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The death of a loved one creates many changes for surviving family members. These range from changes in household routines to changes in priorities or plans for the future. The process of adapting and reacting to new life situations may take months or years.
After the death of a close friend or family member, a person may experiences the following changes:
Relationships. It is normal to experience changes in the way you relate to family and friends and in the way they relate to you. Some family or friends may distance themselves from you because they worry about not knowing what to say or how to act. Others may surprise you with dedicated support, and those relationships may become closer than ever. Because your interests, priorities, or goals may shift after the death of a loved one, you may lose a point of connection in some of your relationships. Meanwhile, changes in your interests and activities may lead to new relationships and new friendships.
Routines. Most people have a daily routine that structures their time and offers a sense of consistency. For families taking care of a loved one with cancer, much of this daily routine centers on hospital visits or caregiving tasks. When the loved one dies, this familiar routine abruptly ends. It is normal for family members to feel lost when someone close dies, and it takes time to develop a new routine that feels familiar and comfortable. Learn more about adjusting to life after caregiving ends.
Responsibilities. In most families, each person is responsible for certain tasks. One person may do yard work and cooking, while another pays bills or does the laundry. When a spouse or family member dies, these jobs become the responsibility of surviving family members. Some tasks, such as doing the taxes, may be completely new, and having to learn a new skill can be stressful. If the deceased person was ill for a long time, family members who acted as caregivers may experience a feeling of emptiness once their responsibility of caring for that person has ended. In fact, they may be flooded by emotions that they kept hidden during those final busy months of active caregiving.
Employment and finances. If the deceased family member was a primary wage earner, other family members may need to work more hours, go back to work after an absence, or go to work for the first time. For a parent with young children, this may mean arranging for daycare and having less time to spend at home. The death of a family member may also mean a change in the family's finances, such as fewer paychecks, a difference in social security benefits, or payment from a life insurance policy.
Faith and spirituality. It is normal to question religious or spiritual beliefs or your understanding of the meaning of life after the death of someone you love. This is particularly true if the death seems especially untimely or unfair, such as when a child or a young spouse dies. In these cases, previously held assumptions about life may not fit with the experience of death. While some may question their faith or religious beliefs, others find that their faith becomes stronger and a source of comfort.
Priorities and goals. You may find that your priorities change to reflect what matters most to you now. Previous priorities such as work may be replaced by new priorities such as spending more time with family and friends or focusing on your own health. It may also be necessary to change priorities for practical reasons. For instance, if you have just become the family's primary wage earner, finding a good job and focusing on your career might need to become a high priority. The death of a loved one can also change goals and hopes. Plans for early retirement, traveling, or additional children may need to change as family members adjust to a new lifestyle.
Activities and interests. You may find that you lose interest in some activities that you previously enjoyed, including activities you shared with your loved one. As your priorities and responsibilities change, you may also develop new interests. Some people become involved in activities that were important to the deceased or spend time volunteering at a local hospital or a cancer advocacy organization.
Coping with change
Adjusting to any change can be stressful. The following strategies may help you better cope with the changes that follow a loved one's death:
Take time making major decisions. The year after the death of a loved one is a period of emotional turmoil. A decision that seems right during this time may not seem right a few months later. Mental health experts suggest waiting at least a year before making any major decisions, such as moving or changing jobs. Consider making a list of decisions and tasks, and figure out which ones must be completed immediately. Try to hold off on important decisions that can wait.
Share new responsibilities. It takes time for family members to negotiate new responsibilities and for the family to settle into a new routine. As a family, talk about what household jobs need to be done and who will be responsible for which tasks. Also, talk about changes in the family routine. This is especially important for younger children who may be particularly upset by disruptions in their routine.
Ask for and accept help. Friends and family will want to help you but might not know what you need or how to ask. Be specific about your needs and have a list of tasks that people can do. If you are learning how to perform unfamiliar tasks, such as car maintenance or cooking, ask someone to show you what to do, or consider taking a class.
Get help handling financial and legal matters. The many financial and legal tasks that follow a death often seem overwhelming, especially if you are not used to handling your own financial and legal affairs. If the deceased family member was ill for a long time, you may also have health insurance claims and medical bills to manage. If possible, seek the advice of a legal or financial expert, such as a lawyer, accountant, or financial adviser. These services usually cost money, but they can help you plan your legal and financial future and may help you save money in the long run.
Get advice before returning to work. If you are returning to work after a long absence or going to work for the first time, you may consider talking with a career counselor. A career counselor can help you write a resume and perform a job search, as well as help you decide what career choices might suit you best. Many state and county governments offer free job training and career counseling services.
Consider keeping a journal. Keeping a journal or a diary can help you make sense of the changes you are experiencing. In addition to writing about your feelings and thoughts, you can use your journal to help organize your tasks, priorities, and plans. Looking back through your journal can help you see how your priorities and goals have changed, as well as how your ability to cope has improved.
Consider joining a support group. Support groups offer you the chance to talk with others who share your feelings and experiences. Other people who have lost a loved one to cancer have likely experienced many of the same changes and can offer you both emotional support and practical advice as you adjust.
Remember the positive. Reorganizing your priorities, developing new interests, and learning new skills can bring positive changes to your life. Allow yourself to feel proud of new accomplishments, and remember that it is not disloyal to your loved one to enjoy new activities or set new goals.