After my husband died, I realized I desperately needed to take some time to nourish myself and my three daughters. From the day he received the initial stage four cancer diagnosis to the day he graduated to Heaven, we lived in crisis mode.
During those months, I slept very little. I cared for my beloved around the clock as the cancer coursed through his body. He needed medicine and special foods every hour. I traveled with him to countless doctor appointments. In his final weeks, he needed help with basic hygiene and trips to the bathroom.
When friends and family members came to relieve me in taking care of him, I could never really rest because I was so fraught with anxiety. I experienced anticipatory grief. I couldn’t keep down much of my own food, and it showed in the amount of weight I lost that summer. I was withering.
I had to learn how to take care of myself again. I realized how malnourished I was physically, emotionally and spiritually. As a caretaker, I poured out everything. I needed to eat literally, but more than that, I needed to lean into my relationship with God and the nourishment of my community.
The following is a list of ideas for self-care and soul care that have helped me over the last few years. These suggestions are not meant to be prescriptive. I hope instead they will provide encouragement and inspiration for you as you navigate your own grief journey. If you know someone who is grieving, these are areas you can encourage them. For widow mamas, the greatest gift can often be providing loving care for her children so she can take a little time to care for herself.
When we are navigating grief, I believe we need to start by nurturing our souls. A key part of my journey has been rooting myself continually in Christ. I call these practices “soul care.” Through “soul care,” God has helped me learn to flourish and move forward after such profound loss.
My first five suggestions are ideas to connect with God in a personal way:
- Listen to worship music. On my darkest days of grief, worship music lifted me. I even developed a worship playlist on Spotify that helped me turn my eyes to Jesus. I listened to it when I was doing the dishes and folding clothes. Now I press play on this list every morning to get my heart pointed in the right direction. I recently read an article that talked about the neuroscience behind listening to music. The article said a single song can reduce anxiety up to 65 percent. Music has the power to calm our nervous system.
- Write in a prayer journal. When my husband was first diagnosed with cancer, a dear friend came over with a wrapped gift. Inside was a journal with the words, “Dear God, Guide me in prayer.” The scriptures on the pages helped guide me each morning as I poured out my heart to God. I wrote freely without a lot of pressure. I journaled my questions, my doubts, my fears and even a running list of gratitude. I’m grateful for this prayer journal now four years later. It provides a path to remember and trace God’s glory along my grief journey.
- Read a devotional to start your day with truth. Many days I started exhausted. As a single mama of three children, I sometimes struggled to begin a new day without my husband. I decided to read a devotional each morning to help replace my discouragement with Biblical truth. A few of my favorites include: Streams in the Desert by L.B. Cowman, One Thousand Gifts devotional by Ann Voskamp and A Spectacle of Glory by Joni Eareckson Tada. Sometimes I would journal my responses to the devotionals I read.
- Develop a scripture notebook. A mentor of mine encouraged me years ago to create a scripture notebook for each new season of life. This is as simple as heading to your local dollar store and buying a small notebook. (I like the ones that are spiral-bound notecards.) Then begin writing down Bible verses that contain words to remember in your present season. I found meaningful scriptures that provided hope, courage, faith and comfort for my journey. I read these scriptures and worked to memorize them when I felt weak or alone.
- Get out into God’s Creation. God meets me in nature. A walk in the park, a day at the ocean, a hike in the mountains, the petals of a perennial freesia pushing through the hard earth, a pine tree pointing toward the heavens – all of these remind me that God is in control and He is in the business of bringing beauty from ashes. My girls are used to me pulling over to the side of the road whenever God starts painting the sky at sunset. There is something about this spectacular color show each night that brings me a profound sense of wonder and comfort.
These next five ideas are more practical ways to nourish your body and mind:
- Drink more water. Tears are a natural part of the grief journey. I cried a lot after my husband died. It was also important to me to grieve and lament through tears with my children. One article notes that excessive amounts of stress hormone and cortisol are produced in grief and crying. This makes it difficult to sleep and concentrate. Drinking more water can help flush away the toxins and replenish us when we feel like we are in a fog.
- Give yourself permission to nap. I had a difficult time sleeping at night, especially right after my husband’s death. I felt his absence the most when I was climbing into bed alone. I was often filled with anxiety about being the only adult in the house to protect my children. I learned over time how important it was to give myself permission to nap. The National Sleep foundation says even 20-30-minute naps can improve mood, alertness and performance. It was difficult at first, but over time I learned to relax for short amounts of time, and it helped me feel less exhausted by my grief.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise benefits the brain by increasing blood flow and helping a person focus. Grief often leads us to headaches, fatigue, insomnia, sickness, loss of appetite and other physical symptoms. Researchers say regular exercise can help relieve many of these physical symptoms. You might consider joining a gym or a running group or a local yoga studio to make exercise part of your self-care rhythm. That first year I signed up to run a half marathon with friends.
- Discover a new hobby. Trying out new activities during a grief process can also be therapeutic. I have one widow friend who started playing hockey. Another found joy in hiking. Another started painting. Another went back to school. After my husband’s death, I joined a group of mama friends who like to trail run. The combination of being out in nature and taking on a trail with lots of varied terrain provided an important outlet. I find that running is therapeutic for me. I have time to process my grief apart from my children while running.
- Schedule quality time with friends. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges after my husband’s death was fighting feelings of loneliness. I am grateful for a handful of friends who stepped into the awkwardness and spent time with me while I was grieving. I encourage you to plan regular outings with friends you trust. A coffee date, dinner out or a movie can serve as a good space to help process grief with others. It was always worth the extra effort to find a babysitter for my kids.
I have found over the last four years that returning to this list of soul care and self-care practices has helped me steer clear of some of the unhealthy habits that often emerge during grief. It’s easy as widows and mothers to put our own needs as secondary to our family’s needs. We have to be intentional to carve out time to restore our souls, bodies and minds.
I am often comforted by Jesus’ example of taking time to weep with his grieving friends and resting in the Father’s arms. His words in Matthew 11:28 took on new meaning for me on the grief journey. He says, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” These words continue to remind me that I am not meant to carry this grief alone.
This list is certainly not exhaustive. I would love to hear from you in the comments. What are some of the soul care and self-care practices that have helped you on your grief journey?
Part of this essay was taken from Flourishing Together, a new 6-week Bible study just released on Amazon. If you would like to discover how to flourish by God’s design after loss, please check out the study and consider joining the Flourishing Together collective group on Facebook:
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