Dear Family Advisor

Is there life after caregiving?

Last updated: Aug 17, 2010

After several bouts of cancer, my husband recently passed away. Our daughter wants me to move in with her and care for her children while she works. I usually love helping her out, but this feels like she's using me.

I'm afraid I'll lose myself in my family's lives and forget who I am. My friends (who are mostly single or widowed) say that I should simply concentrate on having a good time -- lots of "girlfriend weekends." I'd like to say that sounds like fun, but I'm just not there yet. I also need some supplemental income as our finances took a big hit from years of medical expenses.

My husband made me promise I'd live a good and happy life, but I'm at a loss as to how to get started. How do you find a new path after years of caregiving?

It's good that your husband made you promise you'd have a good and happy life. That's your lifeline now, and a way to measure (or alter) anything that doesn't meet this criteria. The challenge is to know what's good for you -- and what makes *you * happy.

As much as we love our children, sometimes they don't see the whole of our lives. We're not only their mother and their dad's wife; we're women with needs, hopes, aspirations, and concerns. Your daughter no doubt thinks she's doing you a huge favor "“ you would have a place to stay, wouldn't have to worry about money, would have lots of family time, and would be helping her. To her, it seems ideal. And for some people it might be, though perhaps not for you.

How do you go about finding out what's best for you? Slowly -- knowing you'll make mistakes along the way. All you can do is try again and again until you find what fits.

It may be a good thing that you need to earn some money. That forces you to get out there again. Your plans may come down to what's available, but also look back over your life and remember what kind of work or activities you used to enjoy, and what you're good at. Sometimes our first jobs and careers hold keys to what we'll return to. One thing you've been all along is a nurturer, and that's sorely needed in our world today.

Consider volunteering, especially with charities and other help-based organizations, in addition to earning income. You'll meet new people, and I know many volunteers who were later hired because they proved so valuable.

The main thing is to start the ball rolling. I know you're still grieving, but if you don't get your own momentum going, it will be too easy for others' opinions to take over. Do one thing to start your new life: Sign up for a computer course, for example, or join Facebook and network or take a part-time job to pay the bills.

If you may need to move or get a roommate, imagine some possibilities. Then explore them; if you're considering a condo, for example, visit someone in a condo. Stay a few days and visualize not having to do yard work, having less storage space, living closer to town and amenities -- weigh the good and not-so-good. If possible, talk to a financial advisor. You may not have a lot of money, but you should protect what you do have and get advice on how to invest and save for your future.

Reach out to your daughter on a regular basis. As a stressed and busy mom, she's in the hot seat of life right now. Although it may seem like she doesn't need you for anything besides cooking, cleaning, and watching the kids, we know that's not true. She needs her mother. You're part of her in ways she can't quite comprehend. Help when you can, and look between the lines of her hectic life and really listen to her.

The next couple of years are going to be a mixed bag. Grief will continue to come in waves. You'll feel scared at times, not know if you're making the right decision. You'll feel lonely and miss your husband terribly. You'll be tired and wish you could just crawl back to your old life. But you can't.

Picture yourself a year from now, confident, renewed, at peace with the "new you" -- the You woven from all you've been and all you are. You'll reconnect with friends, enjoy your grandkids, learn new things, maybe even go on a date -- who knows? Don't rule anything out. Be open to life, and keep your husband's wish for you to have a good and happy life in your heart.