A death in the family? ‘Be tender and gentle with yourself.’

A Death Observed

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.
C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

American tombstone by Steve Evans via Wikimedia CommonsWhen my father died, I gave myself the straight-forward advice that I had shared with others who had lost someone close throughout my long career in pastoral counseling: “Every emotion, idea and action in your life over the next six months pivots on your father’s dying. Don’t make any major decisions, plans or changes for the next year. Pay careful and cautious attention. Be tender and gentle with yourself.”

It was not long until I forgot my own advice.

Life, following the funeral, became filled with the janitorial functions that follow any death. I had to clean out Dad’s house and sell it and his car, the total of his life’s possessions. I handled the tedious probate of his will and paid his debts. This was, of course, on top of my already busy life as a father, husband and professional counselor. I did spend some time, especially in the first two months, with family and friends talking about the impact of losing my father.

I thought I was doing well. But, what did I know?

After settling my father’s estate, my brother and I each inherited about $7,000.00. Not a significant sum, but more than I had anticipated. After the tedious work was finished, the emotional tension began. It pressed me in night dreams and day dreams. The images were intense, exciting and constant. Each was different but with the same focus—I would give away large sums of money to support causes I value deeply. In one dream, I imagined plopping $50,000.00 on the desk of Morris Dees at the Southern Poverty Law Center. I unleashed $75,000.00 to the United Methodist Committee on Relief to help victims of famine and violent storms. The list grew; the funds didn’t. The images of giving away money I didn’t have obsessed me. One day, in a bit of panic, I called a broker, gave him my inheritance and told him I needed him to make a lot of money—so that I could give it all away one day.

The plan was in place.

Then, the stock market crashed and most of the money was lost. Wake up time! It was then that I remembered the admonition to myself at the time of Dad’s death. “Everything in the first six months is about your father’s dying. Don’t make any major decisions or plans in the first year”.

Time to step back and get a new perspective on what is happening. I began to search for the answer to what was really driving my urges to give away money I didn’t have. I began to face and feel emotions that I had worked hard to ignore, feelings that accompany vulnerability. Underneath all of my busy-holding-it-together exterior I was feeling like an orphan without parents, and I was especially aware of feeling very empty, lonely and powerless.

What I came to realize was that my intense images of giving huge sums of money away gave me a feeling of power. In truth, my power felt very limited. The benevolent images helped me cover my feelings of frailty, sadness and loss. They were definitely not the basis for a plan. They were mirrors reflecting the struggle of my soul. When I was feeling least potent because of the loss of my last parent, I turned to a fanciful image to mask my vulnerability and to make me feel vital and powerful.

As I reflect on this chapter in my life now, I also realize that it revealed a very positive trait of my character and soul: that I feel most valued and potent when I am giving to someone in need. That is when my soul sings. The images of giving money away were fantasies, not plans. They reminded me of who I am when I am responding as one crafted by God. There was both frailty and grace in my journey through those months.

As you encounter “family holidays” this year, think about all of the men, women and children you will encounter who are still within a year of a deeply felt death. And remember my advice, even if I forgot it for a while: Be tender and gentle with one another.

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Tips for Caregivers: Keep Up vs. Catch Up

Let a SEAL be your guide: “Keep up!”

US Navy Seals face the waves

By BENJAMIN PRATT

U.S. Navy SEAL training is spiritually, intellectually and physically rigorous, rugged. SEALs have a saying about running, which they do as a group.

“It’s easier to keep up than to catch up.”

This succinct, crisp phrase captures wisdom relevant for our lives in so many ways. Students know that it is easier to keep up with their studies than to languish through a term and race to catch up at the time of finals. It is easier to exercise regularly than catch up after years as a couch potato; easier to keep our bodies at a proper weight than catch up with endless diets; easier to limit our spending by restrained buying than recover from mounting debt. It is vibrant, necessary advice that promises us success in our primary relationships, our finances, our health and our life goals.

It is a basic life guideline.

Living by this sage advice is of inestimable value for caregivers. We caregivers can become so focused on serving our beloved that we ignore caring for ourselves. We isolate ourselves and do not run in a group as the SEALs do, thus making us vulnerable to a life of forever struggling to catch up.

We must care for ourselves by engaging in relationships where we can share our story, feel nurtured, experience the comfort and compassion of others while we extend the same to our care recipient. It is vital that we keep up with good food and adequate sleep and exercise to sustain body and soul. Our well-being requires soul-nurturing with humor, song, poetry, gratitude, prayer, manual labor and frequent respites.

Be a wise self-caregiver by running in community.

Don’t attempt the job alone.

Practice the good advice of the SEALs: “It’s easier to keep up than to catch up.”

Please, share this column with friends! Add Comments with your own tips.

Thanks go to Shane T. McCoy for today’s photo of US Navy Seals. He released it for public use via Wikimedia Commons.