Self-compassion doesn’t come to life in the land of concepts. It breathes in the unchartered and uncomfortable expanse of living, especially during difficult moments of life. My practice is to remember—pause, breathe, love. No matter how many times I learn it, it always feels like the first time.
I pause before I make the call. I’m determined to give mom all my attention. The last time I called I tried to make dinner while we talked—the dinner was a flop and I could tell she felt my distracted presence.
“Hi mom.” My voice hits notes that are meant to be bright and breezy.
Mom is 95 years old and lives in a nursing home in Wisconsin.
“Oh hi, David.” She tries to match my lightness but underneath is something heavy.
I take a deep breath. “What did you do today?”
“Just a minute, let me find the calendar.” The nursing home calendar helps her know what day it is but also reminds her what she did.
“Today’s Friday isn’t it? I guess we had happy hour today.”
Every Friday the nursing home has a happy hour for the residents and their families that includes live music, snacks, and Dixie cups of beer, wine or soda.
“How was it?”
“I guess it was OK.” She takes a deep breath. “It’s been such a long day.”
It’s her way of saying she’s lonely and sad. Dad died two years ago; they were married 66 years. She doesn’t name his death but it’s the ground she stands on. I’m grateful she tells it like she feels it. That hasn’t always been the case—Dad was a preacher and preacher’s wives are expected to be sunny even when they’re not. Yet, her assessment of the day makes my heart sink. Mom has many reasons to feel depressed but her form of dementia—short-term memory loss, exacerbates her pain. She doesn’t have access to recent positive experiences that might mitigate her distress. She is unable to create a timeline that is balanced with the good and the not so good.
“The walls are closing in on me. I feel like I can hardly breathe.” She is in the moment, and in this moment her aloneness feels absolutely devastating.
“I’m so sorry mom. You lost so much when dad died.”
“How long has he been gone?” Mom asks like she’s asking for the first time.
“Almost two years.”
“Really, it seems like a lifetime ago.” Mom sounds deflated.
“I have so many memories of dad. Remember how he used to like watching people at happy hour?”
I can feel her smile over the phone. “He‘d never been to a happy hour in his life before moving in here. I think he found it entertaining.”
I was raised in a teetotaling home. Dad preached abstinence to his church and his family so it was amazing that happy hour became a fascination.
“Remember when he took a sip of wine by mistake and spat it out?” I ask.
She laughs. “That reminds me of the Tic Tac story. Dad used to fall asleep during prayer meeting so I’d give him Tic Tacs to keep him awake. You know it wasn’t good if the preacher fell asleep. Well, it was summer and a ladybug landed on my lap. I wanted dad to get rid of it so I put it in his hand. His eyes were closed and he thought it was a Tic Tac so he ate it. I laughed so hard that the pew shook.”
We both laugh. The Tic Tac story is part of our family lore that gets remembered and repeated almost every time we are together.
It’s a fine balance between honoring the pain she is in and helping her build a scaffold of memories that remind her that pain doesn’t define all of her. She is remarkably willing to go where I lead. But I have to be in it with her and leading with my heart.
“Welcome everyone. I’d like to introduce David Fredrickson.” The director of Memory Care Life smiles sweetly at me. “He’s going to be talking to us about mindful self-compassion.”
Memory Care Life is a San Francisco Bay Area non-profit that provides activities and support for people with dementia and their caregivers. I cross my legs and smile but inside my stomach tightens. The people sitting in the circle are in varying stages of dementia; some are having a hard time even staying in their seats. How will I talk about MSC so that everyone understands? Their caregivers appear good-hearted but in varying stages of angst and worry. How I can say anything meaningful to these loved ones who are daily companions to the painful twists and turns of dementia?
I look around the room at each face. “Thank you for inviting me. I’m so honored. Let’s begin by introducing ourselves.”
Then I am guided by something larger than my efforts and add, “Could you also share where or from whom you learned love?”
It’s not the icebreaker I had planned but there is no script for this moment. I think people will answer with a couple sentences and we’ll finish in a few minutes. But what follows are intimate testimonials and novellas filled with humor and tenderness. At times there are few words or even silence as language gets stuck in inaccessible parts of the brain or places in the heart where words are too clumsy. But as we bear witness, love is palpable and visible in the wellspring of tears. I am amazed they are so ready to open up their hearts—the same hearts that also carry the weight of this disease.
Thirty minutes later we finish our introductions. I take a deep inhale. “Thank you. Let’s just sit for a moment in silence and savor this incredible visitation. This is what love feels like.”
A few moments later I suggest, “Now I’d like you to imagine what it might feel like if you could turn all this love and kindness towards yourself.” I can almost smell the incredulity.
Me? Really? No.
Yet even the possibility of some self-kindness cause some to exhale and others to lean back in their chairs.
I feel myself sink deeper in the recliner of love, “Welcome to mindful self-compassion—the practice of bringing a loving connected presence to our experience and ourselves, especially during moments of difficulty or pain.”
As it turns out, whether with mom or a group of people who are struggling, I don’t have to know what to say or say the right thing. My job is to open my heart, which opens a door. The rest is not up to me. The door is a portal and often, courageous souls walk through.
Writer, teacher, advocate, and psychotherapist, David Fredrickson has dedicated his professional life to the psychosocial needs of underserved communities including at-risk children, adolescents, and families and those affected by HIV/AIDS. David is a student and trained teacher of Mindful Self-Compassion. He volunteers at the University of California, San Francisco’s, Alliance Health Project facilitating peer support groups addressing the needs of the LGBT community.
David grew up in the Midwest where faith, family, and food were the bedrock of his childhood. A long-time resident of San Francisco, David attends GLIDE Memorial Church and sings with its world-renowned GLIDE Ensemble.