People always ask me if I take time out for myself. I used to say something like, “yes, of course,” even when I knew I was not being truthful. Practicing self-care to the extent that I do now is new for me and has made a significant difference in my life. I should have started doing this a long time ago, but I am doing it now and that is what matters. Now when I am asked this question, I say “yes," and mean it.
To provide care for people who are dying, and for those who are grieving, we must be at peace with ourselves. We cannot walk alongside someone else when we are riddled with our own grief, pain (physical or emotional), stress or exhaustion. It took me a while to understand what that meant. I used to get up every day, ready to do it all over again, without even pausing a second to take a breath. This took its toll.
Now, when I wake up, I take a few minutes to stretch and do yoga, I meditate, and I do my breathing exercises until I am truly calm and ready to take on the day. This has become my daily ritual, which I sometimes do two or three times a day if needed, and I never put it aside or skip it. This is especially important when I am seeing several patients in one day, each going through their own experience, and each weighing heavy on me when I walk out the door.
Before I see my next patient, I take a moment to revisit what I had just experienced. I honor the patient, their family, their emotional reaction(s) to everything they are going through, I think about my lessons and my take-away, and I whisper, “thank you,” to them for trusting me with their care. I take three deep breaths, I let go of some of the “heavy,” and I prepare myself for the next visit.
Grief recently showed up at my door, which made doing this work a little more challenging. I had to ask myself, how can I comfort someone who is grieving when I am going through it myself? For me, writing about it has been very helpful, which has also made me very aware of just how many other people are struggling with grief. I have found that I am better at comforting someone else now more than ever before, because I have been (and still am) in their shoes. They are different shoes of course, but I can appreciate what they are feeling, which allows me to lean in a little closer and comfort them in a very authentic way. I do have to set boundaries and remember that while I can relate to what they are going through, their experience is not about me.
I am learning how to use my own personal experience with death and grief, as tools I can bring with me to help others with theirs, always being mindful to not take on their pain or sadness; their weight is not for me to carry. I am finding that now more than ever before, I remind others, especially those who are grieving, the importance of self-care.
One of the things I realize that is evolving for me, is my connection to, and relationship with, death. With each death I witness, I find myself feeling far less fear, mainly because I am confident there is no pain when the last breath is taken. And while I do not practice a particular faith, I am exposed to so much that it has provided me with the comfort of knowing that when I die, I will find peace, I will not feel sadness, I will not experience pain, there will be no judgment, and I will leave without regret… and perhaps I will even see the people (and pets) I have said goodbye to in the past. I am not ready to go yet, I still have so much more to do, but I am not afraid, and this work has gifted me with that.
Do I question my own mortality? No, I am quite clear that I will die, as will every person I know and love. Does this work bring it closer to the surface? Absolutely. It has changed the way I live and the way I love... I do it a little more fiercely than I ever have before. Two things I make sure of every single day, is that the people in my life know how much I love them, and that I either repair or let go... I do not linger in between, because I refuse to hang on to regret... it just isn't worth it.
What this work has taught me is to take in each breath, one at a time, to savor life for as long as I am here, to love fiercely, to be kind always, to appreciate everything, and to take really good care of me because I cannot possibly care for others if I do not.