a year to process grief, in part because the first birthdays and holidays after a loss can be particularly hard. However, grief can linger for years after a death, or the loss may require less time to fathom because so much has been processed before the actual death. There is no right way to grieve, but letting yourself experience the gamut of your emotions is important. No matter how you feel, it’s okay.

2) Find Support
As caregivers, we have to become whizzes at finding support for our loved ones, but we often neglect ourselves. If you are in the midst of caregiving, remember that any support you garner for yourself may also help you after your loved one is gone. When that loss occurs, you’ll need people to lean on, so began gathering them now. If you have already experienced a loss, a web search for grief groups near you may help. Therapists, pastors, and friends can also provide assistance, so don’t be afraid to reach out. If your sadness has become chronic or drifted into depression, it’s essential that you find help, so please contact a doctor for assistance.

3) Get Out
Whether you’re still caregiving or are dealing with intense grief, make sure not to spend all of your time alone at home. Find a way to be active in your community, whether through volunteering or by exploring local activities. Experiment with something you’ve never tried, such as ballroom dancing, chess, or a drum circle. Check out groups in your area by searching the app meetup. Consider planning a trip to somewhere you’ve always wanted to go, or make an effort to call a different friend each week, even childhood friends who you haven’t spoken to in years. Breaks from sadness are vital and healthy, so let yourself experience some happiness.

For me, the passage of time also helped. My sad thoughts eventually turned into lovely memories, but it took both time and work for that to occur. Remember, “happiness doesn’t just happen.” It always takes effort.

We are grateful to be celebrating our 10th year of helping caregivers in need and to be supported by the many generous and caring friends who have helped make a difference in so many lives. 

Please consider donating to the Kathi Koll Foundation so you can help make a difference in struggling family caregivers’ lives. Thank you!