Hi, Carolyn: I’m in the middle of a messy divorce, six months after my son — conceived after years of IVF — died at birth. I’ve also just started a new job with a lot more responsibility and am living in temporary accommodations since my soon-to-be-ex is in the marital home.
I’m constantly either furious or in deep, black grief. It’s exhausting. My counselor says I need to take better care of myself. I agree, but I don’t know how. If I take some time off, or go on vacation, or treat myself, it won’t change the reality — my son will still be dead and my marriage will still have collapsed. It’s not like I can just take a break from this stressful situation to recharge. The stressful situation is inside me, it’s the grief over the loss of my family, and I don’t know how to take a break and escape from it.
I feel like I’m spending down an emotional savings account and don’t know how to replenish it. How do I do self-care in an unfixable situation?
All My Pretty Chickens and Their Dam
All My Pretty Chickens and Their Dam: I am so sorry. Either of these can knock a person flat.
You not only have both at once, but they’re also bookended by two emotional and physical drains — extended infertility treatment/pregnancy/childbirth, and the new job.
Obviously you know exactly what you’ve been through, but it can help to remain mindful of your circumstances. “My body has been through a lot,” for example. “New jobs are more tiring mentally than familiar ones.”
I agree with your counselor that self-care is the answer, but not to “escape” or “change the reality.” That’s impossible, as you rightly point out, and also not the point of self-care.
To illustrate the point, I’ll suggest a different metaphor. Imagine your grief as a literal journey through this very dark place. Uphill with a heavy pack; physically exhausting; emotionally uncertain. There are no shortcuts or escapes, it’s just you and you have to do it.
Now: Self-care is what sustains you on this trip. If you don’t sleep, if you eat poorly and are quick to berate yourself, then you will falter physically and be easily discouraged. But if you give yourself proper rest, good nutrition, emotional or spiritual relief (church, poetry, meditation, nature . . . ?), access to outside encouragement and a lot of breaks — not just physical ones, but also some emotional ones by choosing not to be tough on yourself when you think you’re falling short — then it’ll be no less grueling; you’ll just be better equipped to manage the burden.
Better equipped, you can open yourself to the grief instead of pushing it back. Vertigo-inducing, but it can help.
That is the self-care I’m talking about, not palm trees and umbrella drinks (not that there’s anything wrong with those).
Beyond sleep and nutrition, such care is a matter of personal preference, but an easy option — we’re all about easy here — is to pick one from each category: exercise, art, sensory comfort, empathy.
So, for example, try yoga, favorite music playlists, making your temporary home more homey and contacting Compassionate Friends. Or: Run, paint, bake, lean hard on friends. Keep it simple; whatever feeds and (eventually) restores you through this grief is self-care. Peace and good luck.