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Learning Self-Care is so worth it

Learning Self-Care is so worth it | After the Heartbreak
Learning Self-Care is so worth it

This is an important topic, and I was thinking about it recently during a somewhat expensive (but blissful) 20 minute shoulder massage at Dubai airport before boarding my flight back home to Australia. In a life now in the past, I would instead have been sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair at the Gate, maybe with a polystyrene cup of coffee to keep me awake. So what’s changed? Have I won a lottery?

πŸ˜…πŸ˜…πŸ˜… Nope….not even close. The one big change in my life is that my husband died….suddenly, and frighteningly….in a gliding accident. Now grief is a surrealistic nightmare that only those thrown into it can possibly imagine and perhaps the circumstances of my husband’s death exacerbated this (imagine…police at your door followed closely by TV reporters with cameras and someone shoving a microphone at you…..”would you like to give a statement?“) [shudder]

What is Self-Care?

Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about self-care so let’s first establish what that’s about.

“Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health.


I was brought up to believe that putting yourself last and prioritising the needs of others was the right thing to do. Throughout my life I tried to follow this ideal but inevitably it led to me feeling drained. I used to think it was selfish to put my own needs first, but now I know otherwise and I wish I’d known this years ago as it would have helped immensely with all the over-work and symptoms of depression.

What does this have to do with grief?

In those early days of my nightmare I guess you can imagine that I wasn’t exactly thinking sensible thoughts about taking care of myself. In fact I did a scary landslide from being an intelligent and very ‘together’ retired professional to somebody who had to be reminded to eat, who used drugs to sleep, who existed mentally in the past and was terrified of… well… everything! I was a mess. Big time.

Read: Grief Can Make You Insane – Temporarily

My two daughters had flown to my side immediately after they heard the news (literally…they both live interstate) and they did a wonderful job of looking after me, but as they have jobs and their own friends and family, after 3 weeks they needed to go home and I needed to look after myself.

Learning the basics of self-care

I think my daughters were worried that I would spiral down into depression as before they inevitably had to leave, they sat me down and encouraged me to participate in a brainstorm. Together we made a list of what I could do when I was so overcome with grief and loneliness and fear, that I didn’t know what to do (OK, they probably wrote most of the list because I wasn’t thinking straight back then😚 ).

List on a fridge with magnet

This list was my life-saver. It affirmed for me that it was more than acceptable to do things like book a massage, but that it was actually a positive action toward building resilience and emotional health. It was OK to forget about housework and go for a walk instead.

This list was stuck to my fridge with a magnet and there it stayed for nearly a year, until I was no longer so dependent on the constant reminder of ways to care for myself.

What this effectively did was to help me learn to self-care…to nurture myself when I wasn’t coping and make myself feel better. I truly think that if I’d had this mentality during my working life I would not have been nearly so stressed! It took this mind-blowingly horrible event to teach me how important self-care is, and to learn what works for me.

Everyone’s list would be personal and different, but this is a good start:

64 Self-Care Ideas for Grievers (What’s Your Grief)

Self-Care as a way of life

Self-care needs to be a very deliberate strategy for looking after yourself. It’s not an add-on or something that you do if you have time. I have learned from experience how important it is to look after yourself as a priority, as only then do you have what you need to care for others. After all, when you are in a plane, they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. It’s not selfish. It’s necessary. πŸ™‚

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that NOT looking after yourself is selfish! In the beginning of my grief journey I was lucky enough to have good friends and family who looked after me and saw to my needs, but I owe it to them to help myself become emotionally stronger so that I don’t need to draw on their time and energy quite so much.

If I’m doing a good job with the self-care, then I’m also in a better place to reach out to help others when they need it. I am not such a burden on others as they don’t need to be the ones to recognise when I’m ‘having a downer’…..I now simply state that I need some ‘mental space’ and I use one of my strategies to get myself back on an even keel. This makes me a better friend, and an easier person to be around.

How far do you take this? What about cost?

Hang the cost! If it helps, then it’s worth every cent! 😁 OK, one needs to be a bit realistic here.

I have just come home from a trip to Italy (hence my massage in Dubai airport). This is how I figure it. If I could afford to fly First Class I would quickly run out of money so it isn’t an option. To offset the need for flying in the cramped and noisy environment of Economy for 36 hours (I can’t sleep on planes) I’ve had to come up with other strategies to look after myself.

Me in airport lounge
Enjoying a drink in an airport Business Lounge

Before even leaving Australia, I treated myself to a stay in a Lounge because I had a lengthy wait time for my flight. Sure I had to pay for that, but compared to a First Class ticket it was a minimal investment and it meant I began my trip calm and relaxed.

I also opted to break my lengthy trip with a one day break in Dubai on the way over. Again, comparatively inexpensive and it gave me a lovely flat bed to sleep on for a night, and an even lovelier hot shower before I had to set out for the last leg of the journey. A bonus was being able to have a brief look around and get some exercise. Well worth the small investment.

Grief can make one quite antisocial, and general chit-chat is something that grates on my nerves these days. I had booked a group tour in Italy as I did not have the confidence to be completely alone however I became very good at knowing when enough was enough though. I enjoyed the tour but occasionally the whole group thing got too much.

Recognising this is all part of self-care. I would take a day off of the tour and just ‘do my thing’ in the hotel room or taking solitary walks. I would seek out green spaces which (for me) are the best place for me to just sit and be still. I watch people and just breathe and try to relax my overactive brain. I’d buy myself an icecream if I felt like it, or some chocolate. I tried to listen to what my body and mind were telling me, rather than relentlessly follow an itinerary.

And I’ve already explained how I treated myself on the long journey home. I would never have done this in the past. I would have thought “Wow! I could get a massage much cheaper at home!” Of course I could, but right then and there was when I needed it (and it was soooo good). If you add up all the little treats to myself, it doesn’t come close to a First Class plane ticket.

Besides, my husband had not yet retired and was trying to get as much money into his Superannuation as he could….and then he died. While I was having that lovely massage, I told myself “Hang the expense…I could die tomorrow.” πŸ™‚

Wrapping up (I can hear those sighs of relief) LOL

Apologies for getting up on my soapbox but grief is such a hard journey that I think we need to go easy on ourselves and learn to self-nurture. I know I need to keep going with my life and my motto is ‘whatever it takes’. I truly believe that my focus on self-care has been crucially important as it has helped me to tune in to my needs and provided a strong foundation for emotional healing.

Quote: Ask yourself what you need everyday and make sure you get it.

Surviving the grief journey has been how I learned the importance of self-care, but of course it applies to any life experience where you feel you are literally on your knees.

Here is a useful resource to start you on the path to self-care: Developing a Self-Care Plan

Does anyone have an example of where looking after yourself has helped? Please tell me about it in the comment box below.

Marlene is an Australian widow who has written about all the good, bad and ugly stuff that happened after her husband Norbert died tragically. Marlene responds to all comments.

Me in my garden at home…the lushness and greenery heals my soul.
  • Ingrid Petrini says:

    My pain has driven me into selfcare, listening to my nreds. Need selftime and make it a priority to put myself first. Very very unusual for the looking after other people – me.
    Grief is obvious to others but pain doesn’t show to others. I must trust my instinct in what and how much I can do.
    And to force in creative space for me everyday
    Take care Marlene

    • Marlene says:

      Hi Ingrid, you are right that physical pain forces a person to slow down and make decisions that will help them co-exist with the pain. I think people need to respond the same for emotional pain. Definitely trying to make room for creative time too….since coming home from my holiday I have rearranged my art space so it is close to my living space. That should help. πŸ™‚ Thanks for your comment.
      Cheers, Marlene

  • Eunice Schmaal says:

    Marlene, I understand and know the importance of self care however it is something that is not always an easy activity to achieve. As a mother of disabled children and living in a domestic violence situation, self care is always viewed as selfish, self centred and uncaring. One is made to feel a failure as a parent and spouse in these situations. I have lived through times when I was so drained I was functioning on instinct. I was told I was worthless, useless, a waste of space and a disgrace simply because I was tired, overworked and worried about the welfare of my children.
    Domestic violence does not have room for self care and getting out of that cycle seems impossible. Yes self care is important and gives one time to heal, however it is something that is not easily gained and to this day I hear the comments of this activity as being selfish and self centred. Emotional self care is gained for me by my quiet time now each morning in my devotion and pray time. Your article is beautifully written and is helpful in so many ways, grief takes many forms and for many reasons not just death.
    Someone who has lived through domestic violence is also grieving the loss of their own self worth and self esteem and building a new relationship with themself is difficult. Self care is vitally important to these people also but not easily gained because of the negative talked they have endured for an extended period of time. Thanks for your helpful article.

    • Marlene says:

      Hi Eunice, you are so right that self-care is important to everyone, and particularly people in all super-stressful situations (not just relating to the death of a loved one). It can feel like we have no power as things are happening/happened that were out of our control…and it’s scary. We can control one aspect though, and that is how we deal with it. Everyone’s journey of recovery is different but for me, I found that once I made up my mind that I would NOT live in the past and I would focus on looking as positively as I could toward a new future..well… it helped. Another helpful tip….smile lots. After a while you don’t have to fake it. πŸ™‚

  • Heather Waring says:

    When grief cuts everything from under you in those early weeks/months, even the natural instinct for simple physical ‘survival’ can let you down. As you mentioned Marlene, friends and family might even need to remind you to eat! As time goes on, I think the awareness of our personal individual needs for managing life slowly develop. And this is incredibly personal for each of us, . The key words I think are “Awareness” and “Balance” and you’ve captured these concepts really well in your blog – what is right for you is emerging. For me, prioritising the needs of others is usually not draining, but fulfilling. (I often find my cup is being filled as I’m being distracted elsewhere πŸ™‚ ) Of course, I’m not bombarded by such needs daily, so I can balance this.

    • Marlene says:

      Thanks for your comment Heather. Responding to the needs of others can be very fulfilling….unless it goes beyond a point. And self-care is about knowing that point. We all eventually work out what we need – and then we must give ourselves the time and space for it. πŸ™‚

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