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Self-Care in Grief: More Than A Buzzword

If there is ever a time to remember the importance of self-care, it’s during your grief journey. As a therapist specializing in grief and a person who has experienced loss, I firmly believe that it is crucial to care for ourselves as we heal from the death of a loved one. Learning how to lean into the practices that carry me through my own grief has provided a vital source for healing – something we all have a right to. Self-care, however, can feel like a nebulous buzzword and even if we believe that it’s beneficial to engage in, it can be confusing to know where to begin.

A child-led and planned memorial service differs greatly from a general memorial service. It is a separate ceremony specifically intended to be a highly supportive grief activity for bereaved children. Taking place sometime following the general memorial service, a child-led and planned memorial service recognizes the death of a parent or significant adult as a highly stressful event for the child. A child-led and planned memorial service has many critical functions and for this reason arguably could be considered the ultimate child’s grief activity.

Keeping the Connection

Traditionally, we think about death as an end, which in many ways it is. It’s the end of an individual life, an ending of that person’s agency, action, and story as a human being. However, as the saying goes, “what is remembered, lives” and so in many ways death can also be a transition, from life as a human being, to life in the memory of our loved ones. For Chris Linn, who lost her son, Tom Poteet, in 2018, that transition has been a tangible and meaningful one. Chris chose to have her portion of Tom’s cremated remains solidified into a new form of remains that resembles a collection of stones. Chris chose solidified remains for her son because she wanted a continued connection with him after his death.

When my grandmother died in the winter of 2018, I was the first to arrive at her senior care facility. We immediately dove into the exceptionally long list of to-dos, leaving very little time to grieve or even begin to absorb she was actually gone. My mom played a huge role in planning Ganny’s memorial service. We decided to wait a few months in order to give family and friends time to plan, and for us to put together something she would’ve loved to attend herself. The experience was entirely different from my dad’s funeral. It felt easier to celebrate her life as one fully lived.

Lita was the love of Jerome’s life. When Lita died of cancer after 27 years of marriage, Jerome was sure he would never remarry. Then he met Barbara. Barbara had been married to the love of her life, Carl, for almost 30 years. She, too, was sure she would never remarry after his death. And then she met Jerome.  From the beginning of their lives together, Jerome and Barbara consciously chose to continue strong bonds with their loved ones: in the long hallway of their new home they hung a picture gallery that included favorite photos of their first spouses. Carl’s and Lita’s birthdays were always acknowledged with cake and story-telling and their favorite special-occasion dishes served at holiday meals.

If you lost someone you loved today, would you feel like you’ve had as many meaningful conversations as possible with them? Of course, we could never have enough meaningful conversations with the people we love, but so many of us lose loved ones not having any of the conversations they wish they could have. What if we could change that?

Creating a Life After Loss

I spent many hours in my mother’s empty house the winter after she died. Several times a week my husband David would offer to watch the children for the afternoon, hand me a travel mug of hot tea, and wave me out the door. Ten minutes later, I’d be walking through the rooms somewhat aimlessly, poking into boxes of her possessions and immersing myself in the enigma of a woman who’d spent her life creating beauty through her paintings, woodcarvings, quilts and wall hangings. I grieved openly in the unaccustomed silence, my shoulders shaking with sobs, tears freely flowing down my cheeks. Catharsis complete, I’d wipe my eyes, sit down at her table, and begin to write.

Traditionally the purpose of home altars are for memorials or monuments to the dead. They serve to both help us remember and grieve the pain of the loss through the act of creating. Today, home altars are used by both religious and non-religious persons as a sacred space to focus our minds and engage in reflection and appreciation of a connection to something greater than ourselves.

On the day of the morning my sister Paula died, my mother, sister Anita and I went out for ice cream. We had been at Paula’s deathbed for a week, had barely slept, and were exhausted. When it came time for dinner we opted for our family’s comfort cure - ice cream - in lieu of other food: turtle sundaes with lots of whipped cream and a cherry on top. Now every year on Paula’s death anniversary and birthday, I have ice cream in her honor and in remembrance. This ritual - among others - feels right given my relationship with Paula and our family tradition.

Purposefully acknowledging a loved one’s death anniversary can be a proactive way to balance a sense of loss over their death with a celebration of their life, and a celebration of the life shared with them. Your relationship with the deceased, what is comfortable and meaningful to you, timing (how long ago did your loved one die? day of the week, time of year), the wishes of other family members, and religion and culture all can play a role in how a death anniversary is observed.