By Rachel Zimmerman
A friend, trying to cheer me up over the holidays, suggested I find comfort in this fact: “The worst year of your life is coming to an end.”
In 2014 I became a widow, and my two young children lost their father. Needless to say our perspective and priorities have shifted radically.
Last year at this time, my New Year’s resolutions revolved around carbs, and eating fewer of them. This year, carbs are the least of my worries. My resolutions for 2015 are all about trying to let go of any notion of perfection and seek what my mother calls “crumbs of pleasure” — connection, peace and actual joy on the heels of a life-altering tragedy that could easily have pushed me into bed (with lots of comforting carbs) for a long time.
As a mom I know with stage 4 cancer put it, when your world is shaken to its core, your goals shift from things you want to “do” — spend more time exercising, learn Italian, make your own clothes — to ways you want to “be,” knowing that your life can shift in an instant.
So, with that in mind, here are my five, research-backed, heal-the-trauma resolutions for 2015:
A Restful Sleep
Yes, at the top of my list of lofty life goals is a very pedestrian one: sleep. Lack of sleep can devastate a person’s mental health and without consistent rest, the line between emotional stability and craziness can be slim. (See postpartum depression, for one example.) In my family at least, to ward off depression and anxiety, we need good sleep and lots of it; more Arianna Huffington and less Bill Clinton.
Play, Sing, Dance
The beautiful thing about children is that despite tragedy and loss, they remain kids; they are compelled to play, climb, run and be active. Resilience, as the literature says. In their grief, they can still cartwheel on the beach, play tag or touch football in the park. Shortly after my husband died, I tried very hard to play the games my kids liked, which often felt like that scene in the “Sound of Music” where the baroness pretends to enjoy a game of catch with the children. Soon I learned to broaden my definition of play — really anything, physical, or not — that serves no other purpose other than to elicit pure joy.
Now we play freeze dance, cranking Adele way too high; we sing in the car (I’m kind of stuck on Taylor Swift: “Are we out of the woods yet, are we in the clear?”); we have handstand contests and we perform in an opera together with other families.
Love The One Who Is With You
Death freaks everyone out. Some people can handle the immense pain and still venture into our orbit, to nurture and care for us. Others can’t. I’ve learned to gravitate toward those who can help us heal, bring us soup and sweets and make our Halloweens and birthdays special and celebratory, despite a lingering sadness. Our family, friends and school community have been our safety net, providing social connection, love and carpooling. We lean on them often, and slowly, we are regaining our stability; life goes on.
At home, my daughters and I have formed a little cocoon-sized unit of love: when we’re tired or stressed, we suspend the rules about screen time and sugar consumption. Our New Year’s Eve was a smorgasbord of “Gilmore Girls” on the laptop, with sides of cocoa and cookies.
Be In Nature
I haven’t stumbled across a formal study on this, but based on an N of 1, I’ve found that swimming in the ocean is just as effective as .5 milligrams of Ativan to reduce anxiety. In a broader sense, we know that “exercise as medicine” works, and is particularly good at triggering tranquility when it is performed outside. Running on the beach, or in the brisk cold sunshine, or diving into the water offers a kind of primal balm, that feeling of alive-ness, that can boost a sinking mood.
My youngest daughter was in a school play recently; when asked to comment on her own performance, she said: “It wasn’t perfect.” Now, I’m banning the idea of perfection from my home. What does that mean? Who is the decider here? I want my children to formulate their own standards of achievement, not rely on the outside world’s fickle ideals; I want them to feel good, and proud and passionate about their work and play, not perfect; I want to teach them it’s OK to not know the answer and ask for help. I want them to take charge of their own stories, embrace what they love, be curious about the world and gather every infinitesimal crumb of pleasure they can possibly find. Even if, once in a while, it’s a crumb filled with carbs.