Self-care was not something I ever thought about until my 26-year-old son Kyle died five years ago. After that, “self-care like a full-time job” became my mantra.
Going on after such a devastating loss felt impossible. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I had so much anxiety–a lesser-known side effect of grief, particularly after a sudden death–I trembled if I was around strangers. But I promised my family suicide was off the table; I would never do to them what Kyle had done to us when he died by overdose after a harrowing three-year struggle with addiction. So I had to figure out how to keep living.
To give myself a reason to get up, I committed to doing daily yoga using free internet videos and was amazed to discover that doing just 30 minutes of yoga a day eliminated my chronic back pain. Once the brain-fog of early grief lifted, I started reading lots of books on grief and life after death. I continued therapy. I told people what I needed (e.g., not to be asked how I was doing).
Just 16 days before he died, Kyle (and all our loved ones) had attended my wedding to a wonderful woman I had been with for seven years. It was among the most joyous days of my life, and my son’s death so soon afterward felt punishing, as if the universe were striking out at me for having been too happy. But I was determined not to lose my capacity for joy. I started making love with my wife as soon as I could bear it, determined not to give up, on top of what I’d already lost, such an important source of pleasure and connection. I forced myself to drink more water. I worked with a prescriber to adjust my anti-depressants. I got out in nature as much as I could. I danced to loud music.
Every single thing I did was a task; nothing came naturally, but I knew if I just kept acting like life was worth living, it could be again. If I did the opposite, lay in bed feeling sorry for myself, which was all I wanted to do, I would never feel better, so I forced myself forward one task at a time.
I talked (and wept) to friends. I gave myself the time alone I desperately needed and even asked two friends to let me stay for a week in their empty vacation homes for self-designed grief retreats where I could be truly alone with my thoughts. I ate healthy foods (and ice cream). I joined a grief group and shared my grief online in a way that gave me comfort. I wrote in a journal to and about my son.
Eventually I started writing. I found a great release and comfort in poetry. You might not think of writing as self-care, but research shows doing something creative improves our mood, our sense of overall well-being, our mindfulness and connection with our emotions, and our immune system. I have writing accountability dates on Zoom now five times a week to ensure I keep writing. My first book was published this year, What I Should Have Said: A Poetry Memoir about Losing a Child to Addiction, and working on the manuscript with poetry mentors, finding a publisher for it, and now promoting it and doing readings from it has given my son’s death–and his life and our struggles–added meaning.
I will always carry my grief; it connects me to my son. But I learned to find grace, peace and even joy again by committing to one self-care task at a time. If I could do that after my most devastating loss, I like to think everyone can.
You can read more of Lanette’s incredible writing on her website: https://www.lanettesweeney.com
What I Should Have Said: A Poetry Memoir About Losing A Child to Addiction, her debut collection, is available from Finishing Line Press, Bookshop, Amazon, the Barnes & Noble website, local bookstores, and from Lanette herself!