Finding Your Purpose After Caregiving

Post caregiving, you may feel a bit, or a lot, lost. I know I did. When I was caring for other people, I had a very clear purpose. When caregiving ended, that purpose went away. On top of that, I barely recognized my life. The things that had mattered to me most pre-caregiving, weren’t necessarily the same. Or, they had shifted. Old hobbies went unpursued. Old friendships felt distant. People I loved were gone. My career that I had once loved was now just a job. I wandered around in what felt like a fog, wondering when, and how, to rebuild my life. Finding my purpose felt like a good first step.

Boy, was I wrong about that! First of all, what does purpose even mean? The dictionary defines it as the reason something exists. Oprah defines it as becoming the person you were meant to be. I like that definition and it makes sense for former caregivers. Nothing makes you value life or your time on this Earth like watching someone else’s life becoming limited, or end. So it feels good to focus our post caregiving attention on who we are supposed to be. But finding that purpose isn’t so easy. And in my experience, discovering it is the result of many other steps – it’s not the first step.

Most of us who are in the post caregiving phase are also dealing with grief. And grief at its worst can be debilitating. After my last caregiving stint, when my husband died, I would get up to get my kids off to school and then I would climb back into bed. One day, I realized I was going to be sad no matter if I was lying down or if I was up and doing something, so I decided to get up. But what to do? Inspired by a song from Frozen II, The Next Right Thing, I picked one thing and did it. The song is sung by Princess Anna after her she thinks her sister Elsa has died, and when I saw the movie with my kid, the lyrics spoke to me.

Can there be a day beyond this night?
I don’t know anymore what is true
I can’t find my direction, I’m all alone
The only star that guided me was you
How to rise from the floor
When it’s not you I’m rising for?
Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again
It is all that I came to do
The next right thing.

Frozen II

It was in taking these steps, that I began to rebuild my life. First, I went back to work. It wasn’t the same, and I didn’t even really like my job anymore, but I had to earn money. It was the next right step. Eventually, I started shopping for groceries and preparing meals. For months after my husband died, I spent ridiculous amounts of money on Instacart and Grubhub fees – too tired to go to the store after work. They were small steps and life was mundane and lacked joy or excitement, but I was working and feeding myself and that was something.

As I went through the motions of life, I kept thinking, there had to be more to life. But I couldn’t recall what life used to be like and I didn’t know how it would ever feel better.  With no better plan, I just took another step. This time, I decided to step away from stress. I was scared all of the time. Scared I would screw up something – the furnace, my retirement accounts, my kids! I was scared I couldn’t pay the mortgage or tuition. I was scared I would die alone. I hated living in fear, but how to stop? Every Google search I did told me meditation was the answer and so I started and it helped. A lot.

Now, working, feeding myself, less stressed, gainfully employed, running errands and paying bills like an adult, I wanted more. I wanted happiness. I figured I will probably be sad every day for the rest of my life because of the losses I have experienced, but I can be happy at the same time, and so I wanted to step in that direction. I added affirmations and a gratitude journal to my morning routine. These steps seemed silly –could they really make much of a difference? They did! I wanted more. I wanted meaning in my life. I wanted purpose! But how the hell does one find that? Purpose, according to that  Google search is more complex than happiness. And frankly, I’m still working on what my purpose is, but here’s what I’ve learned:

We find our purpose through doing.

Action is the path to purpose. When we are trying to figure out where we fit, what we want, and why we’re here, we need to engage in life. Take the steps. Be productive. Try new things. Try old things. Work. Volunteer. Exercise. Pursue a hobby. You can’t become the person you were meant to be if you don’t take action.

We find our purpose through stillness.

While action is a critical part of finding purpose, stillness matters too. Journal. Meditate. Read. Think about what matters most to you. What makes you smile. What fires you up. When we let ourselves be still, we can hear what makes us grateful, what we love,  and what makes us tick.

It all adds up.

Don’t worry too much about the process, or about when you will find your purpose. All the little steps you take will add up. Just do the next right thing  – for you. Maybe all of us won’t find our purpose. But in the process of looking, we’ll certainly be living.

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