Escaping Grief

There is no escaping grief.

Each and every one of us experiences loss and it is always painful – just ask a toddler throwing the king of all tantrums at the supermarket while you steadfastly refuse to buy the matchbox car he desperately must have.

Grief is easily recognised when we lose someone. We expect the bereaved to be upset, struggle to function, and need support. Sometimes we put a timeline on grief and think they should “get over it” in six months, or a year, or whatever arbitrary amount of time seems reasonable. But grief occurs in many situations, and the way individuals respond is highly personal and completely unique. And there is no timeline.

We experience loss in the breakdown of a relationship, financial devastation, health issues, career failures, shattered dreams, or a loved one’s death. The seven stages of grief are well known and well documented, and it is not for me to discuss them here.

I remember once finding the rings of grief and thinking how perfectly it demonstrated the way to approach a grieving person – just figure out which ring you’re in…

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We all know that person who makes every situation about themselves – you tell them about your mental health struggles and they tell you all about the time they were so sad they ate a whole bucket of ice cream. [I should carry business cards with this handy picture on it to distribute in emergencies – so everyone knows which circle they’re in…]

There’s no escaping grief, we just have to accept it. If someone you know is going through a worse (in your opinion) situation, it does not invalidate your own loss. All pain is dealt with – the choice we have is whether or not it is dealt with productively.

When grieving, perhaps you’ll go through all seven stages – perhaps you won’t. Perhaps you’ll follow a timeline that suits others – perhaps you won’t. It’s okay – you’re doing the best you can. Don’t pretend it’s all better if it’s not. If you’re in the centre of the circle – because you’ve lost a child, been diagnosed with cancer, your house burned to the ground, or your career is shattered – it’s important to know who is in your inner circle. They are your lifeline and you must trust them. If you can’t trust them, put them in another circle.

Perspective can be lost in grief. Sometimes it’s easy to think nothing will ever be okay. That we will never again notice the sand beneath our toes, the taste of salty hot chips, or the excitement of planning for a holiday. That is when we need our inner circle – people to lean on, cry with, and share our darkest thoughts. Everyone in your inner circle has someone in the next ring to debrief with. That is how it works. Comfort in, pain out.

Mental illness is the same. It is illness after all. One of the obstacles we can face is we sit in the centre of our circle and push everyone to the outside – leaving the nearest rings barren. Leaving ourselves alone, dark and vulnerable.

There is a lot of grief in mental illness – in fact the seven stages are as valid here as anywhere else…

  1. Shock or disbelief it could happen
  2. Denial there is a problem at all
  3. Anger at feeling so weak
  4. Bargaining and hoping you talk yourself out of it
  5. Guilt for the stress and worry caused to those around you
  6. Depression – goes without saying
  7. Acceptance and hope when treatments and/or recovery start appearing

At the start of last year, I was firmly entrenched in the first stage – disbelief I could have a nervous breakdown. I felt weak and deeply flawed for not coping. Throughout the past 18 months I have worked my way through almost all the stages and finally – finally – I am moving from stage 6 to 7.

I am still on anti-depressant medication, and will no doubt be on it for the rest of the year. But in general, the symptoms are well managed and I don’t feel particularly depressed most of the time. I am getting really close to accepting I will find freedom and recovery and I have moments of hope. Those moments are happening on an almost daily basis.

So grief? There is so much of it – for some people a lot more than others and that’s just not fair. But it happens anyway, and it is so hard to fathom that life can ever go on. I have seen and watched people survive and thrive after the most extraordinary and distressing of circumstances. We humans are unbelievably resilient.

The next time you find yourself in the centremost circle of the rings of grief, hold on tight to your inner circle. Let grief flow from you and around you for as long as you need. You do not need to stand alone or recover on anyone else’s timeline. The next time you find yourself in one of the other rings, work out which one it is, and be careful how you debrief your own woes – comfort in, stress out. Simple formula.

There is no escaping being thrust into the horrid pit of grief – it can happen in a heartbeat or slowly creep upon you over time. Work out your circle. Leaning on people for support is a means of self-care. And self-care is the cornerstone of recovery from anything. It’s okay to grieve. You’re okay. Be kind and take care.

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