While some may think of it as vain or superficial, in the context of long-suffering agony, it is essential that everyone finds room in their heart to love themselves through their grief. Fully and completely.
The definition of love is to feel a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person, such as a parent, child or friend. Self-love is defined as the instinct we have to preserve our own well-being (at all costs). Why then, would it be considered wrong and worthy of so much self-punishment (as many grievers succumb to) when loving ourselves through horrendous loss is the right thing to do? A loss that in our wildest imagination, we could never have prevented.
As a mom of my daughter who died by suicide in 2005, this latter point has kept me punishing myself to various extremes over the years, mostly experienced as mental and emotional conflict when I imagine all the various things I could and should have done differently to prevent her death. I’ve never quite been able to accept that there wasn’t more I could have done to save my child. Despite my many attempts to banish the tormenting thoughts from my mind, they keep coming back.
The ability to love ourselves through the pain of difficult loss is essential if we want to fully heal. Which means being able to genuinely feel the same tenderness and passionate affection for ourselves that we feel for others. Loving ourselves through all of our bumps and bruises, triumphs and failures – especially those that are the hardest for us to bear. While there are lessons in every experience, holding ourselves responsible for the death of any loved one presents the greatest lesson of them all. That is, being able to love ourselves through the grief we are left with when we cannot accept and blame ourselves for not being able to save our loved one from dying. Especially our child. Yet, we never did have the power to save anyone from death.
Therapy talk tells us that we do the best that we can with the knowledge we have at the time. That we shouldn’t feel so self-important as to think it’s our responsibility to save others, which assumes powers that we don’t have. Which seems rather cliché in the context of complicated grief, where nothing can ever be rationalized through as simple an explanation. As a bereaved mom, I struggle with the part of me that wants to believe all this is true, but the part holding me to the belief I could have done more to save my child keeps me struggling with the would have, could have, should have. I know I’m not the only bereaved person who feels this way.
Loving ourselves means putting our well-being before anything else, which in the context of any grief, and without doubt complicated grief, is not a selfish act. In fact, it is the best thing we could do to help with our healing. Yet, loving ourselves through grief requires that we let go of those beliefs that compel us to blame ourselves in so many ways for our loved one’s death.
We are not to blame!
Intellectually, I know this. Other grievers know this. Yet, after talking to numerous bereaved parents, siblings and survivors of a suicide over the years and hearing about their stories over and over, I am continually reminded of just how destructive some deaths really are. In their grief, everyone blames themselves in some way. Hearts break. Relationships suffer. Families disintegrate.
In my own family, it was a struggle to watch all of us fall apart at the seams and then summon the effort to mend the parts that did remain salvageable. While I realize that a family’s pain and subsequent healing is not the responsibility of any one griever (though some of us mentally take that on too), we can all do our part to help everyone heal by practicing the act of self-love. And it is a discipline that has to be practiced over and over, until we can genuinely feel for ourselves that same profound tenderness and passionate affection we feel for those we love.
Repeatedly affirming to ourselves gentle words of encouragement and support can be useful to help steer our thoughts away from all of the mental and emotional anguish that years of thinking the exact opposite beliefs have heaped on us. Staying mindful of the need to love ourselves through all of our grief will help us forgive ourselves all of our perceived failings for not saving our child, or any loved one. It helps us to never forget about the suffering of the self.
Practicing self-forgiveness – which also requires discipline – will go a long way to helping us one day, feel the genuine love, compassion and understanding that we must be able to feel for ourselves before we can ever truly express joy from the heart once again. No matter how long it takes.
While it’s no secret that love is the cure-all for anything, genuine self-love that goes far beyond one-dimensional love for the self is the hardest to achieve. Staying mindful of all our intentions throughout every stage of grief will help us stop the self-criticism of various choices that we made that in looking back, may have seemed misguided. And many will be seen as just that, especially in complicated grief. Knowing that when every intention we set comes from a place of love, no matter how faulty some of our steps may have been or still are, it is much easier to forgive and love ourselves through all of our grief.
Visit vonnesolis.com for more information and support related to child loss, suicide and other grief.
Photos: pixabay.com (feature image edited by Vonne Solís)