Reflections – A Year of Grieving

Flowers in the Water

Yesterday was the first anniversary of my mum’s death. It’s been 366 days since I last saw her, spoke to her, heard her voice, felt her arms around me. 366 days versus the 10,688 I was blessed to have her in my life. I have felt her absence on every one of those days and it still doesn’t feel real that she’s gone.

Last year we scattered her ashes in a river where she had spent many happy summers as a child. We returned there yesterday and threw some flowers into the water. It was a calm day so the current wasn’t strong. Most of the flowers flowed gently downstream and became lodged at the tops of the small stone dams that produce tiny waterfalls along the length of the river.

Two of them, red roses, became separated from the others and floated over to where I was standing on the riverbank. One rose was in full bloom, beautiful and vibrant, but the other had tipped over, its stem reaching for the sky while its petals languished in the water beneath it.

The ripples of the river caused the flowers to slowly circle each other. They remained in each other’s orbits for a few minutes, the light breeze gradually pulling them apart until, with gentle grace, the open rose floated away from the other and headed downstream. The remaining rose, kept off balance by its upright stem, bobbed in place for a short time, before the current pushed it underneath the riverbank into the dark where I couldn’t see.

When my mind is overwhelmed by difficult emotions, it seeks meaning in metaphor and symbolic interpretations of the things I perceive. As I was watching the flowers – one with petals open, floating serenely; the other, upturned, petals obscured, drowning – I couldn’t help but see the effect my mum’s death has had on me.

Though decades too soon, my mum accepted the finality of her diagnosis and came to the end of her life with grace and serenity. Like the rose floating from the other’s side, my mum slipped away from me quietly, peacefully, leaving my life turned upside down and pushing me into a darker place where I couldn’t make sense of anything.

My mum ended the first of the five letters she left for me with the words, ‘nothing stays the same’. As I was watching the roses floating together, I knew they wouldn’t stay together. Their separation was inevitable. The river’s current would pull them away from each other just as the passage of time pulls people apart. We only share our lives with our loved ones for a finite period of time before they, or we, have to move on. It’s an undeniable, and often heart-breaking, fact of life.

I didn’t stay long enough to watch what happened to that upturned rose but, as sure as I am that time will continue to pass, I’m sure that the current will eventually bring it back out into the sun, petals facing the sky, and guide it downstream.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it does teach us how to live with them.

 

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Mental Health Series – Mini Post

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Despite my best efforts, my mum’s death in July has made it very difficult for me to keep up with the monthly posts for my Mental Health Series. I still have a lot to say, so I will continue with them at some point, I’m just not sure when. It’s frustrating and I really wanted to continue with them as planned, but writing, especially emotional writing, is not something you can just do. You have to be in the right headspace and feel up to exploring those difficult issues. I’ve been too much in my own head for that lately, and most of my energy goes into getting through the day in whatever way I can.

To all of you struggling with similar issues, try not to be too hard on yourselves. Grief can drive you to keep going and going and going without taking a break because you’re afraid if you stop for a second the pain of the loss will overwhelm you. It might, for a while, but that’s okay. It might feel like the waves are drowning you, but when they break on the shore you’ll still be alive and breathing. If you give yourself time, the waves will get smaller, you’ll breathe deeper, and you’ll be okay.

Anyway, thanks for your patience. I’ll be back with you as soon as I can.

 

Mental Health Series: July – Grief

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


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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.

A Battle on Four Fronts – Grief, Pain, Anxiety and Illness

At this moment, there are countless people across the world struggling with mental health problems, living with physical illnesses and disabilities, dealing with the grief of losing someone they loved, and living daily with the fear of losing someone else. At the same time, there are people facing all four of these struggles at once. I wish I wasn’t one of them.

This year:

My mother, the person I love most in the world, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

My granny, who helped raise me and was more like a mother than a grandmother, died of leukaemia only 5 months after her diagnosis.

My own health, which has gotten steadily worse over the last 14 years, threw me another curveball and added more medication, hospital visits and potential surgery to my already long list.

My mental health, which I have struggled with since I was a child growing up with a violent autistic brother, has made every day a fight between extreme anxiety and crippling despondency.

These events have been overwhelming and frightening, but they have also taught me very valuable lessons.

When I was receiving treatment for my mental illnesses as a teenager, I discovered that writing was the key to my recovery. During my final session, my psychologist asked if he could keep some of my poems to help other patients. That helped me realise that writing about my experiences could help others.

I want to do that again. I want to make all this mean something.

When I think about what I would say to someone struggling with the same things I am, the following comes to mind.

Grief is not linear or logical.

It will strike at unexpected moments. One of mine was when I walked up the front steps to my house for the first time after granny died. It suddenly hit me that I would never take her arm to help her climb those steps again when she came to visit. I cried for almost an hour.

Guilt and grief tend to go hand in hand, and there may be times when you feel guilty for NOT crying. I didn’t cry at my granny’s funeral. Instead, I stood up and recited a poem I had written for her. Afterwards, a number of people expressed their admiration of how I had kept my composure, to which I hastily replied that I was sure to be an emotional wreck later that day. At the time, I worried that my apparent lack of emotion would lead them to assume that I wasn’t feeling my granny’s loss as deeply as I was.

I realise now that there was no need to justify my way of dealing with things. Grief is a process unique to the individual, and comparing yourself to others is both unhealthy and counterproductive. Do what you need to do, not what you think you should do.

You don’t have to feel guilty for not handling a loved one’s illness as well as they are.

Watching someone you love dealing with an illness is often harder than going through it yourself. My mum has been telling me for years how hard it is for her to watch me in pain every day, and now I know how she feels.

She is handling her cancer with grace, strength and determination and I’m incredibly proud of her. One of the things I admire most is her ability to focus on one stage of her treatment at a time, without wasting her energy on worrying about the future.

I simply cannot do that. For me, her cancer presents a minefield of anxiety, fear and endless terrifying questions. What if she reacts badly to the next chemo drug? What if she doesn’t wake up from the surgery? What if she gets an infection? What if the cancer comes back one day? What if I lose her like I lost granny?

When I’m having a really bad day and the endless cycle of questions pushes me into a panic attack or makes me so despondent that I just sit and watch reruns of Star Trek, I always find myself apologising to her. I feel like I’m letting her down if I’m not constantly upbeat and pushing aside my own problems to help her deal with hers. So what if my stomach hurts so much I can’t stand up straight? My mum has cancer, my problems are nothing compared to that, right? Wrong.

Just because I’m not the one with cancer, doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to be struggling, too. The effects of illness and injury are felt by more than just the person suffering from them. They ripple out and touch everyone who loves them.

You are not weak if you are not coping and your loved one is.

You are not selfish if you are ill or in pain yourself.

Your fears and struggles are just as valid as theirs.

Be honest and keep talking. You can get through it together.

Anxiety doesn’t always have to be a handicap.

I would be lying if I said that I wouldn’t banish my anxiety disorder if could. Of course I would. It can be incredibly debilitating, isolating and frustrating, but that doesn’t mean that all that anxious energy can’t be redirected towards something positive.

Your mind insists on running at 100 miles an hour, analysing in microscopic detail every facet and nuance of your life? Fine. Make it work for you. That over-analytical way you have of looking at the world? It doesn’t have to be a handicap. Even a quick glance at job advertisements will tell you that the ability to be organised and analytical are highly sought after traits by employers. Your mind can conjure up worst case scenarios at impressive speeds? That means you have the ability to anticipate problems and head them off before they happen. Another very useful trait.

If you’re anything like me, your anxiety will drive you to organise everything, with ease and accuracy, because that is the way your mind attempts to bring order to the chaotic state it exists in. I have become renowned at work for my lists and spreadsheets, and there’s nothing I like more than being given free rein to get stuck into organising a new project. My work gives me focus and allows me to channel my anxiety into something productive.

I’ve written more about this in a previous post, which you can find here.

Wanting to move forward and actually being able to are two different things.

One of the worst things about mental illness and grief is that, while you desperately want things to get better, you have been robbed of the motivation and confidence to make any positive changes. It can make you feel pathetic and weak. It’s amazing how things like filling out a job application or making that long-overdue trip to the bank can seem like climbing Mount Everest, (never mind things like trying to buy a house – my current Everest).

At the moment, the only time I feel truly productive and useful is when I’m at work. My job gives me achievable goals and a daily sense of accomplishment, not to mention a great social atmosphere (laughter is the eternal panacea).

Those feelings are vital and we all need them. If you can’t find them at work, look at the other areas of your life. Are you creative? Enjoy being in the garden or the kitchen? Volunteering your time to help others? There are a great number of ways you can give yourself the opportunity to feel accomplished and productive, and it’s important to keep trying until you do. Your mind will have more trouble fixating on negative thoughts if you’re busy arranging a flower bed or perfecting a new recipe.

That being said…

The days when you do next to nothing are not wasted days.

Those days when you can’t muster the will to leave the house or do much more than stare at the television are your mind’s way of telling you that it needs a break. That’s perfectly reasonable, especially considering the energy it takes to generate a constant stream of anxious thoughts, process grief or cope with depression. The mind can only take so much.

My granny’s leukaemia entered its final stage in the same week as my mum ended up in hospital after a bad reaction to her first round of chemo. I couldn’t sleep. I felt sick with grief and anxiety. My physical pain levels shot up to the point that I had to check with my doctor if it was safe to increase my dose of painkillers to the level I needed just to get through the day.

Initially, I tried to cope by burying myself in work. I only accepted how much I was struggling when I realised that I couldn’t even do that anymore. That was incredibly hard to admit to, not just because my anxiety used the opportunity to make me feel like a failure, but because I am not a person who feels comfortable walking away from her responsibilities.

Reluctantly, I went on compassionate leave until after granny’s funeral. In hindsight, I can see how absolutely necessary that was, and I will always be grateful for the incredible support I received from my colleagues (and continue to receive).

Needing a break does not make you weak or unreliable. On the contrary, being able to admit that you need one is a strength in itself, and you should never feel guilty for it. Neither should you feel guilty that your biggest accomplishment for the day was getting out of bed. When your own mind is trying to sabotage everything you do, a small achievement is still an achievement.


For those of you who believe there is no hope in your future, that you are weak and worthless and the world would be better off without you – I understand that. I’ve had those thoughts and I’ll never forget them. But I would urge you to remember this:

If you jump off that bridge, or swallow those pills, or use that razor – there are no more possibilities. No more chances for the extraordinary and unexpected twists of fate to change your circumstances and the way you feel. A single moment of random serendipity changed mine 13 years ago, and I’m still here because of it (you can read about that here).

My granny knew about my mental and physical health problems, and one of the last things she said to me was ‘thank you for being everything that you are.’ She didn’t see me as weak. She was proud of me just the way I am. She said her life had been a journey, and I will carry her words with me for the rest of mine.

If you had told me a year ago that all these things were going to happen, I would have bet every penny I had that they would have sent me spiralling back into the cycle of clinical depression, severe OCD and suicidal thoughts that defined my teenage years.

That hasn’t happened. I am still here.