When I was in deep grief, I often had to refer to a checklist in the morning just to summon the will to get out of bed. The torpid pace of depression was an issue, but worse was my overwhelming confusion. I couldn’t remember how to start my day. Making breakfast, showering, getting dressed, brushing my teeth—all seemed foreign, complicated, near impossible. You might as well have asked me to go run a marathon, perform brain surgery and then conduct a symphony. I had no idea where to begin, what to do first, how to order my daily activities into a schedule that made sense. So I would lie in bed, paralyzed, and cry.
Then a friend came to my rescue. She let me cry while she took care of my kids and brought me meals in bed. When it was time for her to go home, she made me grocery lists, menus, and a simple schedule to follow upon her departure. I was allowed to cry for one hour upon waking, but only one hour. After that I had to go the kitchen and make breakfast. She even told me what to make—eggs with salsa—and what medications and supplements to take. After breakfast, the schedule told me to take a hot bath with Epsom salts. Then I had to take a walk and get to work writing.
Until my body broke down, I’d been wary of what I saw as indulging my grief.
If my day started to spin out of control, and I found myself staring at the wall or sobbing uncontrollably in traffic, unable to remember where I was going, I referred to the list, which also included a simple list of gently phrased questions. Did you forget your bath? Have you eaten lunch? Have you had any water today? Do you need to take a nap? Who can you call?
I keep that sweet list tucked into my journal, and though some reminders of those grueling months make me shudder, this memento of my friend’s care—gently insisting that I treat my body and my spirit with the same care that she had—helped me to survive.
Psychologist Jonice Webb, PhD, writes that the feeling of being stuck—as I was stuck until my friend came and pulled me out of bed—is common to those who need to grieve, whether their trauma is recent or years past. Webb offers her own tips for processing grief, which includes both scheduling time to feel your pain and scheduling time to be distracted from it.
St. Thomas had his own self-care checklist for overcoming sorrow, right down to the hot bath.
Until my body broke down, I’d been wary of what I saw as indulging my grief. I was even suspicious of the term “self-care,” because it smelled like “self-love,” which I believed was the root of all sin. Didn’t St. Thomas Aquinas himself say so in the Summa Theologica? Or so I thought. In my would-be stoic’s mind, self-care was merely a pop-psych term for self-indulgence—prioritizing myself above others, ranking my pain as worse or more urgent than theirs. How dare I?
Imagine my surprise (okay, glee) to find that St. Thomas had his own self-care checklist for overcoming sorrow, one that looks strikingly like my friend’s list, right down to the hot bath. He also says it’s good and right to cry: “…a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it: whereas if it be allowed to escape, the soul’s intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened.” And that we should reach out to friends, meditate on the true and good, and participate in activities that bring us pleasure.
“Charming though it may seem,” writes Msgr. Charles Pope, “it is very good advice…we are not simply soul, we are also body. And our bodies and souls interact and influence each other. St Thomas says, ‘Sorrow, by reason of its specific nature, is repugnant to the vital movement of the body; and consequently whatever restores the bodily nature to its due state of vital movement, is opposed to sorrow and assuages it.’ (I IIae 38.5)
When does self-love cross the boundary to self indulgence? When we inordinately desire something.
After reading this charming advice from St. Thomas, I went back to his Summa Theologica to find that quote that had troubled me about self-love as the root of all evil: “Therefore it is evident that inordinate love of self is the cause of every sin” (la-IIae, 77.4). Inordinate is the word I needed to examine. When does self-love cross the boundary to self indulgence? When we inordinately desire something. Even something that might be good for us. When we want something so bad we are willing to do what violates God’s will and/or reason to get it.
Really, it’s common sense. Having a cold beer at the end of the day to ease my anxiety might be a healthy practice of self-love that gives me pleasure, promotes communion with a friend and “restores my bodily nature to its due state of vital movement.” Having a 12-pack is not. But caring for myself as a friend would, as a parent would—with my ultimate health, healing, and wholeness as the goal—is to care for myself as a loving God intends.