A week and a half ago, we got the news that there had been a death in the family, (my partner) Matt’s Uncle Keith. It was a shock, and we were making arrangements to travel to Sydney to support the family and help with funeral arrangements. But then, we got another call the next day. Matt’s dad (Gary), we were told, had a heart attack and was in hospital fighting for his life – it felt like our world stopped turning.
We’ve spent the following week at the hospital in the intensive care unit camping out in the waiting room with loved ones, taking turns at going in (they only let two in at a time) and coaxing him to wake up, singing to Gary, chatting with him, massaging him and holding his hand.
At first there was a lot of hope…but as each day passed, the chances of his recovery became smaller and smaller. We were then told his brain damage was to severe and that he’ll never be the same… and will probably remain in a coma for the rest of his life. Decisions about whether to ‘turn off the machines’ that are keeping him alive – have been put to us from the doctors. We also find ourselves not being able to go to Uncle Keith’s funeral because we are still supporting Gary and making important decisions about his care.
I don’t think words could ever truly describe the emotional intensity and confusion of what the family has been going through. Half of us have also become sick with colds and the flu. We’re all exhausted from the emotion and the long hours spent in the ICU waiting room.
And yet, there is something beautiful that has happened in the middle of it all. Something unexpected. We have been using things we all learnt from the summit (almost the whole family participated) to ground ourselves in presence in this extremely challenging time. It turns out that the summit is a gift we give to ourselves at a time when we need it the most.
There have been five main ways that mindfulness has helped me and the family during this time. I’d like to share these in case these may be helpful to those out there who find themselves in a similarly difficult time. May these bring peace and presence into the darkest of days.
1. The 3-Breath Hug
The 3-breath hug has been the most beautiful way to ground ourselves and reconnect with each other and our moment-to-moment experience. Kristen Race shared this simple practice on Day 23 of The Mindfulness Summit as a practice for mindful parenting, but we’re finding it invaluable right now to bond as a family.
When one of us (or all of us) becomes very distressed, we have been coming together for a 3-breath hug. Imagine this situation – we had a very emotional family meeting with a doctor (telling us that Gary will never be the same due to massive brain damage) which ended with another family member in the room having a seizure and another one nearly passing out. We then had alarms going off and nurses rushing in to help. Very stressful, very difficult. We gathered outside the room right after that meeting, put our arms around each other and had a 3-breath hug to ground ourselves and give each other love and support. What a gift!
The kids especially love it when they’re stressed and it’s a way that the adults can wrap them up in love and support in the middle of it all.
2. A Mindful Mantra ‘This Too’
When life presents us with the unpleasant and the unwanted there is a strong tendency of the mind to resist what is happening. Resistance to pain, though, just creates more suffering. It’s futile. So here we are in this extremely stressful situation. A loved one in bed fighting for his life, probably not going to make it out of that bed alive. That’s very unpleasant. Feelings of fear, grief and loss naturally arise, and if I let them come and go without suppression, that is healthy and natural.
But if I begin to get into mental resistance patterns like ‘why is this happening to me?’ or ‘it’s not fair’ or ‘this shouldn’t be happening’ or ‘I want this to stop/ change/ go my way’ then I start fighting with reality. I start fighting with the present moment – and that, I know, is completely futile and just creates more layers of suffering. I will also lose touch with myself and the present moment if I get into resistance.
But the tendency to resist is strong when there is a lot of unpleasantness. That’s why I have been using my mantra that I always use in difficult times ‘This too.’
‘This too’ is my abbreviation for saying ‘I accept unconditionally the unfolding of this present moment in whatever form it takes – this too is allowed and accepted.’
‘This too’ reminds me to soften my resistance. It reminds me to stay grounded in presence (as best I can) and connects me to background of ease and peace even in the middle of this pain. I often repeat it mentally, sometimes out loud.
3. One Conscious Breath
We spoke at the summit, about the power of just taking a few deep, slow, conscious breaths – especially when you’re stressed. Breathing just a couple of breaths this way whenever we have felt overwhelmed has been so soothing for us all.
I’ve also been using my time in the ICU waiting room to do these mini-breath meditations, taking this time to step out of the mind and reconnect with my body and being-ness. It’s so simple, but has been profoundly nourishing.
I might just close my eyes and take one long slow breath, or maybe ten, if I have a minute free. One conscious breath brings me back to my self – reminds me that the world is still turning, birds are still singing and the sun is still shining through the window. There is more to this moment than just the pain, it’s all alive and it’s a miracle.
4. Creativity to Connect
As I mentioned, there is a lot of waiting around so we were looking for ways to be mindful while we waited. It’s all too easy to become caught up in the stressful energy of the ICU ward and all too easy for the mind to start running ‘what if’ scenarios while you wait.
At the summit, Danny Penman spoke about mindfulness and creativity and we also did a DMC (Daily Mindfulness Challenge) of colouring in. It was a fun and grounded practice and one we’ve brought into the waiting room. We’ve got a whole bunch of mindful colouring in books and so we have all been engrossed in mindful coloring in between visiting Gary by his bedside. Check out some of our creations! We ended up with a lovely board of pictures to put by his bedside.
5. Keep Up A Daily Practice and Do Things That Nourish You
It’s common that we tend to abandon our daily practice on the darkest of days – when we’re sick, tired or stressed – but that’s exactly when we need it the most. I’ve found my daily meditation an incredible gift during this time. It’s been a time of cultivating self-compassion and gentleness. It’s been a way of opening up to the wholeness of life and reconnecting to what really matters.
We’ve also made sure that we are doing things that nourish us like eating well, going for swims in the ocean and getting some exercise. This is a way of self-nourishing at a time when I think many of us feel like drowning our sorrows in junk food, booze and unhealthy habits. It’s an act of kindness to ourselves in a time of uncertainty and pain. Also, reach out to get support from your loved ones. You don’t have to do it alone.
If you’ve faced your own challenges and can share some tips with us, please do in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you.
I hope this blog post may help anyone going through similar challenges to what we face right now. The main thing is to just take it all one step and one breath at a time.