(broad)ject self #17: Self-Care When...You're Sad

The last few weeks have featured some heavy stuff. Someone near and dear to me lost her mother unexpectedly. Another dear one is fighting some demons of depression and deep sadness. The circumstances of either story aren’t mine to tell, but it would be fair to say that I am sad for the former, while the latter also makes me feel a little bit sad for myself too. Those are two different kinds of sadness, of course, felt, survived, and cured differently.  

When someone we love suffers a deep loss, it can be hard to know what to do, what to say, and how to help. Having survived a similar loss doesn’t even necessarily help, because every person is so different in their grief and mourning. The blanket, “please let me know if there is anything I can do” often feels empty, because even if the person could think of some way you could help they may be unwilling or unable to ask. In this case, I think specific offers of help are the most useful. In my situation, distance prevented me from offering any hands on assistance, but when the person asked me for reading recommendations for a long flight, I offered to take over her Overdrive account and fill it with light and engrossing plane reads. After that, all I could do was continue to offer my support, keep checking in, and making it clear that she was on my favourites list, so even if my phone was on Do Not Disturb, her messages and calls would come through.

I have at this point in my life lost all four grandparents, three cats, two dogs, many dear family friends, and most tragically my brother, who died of cancer at the age of 43 just over nine years ago. I was in the room when they turned off life support and as he took his final breaths. Dying, it turns out, takes longer than you might expect. On a couple of occasions, I’ve made sure friends who have more recently watched loved one’s die know that they can talk about those last moments with me because I’ve been there, and I’ve lived through it. If you haven’t actually watched someone die, you just can’t know. That’s why I had to stop watching Grey’s Anatomy.

But I’ve never lost a parent. There are no Pain Olympics, of course, but I’ve not yet felt that loss. I cannot imagine it. Someday I will. For now though, all I can offer is my unending love, my ear, and my time. I’ll follow her lead and if she’s brave toaster-ing it up, I’ll be upbeat too. Most importantly, I won’t forget, because there is a year of firsts that now need to be survived. In six months or a year, she may need my support just as much (or more) as now.

Our own sadness is a different beast. We can’t forget about it or leave it behind or change the subject. It lives within us as if it is a parasite that can’t be eradicated. My first rule of sadness in a tragedy or loss (and to be clear, that’s not what I’m dealing with now), is that it is survival by any means necessary until you discover the new normal. When my dad was in hospital, the new normal was when the nurses knew me, when the Starbucks baristas started to recognize me, and when I started to develop a routine. Until then, the name of the game was getting through the day. You’ll feel the moment. And when you feel it, it’s time to dig deep into your self-care toolbox and start acting on your non-negotiables. For me then, that was a little yogaevery day. Now that would also include doubling down on my diet, because I know now the impact of what I eat has on my mood and my anxiety.

Just as I advised for helping a friend or loved one coping with loss, the inverse of that is true for our own sadness. Ask for help, if you can. Be specific, if you can. You’ll very quickly figure out who is good in a crisis and who is starting to screen your calls because they can’t deal. That’s totally ok. Maybe they’ll come back to you, maybe they won’t. Try to spread your need around so that one person doesn’t get overloaded, if you can (your partner notwithstanding, they should have your back no matter what). But remember that the people who are there for you will be there for you regardless, so if you can’t do any of those things above, it doesn’t matter.

Of course, sometimes we just feel regular pants sad. Maybe there’s a reason. Maybe there isn’t. Most importantly, I don’t believe that “by any means necessary” applies here. Your self-care toolkit can dig you out of this dump. Ask yourself those classic questions: When did I last eat? Exercise? Shower? Stretch? Sleep? For me, the answer is annoyingly almost always a big glass of water and some yoga (or at the office, a big glass of water and sneaking off to a conference room to listen to ameditation podcast or do some deep breathing). But you’d be surprised how quickly you can pull yourself out of a hole if you know what works. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this is why it’s so important to write down your self-care essentials and tell other people so they can remind you. And if the sadness won’t go away? Talk to your doctor because there are lots of resources and tools that can help you. You don't have to feel sad, I promise.

So this week, if you’re feeling sad, try to apply your self-care toolkit and see if you can start to see the light. And if you know someone who has recently felt a loss of some kind or is sad for other reasons, reach out and make sure they know you’ve got their back. Need to talk? You know where to find me.

Self-caringly yours,