Being kind to myself is one of the hardest lessons I have learned on this journey after loss. I am beginning to understand what it means to be gentle with yourself and when I am going to need some quiet time to pull it together.
Grief brings about many emotions; sadness, guilt, anger, despair, anxiety and it is pretty much agreed upon by people that I have talked to that grief does not follow the rules of proceeding through a certain number of stages until the finish line. It is more like being hit by waves at the beach, some are bigger than others. Some knock you down and suck the air out of you. Some are unexpected and make you feel unbalanced. Eventually, you learn to prepare for when they hit and maybe to ride a few.
Feeling numb is also common. Labeled the “widow fog”, we carry on with our routines and try to go through the motions but often may not even remember what we did. We lose things. We can not concentrate. We begin to avoid doing even what seems like a simple task. Everything is so overwhelming. I remember that I could not talk on the telephone for the longest time. Mailing a letter or a bill was a major accomplishment.
Going to the grocery store, activities that as a wife were normal, became triggers of anxiety. I was used to shopping for us. Now I was only shopping for me. What do I like to eat? I have no idea. My identity seemed lost and being forced to think about it was stressful.
As a working mom, who took care of her family while managing the household, I was always busy. I was productive during the day at work. Things got done. My students were learning. Coming home, I took care of the home and family. Paying bills, shopping, cooking, cleaning, driving kids around and planning for my days at work took time. Spending time socially with neighbors and friends was a pleasure that I was able to fit into my busy life. I was used to the go – go – go American way of life. I was happy and fulfilled and loved by a wonderful husband.
That all changed one day late in the summer of 2015 when Mike died.
All the normal behaviors of life that I took for granted, suddenly became so difficult. Making decisions was challenging. That fog must have a layer of thick molasses on the ground because it is literally hard to even move your body in the right direction, but somehow you do.
You make it through the beginning weeks. Funeral arrangements have to be made. Paperwork has to be filed. You must change names on bank accounts, credit cards, the mortgage and your beneficiary and health insurance at work. Cars require a visit to DMV to put registration and titles in your name. Insurance agencies and last place of employment needs to be notified. Lawyers may need to be involved with estates. Medical bills paid. Oh, and don’t forget to tell the pharmacy to stop calling you that your husband’s medication is available. I finally had to tell them in our local store to stop leaving me that message.
Some days you can do a couple of these things. Some days, not so much. I started to write a small list of 3 things I hoped to do each day. More than 3 and I didn’t seem to get anything done.
When I have an emotional set back, I take some time. Certain dates or situations you can prepare for. Anniversaries are difficult. Think about where you want to be, with who and what you want to be doing. My first year I ran away at Christmas with my sons on a cruise. It was different. A Different Christmas is OK, especially after the loss of a loved one. I had anticipated that holiday to be awful so we did something out of the ordinary for us. My wedding anniversary Celebrating my wedding anniversary with the elephants! and the one year anniversary of Mike’s death are a few days apart so I headed to the other side of the earth and distracted myself with elephants in Thailand.
Unfortunately you can’t always travel to the other side of the planet and a lot of times you can not plan for the waves of sadness that hit during grief. You may have days where the ocean of emotions is not that rough. People may tell you how strong you are and you may begin to believe them. Then…one of those waves sneaks up and gets you.
I was recently purging some old files and came across copies of my husband’s college transcripts. I looked at the courses that he had taken and the grades he got. He had transcripts from the 2 community colleges he attended, as well as the UCSD transcript and one from law school. I guess I won’t be needing them anymore but that made me cry. I was glad that I purged the files, but was sad to know that no one would ever need to see his transcripts again.
Another day, my next door neighbor’s mother in law fell on her icy driveway. The ambulance and police came to take her to the hospital. The same doctor that had taken my husband to the hospital in an ambulance came up the driveway to talk to us. Seeing all of this brought back trauma from the night my husband died when the ambulance and police car were in front of my house. It honestly shook me up for a few days and resurfaced so many emotions.
On Superbowl Sunday I was invited to a party at a friend’s house. I picked up the chicken wings and joined friends to watch the game and comment on the commercials. After the half time show a feeling of melancholy came over me. I had always watched the Superbowl with Mike and we often hosted the parties. I had not expected that date to be a trigger.
The important thing I learned is to take time for some rest. I have been learning to be gentle with myself and that it is OK to have down time. There is no prize for the busiest person. The feeling of being calm and centered can only be practiced when your mind quiets itself. Don’t get caught up in feeling like you should be doing something. Just be in the present. No expectations.
Taking time to just breathe and rest after an emotionally intense episode is important. Be gentle with yourself by not expecting much. You would be kind and supportive to a friend who was hurting. Sometimes you need to treat yourself like a friend. Put on some soft music or meditations. Take a nap. Have a cup of tea. Lay on the couch and cuddle with a pet.
In the book Fighting Forward by Jan Owen, she recalls a question posed to her in therapy “What would it look like if you were to show kindness to yourself?” Jan writes a chapter about her thoughts on what that would look like but I especially connected with her quote “…I would understand my limitations and pace myself so that I have time to pay attention to my grief, practice self-care and rest as needed.”
What would it look like if you were to show kindness to yourself?
To read more about my life after loss my book NO SIMPLE HIGHWAY: A WIDOW’S JOURNEY TO SEEK JUSTICE FOR HER HUSBAND’S DEATH