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


Grief 2

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.

Suicide Prevention Week: Why I’m Glad I Kept Living

Suicide Ribbon

It’s National Suicide Prevention Week, leading up to World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10th.

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and came across the hashtag #IKeptLiving. Suicide survivors were talking about how they were glad their attempts had failed, and those who had thought about suicide in the past were explaining why they decided not to go through with it.

I am one of the latter.

Nearly 14 years ago, when I was 15, I was seriously contemplating ending my life. I had already been diagnosed with clinical depression and severe OCD, and I was being treated by two psychologists at a treatment centre for adolescent mental health. During one of my early sessions, they gave me a questionnaire to fill out so they could better understand how I was feeling.

While they were discussing it with me, they asked me which question had been the most difficult to answer. I tried to tell them, but found I couldn’t get the words out, so they laid the questionnaire down on the table in front of me and asked me to point to it instead.

I pointed to ‘Do you think about committing suicide?’ I had answered yes.

One night, a few weeks later,  while I was contemplating my latest round of prescription meds for my numerous health conditions (physical and mental), I started to think seriously about how many I would need to take to make all the pain go away. Probably more than I had handy, I reasoned, so I would likely need to sneak a bottle of alcohol out of my parents’ drinks cabinet to wash them down with.

I didn’t go through with it, but I was dangerously close. I’ve explained why I chose to keep living in a previous post, so I’m not going to talk about that now. Instead, I want to talk about why I’m so glad I’m still here.

If I had taken those pills, I wouldn’t have graduated from high school and two university courses.

If I hadn’t gotten help, I wouldn’t have just come home from the job I love.

If I hadn’t kept going, I would never have gotten two poems and a short story published.

If I had let the darkness take me, I wouldn’t have had the past 14 years with my family and oldest friends, or had the chance to meet all the wonderful new friends I’ve made in those years.

If I had listened to the depression and anxiety, I would never have seen the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone National Park, or three people I love get married.

If I hadn’t focussed on that glimmer of hope, I would never have met my idol, the wonderful Kate Mulgrew, who is integral to the reason I’m still here.

If suicide had been the end of my journey, I wouldn’t have the rest of my life in front of me, and all its unknown possibilities.

Those are just some of the many reasons I’m glad I chose to keep living. I hope you are able to find yours. Remember: you are unique; you are irreplaceable; the world will be worse off without you, not better.

If you need someone to talk to, there are people who can help. The organisations’ names are linked to their websites.

UK

Samaritans: 116 123

HopeLineUK (Papyrus): 0800 068 41 41

Breathing Space: 0800 83 85 87 (Scotland)

 

USA

Crisis Text Line: Text ‘GO’ to 741 741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 800 273 8255

 

International

You can find a list of international suicide helplines here.

 

Create Your Own Story

PostcardI came across this postcard in a stack I had bought months ago. While I was writing it to send to a friend I found myself thinking about the meaning behind the words CREATE YOUR OWN STORY. You could take them in the literal sense. They could serve as inspiration for finally writing that novel or short story you’ve been nurturing the idea for, but have kept hidden away for months, maybe even years (I have a whole file on my computer for those). Or you could take them another way. Maybe something like this.

Sometimes, you’re not sure of yourself. You wonder where your life is going and where you’ll be a month from now, a year from now, a decade from now. You worry you’ll still be exactly where you are right now: stuck, like an insect caught in amber, unable to move while you watch the world revolve around you. You doubt the choices you have made and the roads you have walked down. You wonder if you are doing enough each day to reach your goals and take yourself closer to your own idea of what happiness is.

Worst of all, you compare the story of your life to others. You look at their characters, plot twists and happy endings and wonder, “Hey, why can’t I have that? Why does my story seem so dull and uninspiring while theirs seem like thrilling page-turners full of romance and adventure? What am I doing wrong?”

In the world we live in now it is easy to forget that life is not a literature class. You are not required to compare your story to others and analyse themes, images and metaphors to draw a conclusion of which one is more effective or more meaningful.

You have always been told never to judge a book by its cover, yet you do it every time you judge yourself and others by appearances alone. You shouldn’t, you know. As you get older, your cover will get worn. The colours will fade and creases will appear. When you look back on that life and approach its epilogue, I promise that you will care more about the pages you took the time to write and live in than the futile efforts you made to make that cover look perfect. Besides, covers rarely tell us what a story is really about.

Walking into a bookshop or a library you will find that no one story is the same as another. Many are similar, but none are identical. The same is true of you and those you compare yourself to. Your life has its own story arc with different chapters in a different order. It has its own cover, its own format, its own style. Embrace it. Accept it. Stop comparing your story to others and just focus on writing it in the way that makes sense to you. You will be far happier that way; I guarantee it.

One more thing. Don’t forget to share your story with others from time to time, even if you think they won’t be interested. You never know, to them, you might be a Classic or a bestseller. A story they will never tire of reading.

I’m not sure if this will mean anything to anyone or if it even makes sense. It doesn’t really matter. I wrote it for myself and the people I care about* who I know feel this way and I wanted to share it. Thank you for reading this small part of my story.

*To the friends of mine who read this, please know that to me you are Classics and bestsellers and I will never get tired of hearing your stories or sharing mine with you.