Small, Mindless Tasks with Lots of Steps
This is one of the many things I learned from my mother. For example, when I’m experiencing any kind of stress, I make tea. Something about the process—boiling the water; finding my favorite thick, ceramic cup and choosing just the right flavor teabag (Mom used a teapot; I usually don’t); waiting for it to brew—is inherently comforting. Each step must be performed in order, one after another, so the whole thing requires a certain amount of concentration. But it doesn’t require real thought; for brief moments, I stop thinking about anything other than what step must be performed next. I get the same effect when I water my houseplants; to do this, I need to find the watering can, fill it up, water each plant in turn, just enough, not too much. Writer David K. Reynolds, PhD, helped me understand why this works in his classic book Playing Ball on Running Water. If I’m sad and I make tea or water my plants or clean my room, I’ll still be sad after doing those things—but I’ll have a cup of tea or watered plants or a clean room. I will have engaged in an activity, and just the act of doing it may have helped distract me. And time will have gone by. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it can sometimes help change pain into ache.

Time Alone (with Bookends)
Many people just need to be by themselves (a little or a lot) every day. I’m one of them. When I’m alone, I don’t need to be anything for anyone. I can just be. But when I’m down, I also need to be careful to not spend too much time alone. I find it best to schedule alone time that has a beginning and an end, bookended by conversations or get-togethers with family and my closest friends.

Pain Relief (the Literal Kind)
It’s amazing how contorted and exhausted I became during the final days that my family spent with my mom when she was in home hospice. I felt a little guilty about getting a massage soon after my mother’s death, but it really helped. And once my back and shoulders had ceased aching, I found myself much more able to concentrate on the dozens of things I needed to do, like contacting people and helping plan the service.

Next: "When I read cheerful things, they just made me sad"


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