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Emotional Self-Care

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

In the last month of Aaron's life, as the situation became progressively hopeless, I could no longer hold my tears in front of Aaron. Then one day, Aaron said softly and slowly in Mandarin Chinese, "Mama, bu ku", meaning "Mama, don't cry". Two days later, as we lay side by side in his bed, he said, "Mama never cries," this time in English. There was something enigmatic about what he said. Clearly it was not descriptive of his mom. I remember the time when I was reading a sad Japanese children's story to Aaron when he was five or six and I burst in tears because of how sad the story was while Aaron looked at me sympathetically. Then was it meant to be prescriptive? Then why didn't he simply say, "Mom, don't cry"? In any case, I know that he didn't want me to suffer after he's gone. So I take his words literally and seriously. Whenever tears form in my eyes. I would hold them in sometimes with the help of a Kleenex. Then I talked to you in my mind, “Aaron, I think you should be really proud of your mom!” Of course there'd be moments when I feel too overwhelmed to care about anything, but those moments are becoming rarer. I may be getting better at emotional management, but I prefer to call it "emotional self-care."

To take care of my emotions, it's necessary to understand them first. In fact, it might not be necessary to use the plural form, as there is just one emotion that overwhelms - sadness. I am almost certain that sadness will forever be part of my life, as certain as the fact that Aaron will be in my heart, mind, and soul till I die. But at least the intensity of sadness and the milieu or context in which sadness takes place seem negotiable. When I respond to sadness by crying, I would get a migraine, feel enervated, and become even more vulnerable. In other words, crying makes sadness even more intense, at least in my case. I think Aaron was extremely wise when he repeatedly told me not to cry. When I perform strength, I gain strength and much of sadness seems to evaporate or at least becomes less intense.

My therapist friend might raise a flag of emotional repression. I thought about this: am I just pretending not to be sad? Am I in denial of my sadness? I prefer to think that I have been able to place my sadness in a context so that instead of replacing it, I am adding more emotions, feelings, and thoughts to balance out my overall mood. Here's an example from my diary on February 15.

"Aaron, I will miss you forever. I don’t think there’ll be a day in the rest of my life when I don’t think about you. So I should be expecting pain, sadness, emptiness, a profound sense of loss. But in the past few weeks, I have also experienced other feelings, emotions, and thoughts. I want to write them down so they can help me deal with the “background sadness”.

· You said, “Mama never cries”, and all you wanted was that we stay strong and carry on. I know that your soul is fully alive and that you know how well I am holding up. I want you to be proud of me. Therefore, I will be strong for you.

· Whatever emotions I experience privately, I have responsibilities for my life, family, students, and work. Therefore, I will be a responsible person.

· What you left behind should not be ruins, but wonders. I will make sure that your legacy for me, for the family, and for others, is nothing but positively impactful. Therefore, I will become a better person because of you.

· I am thankful to you for all the fond memories you have left in the last thirteen years. You brought such joy, love, and excitement to me.

· I am thankful to God, for letting you stay in my life for nearly thirteen years. What a precious gift!

· I am relieved to know that you are free from pain and suffering.

· I am full of hope that I will see you again in the future."

One of my friends/colleagues mentioned the idea of creating new memories so that these new memories will add onto the old ones, instead of replacing them. I think the logic is similar here. Sadness is here to stay, but it doesn't have to be paralyzing, and it may be integrated with other emotions we might experience in a way that will eventually allow us to reach a point when we remember and connect with our departed beloved ones in joy and peace.

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