How do I find purpose and meaning in my life after being a caretaker for 18 years?

I provided care for my mother, she died in 2012 and I am "stuck" as what to do with my life. I often think about relocating, but just not motivated to make the move
Asked by Cissy

Thank you for reaching out. Finding meaning and purpose is important in every season of life in which we find ourselves. You acknowledge that you ended one season and your role as a caregiver came to a close. Whenever we leave one way of living behind and we embark on a brand new season of our life it is normal and expected to feel a bit untethered and to feel somewhat lost. It’s normal to be left wondering – “what now, what’s next?”

Being a caregiver typically means we’ve lived with quite a bit of purpose and we are very accustomed to be needed. When that comes to a close, the transition to a new stage can be ever more challenging and also, too, a degree of grief comes along with it. As a caregiver, we find ourselves losing both a dear loved one as well as losing a job. We find that we have two voids left, two losses. 

For anyone who has been a caregiver for a number of years, especially long-term (ten years or more) the entirety of your life becomes that. Your entire identity and all your purpose gets wrapped up into it. It truly can leave you lost when it comes to close. And as you seem to have discovered, when you seek to find yourself, you just aren’t the same person anymore. So, you are faced with having to contend with completely redefining yourself, with finding yourself. It really is akin to having  to push forth through a depression.

But there is hope.

One thing to keep in mind is that it is noble and loving to have cared for your mother. You did what you could to be there for her and that is a wonderful, remarkable thing. Also, being a caretaker is a demanding job and you have picked up quite a number of valuable skills throughout. It likely forced you to build strength and fortitude. It probably demanded you develop perseverance and patience. And caregiving typically forces you to become very adept at organization and planning. These are all tremendously valuable things in both our personal lives as well as in any workplace setting.

To begin, be patient and be compassionate towards yourself. Figuring out a life purpose and seeking meaning is a journey. Initially, try to accept where you are at right now. Begin where you are. No matter what reality you awakened to this morning, it is what your life is right now. It sounds like perhaps it wasn’t what you would prefer and isn’t what you maybe had planned for. But it’s okay. Because where you are isn’t going to be where you end up – once we accept where we are we can begin planning. And that’s the start of us living life more deliberately and intentionally. 

What might be helpful is to take a full accounting of your life as it is today. Think about some major categories: relationships, career, health, finances, and personal pursuits. Within each of these groupings do an honest assessment. What does that category currently look like? What’s working well versus what isn’t? Would you like it to be different?

Also, think about what you enjoy. Is there anything you do that makes you forget to eat – or you look up and hours have gone by? Did you have a childhood dream you’ve forgotten all about? How do want to be remembered when all is said and done?

From there, you can begin to think about some goals. So, if, for example, we waved a magic wand over your life and you woke up tomorrow morning with all sorts of positive changes having taken place, what would the day look like? Once you begin to get a picture of what you want and need, then you can begin forming a road map of how you might get there.

I recall one woman who lost her parent after caring for him for a number of years. She cherished the memories and also took note that there are many people who don’t have someone there for them. With that, she began volunteering. She took the knowledge and skills she’d established and began visiting with some ladies who resided in a local residential facility. Giving is one way to increase the meaning and purpose in our own lives, while adding significantly to the lives of others around us.

Here's one truth to remember: most of us don’t know what to do with our life. And many of us struggle throughout our life to come to some sense of what our purpose and meaning is. Even decades into life, lots of people are still questioning and unsure.

Often, a good question to ask, when we’re unsure of what our meaning and purpose ought to be is this: how can I spend my time so that I am doing more things that are important? Because doing important things makes us feel happier. 

Not everything we do is going to be important. Some stuff is necessary. Some time will be spent just basically killing time. That’s all part of being human.

As for moving, perhaps think about making a pros vs cons list. What are some good reasons to move? Where would you go and what value would that bring to your life? How about staying where you’re at – what’s good and/or bad about it? Think about making some lists to help you gain more clarity. If you’re not motivated to move, then it’s worth thinking more about that. Is it because you actually don’t want to? Sometimes we feel we “should” do something, but it really isn’t what we want – it could be what we think others expect and we want their approval. Is it because you’re fearful? Is it because you have an attachment to where you’re at and leaving feels like leaving important aspects of life behind permanently and it’s feeling hard to let go? All or none of this might be true.

If you’re feeling stuck, a therapist can work with you to help you get unstuck. A therapist is there to help you start asking questions and exploring – things like what you value, what you want and need, and what your options are.