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Meditation helped me when I lost my dad

by Nicole Pajer

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The news hit us hard and fast. My dad—the vegan, oil-free, heart-healthy diet advocate and exercise junkie—was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. When I got the call from my mom, I knew my life was about to drastically change forever.

I threw down my phone, sunk to the floor of my walk-in closet, and began stuffing things into a suitcase for the next flight out. As I boarded the plane, I remained hopeful, but in the back of my heart, I knew it was dire.

“Pancreatic cancer. That’s the bad one,” said a family friend who picked me up from the airport. The words hit me like a brick but it wouldn’t be the first time someone carelessly uttered something along those lines in my presence. I felt a knot form in my stomach and it didn’t leave until months after my dad passed, just four weeks after his out-of-nowhere diagnosis.

Those 28 days were a blur of all-consuming stress, anxiety, tears, rage, trauma, and depression. I raced around the hospital doing everything I could to make my dad comfortable—refilling his water, raiding the housekeeping cabinets to find extra pillows, bringing my family healthy takeout meals. If I wasn’t sleeping in his room, which I did alongside my mom on many nights, I was lying on my grandmother’s couch with so much anxiety that my heart was beating out of my chest. In the mornings, I was pulsating with energy without even having touched a sip of caffeine. I was averaging two hours of (very interrupted) sleep a night, having breakdowns every 15 minutes, and was trying my best to help my mom navigate hers.

“You have to take care of yourself,” my husband said over the phone as I recounted the particularly hard day I was having. I glanced at my bloodshot eyes in the mirror and knew that I needed more sleep, and needed to somehow reduce the stress that swirled through my every pore. I felt like I was having a never-ending breakdown. I was exhausted, rundown, and realized that if I didn’t get it together, I would be of no use to my family. So I grabbed my phone and scanned through it to find the Headspace app.

There no rulebook on how to handle these scenarios and, as cliché as it sounds, grief does come in waves.

People have told me to meditate my entire life. Every doctor, every therapist, friends, coworkers, my acupuncturist, my father-in-law, even celebrities I’ve interviewed. They’ve all raved about the positive effects of meditation. I once attended a David Lynch Foundation (DLF) gala for work and was seated inside at the media table. Following a presentation on meditation, I struck up a conversation with the gentleman next to me. He tried to recruit me to come to a local DLF center for a meditation class.

“I’m too busy,” I told him. “I definitely would not have time to fit meditating into my schedule.”

“If you don’t have time to meditate, you are the demographic that needs to meditate the most,” he replied.

There was no way I was going to sign up for a week-long meditation course. I could barely get through the day with finishing all of my work, exercising my dogs, and eating three solid meals. But when I went home after the gala, I downloaded this new app I had been hearing about called Headspace. Over the next few years, I tried it once or twice but got frustrated over how distracted my mind was. Meditating soon became another thing on my gargantuan to-do list that I never got around to tackling.

But that night on my grandmother’s couch, I hung up the phone with my husband and gave it a whirl. I listened to Andy Puddicombe speak to me in his soothing voice about taking deep breaths and clearing my thoughts. I had a sea of distractions swimming around and my mind just wasn’t having it. Still, I decided to stick with the full ten minutes, assuming I’d probably get something out of attempting to find some peace. The thoughts weren’t going away but I did manage to sneak in a few deep breaths. “That had to have done something,” I thought. I did feel a little calmer.

The next day, my father had to go under anesthesia to have his port put in. I sat with my parents in the surgical waiting room and did my best to calm his nerves. Small talk wasn’t working so I resorted to new measures.

“I did this Headspace thing last night and it kind of helped,” I said. “Want to try it?”

We dimmed the lights and my father, mother, and I got through eight minutes of the first Take10 session before the nurse came in to prep him for surgery. My mom admitted it made her feel a bit better. And it could have been my imagination, but my dad looked slightly more relaxed as they wheeled him down the hall.

For the next few weeks, I committed to making meditating part of my daily routine. It became my savior after each gruelingly emotional day. Every night before bed, I opened the Headspace app. Eventually, it became easier and my racing heart began to slow down. The knot in my stomach gave way just enough to make it bearable to close my eyes. I began to sleep a little more than two hours, and sometimes as much as six. I made it through all ten days of Take10 and repeated them over and over again. I had my phone on me at all times and, if things got a little too stressful, I popped into a hospital lounge and took 10 minutes to meditate and regroup. I felt calmer during the day, which made it easier to handle each mini-crisis as it came up, talk with doctors, and keep my parents sane. I felt mentally clear and more present in the final weeks that I got to spend with my dad. Being with him was all that mattered. I tuned out the external world and devoted my entire attention to savoring my remaining moments with him.

It’s been seven months since my dad died. And this year has been impossibly hard. There is absolutely no rulebook on how to handle these types of scenarios and, as cliché as it sounds, grief does come in waves. Though I don’t meditate as often as I’d like to nowadays, it gives me comfort to know that if things ever got really stressful, it’s always there to help me through it.

The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.

Nicole Pajer

Nicole Pajer is a freelance writer published in The New York Times, Woman’s Day, Men’s Journal, Hemispheres, and Rolling Stone. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, energetic doberman pup, and rat terrier. Keep up with her adventures on Twitter @NicolePajer.