My mother died during the pandemic just shy of her 95th birthday. Not from the virus, but after living a wild, full life — her mind, body and soul needed to quietly tiptoe away.
The day she died I whispered, “goodbye” to her on the phone while sitting on my yoga mat. I heard her sweet breath and was comforted by knowing it is our breath and our love that is there until the end.
Given this period of universal mourning for all of us during a time of illness, death, chaos and even violence, the importance of self-compassion and compassion for others rises to the top of our “to be” list. Like adding extra cream to our coffee, it sweetens the bitterness.
As a clinical psychologist, much of my work focuses on encouraging and teaching self-compassion and acceptance when our emotional world is difficult to navigate. We often shy away from unpleasant feelings of sadness, anger, hurt, anxiety, fear — criticizing or shaming ourselves for such vulnerability. And just as frequently blaming the self and believing we are not good enough as we face adversity. We do have to take responsibility for our lives and circumstances, but that can be done without criticizing and hitting ourselves over the head with a shovel as we try to heal.
Developmentally, shame begins early for many of us. As babies we are not born ashamed, and actually, I would assume that most of us were born thinking we were hot stuff. And then we greet the world and its imperfections.
None of us received everything we wanted or needed and unfortunately we can begin to believe, “It’s me; if I could be better or different, then I could get what I hoped for.” If there is anything death has taught me during that tender week, it is that my mom’s passing is not my fault like so many other things I tend to believe.
I’m not much of an artist, but it helped to create a model for myself and clients with arrows pointing this way and that. Basically, I encourage people at times to stay on the road backward to understand where in life criticism versus compassion was a loud voice they may still carry. But then they must go back even further, as they search for that purity at birth.
It is through meditation, yoga, dance, martial arts, walks in nature, writing, painting — that we can find that peace of presence, a kind voice of self-compassion versus criticism. As we try to metabolize so many feelings during this time, remembering certain tools can be helpful. We often embrace the fight or flight response to avoid negative feelings, reaching for addictive behaviors to escape.
I have two framed pictures in my office that I often point to. One reads simply, “Inhale,” the second, “Exhale.” It is actually accepting and breathing in to the feeling versus avoidance that can soften and heal.
We can’t forget to breathe during a time when the virus actually takes one’s physical breath away, takes the breath out of our economy and shrinks our external world. Let it not rob us of one compassionate inhale and exhale at a time.
The last time I visited my mother, she struggled with severe dementia. She spoke little. But what she did say over and over was, “I don’t know…” I would lean in, hoping she would finish the sentence.
I now know her sentence was complete. There is so much we don’t know at this time, and it is how to live with that fact with tender care and concern. The one other sentence she completed was, “I love you.”
My mother died on May 27, four years to the day that my father passed in 2016. I am told that is not surprising, except that they had been divorced for decades. In the end they found their way back to one another, peacefully and with forgiveness. May we too wrap ourselves and others in the gentle warmth of forgiveness as we find our way back in to a new and changing world.
Priscilla Dann-Courtney is a clinical psychologist and writer in Boulder. Contact her at priscilladanncourtney.com.