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Forgetting-- and then remembering-- to care for myself

My mom and her pup in December

It’s fair to say that my 2024 is not off to a great start. After a January that included a stress fracture, a broken dishwasher, and a handful of home repair needs induced by the deep freeze, I was ready for a new month. But February started with a phone call from hospice to tell me that my mom, who has been declining slowly over the last year, was now rapidly declining and death was imminent. 

I immediately flew to be by her side. But the “hours to days” estimate that we had been given was wrong (no one’s fault! These things are hard to figure out).  She had a rally and though she declined again, her sudden rapid decline shifted back to the slow decline we’ve been witnessing for some time. What I expected to be a quick trip turned into over a week– each day different from the one before it but exactly the same. Us, together, inside her apartment. Me feeling powerless and trying to come up with anything to provide ease and comfort. Her in many different states — sometimes unable to swallow or respond; sometimes talking and joking; sometimes hungry; sometimes not eating for days; sometimes angry; sometimes confused; sometimes walking; sometimes alert; mostly bedbound; mostly asleep; mostly in pain. 

And I did all the things I know better than to do. I sat there day in and day out. I didn’t get exercise. I didn’t leave to make sure I got outside during the daylight. I skipped meals in an effort to spend more time with her. Stress woke me in the early hours and I made little effort to go back to sleep. I googled incessantly. Turned my attention completely outward. And even though I just sat all day, I had no energy to do anything else.Just accepted the intense sense of dysregulation as unavoidable. 

As the week went on, I noticed members of the hospice team checking in on me more. “How are you doing?”, they’d ask, “it is so hard on loved ones.” And I would instinctively say “Oh, I’m fine. Just worried about her.” But tears would catch in my throat as I said it. My body alerting me to the feelings I wasn’t attending to. They would remind me, “Make sure and take care of yourself. Remember the oxygen mask”.

It’s one of those reminders that is so simple it’s easy to ignore. But it’s true: you can’t take care of someone else if you haven’t taken care of you. I know this as a therapist. I know this as a mom. I know this as someone who has supported clients in prioritizing their own needs. How easy it was to forget it in the midst of stress! And how easy it was, too, to feel overwhelmed by the totality of what I need.

But feeling better can’t happen just by sitting around and waiting for the mood to strike or the stress to end. Feeling better takes work. At home I would be exercising and eating well and getting and receiving 20 second hugs, and snuggling with my pup and sleeping 8 hours a night . At home, the “work” of feeling good comes pretty naturally. But 1000 miles from home, surrounded by death, living off of take-out and too stressed to sleep, feeling better seems like an impossible task.

So instead of trying to get myself to feel better, I just gave myself the goal of showing myself love. Anything that I did that was taking care of myself was a way of loving myself. I could walk around the block while she slept. I could take deep breaths. I could reach out to a friend. I could buy some fruit and healthy options at a grocery store.  None of these things is monumental. They won’t take a lot of time OR make all my stress go away. But each action takes some stress out of the stress bucket. And the intention of caring for the self is calming in and of itself. No matter what action you take, just loving yourself enough to take an action to meet your needs is a stress reliever.

My mom’s journey continues. Death is clearly near, but how near is very unclear. My days continue to be filled with stress and uncertainty and a whole lot of powerlessness. But carving out these moments for myself has reminded me that in the midst of pain and struggle it’s possible to feel good— with a little intention and a reminder that YOU DESERVE YOUR LOVE AND CARE

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