I had lunch yesterday with a woman I had met while her husband was going through an extremely rough recovery from cancer. They were a young married couple when he was diagnosed and she had been there, right by his side, throughout the rigorous protocol that ultimately saved his life.
We spent lunch comparing notes about what we had both gone through and learned during the medical crises that devastated our families’ lives. We talked most about letting go—moving from patient advocate, decision-maker, head of household, and holder of hope to a time when our caregiving was no longer needed. Her husband had recovered, though with some ongoing medical issues. My son was thankfully healthy and cancer free, but my husband had not survived.
Karen (not her name) and I talked about how surprisingly difficult it had been to shift from caregiver superwoman to just mom or wife. Though we admitted that we had never wanted to assume that heroine role, we both found it tough to give up the outfit. With that cape, those cool boots, and a clearly marked “S” on our chests we had discovered new strengths, resilience, and “grit” that had never been completely claimed in the past. And then there was the admiration we got, every time we jumped out of the phone booth in the service of our guys. It was hard, gut wrenching, scary work—pushing back when a treatment didn’t seem in their best interests, or sometimes just curling up next to them, trying to bring some comfort. Having people recognize both the difficulty and bravery we had to call on to do so had felt pretty good.
Sometimes it’s hard—when the crisis is over or downshifts in intensity—to let go. You’ve done everything in your power to ensure your loved one survives. The joy when they do can be tinged, surprisingly, with an almost superstitious fear that letting go of your caregiver role might lead to a return of the crisis. Taking your hands off the wheel and allowing your loved one to start driving their own lives again? You’re caught between “Finally!” and “What if they crash?”
In contrast to our concerns about the right time to let go, our guys had had no problems giving us the caregiver pink slip. They had come through their crises and were ready to move on. Karen’s husband was relishing a life that he hadn’t been sure would continue—trying out new things and challenging himself physically—often to Karen’s discomfort.
My son bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle—a pretty clear signal to his mom that, at 23, he saw himself as an adult—legally and financially responsible for his own decisions. And although I did threaten to buy him a T-shirt that read: “I bought this Harley because childhood cancer wasn’t life threatening enough,” I got the message.
If you are trying to decide whether the time has come to release your grip on the reins of your role as caregiver, these questions might help:
Is your loved one physically and mentally ready to take on more? What are the consequences if they do and fail? How serious are those consequences? How might you mitigate those consequences?
Are there some intermediate measures that you can take to ease yourself out of that care-giving role? What conversations do you need to have with your loved one to make that happen?
And, if they believe they are ready to regain their independence, are you? If not, why not?
In many cases, there are no easy answers. Talk to friends, caring health professionals, or other people who will provide a neutral perspective. More importantly, share your concerns with your loved one. Be honest about your fears and what kinds of compromise might help you make the transition from caregiver back to spouse, parent, sibling, family member or friend.
And yes, you get to keep the outfit. It will always be there in the closet if you ever need it again.