Helping Family Caregivers Recharge after the Loss of a Loved One

Published February 4, 2021

Authors: Shoshana Ungerleider, MD and Eric Coleman, MD, MPH

The role of caregiver is often vital in families to ensure the health and well-being of those they love. During the recent COVID pandemic, the lines between providing family caregiving locally or remotely have blurred. Each caregiver has his or her own story. Some sought out the role, out of the goodness of their hearts, while others reluctantly assumed it for the good of the family, simply out of duty or sense of obligation. When it comes to caring for a Loved One with multiple chronic conditions, many family caregivers find that they underestimated both the magnitude and duration of the role.

On the good days, caregivers may feel the extraordinary sense of purpose that comes along with it. We also know it can be challenging mentally, financially and often physically. The primary caregiver may feel ambivalent, experiencing good and bad days, ranging from bonding and sharing with the loved one, to resenting the role, and the lack of appreciation that often goes with it.

When family caregivers arrive into the role, they often discover that caregiving can be physically and emotionally taxing. This is particularly true in the aftermath of the loss of their Loved One. Caregivers who have recently lost the person they cared for may be at risk for depression, experiencing hopelessness and helplessness.

In addition to their grief, the may feel other forms of loss:

  • loss of control
  • loss of independence
  • loss of income
  • loss of a sense of self

Not tending to these feelings can lead to poor sleep, illness, trouble coping, and substance abuse. Most will benefit from finding productive ways to recharge following the loss.

Experiences in the Aftermath

Following the death of the loved one, the caregiver may feel a sense of relief now that their loved one is finally at rest and free from pain.

For an extended period, careers, relationships, finances, and even spiritual needs are often left unattended and unfulfilled in the interest of offering optimal care. This constant focus on the needs of another often becomes a caregiver’s core identity. In most cases, they don’t recognize their sacrifice and view the tasks they perform as simply being there for a loved one during a time of need.

Caregivers are more prone to illness, depression, anxiety, and overall lower quality of health than the general population. They may withdraw from social connections, leading to intense loneliness and feelings of social isolation and may not always feel like socializing after experiencing such a dramatic life change and painful loss. It’s important to find pathways to reconnect with others — especially those who have had similar experiences when on the journey of grief recovery and self-discovery.

Providing potential strategies for recharging batteries

After having invested so much time and energy in focusing on the care of their loved one, attending to themselves may initially feel strange or even selfish. The caregiver has to learn to refocus all of the love they gave into their own emotional, spiritual, social and physical restoration. Some family caregivers may see the aftermath as an opportunity to attend to their own health broadly defined and thrive physically, emotionally or spiritually. There is no “one size fits all” but there are tips that can begin the recharging process:

Learning to cope and heal emotionally 

  • Allow yourself to experience your emotions honestly without judgment
  • Embrace new rituals or routines to restore a sense of peace
  • Engage in activities to take your mind off things like movies, walks, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek professional help from a therapist

Cultivating social connections and support system

  • Reach out to friends and family and plan times to see one another
  • Start re-establishing social connections with the community
  • Don’t be ashamed to lean on those who offer support

Restoring yourself physically

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Engage in physical activity such as walking, yoga, etc.
  • Try mindfulness and meditation exercises daily

Every caregiver embarks on an individual path to recovery and reinvigoration. Some may choose or feel compelled to return to the role of primary caregiver for another loved one. Other family caregivers may see the aftermath as an opportunity to attend to their own health and find a path to thrive physically, emotionally or spiritually.

Following are a list of sources to help caregivers to connect to activities and resources:

  1. End Well’s Take 10: How do far-flung family members support loved ones navigating the reality of providing in-person care?
  2. Millennial Caregiver Vivian Nunez at End Well 2019: What Happens After The After?
  3. Area Agencies on Aging
  4. Veteran’s Affairs
  5. NIH
  6. Family Caregiver Alliance
  7. Mayo Clinic
  8. Prescription for Nature