Refueling Time: It’s Okay To Just Give To Yourself

Refueling Time an old man suffering from Parents death

Following my parents’ deaths, five weeks apart in a distant nursing home, I experienced deep depression. Ignoring self-care during years of intense caregiving led to emotional and physical collapse. Exhausted and indifferent, I struggled to find purpose in their suffering or peace with my efforts.

It Takes Time

Enduring a year of survivor’s guilt, I feared that indulging myself would betray their love and dishonor their pain. Neglecting my own needs for so long, I hesitated to even attempt self-care. I embraced societal pressure to swiftly resume normalcy, avoiding burdening others with my grief. And so I became an island unto myself, despite a wonderfully caring husband. While I was caring for my parents, my life had meaning. Now, I no longer mattered. I also didn’t know what I needed or wanted.

After the first anniversary of my parents’ deaths, somehow the clouds began to lift, and I understood that I was going through a normal life cycle, a passage more common as we became a nation of caregivers. We navigate common stages: exhaustion and despair of caregiving, numbness and shock of death, and healing. Eventually, we reclaim our lives and move forward from the challenges and losses experienced.

A Fertile Darkness

“I didn’t get my life back together. I created a new one,” shares Tommye. She lost her mother, then her husband of 40 years, and finally her job of 25 years in quick succession. “I was so wrapped up in caregiving with my mother over long distances while I worked full time and drove the 1,200 miles every six to eight weeks, never realizing that my husband was literally dying before my eyes.”

Believing she needed to remain “strong,” Tommye’s emotional, religious, physical, and mental worlds imploded.She fainted on the streets of New York City. Afterward, she couldn’t recall her children’s names, their phone numbers, or where they worked. She knew she could get home, but afterward, her comeback was a slow process.

Caregiving for a loved one, especially in prolonged and intense circumstances, can challenge our self-esteem. It can alter our identity by stripping away familiar expectations and lifestyles. We are left for a time in a limbo that may seem bereft but is fertile darkness, a time of healing and rebuilding that allows us to take stock of our lives and refueling for the future.

After her significant losses, Tommye felt disconnected and adrift. However, she discovered that caregiving had equipped her with resourcefulness, flexibility, and a willingness to embrace new experiences. “There’s no going back to the old life,” she asserts. “The part of me that defined my old life has vanished. Alongside it, all the comforts and familiarities have disappeared. I must be refueling and create a new life by seeking new adventures, connecting with new people, and exploring experiences that bring me joy.”

Attending to the Years of Neglect

Caregivers pay the price for doing too much and not looking after themselves. Then, when they can finally let down, they often feel guilty about doing so. Friends, family, and colleagues may not want or be able to support us through this transitional period. It’s a phase where nothing feels secure, yet it’s essential for our renewal.

“It seems like I’m more tired than I’ve ever been,” says Carol Drzewiecki, a retired registered nurse. She expresses a common concern among grieving caregivers about their fatigue levels.“During the time I was a caregiver, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and severe deep-sleep apnea.” Her husband had been a longtime diabetic who abused his health. Five years after they married, he had a massive coronary and died.

Two years later, an aunt known for her immaculate nature was discovered near death. She suffered from malnutrition and a lung infection caused by vermin in her home. Neighbors had reported that she was collecting garbage and storing it in her apartment. There were bugs and mice everywhere. Carol, who hadn’t been fond of her aunt Lola, stepped in nonetheless and grew to love her deeply.

But both episodes took their toll. “The need to care for her mother kept Carol going until her death. Afterward, she was overwhelmed by fibromyalgia pain, becoming almost immobilized. Carol admits it worsened because she declined assistance. Caring for both parents proved more exhausting than anticipated, yet she has no regrets. If the need arose I would do it again, but right now it is time to take care of me.”

Bereavement Is Hard Work

“Looking after yourself during bereavement is more than just staying rested, fed, and healthy,” writes Edward Meyers. He emphasizes broader aspects of self-care during the grieving process beyond basic physical needs.“In addition, you must give yourself some emotional leeway. Don’t expect too much too soon. Bereavement is hard work, and often long work as well.”

Many small activities can free up energy that has been trapped in sorrow, maintaining the past. We can redeploy this energy to build strength, rest, revitalize, and clarify life’s purpose and focus. Mourning involves reflecting on the past, distinguishing between dwelling and forgiving, and between indulging and accepting. The former keep us paralyzed. The latter propels us forward. Health can be damaged by the unrelenting stresses of caregiving, and too often we have no control. Bereavement offers a chance to prioritize our well-being once the demands of caregiving have ended.

Moving Forward

It is important to find support.

Many former caregivers participate in support groups, caregiver chats, and national bereavement organizations. These platforms offer one-on-one, group, or online support for their inquiries and issues.

Hospice also offers year-long follow-up bereavement support, which can allow caregivers to express their feelings in a safe environment. These are some supports that give credence to the final stages of bereavement: acceptance and hope.

Joan Furman, a holistic nurse practitioner, suggests acceptance begins when one regains interest in life.”When this happens, it may be accompanied by a feeling of betrayal as you move farther away from your loved one. Acceptance does not imply forgetting your loved one or the relationship you shared. It is the slow but sure recognition that you are still alive and can go on living.” And with acceptance comes hope, because we are beginning to feel good again. It is both consolation and promise; it indicates that we are coming into our own.

How to Refueling

Refueling in any form is crucial, understanding that self-care isn’t just acceptable but essential. This is a time of healing, not just of the body but also of emotions and mind. Finding your voice, your heart’s desire, learning to forgive others – and fate – paying attention to the ways you have not listened to your inner needs: These are the tasks that inform bereavement.

What kinds of activities revivify us? They can be large or small. Refueling can mean a new job or career, retirement, divorce, moving, or selling a home. Making your bed again can give you a sense of accomplishment and order to start the day. Going for a drive on a pretty day allows for relaxation and enjoyment of the scenery. Brewing fresh coffee instead of settling for instant enhances the morning routine.

To process emotions and begin building a new foundation, consider various activities: write a memorial to your loved one (such as a poem, sentence, or book), create artwork that captures memories, express yourself through dance or tears, or tackle a major cleaning project. Spend time in a park or mountains, immerse yourself in nature’s tranquility among trees. Visit the beach, watch the rhythmic waves, and find solace in the ocean’s serene beauty to refueling your spirit.

Other suggestions: movies, friends, naps, bubble baths, music. If you need to, make a daily checklist – including brushing your teeth – to get you through the worst of times. Know that as time passes, however, you may wish to renew hobbies or start new ones.” Just learning to focus on one thing for short periods can be very therapeutic,” a former caregiver says.

Loving Life Again

The ability and desire to re-enter the world, albeit without our loved one, indicates personal healing. It signifies that we’ve established a foundation for a new life after loss.

Caregivers can find new life within reach if they’re patient and willing to let it unfold. Rushing to recreate the past leads to disappointment, as life has changed irreversibly. Confronting grief and healing involves accepting death as a natural part of life. Healing also involves learning to respect and prioritize self-care without guilt or confusion.

A fling means learning that you can cope, the pain does lessen, that much of what you feared did not come to pass and life does go on. You cared, you became involved, you sacrificed interests and dreams, and you are a better person for it – the gifts you have given cannot be measured or counted. And even though you have experienced unfathomable loss, you met it with more courage and strength than you ever imagined, and you have survived. Now you can learn to thrive – a lifelong process.

Says Tommy: “I cannot believe how exciting life is becoming, more and more each day. Life, even without Bill, has become very challenging. I can hardly wait to see what the next day will bring.”

Need to Refueling

Most caregivers suffer degrees of sleep deprivation, denial, isolation, disruptions in eating and exercising, and working. Appetite energy and interest in daily activities may have fallen by the wayside.

Bereaved individuals may encounter feelings like anger, resentment, and guilt. They might also experience physical symptoms such as constipation, indigestion, or skin rashes. Additional symptoms could include weight loss, chest tightness, palpitations, nausea, or prostate issues.

During this “letdown” period following the ordeal, experts emphasize addressing these aftereffects to refueling stamina and regain engagement.

During the healing process…

  • Talk about the feelings of loss and pain.
  • Take medication under doctor’s monitoring if sleeplessness is a problem.
  • Keep as close as possible to a normal schedule of sleeping and eating.
  • Eating is often difficult, but it is important at this time to focus on good nutrition. Alcohol is a depressant.
  • Enjoy fresh air, exercise, and light; sitting in a dark room can bring on depression.
  • Accept hands that reach out to help.
  • “Talk” to the deceased or write them letters.

This series of bereavement articles is in memory of Steven Mintz.