*TW: My post mentions the death of my child.*
I hate October.
In October 2011 I had a ruptured ectopic pregnancy that landed me unconscious in the hospital and then in the ICU on organ failure watch.
In October 2016 my ten-year-old son, Sawyer, died.
I find myself at my personal lowest every October, both emotionally and spiritually.
Plus, in the season when I need a high dosage of spiritual guidance, the month kicks off with General Conference, which always comes with layers of triggers for me. I feel a little “kicked when I’m down” spiritually in October. The more I talk to my people about the spiritual low that accompanies this rough time of year for me, the more I’m reminded that everyone has their own “October.” A period of the year when it is harder to cope spiritually. Maybe it’s not a month, or season, maybe it’s a week or day. But so far I haven’t run into anyone who constantly rides a spiritual high.
I’ve been working on a project with my publisher that puts me in regular conversations with those struggling in their faith. I ask a lot of questions and am hearing how others get through their own “October” season. As a result, I thought today I would share four unorthodox coping strategies I use to get me through my spiritual low season.
1. Look beyond our assigned spiritual guides. I took a class on Understanding Mortality about a year ago. At the time I was considering becoming a death doula. The class was a fascinating deconstruction about our views on death in the Western world, philosophies from the Eastern world, and general words of wisdom from poets and prophets rooted in all different kinds of beliefs. On social media I started following a Buddhist monk, a Catholic priest, and a non-LDS feminist Christian writer. They all inspire me and help me understand things in a way that my Latter-day Saint leaders do not. They help me complete my picture of understanding. I sometimes think the concept of “the philosophies of men” gets weaponized at church. There is so much about our Heavenly Parents, Christ, and the gospel that I do not understand. That none of us understand. Add to it the fact that we have different learning styles, and different people resonate differently with each of us. LDS doctrine teaches us everyone has the light of Christ and that Light has power and influence for good in our lives. Anything that helps me feel closer to Them, I believe, is of God. The 13th Article of Faith tells us if there’s “anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” (Articles of Faith 1:13). “Anything.” Not just Latter-day Saint things. So go find your things. Seek after them. Let them guide you when nothing else does and don’t get bogged down when those things aren’t what you’re hearing in Sunday School class.
2. Fill your heart (I think other people call it service). Now before you write this one off, hear me out. I’m not talking about signing up for ten different projects that drain you of your already depleted self. I’m talking about the kind of service that fills your heart. My daughter is in the fifth grade and they were just given their fifth grade jobs for the year. She is a reading helper for kindergartners. She came home the other day and was telling me about her interaction.. She said she was working with a little boy she doesn’t usually work with and who didn’t need much help. She would go through one of the skills and he would repeat it with no problem. She said he wasn’t very talkative and seemed very shy. As he was working she said, “I told him how smart he was because he already knew how to do so much. Mom! He smiled so big. It was the first time I had gotten any real reaction from him. It made me so happy. It warmed my heart and made my day.” That’s the kind of service I am talking about. When I’m feeling spiritually drained, I can’t help people spiritually. I can’t really serve others physically or emotionally either, in fact. But I look for little opportunities to do things that fill my heart. I try harder to find opportunities to fill my heart during tough times because I know I need to fill my empty heart.
3. Focus on self-care. Or, repeat to myself that self-care isn’t selfish. I had to edit this post twice before posting, because even though I had a draft of it ready earlier in the month, book club was a doozy last night. This quote was shared from social media. “Some days are easier than others to get up and do what you are committed to do. If this is one of those days, great. If this is one of those days when it’s a struggle, do it anyway. Your integrity isn’t worth the nap.”
Sometimes the best thing for me is to look outward and push through. Sometimes. Maybe it’s couched as filling my heart, right? Other times the best thing for me is to look inward and make my own needs a priority. Even if it means breaking a commitment or taking a nap. I have to extend myself grace and permission to acknowledge that sometimes I overcommit. Sometimes I think I can handle more than I actually can. Setting aside the judgment of myself and doing whatever it takes to care for myself in order to endure the immediate struggle can be powerful and can sustain me.
At my book club last night we were talking about a book we’d read that emphasized doing kind deeds everyday. I had to insert my two cents because while that’s a fine life motto and personal guidepost, it can also be unrealistic and overwhelming. This inescapable church sentiment of always doing/serving/being for everyone else can be exhausting. It can lead to a sense of feeling less than if we get to the end of the day without having served someone. But I find the idea of never-ending service to be too much. Reframing it as finding ways to fill my heart turns it into something I can get behind. Maybe it’s a word game, but it helps me. Of course I hope much of what I do to fill my heart is indeed helping others. But during October, I expand what I consider as “service” to include things like showering, extending myself grace, and recognizing that toxic perfectionism is indeed toxic. When I acknowledge and give myself credit for doing or feeling anything positive in October, whether it be for myself or for others, it connects me to my Heavenly Parents. It is a version of serving God. Even if it’s by proxy.
Maybe number two and three feel contradictory. But I am always holding two seemingly different ideas in the same space. It feels more true to life for me than either/or scenarios.
4. Skip out. For a church that doesn’t believe in penance (to be debated elsewhere), we sure try and co-opt the practice. After my son died, church was nearly impossible to endure. Between the songs that talk about blood and death, the testimonies of “miracles” that everyone got but me, and the lessons all drilling down on being happy even in trials, I just couldn’t take it.
But then I’d feel really guilty about not going. So I would go and feel miserable. Then I’d skip again and the cycle would start all over. One Sunday a sister saw me silently suffering through another lesson, quietly weeping. She leaned over and asked, “Why are you here? You can go, ya know?” I am not really a permission seeker, but hearing her say that to me was exactly what I needed. When I finally gave myself permission to step back as I needed it I was able to get more out of my meetings when I did go. The same concept carries me through General Conference now. I don’t watch any sessions live, except Sunday morning. And even then, the minute someone starts talking about a tragic death, starts marginalizing/othering people, or generally raining on my spiritual parade, I bounce. No guilt.
As I enter what we call our “season of mourning” (the time from Sawyer’s death date, through tough family centric holidays, until his birthday rolls around in February) I do anything I can to stay afloat. Maybe not anything, but I do tend to be more forgiving of myself, more gentle with my expectations, and more open to alternative approaches in my worship. I regularly ask others how they connect with the Divine when they struggle and then I often pilot their methods. If they work, I adopt them. If they don’t, I set them aside. I focus on the purpose of my spirituality, which to me is to lift my soul, connect me with something greater than myself, and ground me to a purpose beyond this mortality. These little tricks help me spiritually to get through my October. I hope you’ll share the ways you connect with God when you struggle during your “Octobers.”. Because even though I hate October, I do love to be inspired by others. May November come quickly for all of us.
*What do you engage in (or disengage with) to combat the spiritual doldrums when they come?*
-Gratuitous photo of my son Sawyer, because it’s October.