Money, Grief, and Transitions

Years ago I met a young woman, a hairstylist in a high-end salon, who told me she had one credit card. Every few years, she paid it off and then maxed it out again. For example, the previous year she and her partner quit their jobs, bought tickets to Bali, and stayed for months. They used the magic credit card, and when it reached the limit, they returned home, secured jobs, and worked hard to pay it off. As soon as they made the last payment, they would begin planning and packing for their next no-frills adventure.

At the time it seemed a bit extreme to me. I saw it as quitting jobs and flying off to another continent to roam around for a few months, leaving behind some new friends, and returning with a lot of debt and a bag full of memories. I thought, why not save for the trip?

Then I realized, despite decades of saving for retirement, all I have to show is a paltry 401k that wouldn’t pay a monthly utility bill, let alone rent. It’s scary to me that even those funds are subject to the whims of Wall Street and politicians. Having lost my retirement savings more than once in stock market meltdowns (with bailouts ironically rewarding only the failed banks with showers of our collective tax dollars), I’m not the one to give financial advice.

But I am certain that financial burdens are inherently stressful. And I know sometimes the best plans just don’t work out. For example, if I had delayed my move by one year, I would have been debt-free and that would be far less stressful for me. But doing so would have negatively impacted my son, grandsons and others. Tough choices, for me.

In the end, the decision to move was the right thing for family. Like the stylist, I always knew my priorities. It doesn’t mean it was easy for me. For some reason, though, I convinced myself it would be easy. A strong, intelligent, hard-working woman can handle little things like major life changes, right?

After nearly a year with super low income, even with a roof over my head and food in the fridge, something felt Off. I felt a little raw, too emotional, and half-blamed the weather, the physical challenge of chasing two young children around, and the lack of financial resources.

I recently realized it wasn’t any of those dragging my spirits down.

I’ve been experiencing grief. The death of my dog kicked it off, and then it hit me like an anvil. I’ve been grieving for almost a year.

Why I didn’t notice it, I could explain away (busy-ness is great camouflage). But I see it now. And it makes sense.

I lost my way of life, my island home, my job working with people who were homeless (people I respected and, in most cases, deeply admired their strength and resilience). I walked away from work-related commitments that I took seriously and coworkers I loved. That I did so voluntarily and for a good purpose (to help other family members) didn’t take the edge off as much as I thought it might.

In his book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” Dr Gabor Mate points out that emotional pain fires up the brain in the same way physical pain does. Kicking myself while reflecting on my before- and after-lives exacerbated the pain. And I’ve done plenty of kicking in the name of Being Real.

Kicking myself for not wrapping up my work life well enough. Kicking myself for failing to be the Mary Poppins-like happy-go-lucky care provider for the grands that they deserve. For not having enough resources to assist my son more. For not having a part-time job (because my schedule remains so complex that my availability is currently limited to blocks of only a few hours now and then). For lacking the energy to do more than the basics. Even for not being able to afford things like the brand-name shoes I once took for granted that better support my feet.

Since that realization, I’ve taken more time to feel things. I’ve intentionally sat down and wrapped my attention around “negative” emotions like sadness and anger. Held them. Inspected them. Sat until they dissipated on their own.

And I asked myself what advice I would give someone I cared about in this situation.

Here’s what I would ask: (1) What have you been doing that feels healthy, healing and helpful for yourself? …and… (2) What would you like to do differently moving forward?

I’ve taken more helpful actions than I realized. Studying intuitive eating/HAES* and incorporating that framework (addressing eating, activity, rest, acceptance, and self-compassion). Expanding the tools I use, including mindfulness and sitting with difficult emotions. Reading about childhood development and learning ways to deal effectively with munchkin meltdowns and toddler dramas. Meditating most mornings and writing most days on projects. Going to the Y to engage in positive movement 3 times a week. Donating to nonprofit agencies. Enjoying free spaces and activities, like the public library and parks. Researching to understand how the culture in the USA got so far off the rails (focused on the upper-crust rather than we-the-people, and particularly ways people of color have been denied resources).

What I’d like to do more? To gratefully acknowledge all my advantages. To focus on an external priority area (climate change, voting laws, antiracism, intuitive eating/HAES). I’d like to continue time in the swimming pool but add more outdoor time and something that includes music. I’d like to increase my income and think that will be more likely when my youngest grandchild starts elementary school next fall. I’d like to continue to visit my son a few times a year but also arrange for him to visit me so I don’t do all the travel. I’d like to have more friends and an Encore Plan (for whatever comes next).

One of the lessons this recent journey has taught me is about flexibility. It hasn’t been an easy-peasy lesson and my life has not taken a path I would have imagined. Sometimes that’s scary and frustrating. That’s life. Sometimes everything appears gloriously open to change.

Another recent lesson relates to longing. I can think of a simple example. I’m here with family and missing my work life. But while I worked, I missed my family. I choose to accept that longing as a blessing. How fortunate to have had two good options that satisfied me, even when they may have been mutually exclusive.

Sometimes self-care requires we look back and acknowledge what we’ve accomplished. Even the “small” things can be big wins. Getting out of bed every day. Going to the doctor when ill. Connecting somehow with the outside world. Being there for plants, pets, friends, family, self, and/or all of those.

And sometimes self-care includes taking time to sit with uncomfortable emotions to acknowledge them. Or considering the possibilities in next steps to take us forward in this perfectly imperfect world.

*HAES=Health At Every Size