Self care doesn’t always look the way we expect it to

I started working on a memoir with my husband after he had his stroke, and when he died, I continued working on it. Before he died, we thought the memoir would be about our surprisingly wonderful post-stroke life. When he died, I knew I still wanted to write the memoir, and for the first few months after he died, writing about our life together felt like a refuge and I spent many hours on it.

But at some point, I found writing about the year before his death too painful and I began writing more about widowhood. I wanted to return to and finish the memoir but I wanted to wait until I could do it without feeling like my heart was being ripped out.

As of last month, I still didn’t feel like I could go back to it without it being horribly painful. I finally decided to just embrace the suck of feeling like my heart is being ripped out. Last week I holed up in a hotel for two days to devote myself to working on the memoir about the last year of Tom’s life. I had to give myself permission to be useless in every other aspect of my life. It was gut-wrenching, but in a glorious way. The life we had was so delicious. Looking through my 86 single spaced pages of notes reminded me of so many details I had forgotten—a fall Tom had, some arguments, funny moments with the dogs, and so many root beer floats. How could I have forgotten about the root beer floats?

Having the two days to just wallow in my grief and savor it was such a luxury. I didn’t have to take care of the dogs or do laundry or wash dishes. All I did was write, cry, sleep, and eat. The pain was nearly unbearable, but I knew it would only last for two days and then I would have the distractions of dogs and laundry again.

Choosing to be miserable for two days may sound like strange self-care, but I stand by it. In fact, several lessons about self-care emerged for me during the two days:

  1. Don’t judge myself for still feeling such intense pain. The pain of my husband’s death still feels fresh and raw sometimes. I don’t beat myself up for feeling it still. I don’t tell myself I shouldn’t feel this way anymore.
  2. Give my grief a raincheck. At the same time, I don’t allow its full expression just anytime anymore. I wouldn’t be able to work and maintain relationships without some parameters around my grief this far out. One of the ways I take care of myself is by designating times to allow that pain and times to not. The two day retreat last week was time to allow it. When it’s not a designated time, I remind myself that there is a time for that pain but now is not that time.

This is a modification of a conflict strategy I learned a few years ago at a workshop at the amazing Conflict Center: the raincheck. In conflict, the raincheck strategy means committing to talking about the issue at a specific time in the future. With my grieving, it means scheduling a time to let my grief express itself, whether its during my next session with my therapist or during my two-day writing retreat or some other time. The key is to schedule it, not just put it off.

3. When the scheduled time comes, it will be easier to tolerate the pain because you know it will pass. Once the therapy session or writing retreat or whatever is over, you get a break from it. And then you can decide when you’re going to go back to it by making another appointment. I admit that sometimes my grief is so overwhelming it feels like my body is going into shock—my hands start to tingle and I can’t see straight. But it passes. It always passes. That feeling is always temporary.

4. Forgive my imperfections. In going through my memoir notes last week, I was able to feel so much compassion for my past self. There are things I couldn’t forgive myself for while he was alive—not being more patient with him when he was in pain, asking him to repeat himself because he slurred his words when he was tired, not following up as doggedly as I wish on some medical issues—but after suffering through his death I feel so much more compassion for myself. I wasn’t perfect for him but I didn’t have to be. I did the best I could in the moment. I gave everything I had, which many days wasn’t much and I wished I had more, but I still gave him everything I had on those days.

Right after my husband died, I read Bearing the Unbearable by Joanne Cacciatore. I love this quote from it:

 “I am here,” grief says. “Be careful with me. Stop. Pause. Stay with me.” (43)

I think the first three lessons I’ve listed here are ways of staying with grief, but making it bearable. And the fourth lesson is about being gentle with myself, and who doesn’t need more gentleness in their life?

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