One of the most overwhelming symptoms of grief is fatigue. The aftermath of care-giving for weeks or months or even years on end can easily leave us feeling exhausted and drained, no matter how gladly we tend and care for our loved one. Whether we do battle with a debilitating disease against insurmountable odds or watch the daily decline of someone we love, the outcome for us as survivors is a pervasive sense of wear and tear. We may feel that our personal reserves are used up, that we’re physically spent. At least for a while, our mental focus is limited only to what’s essential and necessary to put one foot in front of the other and live on.
The almost surreal fatigue of mind, body, and spirit that engulfs us when one we love dies often lingers longer than we’d like to think. When we’ve done the same stressful job day in and day out – repetitively, sometimes robotically, with an emotional undercurrent of fear and dread – we’re often left feeling empty with little vision for the future. We’ve become so enmeshed in meeting the needs of another that when life ends there’s an undeniable aftereffect of bone-numbing weariness. Perhaps fatigue is nature’s way of protecting us from a complete breakdown of our internal coping mechanism.
What I’ve experienced over the past weeks as I’ve confronted yet again the physical manifestations of grief is that I feel out of balance. There’s been such urgency in my life and in my prayers – at times to the point of quiet desperation - that it’s hard to regain my footing. For the moment I feel that I simply don’t have my bearings - physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. As I sat in church yesterday I realized it was the first time since I can remember that I haven’t had a large load of care and concern strapped to my heart. I felt different, somehow a little detached, un-attached from what has until recently been the daily reality of my life. In truth this new feeling of release from the chronic worry of living in emergency mode is a little disorienting.
I considered it a major victory to take a walk over the weekend, something I’ve intended to do since moving to a new neighborhood several weeks ago. I’ve been too tired, too exhausted to venture out after a day’s work and 24/7 elder care. Someone asked if I exercised regularly for my own good health, which is usually a great way to reduce stress. Almost without thinking I said I was doing “aerobic care-giving”. Expending the physical energy necessary to see after the needs of another every day sometimes feel like a treadmill marathon of non-stop going and doing. The honest truth is that it’s exhausting – small wonder we experience grief fatigue.
In the days since my mother’s death I’ve realized, too, my personal limitations. I’ve had to admit to myself that I’m not superwoman, that my physical and emotional resources are finite. I’ve slashed the events on my calendar to all but the essential. I’m trying to give myself the time and space I need to recover, even when it means leaving work early. For the moment I’m doing business at a kind of mental half-speed to avoid mistakes and costly errors.
How do we overcome the fatigue of grief? We get up every day. We get dressed. We have at least one well-balanced, nourishing meal. We move our body. We talk to at least one other person – a real conversation that affirms we’re at least trying to regroup and stay connected. And rather than attempting too much all at once we hear the quiet of God’s voice urging us to settle down and settle in, to speak less and think more, to listen and rest in the certainty of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to us as we grieve. In rest for our soul we find God’s direction for the rest of our life.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young shall fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.
Isaiah 40:30 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the renewal of your strength. Amen.