The season of remembrance and giving thanks

One of the most poignant exercises I have experienced was during hospice training in which participants envision, and write down, four favorite people, four favorite places, four favorite activities and four favorite objects. In the exercise, we strike off these precious parts of our life one at a time, saving the most well-loved until last. The objective is to understand the process of loss, which is an inevitable part of life, and certainly of aging.

Most of you reading this will acknowledge that, in the grand scheme of things, we are the lucky ones. That does not mean we don’t suffer hardships and loss. It means we are not living in a war zone and we likely know that tonight’s dinner will be available without too much of a struggle. We all have heard the cheerful and really quite useful recommendations to have “an attitude of gratitude” or to practice keeping a “gratitude journal” by writing down three or five items for which we are grateful every morning, as a great way to start the day. I recommend starting or revisiting these practices during this holiday season.  

Fond memories don’t always make it easier

For those who have experienced loss – and the precious friends on our list are almost always the hardest to part with – going through the holiday season can be especially sad or lonely, because of course holidays are traditionally a time when fences are mended and families come together on best behavior. Many of us have fond memories from family gatherings at festive occasions, and missing friends or places during these times can understandably exacerbate the feelings of loss.

Although we logically understand that “none of us get out of here alive,” it is still quite shocking when a loved one dies. So final. So definitive. And yet, people, places and things will continue to fall away and there is very little we can do to stop that. Most of us mere mortals only have control over our own day-to-day decisions, and our attitudes.

Help yourself by helping others

I used to think that cheerful, positive people were just born that way. I have come to appreciate that these folks make an effort. It’s a choice to be good to yourself (the foundation for authentically being good to other people) and to care about the environment and about the less fortunate. As a healthcare provider, I encounter human suffering on a daily basis. Being in a position to help is a big part of why I want to get out of bed in the morning. It is a well-worn axiom that tending to someone else’s suffering will help alleviate one’s own. Because it’s true, as durable cliches tend to be.

An aspect of senior living that I personally enjoy a good deal, and look forward to more of when I retire from running a clinic, is community volunteer work. There is so much to attend to. Folks need help. Plus, paying it forward will help you be less reluctant to ask for help when you need it, now or in the days ahead.

Lead by example

We live in anxiety-producing times.  The U.S. Preventive Task Force, a health-policy organization, recently recommended that all adults under age 65 be screened for anxiety. We elders are perhaps a bit more mellow — let’s help spread that down to the generations that are following us. The foundation of a more peaceful world is self-care. It is not selfish to be good to yourself. Self-care is crucial both because it is one small part of life over which we actually can exert some control, and also serves as an example to our friends, family, and community.

Remember the power of slow breathing. It is so very helpful to take a few breaths before responding to an anxiety-producing or irritating situation. These will arise regularly. Deep, slow breathing creates an “alpha” state, which is an inwardly focused, relaxed, receptive awareness of reality. Allow time every day for deep breathing and self-reflection so you can access this state on-demand.

Pay attention to these basics

Self-care basics include: Move every day. Reduce consumption of alcohol, caffeine and junk food. Stay hydrated: Drink half your weight (in pounds) in ounces of water daily. Always drink between meals so as to not dilute your digestive enzymes, which are crucial for proper nutrient absorption. Honor your emotions. Acknowledge them, allow them, name them. Express them in a way that is not harmful to yourself or others.

Create fun, loving relationships. Avoid judgment. Life is too short to hang out with people or situations which drag you down. You do have options. I believe you get what you think about most. Think positively. Release negative emotions — they are not helping you. Feel gratitude. It is a lovely feeling.

Emily Kane is a naturopathic doctor based in Juneau. Contact her online at

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