I used to pride myself on being the kind of person who would do anything for anyone. I regularly put the needs and wants of others before my own. I thought I was being such a nice person if I considered the people around me at the sake of ignoring myself.
I’m different now.
Gone are my altruistic tendencies, and in their place is a penchant for cautious kindness. I still want to do unto others, but not until I consider myself.
You might think this sounds selfish. I used to feel that way too. But I was wrong. I’m not being self-centered, I’m simply engaging in the art of self-preservation. Losing my daughter has showed me the fleeting and fragile nature of our existence. It is my responsibility to take care of myself and preserve the life I’ve been blessed with.
My first act of self-preservation occurred about an hour after we found out that Dorothy was gone. I was being prepped to deliver her and I was asked about an epidural. I didn’t hesitate. I wanted it. There was no doubt in that decision; I was already so broken that I was worried the pain of childbirth would completely destroy me. This wasn’t about anyone else. This was about me.
More moments like this would arise over the next few weeks. In the thick, choking smog of early grief, my moments of clarity came from the decisions I made to put myself first. Every time I thought of myself, it was like lifting a thin and filmy layer from the smog. Thinking about myself was the only time I felt alive again.
It was difficult to think about myself then. Even though everyone was desperate to care for me, they were not taking any direction from me about what I needed or wanted. Anytime I would push back against any support that didn’t feel right, the reply would be “You need to let us do this.”
So, I let them. Not because I wanted to, but because it was the nice thing to do and I was a nice person. It would be unkind of me to rebuke their love and care at a time when I so desperately needed to be loved and cared for.
Then, one day, while eating a casserole that had been dropped at our doorstep, I realized that I was hungry for a grilled cheese. But, wait. That would be rude. Someone had made this casserole for us and it would be unkind of us to waste it. I lifted my fork for another bite and then I put it back down. I wanted grilled cheese. Why would I keep eating something I wasn’t hungry for when I knew what I was craving. I went into the kitchen, made a grilled cheese, and I devoured it. With each bite, I felt more and more fulfilled. Not just because of my delectable sandwich, but because of my act of self-care.
Over the next weeks and months, more and more acts of self-care would exist. Each time I took care of myself, I was working to preserve what was left of me after my loss. I started to piece myself back together and each moment that I loved myself was another stitch keeping me intact.
It may sound like I became completely self-absorbed and that I stopped thinking of others. This was not the case at all. Actually, I found my moments of kindness to be greater. Instead of scattered, unconscious acts of kindness I was helping others in a deeper and more genuine manner. I wasn’t helping for the sake of helping. I was helping because I cared. I cared about myself and that gave me the ability to truly care for others.
I observed myself being more deliberate in my actions towards others because it felt good to be helping them. By making sure my needs had been met, I knew that I had the ability to also take care of those around me. If I wasn’t capable of being authentic then it wasn’t worth pursuing. Pouring from a diminishing vessel wouldn’t offer much and it would leave me empty.
Putting myself first is not something I expect everyone to understand. It goes against the culture of our society to think of yourself before you think of others. To some, what I have described may seem selfish. I’m not looking to change people’s opinions, I’m just trying to protect myself the best way that I know how. Ultimately, I know that it’s very possible to lose those I love. I am my only guarantee in this life.
It has been over 20 months since Dorothy left my arms and the heartache has remained. I will never stop hurting from losing my baby, but taking care of myself has allowed me to better carry my pain. Dorothy’s memory and her legacy live inside of me. As long as I live, she will survive in this world. I can think of no better reason for self-preservation.
Rachel Whalen is a mother, wife, and Kindergarten teacher from Barre, Vermont. Her life’s work is to keep the memory of her daughter, Dorothy, alive through words both spoken and written. Rachel shares her family’s journey through loss and all that has come after on her blog: An Unexpected Family Outing.