“Hello Sue Ann, this is the social worker from Hospice. The team met today and the physician in charge of your dad’s case is thinking it might be a good idea to increase the dosage on his anti-depressant medication. He is still losing weight so we’d like to increase the liquid meals as well.”
My heart falls as I dial the phone to return the call.
“Hello Carla, thank you so much for all that you are doing to improve the quality of my dad’s life. I am so grateful for the care he is receiving from the Hospice team. You are amazing. The depression you are seeing has been with my dad for the past seven years. One day he was a happy, loving, effusive man who talked so much we could barely get a word in. And then, shortly after a heart stent procedure, he fell into an abyss.”
The doctors poked and prodded, assessed and reassessed. At one point, after many months of what looked like a deep dark depression, they treated him with a new anti-depressant. The fog lifted, but instead of the old Sam, we now had a rather manic father on our hands. He called me every night, talking incessantly. He would go off to the grocery store and not come home for hours because he made four or five additional stops along the way talking to anyone who would listen. One day we found him getting ready to purchase a new car.
The behaviors my dad exhibited during this period were rather alarming. The doctors told us he was adjusting to the new medication. I stayed on the phone with him night after night, tears streaming down my face, because even though I knew his actions were a little extreme, I just wanted to hear the sound of his voice. I wanted to believe that the joyful father I had known all my life had returned.
It didn’t last. Pretty soon my dad fell back into the abyss. He was no longer the father I knew. He lost more weight. His skin hung from his bones in folds. The spring in his step became a shuffle. My mother’s fear showed up in the voice of pure anguish, “Pick up your feet when you walk.” “Sit up.” “Drink some water.” “Eat, for God’s sake, eat.”
I found myself grieving the death of a man who hadn’t yet passed. I was grieving the death of his spirit, his joie de vivre, the pride that sparkled in his eyes when we talked. I was grieving for all the words I wish I had spoken when his mind was clear and open and waiting to hear from me. “Drop us a line,” he would say when we parted ways after a visit.
Grief has a way of robbing us of our vitality as we struggle to untangle myriad emotions. Pretty soon worry, sadness, and angst take the spring from our step and the light from our eyes.
Call it a spiritual awakening. Call it divine intervention. Call it a course in miracles. Slowly, I pulled myself out of my own abyss and used the steps I teach others in my work as a nourishment counselor. I’m using them again.
Keep the Rhythm: Pay attention to your rhythm around food and in life. Are you making a consistent effort to get enough sleep and to exercise your body and your mind? Are you eating three meals a day that are adequate enough to sustain you? Remember, the body needs a nourishment rhythm that it can count on.
Create a Nourishment Menu: What feeds you? A walk in the woods? An intimate conversation with a wise and wonderful friend? How about music, art, dance, or just curling up with a good book? Do you give yourself permission to have fun? Every time you feel your energy leaking, replenish it with something from your nourishment menu.
Cultivate a Sense of Gratitude: Gratitude is a heart-based emotional state of being. The exercise of activating a positive feeling like gratitude literally shifts your physiology, helping to balance your heart rhythms and nervous system. A gratitude practice can make you healthier, more resilient, and more relaxed. This can be as simple as holding your hand over your heart, closing your eyes, and picturing someone or something you are grateful for.
Color Your Plate: When you find yourself slipping into grey, color your plate. Make a beautiful meal. Give yourself the gift of nourishing food and revel in the meditative process of slicing cucumbers, snapping beans, or roasting red peppers.
Give Yourself Permission to Pause: At least once a day, make an effort to slow down and notice—really notice—one thing of beauty in your surroundings. That could be the color of the leaves on the tree outside your window, the texture of a paperweight on your desk, or how the light casts new and interesting shadows as the sun moves across the sky. Dropping into the present, falling still, loving what is. Adopt the phrase that feels good to you and know that distress lies in the stories we tell ourselves about the past or the future. There is serenity in the present moment. Savor that serenity and make it a practice.
What is your experience of grief and how do you take care of yourself in the face of sadness or struggle?