Until Matthew died, I’d never heard this phrase. Since Matthew died, I hear it frequently. It’s almost as though it’s the anthem of the bereaved parent.
At first, it irritated me. Maybe it was because I heard it… All. The. Time.
I told the bereavement nurse, “I’m struggling at work.”
Her response? Some iteration of, “Be gentle with yourself.”
I posted on an internet forum, “When will I stop crying all day, every day?”
The response? Sweet, empathetic messages, each ending with, “Be gentle with yourself.”
I confided in a new, loss mom friend, “I can’t see a certain friend, because her baby lived, and mine died. I don’t know when I’ll be able to see her again, even without her baby present. Am I a bad person?”
Her response? “That’s okay. Be gentle with yourself.”
I know!!! Tell me more! Like what should I do?!
I was still annoyed. Maybe it was because I thought I already knew the meaning of the phrase (it seemed so obvious). And I wanted something more, yet all I got were these simple words…
I’ve since come to realize the ones offering these words knew something I didn’t – that I needed to hear them. Over. And over. And over. Because I didn’t really know how to be gentle with myself. Not yet.
But now, five months in, I think I know.
I’m not sure when the turning point was – when I began to truly understand… If I had to pinpoint it, I think it was after reading a blog post (don’t remember where) about a bereaved mother who explained she didn’t spend any time around babies for at least a year after her baby died. Because she just couldn’t. And it all seemed reasonable to me – that she just did what she had to do to get through that awful first year.
And I decided I’d do the same – I’d give myself a pass, for at least a year, from seeing babies and from almost everything. I’d be gentle with myself. And I wouldn’t second guess myself or feel guilty about it or make apologies for it (though, sometimes, I make unnecessary apologies).
And this is exactly what I’ve done.
And I think learning to truly be gentle with myself has been key to any semblance of sanity I’ve maintained through this harrowing journey, which, sometimes, is not a lot, but, other times, seems to be a healthy amount, all things considered.
So I believe in this concept now, so much so that I often tell others, “Be gentle with yourself.” And, at support group, as I listen to other bereaved parents share their experiences related to outside pressures and societal expectations and friendship struggles, among other things, I often advise them, “Be gentle with yourself!” in my mind.
And, sometimes, I get stares while conversing with friends or at support group. Because I’m telling stories of how I texted birth-announcement-friend and told her exactly how it made me feel to open her lovely piece of mail. Or of how we ran away to New York City for Thanksgiving. Or of how we plan to grill hamburgers on Christmas, just so it won’t feel so Christmassy.
But I think these things have helped me, as much as one in my position can be helped. And I think these sorts of things help others too.
Three months ago at support group, I sat silently and observed as a loss mom (two years in), advised another loss mom (only a few months in), “Be gentle with yourself,” in response to some frustrations she shared about her difficulty meeting others’ expectations regarding her grief timeline.
At the next meeting, this loss mom explained she’d taken this advice to heart. She’d tried some new things, one of which was firmly explaining to an extremely insensitive co-worker exactly how she feels on a daily basis as she continues to grieve her loss, as well as demanding said co-worker “try to freaking imagine” how she must feel. She explained it was so freeing. And I believed her. Because she seemed like a new woman.
And watching all this even further strengthened my faith in this concept.
So, in the spirit of the holidays, a time when pressures of family gatherings and social functions and deep-seeded traditions and other things run rampant (I should have posted this earlier, not just four days before Christmas), I wanted to post about what the phrase means to me, with the hope it could maybe help another…
But first, with all this said, I want to make it extremely clear that when I say I “unapologetically give myself a pass with everything”, I, of course, mean within reason. I’m not encouraging people to be insufferable, selfish shitheads. Or to be malicious or completely unforgiving or ungracious. Or to act in ways that jeopardize health or employment. I think it’s best to practice the Golden Rule, and cling tightly to, and even make special allowances for, those most supportive family and friends.
But aside from all this, I think there’s a wide spectrum of behaviors that can be considered reasonable when navigating such a brutal path…
So, to me, being gentle with yourself is…
Decorating a tree with lights and silver and gold and Baby’s First Christmas ornaments. Or scoffing at signs of holiday cheer.
Attending holiday parties. Or sending regrets.
Spending holidays with loved ones. Or heading to New York City or Aruba or Key West, because you’d envisioned your baby in the mix, and your new reality’s too excruciating to bear.
Hosting a family dinner. Or gracefully bowing out.
Praising a higher power for your blessings. Or asking why He abandoned you when you needed Him most.
Attending worship service. Or avoiding it, because you fear you may break seeing all the complete, happy families, when you’re still getting accustomed to yours being forever incomplete.
Growing stronger in your faith. Or questioning your entire belief system.
Accepting everything happens for a reason. Or politely expressing your disdain for empty platitudes.
Making plans. Or cancelling them.
Holding a friend’s new baby. Or fleeing the vicinity.
Celebrating others’ joys. Or admitting to yourself that, right now, depending on the situation, maybe you just aren’t that happy for them.
Holding steadfast to old friendships, because you need all the support you can get. Or distancing yourself from hyper-triggering ones or from ones with whom you can no longer relate, allowing space for some who might better understand.
Avoiding insensitive ones. Or gently calling them out on their hurtful behavior.
Forgiving those who weren’t there for you or who said the wrong thing. Or forgetting them.
Promptly writing thank you notes for flowers and food and donations to charity made in your baby’s name. Or procrastinating on important tasks, because you still lack strength and motivation.
Trying a new recipe. Or ordering pizza.
Performing chores. Or hiring a cleaning company.
Distracting yourself with work. Or arriving late or leaving early or calling in sick, because today the grief is just too crippling.
Sitting in your rocking chair, cradling your Molly Bear. Or shutting the nursery door.
Attending remembrance walks and candlelight vigils and prayer services to honor lost children. Or sitting out this time, because you’re just not in the mood.
Making a scrapbook to commemorate your baby’s short life. Or tucking away mementos for the future.
Displaying your favorite picture. Or building a shrine in the middle of your living room.
Skipping a meal. Or, every so often, eating your feelings.
Cutting out alcohol, because drinking feels like a betrayal. Or sipping some wine to take off the edge.
Watching trash reality television marathons. Or incessantly reading blogs on loss and grief.
Accepting depression medications. Or rejecting them.
Hiring a therapist. Or firing one.
Maintaining your frugal lifestyle. Or spending asinine amounts of money on things that bring you moments of happiness, no matter how fleeting.
Planning a rainbow baby. Or tabling hard decisions.
Crying for an entire day or an entire week or an entire month. Or laughing for a moment or two.
Fearing the future. Or daring to dream again.
Being gentle with yourself is doing any combination of the above (and so many other things) without second guessing or feeling guilty or feeling a need to apologize. It’s feeling your feelings and doing whatever you can find strength for in a moment, even if it directly contradicts something else you did just moments ago. It’s doing that next thing to get through one more minute. One more hour. One more day.
Because you’ve been through one of the worst things imaginable – falling madly in love with the world’s youngest, most helpless, most innocent, most beautiful, most precious being, who’s also dead – gone forever. Your heart’s broken into a million pieces. And your life’s irreparably changed. And you would have died for your baby. But you didn’t get that choice. And after such a shattering experience, it’s damn near impossible to continue existing, let alone actually function.
Life is indescribably difficult now.
The friends and family who matter will understand. Either immediately, or eventually. Those who insist they don’t understand will come around. Those who never come around simply do not understand the magnitude of what you’ve experienced. And there’s a chance those few will never understand. Those few are in a category deserving of another blog post.
But, for now, be gentle with yourself. Especially through this coming week. And through this coming new year. And forever.