A common experience for caregivers after a loss is a feeling of purposelessness.
After having one’s schedule tightly wrapped around the needs of an ailing partner, parent, child, friend, or patient, their death can leave one not only heartbroken but also searching for how to fill the days once again.
The background worry does not need to be there anymore. The routine of administering medications has vanished. The limitations of travel, vacation, and socializing with others have been lifted. Grocery shopping is a reminder of what favorite foods not to bring home. And one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are directed at the wide and lonely expanse of an unexpected future, with no apparent road map or even the motivation to move forward.
Adding to the sense of emptiness, outside supports oftentimes disappear, too. If one was caring for someone terminally ill, the presence of hospice might have been part of the schedule, providing comfort and companionship; however, after the death, hospice leaves and the caregiver remains. Likewise, family, friends, and neighbors who had been visiting regularly may suddenly or slowly evaporate after a time, or also after the death, making the home seem more silent than it ever was in the past.
It is hard to imagine what it will be like without the mission of caring for someone. It is nearly impossible to conceive of what it will be like to live without making sure that someone is still there and still comfortable.
Amidst the rioting emotions of grief or the numbing shock of coming to the edge of the world and peering into nothing is the invitation to look back. Dwelling on the past keeps one stuck in the past, but searching the past for a forgotten experience or lesson can unlock our present and future.
Questions and thoughts to consider, in no particular order:
• What did I do with my time before I provided care?
• I was not always a caregiver; I was also (fill in the blank with past roles, jobs, etc.)
• I’ve always dreamed of (fill in the blank with an activity, destination, goal, etc.)
• What were my hobbies before I became a caregiver?
• What and who have I ignored while providing care that I can attend to now?
Most of us thrive on having some sort of structure in our lives, whether that is from being caregivers or from the jobs that we do or the roles that we play in our families and communities. The structures can be dictated by us, or given to us by affection, obligation, or authority.
After a death, it is natural to feel as if what held our lives together has fallen apart, as if the universe suddenly stopped making sense and the unspoken meaning that glued our lives together has ceased to hold us together. Why wait in the grocery line? What’s the point of getting out of bed? Why does anything matter, when what mattered to us has been taken away? All structure seems to be rubble at our feet.
It is important for those who feel a lack of purpose to acknowledge this loss of structure. It does not matter what someone else feels or thinks about their grief or yours, or if they seem to pick up and resume a “normal” life. We are each laid low by different blows we receive in life, and comparison is rarely useful in mourning. We pick ourselves up as we can, and as we need to.
Recreating structure can be challenging, but it can be accomplished. Returning to old structures we had left behind can offer us guidance in the days to come, if not a welcome distraction to the new and unknown path ahead. If one looks to the past for memories, experiences, and what provided a sense of purpose before providing care, this search can help create a new structure, new routine, or “new normal” to live by.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ivan Chan, MA, MFTi, therapist in Santa Cruz, California
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