Dates are funny, aren’t they?
They can mean nothing to you for decades and all of a sudden they are one of the handfuls of significant dates that are branded on your memory. February 14th is that for me.
Last year on Valentine’s Day I was headed up to my mother’s house in Canada. She had not been feeling well and I was eager to see her. She called me in the morning and said she was feeling worse. I let her know I would take her to the hospital when I got there.
She called again. “I feel even worse.” I had her call an ambulance.
After almost two weeks in the hospital, it was confirmed that my mother had metastatic cancer. It had started in the small intestine and subsequently taken over the liver, pancreas, spleen and just about anything else it could get its hands on. The doctors were lovely, caring and did their due diligence in telling us options but it was clear that there was nothing that we could do.
On the day we sprung my mum from the hospital I knew, we all knew, I was taking my mum home to die. My sister, Cynthia and I moved into her condo that overlooked the golf course, the lake, and the mountains. We cared for her for ten weeks until she passed on April 27th.
Things went very quickly.
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SURPRISING SYMPTOMS AND WELLNESS SOLUTIONS FOR GRIEF PART TWO
We went from coffee and biscuits in the morning, to subcutaneous drugs and “cannabis ice cream” within weeks. The changes in her happened so rapidly we barely had time to react. Every day was harder than the last, but often as is in tragic situations, there were moments of levity.
I can remember the day when she asked sweet Dr. Curry, a handsome and lovely man if he would consider hopping into her hospital bed and snuggling for a few minutes.
And the time a visiting nurse gushed that my mother must have been the sweetest most loving woman to raise caring daughters like Cynthia and me. The two of us just looked at each other with the most perplexed look on our faces. My mother was a lot of wonderful things, a nurturing ball of gooey sweetness she was not.
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I can remember one night, very near the end where my sister Cynthia and I had rigged “barstool beds” for each of us on either side of my mother’s bed. (Barstools don’t make great beds by the way.) We lay on our sides, holding hands over mum’s stomach. I looked at my sister in the moonlight. She had a single piece of glitter over her lip. I said, “Cyn, you’ve got glitter.” Without missing a beat she said “It’s cuz I’m so fancy,” If you were there you would know she hadn’t showered in three days and hair looked like an 80s heavy metal band member about to take the stage.
A warm spring blew the day my mother died. It was 2:57 on a Thursday afternoon and the windows were wide open overlooking the golf course. Il Divo was blasting as loud as her stereo would allow and her three daughters held every part of her as she took her last breath.
My mother was a complex woman to love. She also personally was very unhappy in her later years. But no degree of relief that someone is free of pain at last lessons the business of grieving. The grief process that follows a death or a loss of any kind can be debilitating.
A WORD ON GRIEF
There are groups, classes, books, symposiums, and networks all dedicated to the attending to and to the repair process of those grieving. There is good reason, I am sure each of you readers have been touched by a loss: a parent, a spouse, a baby, a friend.
In this two-part article, long-winded as it might be, I cannot cover a tremendous amount of ground on the subject. Nor do I consider myself an expert. But as a doctor of chiropractic, a wellness blogger, coach, and a recently orphaned daughter, I want to share a few points on aspects of grief I certainly did not expect, and some opportunities to work with your grief from a wellness-minded model.
I remember a good friend told me once she was reading a book on the subject of grief. It talked about cultures that “wail”. As a culture, we are not wailers. The book intimated that cultures that do wail, and process through their grief in very visual and demonstrative ways have been known arrive at a healthier place a little more quickly. I surmise some of the lesser-known grief symptoms are more common in our culture because it is not appropriate to stand at a coffin, throw down, and bawl for hours.
During my grief process, I have been reminded that our bodies and minds are so intricately linked that the processing of emotions is a delicate balance between the physical and emotional.
I have also noted that as women we do interesting things with grief: we hide it in our hands, on a closeby shoulder, excuse it to the bathroom, or we swallow it. I suspect that because we are a culture of somewhat repressed demonstrative displays of emotion, that perhaps our bodies find alternative ways to process these very powerful feelings.
WELLNESS OPTIONS FOR NAVIGATING THROUGH GRIEF
MOVEMENT – When I speak of movement I am not talking about exercise. We are going to get to that. I am talking about anything that puts your body through all ranges of motion. Hot yoga has been my salve, but any yoga, Tai Chi, or stretching and significantly less sitting. Why? Movement stimulates two main centers in the brain. The pleasure centers that dump happy hormones and problem-solving centers which, when we are dealing with reframing and brain fog issues mentioned above, makes movement the perfect anecdote.
CREATING – Poetry, singing, dancing, painting, writing. Any form of creation is an excellent relief for grief. For me writing and listening to music has been tremendously helpful. Here is why it might be working. When we invest our energy toward creating we become singularly focused. It allows our brains a break from the constant thought cycle of grief.
Processing grief may not work in words but might be able to be expressed through a painting or poetry. In some cases, a griever’s creation might be about commemorating a lost loved one or it might be about the personal transformation one goes through after a special person is gone. Creativity is a non-invasive, inexpensive outlet to channel grief energy.
EXERCISE – Exercise, as I define it, is sweaty cardiovascular demand on the body. This more intense movement, then what I mentioned above, is excellent for dumping hormones like endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and GABA. These powerful modulators clear brain fog, boost immunity and are an excellent release for the temporary anxiety that often accompanies grief.
My grief process started the minute my mother got her diagnosis. Personally, my body told me to run. Those of you that know me know that is odd. I have always steered clients and patients away from running. But I listened to my body and running carried me through the caretaking and the initial phases of grief. Dr. Mercola, in an article on exercise and grief, refers to the focus, sense of control, sleep improvement and overall motivation that exercise provides. Much needed in a time of feeling rudderless.
SLEEP – Sleep is one of the first things interrupted during times of grief. So it might seem unusually that I am advising us to get more of it, (captain obvious.) Sleep often becomes elusive because of the deep processing the mind is undertaking. But when available, sleep can be the best thing to address the deep grief-fatigue we referred to above. Alternatively, if in short supply, sleep deficits can exacerbate the irritability, depression, anger, PTSD, and pain associated with grief. Recommendations are to follow all sleep hygiene recommendations to the letter. The restorative benefits of sleep hormonally, mentally and physically are essential for grievers.
BREATHING – There are several attributes of a breathing practice when it comes to grief. One of the most important things is that conscious breathing exercises draw your attention inward. We are so externally stimulated in this world that grief can be suppressed or ignored and manifest later in unhealthy ways. So breathing says, “Hold on, let’s take a look at what is happening inside.” Another attribute is breathwork’s effect on the sympathetic system. When we breathe deeply, triggering our parasympathetic, or relaxation system, we cannot be in fight or flight. Often during times of grief, we are in this heightened sympathetic phase for extended periods of time and that messes up our whole cortisol delivery system and drains our poor little adrenals. Regular deep breathing sessions can bring everything down a notch and allow you to process your grief in bits and pieces in a healthy way.
FEEDING – When I suggest how you feed yourself can exacerbate the grief process, it may surprise some of you. Certain foods can create inflammation – hello increased brain fog and pain. Certain foods can act as stimulants – Anxiety, reframing, post-high fatigue can all be worsened.
But isn’t it funny though how we convince ourselves that it is somehow a good idea to indulge “because I am going through such a hard time?” Reminded yourself constantly that if you chose foods that nourish your body you offer your brain and body chemistry the chance to process unfettered.
PRAYER – Amazing what handing over a heavy load to someone feels like, right? Pouring out your grief in prayer form can be tremendously cathartic. The Psalms have been so comforting for me during this time. Two in particular: Psalm 56:8 and 31:9
An interesting addition to the story. My father was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1997. He passed shortly after. When he died, upon his request, we took him up to Lake Shuswap in British Columbia and rented a houseboat. We navigated our way around the lake until we found a beautiful spot near some native cliff drawings.
My mother’s request was to join him.
My sisters and our partners all made the journey up the lake to those cliff drawings to lay her to rest with my dad. It was a beautiful ceremony and following her wishes my husband made her a vodka martini with three olives and threw it in after her ashes. The moments and rituals of the distribution of her ashes was a great stitch in the fabric of my closure process but I will always have the hole my mother left behind.
There is a quote about grief. It reads something like this, “We don’t get over our grief; we learn to live with it. We learn the new normal of having it along as a permanent companion. And eventually, if we are lucky, our landscape will look familiar again.”
If you are grieving I am truly sorry for your loss. I hope in some way some of these wellness tools help you along your journey. If you need to talk to someone and don’t have anyone you can confide in about how your feeling here is a resource that might be helpful.
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