Content note: This rather long, meandering post was inspired by a Twitter conversation. It should not, however, be taken as advice to anyone who was part of that conversation, or indeed to anyone at all. I recognise that there is a big difference between grief and depression or other mental illnesses: I am discussing the former, and have little experience of the latter, so am absolutely not qualified to give advice on it! All I am aiming for with this post is an explanation of my own mental state, thought processes and coping mechanisms. If this turns out useful to someone dealing with similar circumstances, then that’s wonderful. If not, and everyone who reads this thinks my experience is totally inapplicable to anyone else, I will not be hurt.
A couple of mornings ago, @twistedwillow tweeted:
I was worried that it sounded a bit twee to put it like that, but unfortunately Twitter doesn’t lend itself well to lengthy discusses of mental and emotional states! That’s partly why I wanted to write this post, to give a bit of background and explain a bit more about what I mean.
First, the background. People who know me on Twitter or IRL, and regular readers of this blog, will know that my family has been through a very difficult couple of years. In July 2010, my Mum was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus; in August, she was told it was inoperable. Eight months later, in April 2011, she died. A year and a month after that, in May 2012, my apparently healthy eldest sister Mandi died, suddenly and unexpectedly, from a heart attack.
Given that we were still picking up the pieces from having lost Mum a year earlier, Mandi’s death completely devastated us all. We all coped in our various ways: I can’t comment on how my sisters, brother-in-law, Dad, and Mandi’s kids have coped since, that isn’t my story to tell, but I did want to say a bit here about how I experienced the grief.
Losing Mum was heartbreaking. Losing Mandi was both heartbreaking and bewildering. How could this amazing, vital person, whom I’d spoken to just two days before, suddenly be gone? I don’t have a very clear memory of the first few weeks after her death: I do remember telling a friend who’d asked how I was that I knew from what we’d been through with Mum that that part was the easy bit. The early days after someone dies are a whirlwind: there’s so much to do, and so many new feelings to come to terms with, that it actually protects you from the truth of it. The hard part starts when real life starts again, and you discover that while your world has changed forever, everyone else’s hasn’t. At least, that has been my experience of it.
I went back home and back to work two and a half weeks after Mandi died, and spent the next few months just wading through despair. And despair is really the only word I can find for it: that feeling that there is nothing good in the world, nothing good on the horizon, and no way out of how you’re currently feeling. I slept fitfully at nights, troubled by vague, disturbing dreams, regularly sleepwalking, sleeptalking, and waking up in a panic feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I think I managed to hold things together at work, though looking back I’m not sure how I made that effort: it was a struggle to get out of bed every morning, weekday or weekend, because I just didn’t see the point in anything.
I am lucky enough never to have experienced chronic depression, so apologies to anyone who has if I’m about to say something inappropriate, but I’d imagine that what I went through was a lot like depression. The main difference, I suppose, is that I knew that the way I was feeling was a temporary reaction to a specific event. I also knew it would pass, or at least get easier with time, as I’d been through a very similar time after Mum had died.
Throughout those months, I was trying – and failing – to remember what Mum always taught us: to count our blessings. Problem was, I couldn’t see them as blessings. Yes, I was gifted with a wonderful family: but I’d now seen two of them die, and who knew who was going to be next?
The main difference between what I went through after Mum died and after Mandi died was in my fears. When Mum died, I had regular nightmares in which horrible things happened to people who I loved. Night after night, I watched each of my loved ones die, and was powerless to help them. However, I don’t think I was ever really scared of that actually happening. Yes, the dreams were awful, but we dream in metaphor: I think what I was really scared of was losing my family, losing what made them so special. The whole family dynamic changed after Mum died – it’s not necessarily worse now, just different – and it took a while for us all to work out what our family looked like. I think those dreams were just a reflection of that worry and uncertainty.
After Mandi died though, that was turned on its head. Suddenly I knew that anyone could be ripped away from me at any time, without reason or warning. Objectively of course I’d always known that was possible, as we all do, but nobody ever actually expects it to happen. I certainly didn’t. Knowing that something is possible is rather different to being presented with it as fact. I’ve written previously about my overwhelming fear that more terrible things were about to happen, so I won’t dwell on it here, just to note that that was my state of mind for several months.
I feel like I’m out of the other side of that now, hence I feel able to write this post. I know from past experience that things can and probably will get worse again, that I may well be dumped right back into that pit of despair without warning, but that the amount of time I spend in the pit each visit will gradually lessen. Nevertheless, right now I feel good. I feel like myself again. Most importantly, I feel lucky.
Because that’s what (eventually) this post is really about. Via an unneccessarily meandering path, I have arrived at last at the point I wanted to make in response to @twistedwillow’s tweets. Despite everything, I feel lucky. Scratch that, I am lucky.
Why am I lucky? Well, just look at what I’ve got. I have a wonderful Dad who loves me. I still have two sisters who are my best friends. I have a brother-in-law who I actually only refer to as an in-law here for clarity: generally I just call him my brother. He’s as close and as dear to me as any brother-by-blood could be. I have a partner who loves and supports me, and has been my rock through this entire ordeal. I have a brand new nephew who has just learned to smile. I have another brother-in-law and a potential future brother-in-law who are just wonderful, and make my sisters so happy. And I have two gorgeous, hilarious nephews who have inherited their mother’s warmth and sense of fun, and keep me endlessly entertained with silly jokes and surprisingly deep questions (sample from Spike, 5: “Does Freddie know he’s a baby?” *mind boggles* Sample from Finn, 3: “Why did the chicken cross the road? He needed a poo!!” *falls over laughing*).
That’s what I meant by focusing on what you have, and that’s what my mum meant when she taught us to count our blessings. What I’m trying to do now, and mostly succeeding at, is thinking about how much I have that most people never had. That doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to be sad, and it doesn’t mean beating myself up for complaining that my diamond shoes are too tight (because sometimes they’re just diamante, and they really can pinch). All it is is a mental trick for when I feel myself heading back into the pit again.
I cannot stress how important it is to feel lucky, and not just for my own mental health. My second eldest sister, Katie (mother of Freddie), said something incredibly wise and insightful, as she has a habit of doing, in the first days after Mandi died. She pointed out how easy it would have been, after Mum died, for each of us to have just withdrawn into ourselves, forgetting about the wonderful family we still had and just wallowing in misery over the one we’d lost, and not taking the time to enjoy being with each other, as family. We could have done that, and we would have wasted what turned out to be our final year with Mandi. So we have to focus on what’s here, not on what’s gone, because the consequences of not doing so are too great.
One final point. Shortly after I tweeted my thoughts to @twistedwillow, I saw this tweet from her:
I don’t know if that was in response to my tweet or not, but it seems relevant, so I am going to address it here.
I said above that I feel lucky for everything that I have. I do, but I also feel lucky for what I’ve lost. I’ve lost an incredible mum, who was wise, and patient, and kind, and loving. I’ve lost a big sister who was like a second mum to me, who was generous, and giving, and had a wicked sense of humour and a massive, mad laugh that you could hear from streets away. And I’m not the only one who’s lost them: for both of their funerals/memorials, it was standing room only.
Yes, I’ve lost them. But I had them to begin with. I had these wonderful, magical people in my life. How many people were never that lucky? How many people never had a Mum like my mum? How many people never had a Mandi?
I still fear losing other loved ones, although it is not so all-encompassing as it was for a while. I might suggest that I am more conscious than most that it is a possibility. But while focusing on how much I love them does make me fear losing them, I can remind myself that if I do lose them, at least I was lucky enough to have them in my life to begin with.
So yes. I am lucky. I forgot that for a while, but I’ve got it back now and I will not let go of it easily.