This is an excerpt from The 4 Facets of Grief: Heal Your Heart, Rebuild Your World, and Find New Pathways To Joy, which is available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B073ZMKKH2.

Is Self-Care Selfish?

Let’s look at the word “selfish.” It has a negative connotation of someone who only cares about him- or herself. But what if we thought of the Self (with a capital S) as the essential part of our being that distinguishes us from others. Pretty special, huh? I’m not advocating narcissism or not caring about others; I’m just allowing for reasonable ways to cherish and nurture the unique human that each of us certainly is.

 

When you have a physical wound or illness, people will tell you to take care of yourself. They expect you to do what the doctor says in order to heal and get back to a state of wellness. And it makes sense to follow those directions – rest, eat healthfully, do whatever it takes to recover.

But having another kind of wound, as in grieving, is a different story altogether. No one can tell from the outside how badly we’re hurting; our suffering is mostly hidden, and we appear just fine. We even try hard to do all the regular stuff of life – working, shopping, exercising – so no one can tell what’s happening on the inside.

Grieving is the human response to loss – any loss. It’s how we heal from this particular kind of hurt, and it makes sense. Therefore, it also makes sense to take extra good care of ourselves.

Different Kinds of Self-Care

The most obvious way to care for ourselves is to make sure we’re physically healthy. In early grief, I advise everyone to get a regular check-up with their health care provider and to see their dentist. Stress can have a negative effect on the immune system, so it makes sense to reasonably monitor our physical wellness.

This is also the time to make sure you’re eating as healthily as you can and that you’re sleeping well, regularly. If eating or sleeping is difficult for more than two weeks, see your doctor. It’s also important to pay attention to moving your body. If you like to exercise, do what you enjoy.

Otherwise, make sure you walk or do some kind of movement that’s appropriate for you each day. This is also something to discuss with your health care provider.

Emotional self-care is also important. Pay attention to your mood, thoughts, feelings, and behavior, noting if anything seems “off” or concerns you or those you’re closest to. Meeting with a therapist or counselor can help you monitor your emotional life and develop effective coping strategies. Talking with friends can also be useful, but make sure they are nonjudgmental and don’t have an agenda for you.

No one can go through grief without feeling sad, angry, annoyed, tired, and a host of other thoughts and emotions that come up unbidden. All of these are normal and to be expected. Time and support will lessen their intensity, and you’ll gradually find a new way of navigating reality.

Reach out for help and support if you feel stuck in your misery.

Third Type of Self-Care

The third type of self-care is spiritual. Be aware of what thoughts, ideas, practices, and surroundings make you feel connected to something larger than yourself. For some, this may refer to religious beliefs and customs. To others, it might describe how you feel when in nature, meditating, or doing yoga, for example. Many find a combination of these works well.

People seek spirituality for many reasons. Some people want to find meaning in life, a connection to something greater than themselves, inspiration to improve themselves, or answers to how life works. Others are searching for happiness, release from suffering, enlightenment, or support for making a difference.

There is no right or wrong when it comes to spiritual self-care. You get to decide what spirit means to you and how you prefer to meet those needs. It can be (and often is) an ongoing process over time. Explore and notice what feels healing to you.

Why is Self-Care Important?  

Taking good care of your Self makes the other three facets of grieving (accepting, adapting, and meaning-making) possible. When self-care is absent or inadequate, you likely feel depleted.

That’s no way to approach the high energy demands of grieving. Feeling replenished in body, mind, and spirit helps you to fully acknowledge your reality.

A replenished Self can also more skillfully adapt to new circumstances even when they’re undesirable. Your creativity and problem-solving ability will be much more obvious when your entire being feels well nourished.

And it is much easier to find or create meaning in challenging situations when every aspect of your individuality feels supported. You may more readily find inspiration as you consider different possibilities.

Put Your Oxygen Mask on First

Every flight attendant on every airplane I’ve ever flown offers the same advice: put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others. Why? Obviously, we wouldn’t be very effective helpers if we’re not okay ourselves. The same is true regarding the grief process: we aren’t effective grievers if we’re completely depleted, either. Make sure your oxygen mask is firmly in place.

Here are some useful strategies to consider.

Mindfulness Meditation

 There are many ways to meditate, but one method is to sit quietly for a few minutes focusing on your breath. Inevitably, you’ll have random thoughts, and as soon as you’re aware of the shift in concentration, return to your breathing. Remember not to judge the content of your thoughts or how quickly you resume paying attention to your breath. You don’t have to sit in any particular position or subscribe to any belief system in order to meditate. It’s also not necessary to sit for any prescribed amount of time; some beginners start with a one-minute meditation.

 

Scientific research suggests mindfulness meditation can lower stress hormones, reduce blood pressure, and boost the immune system. It can also ease depression, anxiety, ADHD, and some types of cognitive decline.

Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT or “Tapping”)  

EFT is often described as a combination of ancient acupressure and modern psychology. It got its nickname “tapping” because you tap your body’s meridian points (mostly on the head and upper body) while using precise language to illuminate and resolve various aspects of a particular problem. Anyone can learn EFT, and there are many practitioners who can work with you to enhance your skills. It can be beneficial to work with a therapist to reconcile the thoughts, memories, and feelings that often arise in the process.

Research studies show the brain’s fight-or-flight reaction and the body’s stress response can be reduced by stimulating these meridian points (as in acupuncture). Further research indicates that light pressure – as is used in tapping – is enough to produce the same results. Needle-free emotional acupuncture!

Gratitude

 Appreciating the good things in life has real benefits. It brings forth positive emotions, which in turn, start a cascade of mental, physical, and spiritual benefits. Life’s difficulties begin to shift from center-stage to, maybe, somewhere in the orchestra pit. You know the musicians are there, and they certainly shape the production. Sometimes, the orchestra even rises into full view. But it always recedes again so you can pay attention to the main characters.

So it is with gratitude; it helps you pay more attention to life’s gifts while maintaining awareness of its challenges. In fact, the gifts may be even more meaningful precisely because of these challenges and the perspective they provide. Gratitude is not acting as if everything is always wonderful.

Some people choose to cultivate a daily gratitude practice in which they think of three things they’re grateful for every day. Some keep these lists in a journal; others just pause to reflect.

Depleters and Replenishers

 Navigating loss and grief is not easy. It’s common to become depleted by events, people, and even your own emotions. I refer to such events, people, and emotions as depleters, acknowledging that sometimes we see them coming and other times they take us by surprise. The antidote to depletion is replenishing, but what feels replenishing to me might not to you. It’s wise to develop a running list of your own personal replenishers to use before, during, and after difficult moments.

Think of all the experiences that evoke the “ahhhh” response for you. This would include anything that makes you feel relaxed, serene, and peaceful. Some strategies might be easily accessible and free (taking a warm bath or listening to your favorite music), while others require an appointment and cost money (a massage or manicure). I do not recommend alcoholic beverages to be among anyone’s replenishers.

When you feel depleted by an experience, put one of your replenishers in place as soon as you can. If you know ahead of time that you’re going into a depleting (or potentially depleting) event, plan your replenisher in advance. You might even choose a replenishing activity before and after a depleting occasion, which I call a “replenisher sandwich.”

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Ruth Field

Ruth Field

Ruth E. Field has always wanted to help people. Inspired by her well-respected and beloved physician father, she grew up valuing service to others. Through the years Ruth experienced the untimely deaths of many close family members and dear friends. She accompanied them through illnesses that ravaged body and mind, and she shared the trauma of sudden devastating accidents. All the while she pondered why such painful loss seemed to swirl around her. In 1999 Ruth joined with other parents to co-found the Child & Adolescent Bipolar Foundation (now the Balanced Mind Parent Network, part of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance). It was the first internet-based not-for-profit organization, and reflected her passion to help families fight the stigma and isolation of mental health diagnoses. As the founding CABF board president, she spoke at area conferences and workshops on the family impact of early-onset mood disorders. One of her most memorable presentations was Witness to Grief: Experiencing Loss in Parenting Children and Adolescents with Bipolar Disorder. Ruth’s calling to teach resilience crystallized after the accidental death of her young adult son. Having transformed her own sorrow into a personal mission to foster post traumatic growth, she is dedicated to helping others navigate all types of adversity. Honoring her son’s legacy of hope, she blends her personal and professional wisdom to guide others from heartbreak to healing. Ruth holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Loyola University Chicago. She also is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Illinois. At her private psychotherapy practice in Northfield, IL, she is honored to work with adolescents, adults, and families. In addition to writing, Ruth enjoys nature hikes, movies, and laughing with her husband Alan. She also loves sharing meals with friends and family. Her greatest joy is spending time with her grandchildren and delighting in their growth.

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