After Caregiving Ends: The Five Emotions
Providing a beautiful sunset to one's life can take its toll on a caregiver, yet no one in modern society should be left to die alone. One of the most beautiful analogies that I learned during my Clinical Pastoral Education training encompassed how society (and the medical profession) has changed their views on the birthing process. Now in most cases, the birthing process is a celebratory experience where the entire family is in the delivery room witnessing and welcoming the birth of a new family member: It is a celebration of life, a welcoming of sorts…it is a good thing! When I was born, this type of practice was not in vogue.
As we make our transition from life on earth to eternal life, that same spirit at the birthing process needs to be transferred at the time of this transition. All too often people are left to make their transition on their own. While death often leaves us with an empty and aching heart, helping to facilitate a happy transition can be a meaningful experience for ALL involved in the process. Yet death brings such raw emotions to the table: unfinished business, our own mortality, our sense of loss. Death is not an easy component of life, yet is not a final good-bye appropriate?
For every caregiver, the stark reality is this; there is always a beginning and an end to caregiving, and the common thread is we are not prepared for either one of these life-changing experiences.
I have come to learn there are five emotions one can experience when caregiving ends.
- Relief: Caregiving is over; those long sleepless nights are gone and there is relief knowing that the one you loved (cared for) is now pain free.
- Sadness: The life you once knew is forever changed. The undeniable reality something powerful has happened, forever transforming two (or more) lives.
- Guilt: Those “what if’s” or “if I could have done this different” moments leaving us to wonder if we did the right thing, made the right decision about our loved one’s care. Then comes the greatest guilt–when you realize that you HAVE to continue on with your life without the one you loved and cared for. We want to avoid this emotion as much as possible, and it is essential to reach out for help when guilt becomes burdensome.
- Acceptance: When you wake up one morning and tell yourself, “JOB WELL DONE” and you find the strength to live in the present. Acceptance is the most elusive emotion to graph and experience when caregiving ends because your life has gone through an identity change.
- Action: Like new blooms that need to be watered to bloom again, when caregiving ends, we have to find our comfort zone and take action to recreate our life.
Relief, Sadness, Guilt, Acceptance and Action all rolled-up into one statement may look easy on paper, but for the caregiver dealing with loss, these five words are the most profound emotions one can experience when the caregiving journey ends. Just as the caregiving journey is different, life after caregiving will be different too. There are no timetables when you might experience these five emotions; I know it took me 15 months after Richard made his life transition when I could say to myself, “Job Well Done” and accept that no matter what else I thought I could have done for Richard would have changed his destiny. My caregiving cape has limitations; recognize and accept your caregiving cape has limitations too.
We all experience loss in our life, yet no one can tell us exactly how to deal with loss. Loss is so personal and so real. Once you find the path to acceptance, taking action and living your life in the present will be a tad bit easier. This doesn’t mean you miss the one you love and cared for any less, it simply means you are ready to live life in the present, not the past.
There was one very important part of my grief process I learned after Richard made his life transition--that helped eased the pain and taught me to love him differently: When I accepted faith tells me that I will see him again, my mind tells me he is forever pain free, my heart tells me that he is standing right beside me.
And in your time, life after caregiving does get better!
Updated August 10, 2020.
Affectionately known as "The Bow Tie Guy," Chris MacLellan is the Founder and CEO of The Whole Care Network™, the author of “What’s The Deal with Caregiving?", and he has been an advocate for caregivers through his blog, "The Purple Jacket," and Healing Ties podcast since 2012. The story of Chris and his partner, Richard Schiffer, was chronicled in a 2015 Pulitzer Prize nominated story, “In Sickness and in Health: A Couple’s Final Journey“--the story told of the love and care of the last six months of Richard's life and the struggles LGBT caregivers face.
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