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Ask Elizabeth: Life After Caring for a Parent

Shannon asks: My mother recently passed away. It was a peaceful death in her home, the way she wanted, however after two years of caring for her full-time I am now struggling with how to move forward in my own life.
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Natalie Strouth is a nurse with Saint Elizabeth and the information specialist behind Ask Elizabeth, a free caregiver support service. Saint Elizabeth, a home health care company, has been a trusted name in Canadian health care for more than a century and is a national, not-for-profit, charitable organization.

In her weekly column, Natalie answers your questions about caring for a family member or friend who needs extra support -- and caring for yourself as a caregiver.

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Shannon asks: My mother recently passed away. It was a peaceful death in her home, the way she wanted, however after two years of caring for her full-time I am now struggling with how to move forward in my own life.

Thank you for reaching out, Shannon. This is a very emotional, difficult time that is also full of transitions. After being physically and emotionally consumed with caring for your mother's declining health these past few years, suddenly dealing with the loss of a parent -- and of your role as her caregiver -- is emotional and overwhelming. These experiences have likely come to define you in different ways.

It's important to know that everyone experiences grief in his or her own way. There is no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of your mom. And contrary to what some people may tell you (with the best of intentions), there is no timetable.

Having worked with many families as a community nurse, I can suggest some things that might help. Have you talked about your mom's final days with her care providers? Talking to them about your own reactions and grief can help you work through them.

I recommend reading through our Saint Elizabeth information resource, Understanding Loss and Grief.

Guilt is a very common emotion that you might be dealing with, in various forms. Did I honour my mom's wishes? Did I help her accomplish her goals? Did I do the right things, and make the right choices? This is especially common in families where conversations about end of life wishes or advance care planning were limited. You might even feel guilt about your own grief, thinking that you should be coping better or moving on sooner. Be gentle with yourself. You have done a good job -- don't get into a cycle of regrets. Consider writing a journal, talking with a trusted friend, whatever helps you.

Take the time you need to acknowledge the loss you are feeling. Reach out to talk with family and friends, and share photos, stories and memories of your mother. Sometimes family and friends mistakenly think people only need support immediately following a death.

In terms of your physical health, it may take weeks, months or even a year for your body to readjust. After living in a state of high alertness, it will take time to return to regular sleep patterns, a normal diet and exercise routine, and feeling able to relax.

Use the home and community care services available to you. If you need bereavement support services, I suggest you contact your local hospice. Bereaved Families of Ontario also provides compassionate support for families and individuals coping with loss.

You will eventually have large chunks of time to fill. In a recent Twitter discussion on this topic, Denise M. Brown of shared a tip from one of her bloggers: "Find activities to replace your caregiving activities." She called it "replacement therapy." They have a web site,, where former caregivers blog and share stories.

Ask for help, and be specific about what you need. The paper work, settling financial and legal matters, and possibly cleaning out and selling a family home are all emotional and time-consuming. You should not need to do these things alone.

If and when you feel ready for "what's next," you might struggle to know what that even is. Finding new ways to examine and define your life and fill your time will be an important part of healing. Our family members, especially our parents, want to see us happy. Remember that.

Something to consider is how your compassion, perspective and experiences can be wonderful support to others. Listening to and helping other family caregivers, volunteering at a community organization or hospice, or fundraising can all be rewarding experiences.

Shannon, after many years of focusing your care and attention on your mom it is time to bring your attention back to yourself and begin healing. Your journey does not end here -- a new chapter has begun that will be filled with new awareness, compassion and insights. I commend you on having the strength to reach out as it is through our connections with each other that humanity, strength and healing happens.

Send your caregiving question to Answers may appear in an upcoming weekly column. Ask Elizabeth does not offer legal guidance, nor does it answer questions about personal health issues.

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