Loss, Grief and Self-Care

POSTED BY Karyla Gaines | Apr, 04, 2018 |

Loss, Grief and Self-Care


Loss and the grief that comes with it seems to be the theme of a number of my patients of late.  Loss of a loved one, of income, relationships, a plan, or a dream.  It’s in the local and international news as well, which creates the feeling that we can’t get away from it. When it hits close to home, I tend to feel all the losses I hear about even more.  With the recent, unexpected loss of a friend as well as the loss of my best buddy in November, I thought it must be time to talk about this.  Self-care can become more difficult than ever.


When someone dies, I want the world to stop and take a look at a life that was once vibrant.  Certainly, I feel this more intensely when someone I love dies.  I’d like the world to know the person I lost, to understand what we’ll be missing without them.  I imagine the community gathering around the family of the deceased with more than just casseroles.  I want people to slow down and look, consider what the family is going through and what I’m going through.  I want them to have compassion for what we’re enduring.


Every time I lose a family member or friend, all I can think about is every death I’ve experienced in my life.  It all comes back to me; the moment, the sounds, the nurses, my stoic manner.  A part of me isn’t sure if I’m grieving for the present loss or just for myself, in some grand gesture of self-pity.


I wasn’t able to share this prior, and, frankly, I’m still not sure I can.  I’m going to try.  I ask that you understand how difficult this is for me and how necessary.


 A recent story of love and loss


Many of you who have come to my office will remember my dog, Daisy.  She greeted you when you came in, then very respectfully curled up either on one of the chairs or in a corner.  At the end of the day, she knew she had put in a solid day’s work, and would turn into a playful pup again, running to the car, hopping in and ready for play time at home.

Daisy was my parent’s dog.  After a long search to find the right fit for them, I brought her home.  She was about 3 months old.  My mom and Daisy became very attached which was wonderful because 8 months later, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  After a painful year of struggling with chemo and blood transfusions, he passed away, making Daisy my mom’s solace.  The two of them were inseparable.  Daisy was always in my mom’s arms.

Not one month after my father’s death, my mom was diagnosed with 4th stage cancer.  Mom, unlike dad, chose not to have any treatment, only pain management.  She lived 7 years, working in her garden every day.  In fact, just 4 days prior to dying, she was out there doing the necessary, ‘just one more thing’.   As she took her last breath, I held my mother’s hand, Daisy now in my arms. In that moment, life was permanently changed for both of us.

That all happened and ended 8 years ago.  Daisy was 9 at the time.  Since then, she came to my office every day and we became inseparable.  As she aged, I wasn’t able to leave her alone very long, so my life became an extension of care giving for mom and dad again.  And I would do it all over again.


And then there was one…


Daisy passed away November 3, 2017, in my arms.  I wasn’t able to post it, send a notice, or talk about it and still have a difficult time.  All I could do was take her picture down from my website and FB page.  And still, I can’t look at her pictures.


When she died, I re-lived the past.  It was as if I’d never grieved for my parents.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do, so I kept working.  Some of you noticed she was gone, most of you didn’t or felt uncomfortable asking.  Part of me was happy that I could go through the day without mentioning her.  But darn it, the end of the work day would inevitably arrive.  It was so quiet.


I still haven’t had the courage to give her food bowls away.



Self-Care and Grief


How do we take care of ourselves through the most difficult of ordeals?  Our stomachs are in knots, our hearts and heads pound.  We go through all the stages of grief, which are not always in the order we read about, at least for me they’re not.  We take time off, or not.  We talk about the person, or not.  Our lives move quickly.  We live in a society that doesn’t want to dwell on anything that last more than seconds, including a life.  As Americans, it seems very important to always be ‘on’ and happy, and we are told to just ‘deal’ with it, no matter what ‘it’ is.  It’s a sad state of affairs in my book.


And then there’s the worst part of it all.  We become stoic, making sure people don’t see us as “emotional” and vulnerable.  And that would be me.  I’ve taught the people who love me the most to turn their heads when I’m going through something.  I act tough and capable, fiercely independent.  But, once I’m home alone, I cry, I write, I pray.  The whirring of sensations in my body keeps me up until I release them over time.  Once I find the exact word to describe what I’m feeling, my body relaxes.  At that moment, I’ve found the acknowledgment needed to move on.


The problem with fierce independence…


I seem to have learned not to bother people with my pain.  But I also know, I don’t want to hear the cliché comments.  I just want someone to voluntarily sit with me, to spend time to make me a cup of tea, listen to my memories without adding their two cents.  I want them to provide me a safe place to be mad and sad, without their need to say anything other than, ‘more tea?’.  I would like them to take time, without having to rush off, just to be with me.  It’s a lot to ask, so I don’t.


In the past during these times, I would pace, open the refrigerator, close it.  Repeat.  I cooked elaborate meals.  I wanted comfort.   And, my excuse was, I have to take care of myself, comfort my broken heart, fill the cracks with warming foods to sooth it.  I think some of you know the rest of the story.  And, for those of you who can’t even think about food at these times, I’m in awe.


When grieving, I lean on my faith.  What works for me, may not work for you.  And…. this is me.  If you’d like to know how I manage my life, from the inside out, it’s about faith and trusting in a bigger story out of my control. This is a big part of who I am and who I’ve become through my life’s experiences.


Steps 1, 2 and 3 to get through


At the end of the day after Daisy died, I would sit in the newness of silence. First (step 1), I found myself on my knees in prayer.  I asked for peace and comfort from God.  I asked that Mother Mary wrap her mantle around me to hold me close at this time, asking for her intercession on my behalf.  And the love settled in my heart, calming my thoughts.  I no longer felt alone.


Second (step 2), I would allow the emotions to bubble up.  I cried.  I remembered.   Amazing how much love the sweetness of that 11-pound spirit unconditionally gave me.  The joy she brought to my parents, the comfort and silliness she gave to my mother, were uncompromising.  She made me smile, just by being with me.  She was my best buddy.  And I would allow the memories to flow, going back to my parents and how the 3 of us were a unit, created by the crazy dynamics that our ancestry provided.


Third (step 3), I would write, and continue to.  Writing has always helped me sort through it all.  I find that words connect me to my inner most self, explaining life to me when I give the words time to show themselves.  This is how I create a meaningful life.


I repeat steps 1, 2 and 3 often, and, 2 out of 3 daily.  I’ll continue this most likely until my time comes.


What I did


Throughout the most recent hurdle, I’ve been able to maintain exercising and for the most part, clean eating, with an exception:  I allowed myself the comfort of Pasta Fagioli soup.  It’s an Italian dish made of small pasta called Ditalini with cannellini beans.  In the past I would feel guilty for indulging.  This time, my intention was very different.  The symbolic nature of this meal meant more to me.    Instead, I filled my heart with memories.  I made this meal with all the tenderness my heart could muster, lovingly, with my beloved in mind.


I carefully chose the best ingredients for my soup.  I slowly cooked it in my favorite soup pot, enjoying the smells of garlic intermingling with olive oil, the San Marzano tomatoes, so flavorful, giving of themselves as they became part of my nourishment.  I stirred in the pasta, then the beans.  I watched it as it came to a slow bubble.  And, as it simmered, I remembered my father, blowing on a hot spoonful, my mother, with a hand on her chest, her eyes closed as she delicately sipped.  I could hear the sounds of my sweet Daisy, as she ate with abandon, the few Ditalini as if it were the hugest plate of food, happily licking her lips.  Once again, all was perfect. With misty eyes, my heart was full again with my beloved memories.


I savored a couple of small bowls and froze the rest for a rainy day.  I thought about how much this nourished my broken heart.  Why Pasta Fagioli you might ask?  It was a favorite for my parents, and even my sweet Daisy.  What better way to take care of myself then with memories of my loved ones at some of their happiest moments.  And in those moments, recalling the love they had for me as I showed them love through their favorite dish.  For me, this is the ultimate in self-care.