Be gentle with yourself

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…

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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…

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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…

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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.

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33 thoughts on “Be gentle with yourself

    1. It is a continued struggle. I still have to remind myself too. It’s so hard – you want to fast forward through these painful days… I wish there was some way we could do that. I am thinking of you a lot this week, and though I know it will be very difficult, I am hoping your vacation will also provide some much needed distractions.

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  1. Thank you for the heartfelt and honest post. People who don’t understand can at times seem to be disappointed with those of us who continue to grieve. Maybe that’s why grieving people try to hurry through the process. Anyone who knows anything about grief will not tell you how to cure it, they tell you how to deal with the ongoing sadness. The truth is you will never be the person you were before your loss, you won’t get over it, you will only get used to it. It gets to where it no longer consumes you but there will always be something to cause it to flare up again. My son was killed at 14 years old. When I see his friends graduate college, get married, have children, etc it brings back a sense of not only loss, but I also feel cheated. For me, leaning into the pain has been the most beneficial way to address it. The pain isn’t going away, it waits to be addressed. Grief is the cost of love. It hurts because it is supposed to hurt. The best help anyone can be at times is to just help a grieving person cry.

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    1. Hi Gene, Thanks for reading and for commenting. I am so incredibly sorry for your loss of your son. It is just so freaking unfair. I relate to what you say about feeling cheated. I’m still in the phase where I’m looking around and constantly asking, “Why me?! Why Matthew?!” I’m sure you still do that too.

      I’m still relatively new to all this, but I see the wisdom in all your words. It’s scary, but deep down, I know everything you say is true – this never goes away, it will never not be sad, I’ll never be the person I once was, and, no matter how much time passes, there will still be days it feels as awful and traumatic and raw as the day he died.

      I can only imagine how you must feel when those milestones hit. I imagine it’s just excruciating. Five months in, I’ve not hit too many milestones yet, but, gosh, milestones will be so brutal, even 20 years from now. I fear for my future so much because of that – will I be able to handle it? I guess, shockingly, somehow I will…

      I agree with leaning into the pain. I’ve found this approach helpful too. I hope you have supportive people in your life who continue to let you cry as much as you need. You’re absolutely right, grief is love…

      Take care this holiday season. I’ll be thinking of you – sending you thoughts and prayers and strength necessary to get through the days.

      ~Christine

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  2. Thank you Christine and I am so deeply sorry for your loss of Matthew. It has been 23 years for me and while I think of Jacob every single day, I don’t grieve like I did the first years. At some point I stopped seeing the world through the window of his death and was able to celebrated the boy he was. That doesn’t mean I never get sad. I think its best to tell newly grieving people that this is a long haul. I seen far too many offering advice as if they’d recovered after only experiencing six months of it…that only demonstrates their ignorance on the subject. I’ll be thinking of you this Christmas morning.

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  3. Another great post. After watching a TED talk on mental health (https://www.ted.com/talks/guy_winch_the_case_for_emotional_hygiene?language=en) I have a different take on the meaning of the phrase.

    The point of his talk is that we treat our mental health in a way that would be completely insane if we were to apply the same approach to physical health. He gives the example that when we break our leg we don’t actively do things to make it worse like poking it with rusty nails or performing complicated breakdance routines. So why do we do it with mental health when we have a mental scar or psychic pain?

    In this context being gentle to yourself means not going out of your way to make the pain worse.

    When I’m starting to feel that descent come upon me I know that I need to avoid doing things that allow me to ruminate like washing up. Washing up is a mindless and dull activity and with little to occupy the mind it starts to create its own personal torments of all the could have beens.

    Being gentle to myself doesn’t come naturally it takes work. I’m harder on myself than I would be on a friend. If I said the things I say to myself in my head to someone one else I would have even fewer friends than I do now! Being gentle is realising when I’m applying a higher standard to myself than I would a friend or family member.

    I agree it needs a better phrase to get the message across than the vagueness of be gentle to yourself.

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    1. I think we may be trying to say the same thing, just in different ways? I guess what I was trying to say is that there is such a wide range of acceptable behaviors when grieving a loss, and they’ll be different for everyone, because we’re each unique, and that’s okay. And people should take the path of least resistance in a life that’s now wrought with so much difficulty (i.e. like instead of trying to hold a friend’s baby, if you’re dreading it, then just don’t, and don’t beat yourself up for it, or take any shit for it – ya know what I mean?) But, yeah, it’s such a broad phrase – so many places you could go with an analysis of it…

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  4. There are two issues here, one being “Going out of your way to make the pain worse” which is not healthy. Some people just will not allow themselves out of the death room. The other is “Ignoring the pain of grief.” That pain will have to be dealt with, it will come out in some fashion. Like pressure building in a boiler, it needs a relief valve to keep it from exploding. Discouraging relief is not healthy either. The problem is that many grieving people feel that they are only allowed to grieve for a limited time and then anything beyond (whatever that is) is excessive. After that they only pretend to be fine, they pretend they have moved on. Why, because society doesn’t know how to deal with it. Who is to say what is the norm for one person is the norm for another? What we have to do is stop trying to fix their grief and learn to take time to listen to them and help them process what has happened to them. They’re broken and they need someone to take their hand, someone to help them cry when they need to. Someone willing to go to that place of torment with them and help them back up to their feet whenever possible. While we don’t poke a rusty nail into a healing leg wound, we do open it back up to clean out any growing infection.

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    1. Gene, I am so sorry about the tragic loss of your son, Jacob. You have much wisdom to share being intimately familiar with this thing called grief. I just purchased your book, too, and I can’t wait to read it.
      Blessings to you and your family.

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      1. Thank you so much Linda. I don’t pretend to have answers, I just want to let those struggling through grief know that they are not alone. I’d love to hear your reaction to the book. Be Blessed.

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  5. I love this one! I used to hate that saying too. Thanks for putting a different time spin on it. I can relate to soooo many of these things you have listed. Sometimes I can do it, and sometimes I want to curl in a ball and cry and shield myself from the world.
    Thinking of you, Mark, and Matthew this Christmas. I hope the burgers taste great. 💙🍔

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  6. 100% agreed. This helps later on as well, people think you should be ‘back to normal’. I’ve had to explain, this is forever. I need you to understand that and I need to forgive myself for that.

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  7. Christine,

    I stumbled upon your blog recently and have yet to comment. As a fellow loss mom who trails a few months behind you (my son passed away 9/14/2015) I have to say your words are entirely addicting and many times as I read your entries I feel like I have had the exact same thoughts at some point in time. I can fully relate, my personal favorites are the stories pertaining to work.

    I think I speak for some of us women in the same situation that you are sort of like the articulate voice in all of our heads. I just cracked out loud reading about being gentle with yourself, easier said that done I feel like I have two personalities these days, one who is more OCD than my pre loss self and needs to dust off all the to do lists and “catch up” and one who will gladly netflix and chill for say 7 hours. I am working on having them two meet in the middle at some point.

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    1. Hi Monica, Thanks for reading and for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoy the work stories (I feel like there are more of them to come, as since losing Matthew, I’ve just really struggled with work in general – it’s very awkward here all the time, and I like to vent about it here…)

      I am so very sorry for your loss of your precious son. There are just no words for how devastating and heartbreaking it is. I am keeping you and your family in my thoughts and prayers this week and sending you love and light and strength necessary to get you through what’s sure to be an especially difficult week.

      Xoxo, Christine

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  8. What I find difficult is to know when I’m being appropriately gentle on myself and when I’m avoiding doing something hard that I actually should do. I have an almost phobia of ‘avoidance’! I just know avoidance can set up so many unhealthy coping responses and contribute to mental health problems. But sometimes in my quest not to avoid, I think I might push myself to do things I’m maybe not ready for. It’s so hard to know what is hard that I should confront and what is hard that I should leave for now. Where is the freaking grief rule book?! I want one!

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    1. OMG – this is such a good point. You are so correct. I am such a big believer of just always doing what feels right in these horrible situations, because life is already so difficult, but this absolutely could result in too much avoidance, and too much of anything could be a bad thing… Ughhhh… It is definitely best to find the right balance… Though, I will say, thus far, the few times I’ve pushed myself, it’s been a bad idea for me (probably because I’m only 5 months in). I’m fully aware that, at some point, I may have to try more things… But yeah, currently no exit strategy out of my bubble and waiting at least a couple months before I give that more consideration… I would like a book on this too, damn it – every perspective has a flip side. 🙂 ETA – I think “be gentle with yourself” tends to be at the forefront of my mind too, because my, and lots of people’s, natural tendencies, it seems, are to be self-critical… I agree – so complicated!

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  9. Life is strange sometimes. Your point Christine, and Lanasalt’s about how to know what is being easy on ourselves vs. Unhealthy avoidance really made me reflect on this after reading this post last night. Just this morning our friends with a 1 and 3 year old dropped by to see how we are doing. I was still in bed so when I saw them coming I thought I’d hide this one out, but at the very end when they were leaving and saying goodbye to hubby, apart of me pushed me and said “go, see how it goes”. Guess what, I didn’t last 1 minute: as soon as I saw the 1 year old baby’s big eyes and my friend saying with total sympathy “how’re you holding up” tears just started rolling down uncontrollably and I was crying in front of everyone. I felt embarrassed and upset with myself for having pushed myself. But hubby saw this as an important step to break the ice with seeing our friends’ baby and said he was super proud of me and said I did “really well”! So which one is it? Im thinking now that they are not really mutually exclusive.

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  10. I just posted a link to this particular entry on the babycenter loss boards for a mom who just lost her baby @ 39wks.

    I reread this entry often because it is so hard to remember some days. I reread it when I’m feeling angry and lost, sad and confused.

    I think every hospital should have a copy of this entry and include it in their grief handouts. I hope you don’t mind my sharing it with others. I hope you know how much your blog, and your friendship has helped me personally these last three months. Xo

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    1. Of course it’s okay that you shared! I’m so sorry to that mama for the loss of her precious baby. It is just so unfair. It knocks the wind out of me every time I hear someone’s joined this club (which is far too often).

      I’m glad this entry’s brought you comfort, and I hope it continues to bring others comfort. We truly have to be gentle (and patient) with ourselves. Or, as Nora sometimes tells me, “Your baby died, so you have every right to deal with that however you want.”

      Thank you for all your kind comments. I want you to know your friendship (and blog) have helped me immensely as well. Obviously I wish we didn’t have to know each other, but because our situations cannot be changed, I’m so very thankful we’ve connected, and I value our friendship a lot. Xoxo

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  11. Chrissy,

    I have been reading your blog for an hour and all I can say is wow. You are amazing. Incredible. Stronger than you can ever know. I’ve read about 10, and this is my favorite so far, but they are all beautiful. You are a wonderful writer. I love your honesty and your willingness to walk through this openly. I know you didn’t do this necessarily to help others but you are helping so many people with this. I have learned from blogging that people read your writing who don’t click like or comment. I am sure many, many people are reading your words who you don’t even know. Keep it up!!! I am so proud to be able to call you my cousin. Never apologize for being negative or talking openly about your grief!!! And you don’t have to time box the amount of time you can “be gentle on yourself” to a year!!!!! I have a close mentor who used to say this to me all the time, and hear that phrase in my head all the time. Love you,

    Melissa

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    1. Hi Melissa, Thank you so much for your sweet comments and for following my blog. All these things mean the absolute world to me. I’ve definitely found blogging to be therapeutic, and it’s been a great way to connect with others, especially loss moms from around the world. I didn’t know you had a blog – I followed. 🙂 xoxo

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