November 15, 2020

You've got to be good to yourself

I wrote this piece back in June of this year. At the time I was working at a care home. Covid-19 caused pain, death and grief like I had never witnessed before. This is how I coped.

This piece was published in Like the Wind Magazine, issue #25.


They passed away at 08:30 on Monday 22nd June.

Covid wasn’t the only factor, but they had never been the same since. When the wave hit our care home at the end of April, they were one of the many residents to contract it. Some passed quickly, those with the most complicated web of pre-existing conditions, most susceptible and at risk to the virus. At the peak, one morning briefing the agency nurse announced to a room of mostly agency staff two more deaths during the night. Another resident died during the day shift.

Others had a more drawn out fight.

They had been declared palliative the previous weekend. This meant morphine and repositioning in bed were now the main actions to keep them comfortable; if they didn’t want to eat, that was fine. When they stopped swallowing, we used a wet towel to moisten their mouth, and a gel which we put on the back of a spoon and spread onto their tongue. They refused morphine for a time; they had been a doctor in their working life and so knew what it meant to accept it: end of life.

At first their pain was vocalised through hoarse yelps, arms grasping into thin air. Then they were silent and still, but their eyes and mouth told a story of affliction, agony, anguish. We didn’t think they would make it this long, but they fought.

Days passed and still they went on. It’s remarkable what the body is capable of when you have spirit.

But there’s only so much fighting a body is capable of. One day the body turned to cadaver, stiff with a pallor that could only mean one thing. Their face told a story of being at peace, in a better place, free from the torment of bodily pain and mounds of medication to mitigate it.

We all felt the loss. Some cried, others hugged. We all grieve in different ways. I run.

It’s 03:59 and I’m awake. The more abrasive of the two alarms is set for 04:00, so there’s always a large incentive to rise before it (trying not to disturb my partner sleeping alongside me too perhaps being the biggest factor). I allow myself 45 minutes of sun salutations, coffee and reading time before hitting the road.

Today is Sunday so it’s long run day. Shifts at the care home are 12 hours, from 8am to 8pm, so 03:59 is necessary if I’m to cover the 15 or so planned miles before work.

I’ve been keeping a semblance of marathon training going throughout covid and my time spent working at the care home: Tuesdays are for speed work, Thursdays for hill reps, Sundays for long runs; easier less structured runs the other days. I’ve been trying to do the odd ‘virtual parkrun’ too, a 5km max effort on my local parkrun course on Saturday mornings. Not forgetting the wild card rest day, to be deployed when I really need it, when I really need it. I like to use it more on my days off work rather than work days, so that I can maximise the rest and get a full day’s recuperation.

Running requires trade-offs. More running means less sleeping. Some days it’s five hours; other days closer to seven. I’m perpetually in deficit, always playing catch up. I’d prefer to be exhausted and stable than rested and out of kilter; emotional stability at the cost of physical fatigue.

When I run I think about running. I think about my breath, my form, my pace. I set goals such as my target pace for intervals, how many hill reps I’ll do, or my weekly mileage. Fully arbitrary goals, but all-consuming, immersive. Having goals and a structure to my running has given me an outlet for something else to focus on, to give myself time where I’m not thinking about death and covid, to take my mind to a different, altogether more simpler place.

“You’ve got to be good to yourself”

I will never forget these words, the words said to me by their daughter shortly after they passed, as we sat next to their dead body and comforted each other, grieved, discussed coping mechanisms.

This is my way of putting these words into action.