Today in the chart

The Dance of Courageous Care, Step 2: To Soften

The dance of softening is a courageous dance of vulnerability, of honesty, of learning to connect our minds and bodies so they are aligned and not separate. It is a dance of leaving fight or flight as

I remember the pauses in between, the rhythm of her breath as I finally fell asleep on the last night of her life. The shift in this rhythm awoke me at 0530 the next morning. The time between the pauses was lengthening, her breathing was slowing, and after almost a week of tending to my mother daily, it was time for her to tend to what was coming next. I jumped over to her bed and placed my head on her heart; I could hear her heartbeat and feel it slowing. Knowing I only had a few seconds left, I ran and woke up my sisters and brother, and we all gathered at her side. We held hands, and not knowing what to do, I began singing her favorite song, and my siblings, with tears streaming down their faces, joined me. We held each other’s hands so tightly as our mother, our foundation, transitioned to the next part of her journey, and we began the transition to ours. 

Death does something to the soul that can be difficult to explain. I remember trying to find words to share what I felt the first year after my mother died; it was like swimming in an ocean full of lead. Sometimes I could barely get my lips out of the water to breathe. It also felt like all the colors of the earth were dimmed; the reds, blues, greens, and yellows were all muted and didn’t shine like they used to. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever experience beauty in the same way again. 

Shortly after my mother’s death, I realized this loss was unlike anything I had ever experienced. In the past, I had been able to “bounce back” and “stay strong,” but this time, I simply could not. I had just lost everything. 

As my mother passed away the morning of November 16th, 2006, she taught me an important lesson: the true definition of resiliency. This definition was very different from the definition the world had been preaching to me, and it would take me years to rewire my brain to understand what resiliency looks and feels like in my body. The morning of my mother’s death, I awoke and immediately put my ear to her heart and listened as her heart began to slow down. I then gathered my family, and together we began to sing. I think of this moment as the true definition of resiliency. I can hear my mom now, “Tara, slow down, soften, put your ear to your heart, and listen. What is your heart saying? Who are the people you need to gather to be with you right now? Where are the places that inspire you to sing?” What if we need to soften instead of harden? What if we must slow down instead of filling our lives so full we can no longer feel our hearts? This new definition of resiliency allows me to slow down and soften, listen, observe, and wonder what I truly need to heal, thrive and find my joy again. Once I heard my heartbeat, I realized I needed to find spaces where I could grieve both in solitude and in relationships with others, spaces where I could be soft and tender. Places where I didn’t have to “stay strong” and pretend everything was fine. 

Dance has always been my space for healing. Growing up, the dance studio, my dance friends, and my dance teachers were my courageous people and spaces to heal and feel cared for. It was where I felt safe to be my authentic self. 

After this realization, I decided to drop my hours nursing in the ER and go back to grad school to get my master’s in dance. I spent the next three years dancing and grieving in a community of people who didn’t try to fix my pain and suffering. Instead, they sat alongside me as I softened and told the truth about my feelings while they held me in my pain and suffering. 

As I write this, I am brought back to my guilt about not being strong enough to continue life as it was. I was the oldest and always felt the pressure of being strong and caring for my family. When I decided to go back to school, it meant leaving home, leaving my siblings, and choosing a path that didn’t benefit anyone other than myself. This felt selfish and in direct opposition to the way I was programmed to give up everything for other people but never for myself. I realize now how much I have gained and have been able to offer others in their grief, all because I chose to care for myself first. 

Choosing myself and dance gave me space to soften and not pretend like everything was okay. I began telling the truth about my pain, my loss, my suffering, and doing it at the moment when it would hit me. I started crying freely and not holding back my tears so that others would not feel uncomfortable. I began choosing me and stopped betraying myself by pleasing everyone else. I eventually learned how to hold my loss so close that it became interwoven into my story but was not my entire story. The loss of my mother still aches in my bones. Still, I am forever grateful that I could stop and soften and feel the loss of my mother fully because this was also part of our relationship, allowing myself to grieve for her, what could have been, and all the in between. 

Softening is a courageous dance of vulnerability, honesty, and learning to connect our minds and bodies so they are aligned and not separate. It is a dance of leaving fight or flight as we enter into tenderness and compassion for ourselves and our suffering. Softening ultimately allows us to listen to the soft whispers of our hearts. When we soften, we allow our humanity in.  

As we encounter life daily, what does it look like to reframe resiliency from bouncing back harder and stronger to finding courageous spaces to soften? Can we do this in our day-to-day? Can we do this at work? At home? Can we normalize our tears and losses and permit ourselves to grieve fully? I remember shortly after my mother died, I had a patient, a young mother with cancer battling an infection in the ER. I remember thinking, “Tara, it’s too soon, don’t do it.” But deep down, I knew I was meant to be her nurse. This patient was a huge gift to me, and I also believe I was a gift to her. I remember we cried together, and somehow by allowing myself to be honest with her, I allowed her to be real with me, and it was in this courageous space of honesty and softening together that we both found healing. 

What does softening look like to you in this part of your story? As we continue to live in a world that tells us to take on more and to be more, I am curious what it looks like for you to find spaces and people that create softness for you to land and simply be. What does it look like to slow down, put your ear to your heart, and listen to what you need to be cared for? Our hearts cry out daily, and the softening allows us to listen and ultimately receive the healing and joy it desires to give us. During these moments of connecting with others, I see the beauty again, not only the bright loveliness in the colors but the beauty of our humanity and how our shared pain and suffering create spaces for shared healing and joy. 

As we think about softening as the next step of courageous care, would you take some time to express your thoughts about softening through writing?

  1. When have you experienced softening in your heart? What does softening look like for you? 
  1. What helps you soften and tell the truth about your feelings? What stops you from softening? How can you cultivate more spaces and people that invite you into this softness? 
  1. Are you holding any guilt for choosing to care for yourself and prioritizing softening in your life? I invite you to name the ways you feel guilty and hold it without judgment and without trying to fix it. 

Tara Rynders, The Dancing Nurse Educator and Nightingale Luminary, is the CEO and Founder of The Clinic.

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