The Empty Nesting Caregiver:

Deep Relaxation—The Key to Wellness and Good Self-Care

by Rev. Maria “Dancing Heart” Hoaglund

Change and the Empty Nest
I’m presently experiencing the throes of empty nesting for the second time. My daughter, Heather, returned from college in Canada this past May to spend a long summer with me. We had a lovely time together. Then, just after Labor Day, Heather left for Scotland to finish college and to live there, perhaps indefinitely. Wow, talk about changes! I’ve not only released my daughter to a new, foreign land about as far away as she could go, but I’m also releasing our home of three years and preparing to start a new life—in a new land myself. Change and transformation are definitely in the air for me, and they will continue to be for a significant period of time.

Many of you are, no doubt, moving through big changes too. Some of you are empty nesters yourselves; others are caregivers for others (parents, ill relatives, or friends) who need your love and support. Almost everyone on the planet is facing some form of change at this time.

What I’m learning about change—through personal experience as well as through professional expertise gained during hospice work—is that the more we can relax through it, the better. I have learned that relaxation is the key to managing change, stress, and fear of all kinds. The usual reason that we feel fear is because of the unknown: We can’t see what’s coming. Our natural reaction to uncertainty is to tense up. The flight or fight response kicks in and takes over very quickly. If we can train ourselves to do the exact opposite and relax, however, this calm can help us get through any change, including the biggest change of all: the final transition, death. We can also help others through their transitions, grief, or stress by sharing ideas on how to better relax.

How to Manage Change and Stress Through Relaxation
Here are some very simple exercises that have helped me to relax. I share them so that you might use them in your own lives to generate more self-care, stress reduction, and healing.

1. Deep Breathing. Sit or lie down and take some very deep breaths. If it helps you to count, count to 4, or 6, or even to 8 for the “in breath”—then repeat for the “out breath.” There’s no need to hold the breath at all. Just let the breath go in and out naturally.

2. Music. Turn on some of your favorites—harp or almost any instrumental is wonderful for relaxing—and really pay attention to it. My daughter made me a CD with some of my most-loved pieces on it; it lifts my mood every time! (I have a list of wonderful CDs that I include in my “Soul Baskets”—bundles of CDs, oils, candles, and inspiring booklets—which I sell from my website to aid in transitions.)

3. Fingers. To help focus, hold each of your fingers for 3 to 5 minutes, preferably while doing #1 and #2 above. Each finger represents a different area of need:

Thumb: Brings in security.
Index: Helps release fear.
Middle: Helps release anger.
Ring: Helps release grief and draw in comfort.
Pinkie: Helps release denial and confusion.

(Visit my website to view a YouTube video illustrating this exercise in more detail.)

4. Nature. Go for a walk—or just get outside—in one of your favorite places in nature. If you can find a labyrinth* in your neighborhood, even better; walk it. The process is sure to nourish you.

5. Oils. Get out the lavender oil, or any of your favorite essential oils, and enjoy massaging it onto your fingers, face, forehead, or main energy points. (See my website for a collection of Young Living Essential Oils.)

6. Hugs. Cuddle up next to your favorite person, pet, or stuffed animal and take some deep breaths. Hugs of all kinds are always good for relaxation.

7. Exercise. Practice yoga, tai chi, or qigong. Any kind of dance or exercise with slow and easy movements and stretches that work for you would be good as well. You might also consider taking a class in something new and different. I actually like to spin, like the Sufi whirling dervishes do. Anything involving movement is great. Create a fun and healthy “adventure” for yourself!

8. Tea. Make your favorite cup of tea—especially something relaxing, such as chamomile, lavender, or peppermint—and savor drinking every drop of it. (There’s even a minty blend I’ve discovered called World Peace Tea.)

9. Eat Healthfully. Alkalize your body by eating healthy foods; this will help you avoid getting sick, too. (I include a list of foods that can help in my Soul Baskets.)

10. Envision. Lie down, close your eyes, and picture yourself in your favorite natural setting. As you take some deep breaths, see yourself becoming rejuvenated and healed. (Add some of the ideas listed above to this process—consider deep breathing, playing your favorite music, and using essential oils.)

11. Energy. Rub your hands together and feel the energy between them. Leave your left hand open and think of it as receiving healing/spiritual energy. Then place your right hand on an area of your body that needs healing. You might add color to the experience: See the energy moving through your hands as gold, white, pink, or blue-purple light. Or, choose your own favorite color that you know will bring you the healing energy you desire.

12. Be Thankful. Bind the elements of your experience all together by expressing and feeling deep emotions of gratitude and love (perhaps while you soak in a nice warm bath). Ponder and then write a list of all the things in your life that you appreciate right now. Picture all of the people, animals, and spiritual helpers who have come into your life. All have come for a reason, and you can appreciate them all, for one reason or another. Their love is the greatest blessing you’ve received in your life. Stretch your imagination, and bless every one of them.

You could add to this exercise writing about what you would like to come to you in your life. You might begin your sentences “Wouldn’t it be lovely if . . . ”

13. Heart Wall Healing. Finally, consider having a Heart Wall Healing. This is a very simple process, not unlike a massage, using a magnetic device that rolls along your spine. It helps you “release old, negative emotions” that are stuck in your “heart wall,” usually in a very pleasant way. It can be done in person or long distance. More information about this technique can be found at a link on my website.

I also encourage you to browse my website “links” page, where there are many other resources for you and your loved ones. I also write articles for that include many body-mind-spirit related ideas to help you relax.

*The Labyrinth
The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual tool used by those seeking transformation, and it’s becoming popular once again. Labyrinths are usually constructed from patterns using circles and spirals, based on principles of sacred geometry. They have been found around the world and are known as “sacred patterns” or “divine imprints.” These symbols have been passed down through the ages: They can be found in medieval European churches, on the walls of caves, on coins, and in natural settings. They are usually constructed directly on the ground and have been used for “walking meditation” and rituals. They can also be drawn on paper or carved into wood, in which case they are traced using one’s fingers—these are known as “finger labyrinths.”

The labyrinth has been used as a spiritual tool for at least 4,000 years. It is a physical metaphor for life’s journey—the journey of healing. Labyrinths have been utilized throughout history in a variety of ways: as a tool for initiation, such as for warriors before they entered into battle, for psychological and spiritual growth and transformation, to enhance right-brain activity, and to restore faith and healing to troubled or stressed souls.

The labyrinth teaches trust and can be used as a tool for spiritual practice. It is different from a maze in that it is not a puzzle: As long as you follow the path step by step, you end up at the center; when you leave the center, you follow the same path back to the beginning. The labyrinth is a good place to work through questions that you need to address in your life. You can take the question with you as you walk the labyrinth; after reaching the center, you can pause, meditate, and reflect. In return for your concentration, you may receive added inspiration and guidance. Once you receive the gifts you need, your “return” walk can be a time of preparing to mentally move out into the world again.

Today, labyrinths are being constructed on school grounds and in parks, churches, universities, businesses, community centers, and even private homes and gardens. As people recognize their benefits, their use and popularity are growing. (See the following websites for more information:,,

The daughter of Lutheran missionaries, Maria “Dancing Heart” Hoaglund grew up in Tokyo, Japan, and then moved to the United States to attend college and divinity school. Maria began her parish ministry in Honolulu, Hawaii, in the United Church of Christ and continued for 10 years, serving a variety of U.C.C. churches in Hawaii and in the Great Northwest. Maria eventually began working as a bereavement coordinator for a hospice program in the Puget Sound area and added spiritual counseling to her repertoire. She continues with that work to this day. Maria also trained in spiritual direction (1994–1997) and serves as a spiritual director and consultant. Because of her broad universal perspective, her ministry has an "interfaith" quality. She also continues to preach and perform weddings, memorial services, funerals, and other rituals, sharing her universalist perspective. Maria has published and self-published several books, including The Last Adventure of Life: Sacred Resources for Transition (2005) and The Most Important Day of Your Life: Are You Ready? (2010). Her books and other healing and relaxation products are available on her website. Maria offers lectures, day seminars, retreats, and counseling and can be reached at

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