5 New Year's Resolutions for My Anxious, Grieving Soul
Last December my mother told me she’d not survive to see this Christmas.
Mom was right.
After 20 years with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), she passed away from complications of the disease in 2016. Having destroyed her cartilage and joints, RA attacked her urinary tract. Then, finally, came the fatal assault on her lungs and heart. The official cause of her death was multi-organ failure. She was 78 years old.
Her passing wasn’t pretty. We had hospice, nurses, a social worker. But in those last hours and days, even as friends and family pulled tight around us, she and I found ourselves saying goodbye under physically and emotionally painful circumstances.
Going into those last days, I’d read up on hospice care, what to expect when an elder dies — you name it. But none of it prepared me adequately for what I saw and heard those last days. I thought Mom would go “gently into that good night,” but that’s not how it played out. It was rough stuff.
Nor did any of what I read prepare me for the impact of grief on my body when she died this summer. Expecting tears and low moments, I was met with somatic ailments ranging from plantar fasciitis and tendonitis to breathtaking 3 a.m. panic attacks. My long-time endocrinologist, the same man who helped me put my Grave’s disease in check, admonished me to keep my stress levels under control lest it affect my remission. He does this at every appointment, but this time he was extra emphatic.
Perhaps that’s because I broke down sobbing at my regular check-up?
Grief on top of my anxiety issues. It’s been a struggle. Now I’m about to leave behind the year in which Mom took her last breath. Honestly, that prospect freaks me out more than thinking of this as the first Christmas I’ve ever had without her.
To help me manage the transition, I’m working on a list of resolutions I hope will lift me up and out of 2016’s sadness. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
Resolution #1: Keep up the self-care. This one is vital. Checking in with my therapist monthly kept me afloat during the eldercare years, and thankfully she continues to keep tabs on how I progress through grief. As a therapist, she is unafraid to help me touch some of the more tender spots of my heartbreak and coach me through them.
On a day-to-day basis, physical activity — especially when spent outdoors, in nature — help root me to the present. I’ve seen over the last weeks and months that when I feel disconnected both from my body and nature, then my grief is apt to lead my anxiety into a spiral.
Resolution #2: Keep and set emotional boundaries, especially online. In the fall I trimmed my private Facebook connections considerably. That’s because I want to ensure when I share the deepest, most personal stories about my grief, I’m only doing so with people who genuinely care. The most personal stuff? I will continue to only relate in person, via private messages, or over the phone.
My biggest weakness is that I am a current affairs hound, but the news can be a lot to take when you’re bereaved and anxiety-prone. I’m working on setting aside a specific time each day to wade into the news feed and then quickly back away. Dwelling on what I can’t change in the world tends to backfire, sparking another round of anxiety and panic. (Besides, for things I really care about, I can always make donations to relevant organizations.)
Resolution #3: Stay vulnerable with those I trust. Curiously, staying honest about my grief work has deepened connections with others who have lost their own elders. There’s a gentleman at my grocery store who checks in on me routinely, having lost his own dad a few years ago. He gets it. Another friend lost her father a couple of months after my mom died. She gets it, too. Between us, we use a sort of shorthand, one that signals we’re doing as well as can be expected. We never have to pretend everything is great. That’s terrific medicine.
Resolution #4: Practice gratitude. This can be easier said than done; yet each time I’ve sat down to count the evidence of my good fortune, I do feel a bit of a lift. It also helps me to count my blessings when I wake up at 3 a.m. in a raging panic.
Resolution #5: Take a series of deep breaths several times a day. Of all the things I’ve read about grief and managing one’s way through a personal crisis, the book that resonates most with me as 2016 shuts down is Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart.”
Given that my mother’s death brought an end to my identity as her emotional caregiver and a patient advocate here at midlife — just as my tween son asserts more independence himself, I’m learning that grief is an uncomfortable but illuminating call to understanding that pain and impermanence are natural parts of life.
For this reason, I found Chödrön’s description of Tonglen meditation, a Buddhist practice, helpful. While I’m not Buddhist, the spiritual exercise meshes well with my existing belief system. Through the meditation, I’m learning to breathe in gently the suffering of others and myself while breathing out into the world compassion and love. This normalizes my grief and anxiety while getting oxygen into my cells and calming anxiety. It’s a win-win for my body/mind.
Those are my personal resolutions for moving forward with grief and anxiety, but if you, too, are dealing with these issues, I’d love to hear yours.
A version of this post originally appeared on Red White & Grew.
Image via Thinkstock Images