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Caregiving might be the hardest job any of us will ever have. When the person you care for passes, the range of emotions can be complex. Below is a deeply personal essay from Julie Gorges, who shares her own journey of grief, expert advice and coping strategies.
How to move forward after the one you cared for dies?
As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, grieving is a heartbreaking journey. When you’re a caregiver and the person you’ve been caring for dies, experts on grieving agree the psychological outcome and healing process are somewhat different. That’s especially true if your loved one had dementia.I was the primary caregiver for my mother, who had Lewy Body dementia during the last years of her life. I learned that grief takes many forms, and it isn’t just about mourning someone after they die. When your loved one has dementia, you lose that person in an excruciating way — a little bit at a time. As a result, some of the grieving process begins to take place while you’re still caregiving.

Other complicated feelings often come into play. “After caregivers lose the person they cared for, there is often less grief alone, but a mixture of other emotions,” explains Dr. Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist and author. “Those feelings may include sadness and uncertainty about the future, along with some degree of relief and a desire to move forward.”
After a Death: A Mix of Emotions
This was certainly true in my case. After my mother’s death, the emotions were overwhelming. I was relieved all of my heartbreaking duties as a caregiver were over. No more medical emergencies, constant worrying and sleepless nights. I also enjoyed my newfound freedom to take a vacation, go on a leisurely walk, spend quiet time with my husband or simply enjoy a book.

But there was a lot of guilt mixed in for feeling that way. I also felt remorse about the times I wasn’t the perfect caregiver and questioned whether I made the right decisions along the way.

On top of that, I felt lost. Caring for Mom had been my life for a few years. Most of my thoughts and feelings had revolved around her care. After my mother died, I not only lost her, but part of my identity as a caregiver. My life had changed drastically overnight.

Accept Your Feelings and Move Forward
So, how can you move forward will all the intense and contradictory feelings that come with the territory?

What I learned is that you have to accept all your emotions and be patient with yourself. Feel everything you need to feel. Lean on loved ones. Honestly discuss your thoughts and feelings with those close to you.

However, as time goes on, it’s important not to allow sorrow to become a way of life or dwell on all of the “should-haves” that interfere with recovery. In fact, you’ll need to forgive yourself for mistakes you think were made while caregiving and stop feeling guilty that you’re relieved to have your life back.

The goal is to let go of negative feelings and enjoy a productive life once again.
How is that accomplished?

After my mother’s death, I took an important step that helped me pick up the scattered pieces of my soul and begin living again.

I deemed the year after my mother’s death, my “year of healing” and listed three non-negotiable things I had to do each day. There was nothing new or revolutionary on my list. Just a few simple things that provided an anchor, ensured that I took the time to care and focus on myself and helped me get through a bad day.

My list included:

  • Read something spiritual and inspirational each day. If you’re a religious person, now is the time to embrace your spirituality and rely on your faith to help you move forward. It’s so easy to become sidetracked and allow time to slip by without any spiritual fortification. I realized daily reading, meditation and prayer were necessary every single day.
  • Exercise. I’m not talking about running a marathon or doing 50 deep squats. But, even if it was only for 15 minutes, I did something for both my physical and emotional well-being. Maybe I’d take a stroll through the park listening to the birds sing, do some Pilates or walk the dog around the block listening to soothing music.
  • Do something you love. I thought about what used to make me feel happy and brought fun and joy to my life. Then I made a point of putting those treasured activities back into my daily life. In other words, at the end of the day, I made sure that I did something just for me.

You know what? My list worked. Accomplishing these three things every day helped me feel calmer, more centered and, yes, happier.

I’d recommend making a list of your own. Maybe you’ll include laughing each day, spending time in nature, learning something new, being silly or enjoying time with loved ones.

Read the rest of the author’s advice on Next Avenue.
MORE ON THIS TOPICCoping With Grief Through My Walking Shoes
Bereavement Researcher: We Must Do Better for the Grief Stricken
10 Things to Read When You’re Grieving
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