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Paying attention to grief - December 2019

December 2019 Paying attention to Grief

I’m sitting at my computer this morning with sole intention of writing a newsletter and I’m having a difficult time getting started.

My brother and I drove to Florida recently to clean up my mother’s estate and get her house ready to sell. We had a lot to do and a short window of time to do it and we wanted to be back for Thanksgiving. To make the house marketable we had to replace the carpet in a couple of rooms, some bathroom fixtures, remove wallpaper and paint a bathroom as well as cleaning the garage and donate furniture and clothing. It all felt overwhelming, but we stayed committed to the mission.

Day by day we chipped away at it and after 11 days we were able to leave for home, several days before Thanksgiving. It wasn’t until I got home that the enormity of the task landed on me. It wasn’t the amount of physical work we accomplished that took its toll, but the grief of having to choose what held value and what to let go of.

We held the responsibility of reviewing my mother’s life and determining how her legacy was to be documented by sifting through every item she saved and cherished. We knew we could only bring back a small amount of her life and the difficulty was making the decisions on what to keep and what to discard. My mother saved everything! Every letter, picture, and gift she received. She even labeled the backs of gifts to remember who gifted them. One of the cherished items I brought home with me were the love letters my father had written to my mother before they were married. She kept everyone one of them, each letter filed in the order they were written and saved in a heart shaped box.

So I sit here this morning struggling to stay clear and focused enough to write, but my mind keeps drifting back to my mother and the questions I have, that have no answers. They’re just questions that require forgiveness and compassion. Which brings me to the real reason for this newsletter.

How do we stay mindful about our needs for self-care during the holiday season?

Some people really love this time of year, it brings back fond childhood memories, family time, parties and the altruistic energy often found with gift giving and sharing. For other’s it can be a trigger for abuse, abandonment, dysfunctional families and loss.

My wife, Maureen, falls into the camp of Peace, Love, and Joy. She has holiday music blasting, Hallmark movies playing, and social events she won’t pass up. Me, not so much. I have to work at finding my joy and I have to start small, maybe start off with a new pair of socks with ginger bread men on them and work my way up to volunteering at the Recovery Club prepping vegetables and cooking twenty-six turkeys to feed shut ins and those attending the Thanksgiving Alcathon.

My default is melancholy and slight depression until I consciously work myself out of it. I have too many sad memories that seem to overpower the good ones so it takes work, but it is worth working through because I always get through the season feeling better than when I went into it. This season I’m feeling my lack of enthusiasm more acutely because of the losses I’ve experienced this year, hence my procrastination and focus around writing a newsletter. I’m still waiting for the little boy in me who lost his mother to show up and he hasn’t, but I know he’s there because I feel it in my lack of energy and irritableness and feelings of being overwhelmed.

Robert Bly often talked about the primary emotion in men as being grief. Underneath sadness, anger, depression, feeling of being overwhelmed etc. lies a deep well of unresolved grief, and it serves us well to pay attention to what our body is telling us.

Hospice has been a great support to me since the passing of my mother, just last week they sent me some helpful information to help me track myself and what I may be experiencing.

So regardless if your loss is recent or historical and the holidays trigger your loss, you may find yourself experiencing some of these reactions.

  • Shock: (recent loss). We may talk about our loss, but our feelings of loss seem unreal.

  • Emotional Release: It can be counter-productive to use your beliefs (“I must be strong, brave, in control” etc.) to protect you from expressing your feelings of sadness and anger.

  • Loneliness and Depression: You may feel isolated, as if others don’t care or understand. It may be difficult to concentrate.

  • Physical Distress: It may be hard to sleep or eat.

  • Sense of Guilt: We begin to think of the many things we could or should have done differently.

  • Hostility, Resentment, and Anger: These feelings may be directed towards a loved one, God, or the person you lost.

  • Inability to Do Usual Activities: It’s difficult to get back to business as usual. Sometimes we experience feelings of being artificial, plastic, or robotic.

Here are a few suggestions for self-care that may be helpful.

  • Plan Ahead- Set aside time to consider what may be expected of you, both socially and emotionally, as well as your own preferences for how you want to spend this time of year. ( particularly helpful to introverts )

  • Trim Down to Essentials- You do not have to do it all! Set boundaries! Reduce social and family commitments if needed.

  • Build in Flexibility- Try to “play things by ear” or intuition and reprioritize what is important for you to do and what is Okay to say no to.

  • Ask For and Accept Help- Keep connected with your supports.

  • Be Open to Change-Prepare to make the necessary adjustments to holiday plans. You know yourself best if you need to do less, rest, or something different that meets your needs. Its okay to start new rituals and traditions that will serve you and love ones, but in a way that is rewarding and less stressful.

  • Give Yourself Permission “to be”- Build in time to allow breathing and a quiet space to rest and meditate. Build in time to heal and nurture yourself during the holiday season.

  • Beware of numbing yourself with alcohol, drugs, or filling the vacancy with food.

Remember loss comes in many forms, not just loss of a loved one. Often lost opportunities, loss of self, separations, etc. can carry significant grief as well.

Wishing you a conscious and meaningful holiday.

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