Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Life After Long Term Caregiving ...

Had my husband not died, this past Friday would have been our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary. It is almost eight years since his death and, although I had been feeling twinges of sadness for several days, I woke on Friday morning feeling mellow and happy.

The sun was shining and the air was cool and fresh and I rose early, gathering my journal and market bags, (and my ubiquitous green smoothie) and headed out to the Granville Island Public Market, for many years a favourite "day-off" place to visit.

I sat at "our" round wooden table with a large cup of tea and a toasted blueberry scrumpet (once shared, but now left half finished) and browsed through copies of Common Ground and the Georgia Straight. In my imagination, Derrick sat across from me, suntanned grey head bent over his book until something sparked his interest and he looked up, blue eyes shining with curiosity, to ask, "What do you think about this ...?". It's those moments that I miss the most. The times of shared ideas, interests and excitement.

After a while, I bought a second cup of tea and began to read my journal. It was good to look back and to see how far I'd come since the exhausted, bereft days after Derrick's death. Some of my anniversary entries were achingly sad and others, blazingly angry or scared, but Friday's note had more nuance, more complexity, more integration, a weaving of good and bad memories peppered with goodly amounts of forgiveness - both for him and for myself. I have grown and changed beyond measure through seven years of care-partnering and eight years of recovery and, while I would never wish the long term caregiving journey upon anyone, I am grateful for the "new me" and the things I have learned.

I believe we err in thinking that the caregiving journey ends with the death of our loved one. There is another important phase in the journey, a phase of recovery and the creation of a new life. This phase often takes longer than we might expect. (As I've written elsewhere, a wise acquaintance once said that it would be five years before I truly knew who I was without Derrick and she was correct, almost to the day.)

The length and the quality of this last phase of caregiving is different for each of us, of course, but there are commonalities in the experience - layers of profound grief, loneliness, the slow healing of compassion fatigue and burnout, rebuilding our physical wellness, the Rip Van Winkle syndrome, learning new roles and responsibilities, becoming financially secure, rebuilding a leisure life, learning to trust ourselves and our strengths in new areas of life. As we work through each step (often several times) we become not just well, but weller than well. (ie Not only returned to our pre-caregiving state but having developed new talents, new effectiveness, new strengths, new horizons.)

Because I believe this recovery phase of family caregiving is so important, I will begin a series of posts on life after long term caregiving in August, when I return from vacation. Watch this space for the first post sometime in mid-August.


Anonymous said...

Jan, thank you so much for this beautiful post. I could feel your sadness and your happiness through your words. You're giving so much comfort and care to other caregivers with your work and your words.

You're right about the caregiver having to recover as well. And not only after the care recipient dies. After my husband's terrible brain injury and my resulting secondary traumatic stress, we recovered together. I'm so grateful for that.

Jan Spilman, MEd, RCC Compassion Fatigue Specialist said...

Barbara, thanks so much for your comment and for the gentle reminder that caregiving does not always end in death. (All four of my caregiving experiences have done so, so I sometimes forget to say that a joyful ending to caregiving is possible!) I'm glad that you and your husband are such great examples of recovery, truly becoming weller than well.