Thursday, September 12, 2013

Kindness is Good for the Soul

This article was submitted by Share's Program Director, Rose Carlson.

Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.
 ~Anne Herbert

It is quite possible that one simple little sentence, scrawled on a paper placemat in a restaurant in Sausalito, CA in the early 1980’s, sparked the concept of “paying it forward.” Random Acts of Kindness, or RAK’s, such as paying for coffee for the person behind you in line at Starbucks or taping a $1 bill to a vending machine may not seem to be all that significant in the grand scheme of things, yet those casual “little” things very often really are significant, not only for the person on the receiving end of the RAK, but also for the one performing it.

This is a topic I have been thinking about a great deal for many months. Around the holidays last year, I had the opportunity on one day to do several RAK’s. This past Christmas season was a bit different and difficult for my family for a couple of reasons, and that one day of focusing on others who were alone, hurting or missing someone special to them was honestly the highlight of the Christmas season for me. As I drove from store to store, shopped and found the most perfect gifts, and as I dropped them off at various places, the low mood I started that Friday with quickly dissipated. I truly felt as if I was “high on life” to use an old and worn out clich√©. I went home at the end of the day feeling better than I had felt in a long time.

A short time later, I was watching a morning television newscast, and a guest psychologist talked about the benefits of performing random acts of kindness and how doing so actually stimulates the production of feel-good chemicals in one’s brain. As I listened to the show, I remembered how amazing, how humbled, I felt as I planned and carried out my random acts of kindness not only a few days before, but other times as well. I couldn’t get his words out of my mind.

While that psychologist was not specifically talking about people who are grieving when he said that performing random acts of kindness releases endorphins and serotonin, chemicals that nourish and improve one’s mental state, I couldn’t help but think of the parents I’ve met and the stories I have heard throughout my years at Share. The more I thought about it, the more I became intrigued by the subject, and I began scouring the internet searching for anything that verified what the psychologist I heard on television said.

And I did. I discovered much more information than I ever imagined I would. Research really does support the notion that doing kind deeds for others has a significant benefit on both emotional and physical well-being. I read article after article, each confirming that when people do kind things for others:

~ it generally leads to compassionate feelings
~ they experience a boost in self confidence
~ it induces feelings of gratitude for what one has rather than focusing on what is lacking
~ stress and even chronic pain may be alleviated
~ they experience what is called “helper’s high”—an increase in energy followed by a period of calmness and serenity.
~ it promotes a sense of connection to other people
~ aids in boosting your self-image

Additionally, doing kind, unexpected things for others, even small things, increases the amount of a crucial antibody that strengthens the immune system. So, not only does reaching into your heart to find ways to do nice things for friends and strangers make you feel wonderful emotionally, it can also help you feel good physically.

What I found fascinating the more I read is that these “feel good” benefits do not only affect those receiving and performing the RAK, but they carry over to those who simply observe one taking place. I read that many times, just witnessing a RAK can lighten a person’s mood for the rest of the day and even inspire that person to pay it forward. I read one article that mentioned a study done on women with Multiple Sclerosis who performed random acts of kindness; the study revealed that the women with MS obtained more benefits than those who received the act of kindness.

In a nutshell, showing kindness and generosity, even in small doses, is a win-win situation for all involved, and even those who aren’t involved.

You may be wondering what the point of this is, what it means to you as a bereaved parent.  What it “means” is that you may find a great deal of comfort and “feel good” moments when you do something for someone else in honor of your baby’s sweet memory. While doing so will not lessen your grief or make the death of your baby any less heartbreaking, it may do your heart some good to do something good. As noted above, doing things for others can promote a sense of connection to others—bereaved parents often feel a sense of disconnect, therefore, doing kind tasks may help ease some of those feelings. Additionally, grieving moms often feel lost and unsure of their purpose now that their baby is gone, and studies show that focusing on others can boost self-esteem and give meaning to one’s life.

There are so many possibilities and opportunities that I can’t possibly list them all, but in my 12 years at Share, I have witnessed a great many tasks and activities that grieving parents have taken on in memory of their babies. In fact, it is quite common that one of the first things grieving parents wish to do once the initial shock of their baby’s death has passed is something…anything…for others that will help heal their hearts and give their baby’s too-brief life a special purpose. Parents often call within a very short time of their baby’s death, sometimes only a few weeks, and want to know how they can help, what they can do to assist other parents in their situation. They may ask about starting a support group. Many want to know how to go about creating and donating memory boxes to their hospital. I have met parents who sew tiny felt shoes for babies who are in the neonatal intensive care unit as well as parents who crochet and knit darling little hats, blankets and wraps that will fit babies the size their baby was. I have been privileged to know countless parents and grandparents who have volunteered for Share in many different capacities:  Volunteering at fundraisers or in the Share office, moderating chat rooms and message boards, serving on committees, preparing bereaved parent packets, singing at memorial events, making awareness pins to hand out at events. It’s as if bereaved parents instinctively know that putting the abundance of love they have for their beloved baby to “work” will not only give their hands and minds something to do but also help heal their hearts and soothe their spirits. Over the past 12 years, I have frequently witnessed firsthand how often parents bring comfort to their heavy hearts and meaning to their babies lives when they give their time and talents to others.

In recent months, several parents I know have asked their friends and family members to perform an RAK on their baby’s birthday or other significant date and write about what they did and/or share photos. I know how much this means to parents when others also do things in memory of their baby, how comforting it is to know that on that one day, others are thinking of their child. Some of those parents have shared their stories in this newsletter.

If there is something that touches you or inspires you in some way, use your own creativity, talents and memory of your baby(ies) to guide you in finding a unique and meaningful way to honor them. In the process of making someone else smile, you may just bring a smile to your own heart at a painful time when smiles are likely rare. No idea is too small, so do not tell yourself that if you do not have the resources for something grand that what you do will not be good enough. Keep in mind these words from Mother Teresa:
We can’t all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.

You may never know how far-reaching your acts of kindness will be and whose lives will be touched because of you and the great love you have for your baby.

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