I have a confession. Early on in the explorative journey that was my Positive Psychology Masters degree, self compassion was not a topic I engaged with easily.
In fact, I thought it was a load of rubbish.
Letting yourself off the hook for all your mistakes....? Err, no thanks.
Running yourself a hot bath and lighting some candles in the hope it would dilute years of abuse and pain... how ridiculous.
In truth, I just had no real concept of what self-compassion was, and especially no idea how to implement it into my life. In fact, I now see that not only was I in fact highly resistant to it, but that I was confusing it with fluffy lists of activities for self-care. Due to my own life story, I didn't actually feel that I deserved to be kind to myself on a deep level, and in the words of a great therapist I know, I simply 'didn't have a place for it to land'. So here's my learning so far in using self-compassion on this new and horrific journey.
(Again, I am not blogging here as an expert - just a newly grieving Mother who happens to also be rather passionately into the science of Positive Psychology.)
Broadly, there are three key parts to self compassion. The first is self-kindness. Not self-pity, not self-indulgence, but self-kindness. Whilst there is a vast amount of research on this topic, it is often described in it's simplest form as the way we would treat a good friend. What would we say to them? How would we hold space for their pain? How would we offer them support in a time of crisis or tragedy? Probably, if we are a decent human being, as much kindness, empathy and care as we could manage. We know that we often find it easier to support others than ourselves. This was certainly true for me for many, many years. Without steering into a feminist viewpoint (I definitely do not identify as a feminist), I feel that not only is self-neglect an expected part of being a working-class woman, and Mother, but it is actually sometimes used as a badge of honour in our society; a hierarchy of how much support we offer to others above ourselves.
'I'm so busy I have no time for myself'... (insert laughing/groaning face emoji).
We hear it incessantly in our worlds. We do it ourselves. We place judgement on those who don't behave this way, implicitly or explicitly. Yet what this actually does in reality is reinforce the idea to women, particularly Mothers, that the way we are 'good enough' is to almost entirely put our own needs on hold - (or at the very least to try and 'squeeze them in' when the kids are in bed). Self kindness is hard. I get it. But also, I have found out quickly, when dealing with a trauma of this magnitude, also absolutely vital.
For me, a key aspect of this self-kindness has been giving myself permission to ask for what I need. This does not come naturally to me. Like many women who have been a lone parent, I can be fiercely protective and self-reliant when it comes to meeting my own needs. This is not helpful in this situation. People want to help. They offer things...just sometimes not the things you need. This is where figuring out quickly what it is that you do need is vital. In the first week after Finn's death, a friend offered cooked meals. I found myself thanking her, but telling her that cooking was something myself and my partner were finding rather therapeutic, mindful, and helped us keep a routine. We also both felt it showed our younger daughter a sense of consistency and coping that she was familiar with.
So instead...I asked for vases.
Many vases arrived that week, to hold the many flowers that arrived, and they were beautiful, helpful, and showed me that many people cared, some of whom I didn't even know. They also taught me an important, urgent lesson. Identify quickly what it is that you need. And ask the people who want to help. Be specific. Even when all you can think that you need right now is extra vases.
The second part of self-compassion is placing our pain and suffering within a context of common humanity. This is often very hard when losing a child, especially in this manner, because it is largely regarded as the worst experience a parent can have. With this tends to come a comparison of the pain and suffering of others in relation to ourselves, and we can find ourselves quickly feeling lost and alone in the magnitude of our own pain. Others' daily dramas can seem unimportant, miniscule and ridiculously self-important. They're not - they're just like yours were, just before you lost your child.
Other people also accidentally feel disconnected in a situation like this - "I can't begin to imagine"... "I don't personally think I'd manage to cope if I lost my child". All these well meaning comments towards us can inadvertently distance us from others, because, no... others don't fully understand. And nor should we want them to. However, whilst we sit within our grief and allow ourselves to lose too much sight of our common humanity, this can make us forget that pain and suffering is universal.
Human suffering is a part of being human. Loss is sadly, and at times tragically, the downside of love. Around two weeks after Finn died, I forced myself to watch the news. I was told not to - "don't...it's too depressing", someone said. However, I wanted to. I had experienced a sudden realisation that within the family bubble of crisis management that instantly forms when you lose a child to suicide, I had forgotten the bigger picture. Watching the dire horrors of the disgusting and unnecessary attack on Ukraine took me almost instantly out of a place of my own suffering, and into a deeper sense of connection to the tragedy and pain of the world in which we live. Sound overwhelming? Yes, it was. Yet also strangely helpful.
Parents, all over the world are losing children daily... not just because of suicide, or war, or illness. Children are losing parents. Brothers are losing siblings, sisters losing homes, children losing schools, hospitals, society itself. Forcing myself out of my own bubble of grief from time to time really helps me to keep a sense of perspective when it feels as though no-one else understands or can relate.
Mindfulness, in it's basic form, is an acceptance of things within the present moment. In my own experience, this is often really challenging. Thoughts of the past arise relentlessly for me at times, as my mind replays Finn's previous day, month, year, childhood.
The same can be said of the future. Finn's 16th birthday, in July, comes into my mind a lot, alongside many other events we had planned, and those that weren't planned, but are expected as the normal milestones of a person's life....
Finn will never finish his GCSE's, never go to college, never have a partner, have children, drive a car, buy a house, have a job...the list is endless, and at times, relentless. In my experience so far, the only way I have found to handle this broken record of thought is to bring myself into the present. This is not always easy, but for me, has been essential.
I firstly try to notice when I am doing it. To question and regret the past is a very natural part of losing a child to suicide. To find yourself daydreaming in tears about the things in the future that they are going to miss out on also seems to be a universal experience. And why wouldn't you? This is the reality. However, to find myself replaying these past-future thoughts over and over again is not only unhelpful for me, but also removes me from what I need to do right now, which is continue to live consciously, take care of myself and my other children, and ultimately, to feel that I have some element of control left over my own life and how I handle it. Selfish? Maybe. Self-preservation...? Definitely.
When I have noticed myself sitting too long in this emotional space, I drag myself back to the present. I say drag, because this is sometimes how it feels. Many people use their senses to practise mindfulness - what can be seen, what can be heard, what can be smelt, etc. Sometimes this 'grounding' works for me - especially for the almost constant flashbacks I find myself experiencing at times in a loop - and sometimes it doesn't, because my thoughts and feelings continue to run away with themselves.
What I have learnt to do instead, therefore, is to bring my focus into my own body. I ask myself where I am carrying my tension. I ask myself what I am feeling, right now, in this present moment. And I accept it...even when the realising of it hurts like hell. Even when it scares me. Even when I want to judge my feelings as 'good' or 'bad'. They are not good or bad, they are all welcome, natural and acceptable. I name my emotions. I sometimes find myself starting with 'sad', then notice it is deeper than sadness. Despairing. Hopeless. I accept this feeling, without judgement or criticism of myself, and try my best to hold it with the kindness that a good friend would offer me. I often wrap my arms around myself, giving the message to my parasympathetic nervous system that I am cared for, which releases oxytocin. Currently, I am often noticing my irritability. When I started to sit with this, I noticed that it is anger. A whole lot of it.
I add, my own practice of self compassion is not without repeated practice, a bucket load of conscious intention, and a strong and stubborn determination to try and find the best way I can manage myself at this time. As I heard recently - the worst has already happened. The second worse thing I can do now is to not be there for my other children.
I wholeheartedly agree.
For anyone that would like to learn more about self-compassion, Dr Kristin Neff is considered the leading expert in the field. Find her website here: Self-Compassion.