Life After Caregiving: How to Move Forward when a Loved One Dies


It may have been in the back of your mind for a long time. You knew that eventually, it would happen. But no one likes to think about the finality of your loved one dying. And who could blame you? No one wants to give up someone they love. But in the aftermath of the loss, you may be feeling at loose ends, especially if you were the primary family caregiver who was at your loved one’s side for a long time.

Grief takes many forms. Some might feel anguish and pain, wondering how they will move forward now. Others might feel a sense of relief, especially if their parent or spouse was suffering – and then feel guilty because they feel relief. Some might want to get that medical bed out of the house immediately, while others cling to the little memories, such as a box of medication or the medical alert device their loved one used. Some might swing from one emotion to another in the blink of an eye.

There is a whole mix of emotions that might be overtaking you right now. No matter what they are, rest assured that what you’re feeling is normal.

Let’s talk about that – about what’s happening right now, and the process of moving on. You can, and you will, move forward in time. In fact, you already are.

When You Have to Say Goodbye

When we say you’ve already begun moving on, that’s because for most caregivers, the process of grief begins long before their loved one passes away. It’s called anticipatory grief, and it’s most common among those who cared for a parent, spouse, or other loved one with a chronic condition that kept getting worse[1]. Considering that nearly 70% of the 2.4 million deaths in the United States each year are the result of a chronic condition such as cancer, heart disease, or respiratory illness, it makes sense that most family caregivers have some experience with bracing for the inevitable[2].

When death does come, you might actually feel relieved. This is especially true if you’ve dealt with ambiguous loss. This is when you have cared for someone who had dementia or otherwise wasn’t “there” as you had formerly known them– especially at the end, when it sometimes seemed like you were caring for a stranger. The loss of that person before they are actually gone can be a “long goodbye” that is filled with grief. By the time death comes, you’ve already said goodbye a thousand times.

The relief makes sense, doesn’t it? But then you might feel guilty for being relieved! The rollercoaster of emotion begins.

You’ve probably heard of the five stages of grief. says you will likely experience the following:

1.       Denial. Even though you knew the death was coming, you might descend into a state of shock and disbelief. You might wonder how you will possibly go on. How can the world keep turning?

2.       Anger. At some point, you might get angry with everyone and everything, even your loved one who is no longer there. Anger gives you something to hold onto, something to focus on.

3.       Bargaining. This might have begun even before the loss, with a sort of bargain with a higher power. “Maybe if I do this, the outcome will be different…” After the loss, you might start to look for ways to make life feel better. “If I dedicate myself to others, this will ease…”

4.       Depression. Of course, bargaining doesn’t work, and that often leads to depression. You might start to wonder if you’ll ever feel better. The fog of sadness can seem overwhelming.

5.       Acceptance. Eventually, that fog lifts. You start to see the loss for what it was – an inevitable part of life. This doesn’t mean you’re okay with the loss. It does mean that you realize you must move forward, and that you can do so.

It’s very important to remember that the stages of grief are not linear. You can bounce from one to the other, and you can cycle through them in a matter of minutes. Grief can even come and go. You might think you’re “over it” and be fine for weeks, then suddenly a bout of anger or depression can bring you to your knees and make you feel like you’re right back at the beginning of the process.

There is no right or wrong way for any of this to happen. It just happens.

Sometimes grief goes beyond the five stages and becomes something more difficult to handle. According to the journal Geriatrics, about 20% of grieving caregivers will experience persistently high levels of distress that can make it difficult to move forward with their lives. While most people see their symptoms of grief decline over the span of a year or so, about 10-15% of caregivers experienced chronic depression. This was especially pronounced among those who were already dealing with high levels of stress, such as being exhausted or overwhelmed, having a lack of support, or juggling work and caring for younger children along with their caregiving responsibilities.

The good news is that no matter how deep the grief, you can move on, and there is help to get you there.

Moving Forward After a Loss

For a while after your loss, everything reminds you of your loved one. This makes sense during those first few days or weeks when you are taking inventory of supplies, sending back rented equipment like a hospital bed or wheelchair, or otherwise rearranging the home now that certain areas that were used for caregiving can revert to their former usage. Breaking down in sobs when you find your spouse’s medical alert pendant or when you read a note your parent wrote shortly before their death is entirely normal and actually healthy.

The first and most important point about moving on from a loss is to let the grief come. The more you fight it, the longer it will linger.

There are other ways to help you stay on track with moving forward. Give these a try:

·         Keep a journal. This can be a journal where you detail your feelings about the loss. It can be a gratitude journal, where you express what you’re grateful for each day. It can be a journal about your day-to-day life, where you write about how you are moving on in small increments. Whatever works for you is great, as long as you’re getting your emotions out on paper.

·         Reconnect. While you were busy caring for your loved one, you probably let some friendships fall to the wayside – not because you wanted to, but simply because your time was devoted to caregiving. Now is the time to reconnect with those old friends. Reach out to them and ask if you could get together for lunch or a long walk.

·         Find a support group. Sometimes you need to talk to someone who has gone through the same thing you are dealing with right now. Support groups for bereaved family caregivers are everywhere, and they are filled with people just like you. This excellent guide on finding support groups can help you reach out to one in your area. Not ready to meet in person just yet? Look for online support groups.

·         Create a routine. You probably had a routine that involved your spouse or parent. Now you might feel lost and drifting, with far too much time on your hands. Create a routine, even if it’s as simple as getting up, brushing your teeth, getting dressed, preparing breakfast, and so on. It will help you cope with the long hours in a day.

·         Prepare for difficult days. Though your grief will diminish, it will likely come roaring right back on anniversaries, birthdays, and other special days you would have celebrated with your loved one. You know when those days are, so prepare for them ahead of time. For instance, plan a vacation or a get-together with friends on your loved one’s birthday. The anniversary of the death can also be a strong emotional blow, so plan to have some support around you during that time.

·         Be patient with yourself. Remember that the stages of grief can be all over the place. You can be fine one minute and definitely not fine the next. You might do things you wouldn’t have done in the past, such as lashing out at the slightest provocation or withdrawing into a cocoon of sadness. Remember that this is a process and you have very little control over it. Grief happens in its own way. Be patient with yourself during the journey.

·         Pay attention to your health. It can be easy to let your own health fall to the wayside. But you should start paying attention now to the things you might not have done before, such as getting enough sleep, exercising on a regular basis, eating well, and taking the time to relax. Make your home safer with aging in place solutions – if you haven’t implemented them already – and consider a medical alert system with fall detection for yourself. Knowing you are protected and safe 24/7 can give you strong peace of mind, and that’s something you might really need right now, especially if you are now living alone.

·         Fill your time. After your loved one passes away, you might find yourself with long stretches of free time on your hands. Without anything to fill that time, you can begin to dwell on the loss, and that can lead to more sadness. Filing your time with activities and hobbies doesn’t mean you are ignoring or deflecting the emotions – it just means that you are making your days more productive and fulfilling. Life is a gift.

·         Get professional help. Maybe you are dealing with grief just fine, or you’re facing an uphill battle you don’t feel equipped to handle. In either case, counseling with a professional therapist is an excellent idea. A good counselor, especially one with deep experience with grief, can help you stay on the right track and give you a safe space to talk about emotions that you might not be able to mention to the loved ones around you who are grieving too. This professional help can be especially useful for those who are dealing with complicated grief. Don’t hesitate to get help if you need it!

When your parent, spouse, or loved one dies, your life is plunged into a state of transition. As a family caregiver, you’ve lost not only a person you loved, but you might have also lost your sense of purpose. You might be feeling adrift with no idea what to do next. But remember – these feelings are normal. Take good care of yourself while you navigate this new journey.

Alert1 wishes you peace and comfort as you move forward.