Grief and Self-Care: Surviving the Unthinkable

My first instinct as a mother and a shepherd is always, “How can I help?”

I routinely set aside my own needs for the needs of others.  Not because I’m so selfless but because that’s how I’m made-I’ve always had the heart of a caretaker.

That’s not a bad thing, most of the time.

But if taking care of others means NOT taking care of myself, then in the end, I’m of no use to anyone.  When I allow every bit of energy-emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual-to drain away until there’s nothing left, I am unable to meet my most basic needs, much less the needs of others.

I’ve written before that grief puts a hole in my bucket It guarantees that no matter how much is poured in, I’m never truly full.

I’ve also written about setting boundaries and trying to preserve margin as I walk this Valley.  I have to create space between me and the people around me if I’m going to make it through.

But there are some other steps I can take to help ensure my heart is strong enough for the journey.  It’s not always about what I don’t do.

Sometimes it’s about what I choose TO do.

Here are some ideas for self-care in grief (or really ANY hard place in life):

  • Be patient with yourself.  There is no time frame for grief.  Each heart is unique.  Extend grace to yourself, just as you would to a friend.  Try not to take on extra responsibilities.  It’s better to allow for some flexibility in obligations during this time (even around holidays!).no timetable for grief
  • Listen to your body and your heart: If you need to cry, then cry. If you need to sleep, then do so. If you need to talk to someone, seek out someone who will listen. If you need to reminisce, then take the time. It is important for the grieving process that you go with the flow.
  • Lower expectations for yourself and communicate this new reality to others. You are not able to operate as you did before loss.  Your capacity for interacting with others, managing tasks and being available for the needs of others has been dramatically altered.  Own up to it, and let others know that it will be some time before you can shoulder the responsibilties you once did.
  • Let others know what you need from them.  No one is a mind reader.  While we who are bereaved think our needs are obvious, it’s simply not the case.  Communicate to family and friends how they can support you.
  • Accept the help of others. Understand that grief is hard work. It requires a great deal of energy and can be exhausting. Even though we place a high value on self-sufficiency, it is important to ask for, and accept, help from those close to you. Others careand genuinely want to be of assistance, but usually do not know what to specifically offer. In particular, it is vital to know who will listen and be supportive. Sharing your story out loud is one key to healing. And, remember that professional guidance is also available
  • If you need counseling, get it!  There is NO shame in asking for help. Get all the support you need. There are many bereavement support groups as well as counselors or spiritual advisors who specialize in bereavement counseling. Don’t hesitate to contact a medical and or mental health specialist if you have feelings of hopelessness or suicidal thoughts.emotions-faces
  • Accept your feelings. Feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are. Sadness, loneliness, fear, confusion, anger—these are among the many feelings you may experience, and are completely normal. Emotions are often raw early in the grief process, but it is important to express them. Attempting to stifle feelings usually leads to an emotional outburst at an inconvenient time.
  • Face your feelings. The painful emotions associated with grief are a natural and normal response to loss. You can try and suppress them or hide from them all you want but in the end this will only prolong the grieving process. Acknowledging your pain and taking responsibility for your feelings will help you avoid the complications often associated with unresolved grief such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.
  • Express your feelings. The most effective way to do this is through some tangible or creative expression of your emotions such as journalling, writing a letter expressing your apologies, forgiveness and the significant emotional statements you wish you had said, or art projects celebrating the person’s life or what you lost.
  • Keep a journal.  Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you to validate and work through your grief.
  • Feel whatever you feel. It’s okay to be angry, to yell at God, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, or to let go when you’re ready. Your grief is your own and no one can tell you when you should be “over it” or when to “move on.”
  • Pay attention to physical needs. It’s easy to ignore your health when all you want to do is give up and give in.  However, it is even more important NOW to take care of yourself.  Eat balanced meals (set an alarm if you have to), try to get adequate rest (get medication if you need to) and make sure to get in some physical activity every day (set a timer if necessary).
  • Get physical exercise.  If you exercised prior to your loss, try to maintain the same routine. If you did not exercise prior to your loss visit your doctor before embarking on a physical exercise routine. Physical exercise can improve the way you feel.
  • exercise and mental health
  • Eat right and get enough sleep.  Maintaining a healthy diet and getting proper sleep is essential for functioning as well as you can. If you are having difficulty with either, visit your doctor.
  • Be aware of short-term relievers – these can be food, alcohol/drugs, anger, exercise, TV, movies, books, isolation, sex, shopping, workaholism, etc. Most of these things are not harmful in moderation but when used to cover-up, hide or suppress our grief they get in the way of the work grief requires.
  • Take the time to do the things you need to do for yourself.  When you feel up to it, engage in activities to which you feel drawn. It could be visiting a place you haven’t been to in a while, walks in nature, reading, etc.
  • Pamper yourself. Treat yourself well. Do things for yourself that are helpful like walks, being with people who are nurturing to you, and inexpensive activities

Grief is a lifelong process-a marathon, not a sprint.  

Maintaining space to do the work grief requires and engaging in activities and health habits that help me do that work is the only way to endure.  

physical mental well being

 

Wise Choices in Grief

I had no choice in child loss.  

When Dominic first left us, it felt like I would never get to choose anything again-it felt like I would always be at the mercy of life just happening TO me. 

But in these months and years since, I’ve found that I DO have choices.

I have many, many choices every. single. day. 

I can choose bitterness or I can choose love.

heart and wood

I can choose blame or I can choose grace.

I can choose to isolate my wounded heart or I can choose to integrate my experience into who I am and invite others to join me on the journey.

I can choose to live in the past-which isn’t really living at all-or I can choose to face each new day and see what it has to offer.

I can choose to elevate my missing child so high that his siblings have no hope of measuring up or I can choose to remember the good AND the bad of who he was and how he walked in the world.

I can choose to complain about how others don’t understand or I can choose to educate them on what child loss feels like, how it impacts all aspects of my life and how it will be part of my experience until the day I join my son.

I can choose to be ashamed of my tears or I can choose to display them proudly as testimony of the love I have for my son.

never ashamed of tears dickens

I can choose to be upset that others fail to mention his name or I can choose to mention it myself, making him as natural a part of the conversation as my living children.

I can choose to ignore the way grief impacts my ability to do all the things I once did or I can choose to make wise accommodations for my limitations.

I can choose to close my heart to love and laughter or I can choose to honor Dominic by loving and laughing anyway.

I choose life. 

Because as long as I breathe, I carry the light of Dominic’s life with mine.

dom looking up with camera

Being There: No Substitute For Showing Up

I totally get itwe are ALL so busy.

Calendars crammed weeks and months in advance and no white space left over to pencil in lunch with a friend even though we desperately NEED it.

It seems impossible to make that call, write that note or stop by and visit a few minutes.

How can I meet my obligations if I use precious time doing the optional?

But when the unexpected, unimaginable and awful happens, suddenly that calendar and all those appointments don’t matter.  Balls drop everywhere and I don’t care.

Because when your family or best friend needs you, you come-no questions asked.

You toss a few necessities in your carry-on, lock the door, unplug the coffee pot and RUN.

You connect that phone to the car charger and dial away as you drive down the road.

And you show up.

Because when someone needs you, REALLY needs you, there is NO SUBSTITUTE for presence.

And the world keeps spinning.

All those “important” commitments cluttering my calendar are still there.  But a few phone calls later and they are easily rearranged. Medicine refills can be sent almost anywhere.  Church responsibilities can be shouldered by someone else.  Social dates can be rescheduled.

The only thing that matters is being exactly where your heart tells you it needs to be for exactly as long as you need to be there.

But you don’t have to wait until it’s an emergency to show up.

If it can wait if it HAD to, then it can wait.

You will not be going over a “to do” list with your last breath.

Choose to make people a priority right now-you might not get a second chance,

cant change the beginning but can change the ending

 

 

 

To My Fellow Grievers-Love Brave

I was unprepared for the many traveling companions grief brought with it.  I knew to expect sadness and despairbut what about anxiety and guilt?

I had no idea how large a space guilt would soon occupy in my thoughts and heart-guilt over what I did or didn’t do when Dominic was still with us, guilt over what I do or don’t do now.

I can do nothing to change what happened in years past.  

There is no magic time machine that will allow me to go back and linger long over his jokes or cling harder when he hugged me.

But I can choose to approach today in a way that frees me of foolish guilt and unnecessary regrets.

I can’t do everything but I can do something.

I can love big and brave and refuse to waste the days I have with the people that mean the most to me.

do what you can with what you have where you are

My Choices Reflect My Focus

My daughter is a quote collector like her mama.  

Here’s the one she has taped to her dashboard:  

choices-reflect-rainbow

That is challenging for me.

When the one thing happens you think will never happen, well, that opens a whole chest full of fears you thought you’d locked inside.

But when I wake up I get to choose:  will I give in or fight back?

I’m learning that while I can’t stop the thoughts that fly around in my brain I can choose which ones I invite to make a nest there.

When fear threatens to undo me, I resist.  

I refuse to react to what MAY happen.  I choose to hold onto what IS happening, right now.

Truth is, either way, I have no control over the future.

I will not lose today because of what tomorrow might bring.

corrie-ten-boom-empties-today-of-strength

 

 

 

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