By Paula Noyce, Counsellor
As a palliative, oncology and bereavement counsellor, some of the most common descriptions I hear used by those who have lived alongside loved ones through illness and death are, ‘completely drained’, ‘exhausted’, and the feeling of ‘running on empty’. It is the inevitable impact of being alongside a significant person, whether as a carer, or a witness to the last months, weeks, days and moments of a life, of trying to ‘be there’ for our loved ones in a meaningful way at an emotional time. As the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale shows us, stress, distress, or grief, (which are normal responses to loss and change) drain us.
Can you envisage your own energy levels, physical, emotional and mental, as battery capacity (see the above picture)? Significant bereavement can drain us immensely and the process of continuing to live requires us to restore our energy capacity. The meaning and purpose of self-care is to deliberately restore our energy capacity in response to events that drain us.
Worden’s theory suggests there are four ‘Tasks of Grief’;
- to accept the loss
- to acknowledge the pain of the loss
- to adjust to a new environment
- to reinvest in the reality of a new life
But these tasks are not states to achieve, more a process to accommodate a new normal lifestyle without what was lost. And, more than likely, these tasks are largely undertaken alone. When one is already feeling completely drained it can feel very overwhelming to go on.
However, it is possible to go on- so where and how to begin?
1.Recognise the flat battery. Acknowledge the exhaustion. It wears us down witnessing the decline of another person’s health, even if we are not directly caring for them. We are drained:
- Emotionally– experiencing feelings of sadness, helplessness, the effort of trusting people we don’t know, even if they are professionals.
- Physically– through added responsibilities, practical jobs, tensions from emotions and thoughts are caught in the body, as if we physically try to hold the world together, resisting the changes (suggested further reading below).
- Mentally– the experiences challenging faith, beliefs and altering what gives meaning to our lives such as occupational and family role
2.Begin recharging. To work with the exhaustion, we must simply attend to the fundamentals of living, regular food, hydration and rest, to tend to our depleted selves.
3.Building the energy charge. When we are hurting and everything has changed who are the people and what are the pastimes and environments which support, sustain and energise you in the new circumstances?… It is not a sprint – adjustment takes time, as does the recharging of human energy…. It is difficult to address the complexities of the rest of our lives on reduced energy.
‘You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.’ Martin Luther King Jr
4.Minimise the draining. Talking about how you feel, to a family member, friend, health professional or work colleague, or by processing your feelings in your own way can ease the drain on emotional capacity dramatically and lead to the understanding and acceptance of your experiences. Strong unpleasant feelings are natural when we experience unwanted change and we may never have experienced this depth of feeling before. Acceptance doesn’t mean liking the way things are now, but some acknowledgement of what has happened allows us to move, psychologically, in the new circumstances.
‘As long as you’re moving, it’s easier to steer’. Ed Lester
5.Managing the movement. When we experience periods of relative stability in our lives post-bereavement, there are new daily tensions we need to accommodate as best we can, such as handling health anxiety when we live alone. The process of sustaining our energy levels, of caring for ourselves, does not diminish. But we don’t have to be perfect, just enough.
There are many excellent online resources for managing and reducing anxiety and stress and for bringing restorative practices into our lives, such as relaxation techniques, yoga and meditation or mindful practice. You can also look for local organisations that offer bereavement support, talking therapy, befriending, spiritual support /friendship groups. When you feel consistently more energised, you may want to join (or re-join) a gym, golf, cycling or running club or dance studio.
For further support with self-care in bereavement:
For health anxiety support:: www.nhs.uk
Further reading on working with body tension:
The Body Keeps the Score Bessel Van Der Kolk
Penguin Books ISBN 978-0-142-97861-1
Mindfulness for Health: A practical guide to relieving pain, reducing stress and restoring wellbeing Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman (amazon books, Google Books)
For Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale: https://en.wikipedia.org
Picture by Paula Noyce