I’d like to tell you a story about a woman I worked with whom I’ll call Ellen. When Ellen was 45 years old her father died of traumatic injuries suffered in a hideous car accident. Her mother was in the car but only sustained minor injuries. Shortly thereafter, Ellen’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Her father’s death and her mother’s diagnosis left Ellen reeling with grief, fear and fury. In addition to facing the devastating loss of her father, Ellen was forced to witness the gradual demise of her mother, who was becoming a shadow of her once vibrant self.
With the burden of caring for her mom, Ellen’s life felt like it was put on hold—indefinitely. She felt trapped as it became difficult to plan anything—never knowing how each day would play itself out.
Has anything like this happened to you? Tragedy strikes, turns everything topsy turvy and it becomes near impossible to hold on to an awareness of the good things you have in your life. The focus becomes all about the pain and loss—how challenging, even impossible, it feels to dig out from underneath.
When Ellen and I first started working together she talked about the dark cloud that wouldn’t pass and feeling overcome by the guilt and shame she experienced due to her resentment about becoming her mother’s primary caregiver.
As we continued together I suggested that Ellen begin taking at least an hour a day for herself—to do whatever she chose—yoga, a walk, painting, a nap, connecting with a friend—whatever she needed or wanted to do was fair game. Perhaps she couldn’t take any major time away right now, but she could build in some pleasure for herself every day—and so she did.
Another piece of Ellen’s ‘homework’ was to keep a nightly gratitude journal in which she recorded three to five good memories from her day. The idea was to tune into the nuances of her daily experiences. Journaling helped her to ‘retrain her brain’ to view events from a more positive perspective.
Once Ellen embedded these two self-care practices into her day she noticed the feelings of loss and negativity slowly diminish. Her capacity for self-compassion grew and she became more comfortable with her complicated and ambivalent feelings.
Ultimately she came to appreciate what was still good in her life. She spoke of having had a happy childhood with loving parents. Ellen shared stories about her husband and wonderful, accomplished children. She had a job that she valued, good health, and the potential to fulfill many of her dreams in the years ahead.
Ellen rediscovered the sweetness in spending time with her mother and reclaimed her deep love. She spent the next couple of years tending to her mother’s care—all the while taking good care of herself.
By doing so Ellen felt like she was getting enough. Feelings of compassion for her mother emerged as did feelings of self compassion—and the gratitude for all that she had in her life began to flourish.
When her mother died she felt deep sadness along with a profound appreciation that they shared this precious time together.
What do you do when life unfolds in unexpected ways? When faced with unanticipated loss and the resultant feelings of fear, grief, anger or bitterness—how do you manage?
As usual, I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts.