This is the seventh in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.
My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.
January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships
River Tweed at Sunset, Melrose, Scotland (the image is mine but feel free to use it)
*The original topic for July was Mental Effects of Physical Illness, which will now be covered in the August post.*
When I first chose grief as one of the topics for this series, I imagined that I would be recalling the death of my granny, who I lost a year ago, and that of my grampa, who passed 5 years before her. Now, I find myself attempting to articulate my feelings surrounding a far greater loss – that of my mother.
To tell the truth, I was grieving for her even before she died. I didn’t think that was possible, but from the moment the oncologist told us mum’s cancer was terminal, the life we knew before her illness was over. I grieved the loss of that life from that moment. The years of carefree laughter when we were all healthy and alive. The constant reassurance of her steadfast presence in my life. The belief that she would be beside me when I got married and had children. All that disappeared in an instant.
Shock came first, followed quickly by anger and fear. Later, the grim acceptance of the hand life had dealt us, accompanied by the ever-present sense of dread that came with not knowing when, or how, this insidious illness would take her from me.
It’s a strange thing, the anticipation of grief. We all know that we will die eventually. None of us know how or when, just that it will happen. Terminal illness brings that reality into sharp and undeniable focus. You can no longer live with the comfortable assumption that the person you love will live to a ripe old age. Each day that passes is one fewer that you will get to spend with them – a fact that is true for all of us, but one that feels more present and immediate in the face of terminal illness.
Despite the fact that I knew it was coming, mum’s death was still a shock. She deteriorated very quickly, and went from baking and card-making to having a fatal seizure in just 36 hours. Somehow, I didn’t think it would happen that way. I assumed she would experience a steady decline, as my granny had with her leukaemia, and that I would have time to prepare myself. It occurs to me now that no amount of preparation could have ever been enough.
I came from my mother, and I’ve never known the world without her in it. The one I’ve existed in over the last 7 weeks since she died does not make sense to me yet. There is a constant feeling of uneasiness and anxiety alongside the sadness; a sense of drifting through my days without my emotional anchor to tether me to the life I had before.
I’ve thought about it a lot, and I still can’t decide if I was better off knowing I was going to lose my mum, and spending months dreading it and watching her illness progress, than I would have been if it had happened suddenly with no warning, while I spent the preceding months being blissfully unaware. There is no good way to lose someone who means that much to you, so maybe that’s a question I don’t need to try to answer.
What matters the most to me is that I was there when it happened, just as she wanted. She was there for the first moments of my life, and I was there for the last moments of hers – as if things had come full circle. I had the chance to say goodbye; a gift I know many people don’t get. There is some comfort in that, at least.
Grief is an unusual emotion in that it alters your perceptions of the world. It suddenly feels wrong somehow, like it has shifted on its axis and no longer makes sense. Time continues to pass at the same rate as it always did. The view outside your window is the same as before. The people around you who are not directly affected by the loss go about their business as normal.
The fact is, you are the one who has changed, not the world itself. For a time, you exist in a state of cognitive dissonance that your mind desperately tries to reconcile. You know the world is no different than it was before, yet it feels like it is. It seems as though every person you see should somehow acknowledge the crippling sense of loss you’re feeling, even if they didn’t know the person who died. It is irrational and impossible but, when your own sense of loss is so profound and your life has changed so radically, you can’t help but feel like the world should stop for a minute, just so you can catch your breath.
I experienced this feeling almost immediately.
A few minutes after my mum died, I stepped out of the hospital room into the corridor. It was shortly before 7.30 a.m. and the morning shift was just coming on duty. A group of nurses were walking along the corridor towards me, laughing and joking together. I stared at them, angry and confused. How could they be laughing at a time like this? Didn’t they know that a wonderful person had just died in the next room? Those feelings were irrational, of course, but they were powerful nonetheless.
The loss itself takes time to accept. No matter how many times I talk about losing her, or stare at her death certificate, or write about what happened, mum’s death still hasn’t sunk in properly. This seems so strange to me. I was there. I held her hand and watched her go. I spoke at her funeral. I should be able to accept this new reality, but I haven’t yet. I even felt guilty when I cancelled her craft club memberships, as if I was betraying her by taking away something she loved so much, even though I know she’ll never use them again.
The human mind is incredibly complex, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that mine is trying to protect me. In an act of self-preservation, it is only gradually allowing me to come to terms with the loss so that I don’t end up overwhelmed by grief and unable to function. I’m grateful for that, but at the same time I know I’ll never truly be able to heal and move on with my life until I’ve fully accepted that my mum is no longer a part of it. Unfortunately, I apparently have no say in how long that process takes.
I am still in the early stages of grieving for my mother, but there are some things I’ve already learned that I hope can help others going through similar circumstances.
Alongside the pain and sadness, it’s okay to feel relief.
My mum told me that herself shortly after her diagnosis, and she was right. The person you love is not in pain any longer, and you don’t have to watch them suffer any more. Gone is the constant worry about what the future holds and the fear of how bad things will get before the end. It’s over. You’re on the other side of the thing you’ve been dreading, and you’re still standing. Mum’s cancer had spread to her brain, so there was a real possibility that she would suffer complications like a stroke or personality changes. The idea of something like that happening was very frightening for her, and for me, and I’m so relieved for both of us that she was spared that and was able to maintain her independence and sense of self right until the end.
It’s okay not to know what you want or need. Your feelings can change from hour to hour.
Grief is not linear or logical, so it follows that your needs won’t be either. I can’t count the number of times someone asked me what I needed or wanted. The only real answer I had for them was, “my mum”, but since that wasn’t possible, I tried to focus on the smaller, manageable things that people could help me with. I’m not someone who gives up control easily and I’m fairly set in my ways, so it wasn’t easy to let other people shop for me or do the housework, but it did help. Sometimes, what I needed was to lie down and stare at the ceiling, even if all I had wanted to do the day before was keep running through my to-do list until I passed out from exhaustion. There is no guidebook to grief. You have to do what is right for you, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense. You might find yourself doing things you wouldn’t normally do (in my case, watching YouTube clips of trashy reality shows at 3 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep). Try to get used to your own unpredictability. Your life has been turned on its head and it will take time to get your bearings. Be patient with yourself.
Don’t make commitments unless you absolutely have to, at least in the early days.
I thought I was okay to carry on with my work and social lives a lot earlier than I actually was (sometimes I still feel like I’m not ready), so I ended up having to cancel plans I thought I could stick to because I just wasn’t up to fulfilling them. I’ve found that the mental reserves I usually draw on during times of stress are severely depleted, so when I try to do things I would normally have done with ease, like meet deadlines at work or make plans with friends, I find it much harder than it was before. I’ve had to accept that it’s okay to say “I’ll see how I feel nearer the time” or “I’m just not up to that right now”. Your work and friends will still be there when you’re ready, and if they’re worthy of your time then they’ll understand why you need to withdraw for a while. This is the time in your life when you need to address your own needs over those of other people.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, put your tasks into a box.
I mean that literally. There is so much to be done when someone close to you dies – planning a funeral, dealing with their affairs, spending time with well-meaning visitors – not to mention all the everyday things you would have to do anyway like food shopping and laundry. It’s very easy to become overwhelmed. In an effort to contain my anxiety about everything I had to do, I decided to put it all into a box. Bills, notes for the eulogy, mum’s mail that needed to be dealt with, post-it note reminders to buy a dress for the funeral, paperwork for the house I had bought shortly before she died – everything went in there. This turned out to be a very effective mental trick that enabled me to cram the stress of all my tasks into the confines of the box, while only taking one thing out at a time when I was ready to deal with it. If even that was too much, I simply closed the lid, which somehow made me feel better.
Find joy in small things, if only to remind yourself that you still can.
My mum made me promise that I would find something to smile about every day. Before she died, I thought that would be impossible in the early days, or that I would feel guilty for still being able to laugh even though she was gone. Thankfully, I was wrong. At first, I only felt the weight of my grief lift for a few minutes each day. A song would come on my iPod that would make me want to get up and dance or sing along; my dog would wag his tail when he saw me; a friend would send a message that made me smile. These little things are important and necessary, as even a few minutes’ respite can give you a much needed boost. Feeling even remotely happy after losing someone can make you feel guilty, as if it somehow invalidates your grief, but it doesn’t. The complexities of human emotion make it possible to feel joy while simultaneously feeling profound sadness. The two states are not mutually exclusive. Besides, the person you lost would want you to carry on with your life and be happy, so you should allow yourself to be when you can.
Accept that your grief will be a part of your life for as long as it needs to be.
The moment of loss is like the epicentre of an earthquake, or the flashpoint of an explosion. The devastation left in its wake is immediately apparent, and for a time you can see nothing else – only the gaping hole that the loss has created. The shockwaves continue to ripple out, gradually decreasing in intensity over time, until they dissipate completely. The life of the person they leave behind has been irrevocably altered, but it carries on regardless.
Grief is exhausting. Grief is unpredictable. Grief is not linear or logical. Grief is unique to the individual experiencing it. Grief has no tangible end. It simply becomes a part of you, subtly shaping the person that you are, until, one day, the loss doesn’t hurt so much, and you can move on with your life.
I keep thinking about a line from my favourite poet Robert Frost’s ‘A Servant to Servants’: “The best way out is always through.”
Allow yourself to go through the grieving process, no matter how long it takes. Don’t fight it or resist it. Grief is the price we pay for having had someone wonderful in our lives, and, no matter how much it hurts, it is a price worth paying for the memories we have and the ways in which that person changed our lives for the better.
Losing them doesn’t mean you have to lose yourself. Don’t ever let grief make you feel like you don’t have the strength to carry on.
One breath, one moment, one day at a time.