MENTAL HEALTH A-Z: G is for Grief; in memory of my stepfather

28.7.14 approx. 7:30am.

Bones chilled by grief-stricken screams.

Frantic searches of lifeless eyes – now haunted windows to a departed soul.

His body, once an embodiment of love and warmth, now a cold mass hardened by rigor mortis.

After a valiant two-year battle with Colon Cancer, our worst nightmare had come to pass.

Condoling phone calls, a revolving door of home visits and rooms filled with delivered floral arrangements signaled the end of a life well-lived and well-loved.

…A month and a half later I found myself making the transatlantic trek to Leeds, eager to embark on my journey as an International Postgraduate within the Business School. I was resolute in my conviction not to be the girl whose stepfather had just passed. I would be the resilient optimist who dominated the books and thrived in the nation notorious for “keeping a stiff upper lip.”

As forewarned by Freud: “unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”

By the Spring my unresolved grief had manifested itself into a dangerous depression. Unable to find comfort in a social circle formed on foreign foundations, I sought relief in drop-in sessions at the Student Counselling Centre’s weekly Parental Loss Support group meetings and occasional trips to the Samaritans office.  Despite these attempts, I still found myself hanging in the balance of “why did this happen?” and “I’m stronger for having experienced this.”  Rosé wine, anti-depressants and sleeping pills later became my anaesthetics of choice.

It wasn’t until I received the “don’t let life’s horrors get you down” text that I realized this truth: despite the universality & inevitability of grief, there remains a substantial disconnect between its emotional reality and other’s perception of it.

So what exactly is grief? Beyond the anticipated sadness and despair, it is anxiety, detachment, loneliness, irrationality and confusion. In its throes I felt nothing and everything.

While it may be true that social support can provide a much-needed buoyancy to lighten the depth of loss, it may also be a source of discomfort when expressions of “I just want you to be happy” or “He/she wouldn’t want you to feel sad” inherently convey impatience with the time-intensive nature of the healing process. Unsolicited advice on the necessities of letting go, moving on and pursuits of happiness are unfair burdens to place on an overstretched heart. Not only do these sentiments implicitly trivialize an extremely complicated emotion, they often evoke guilt and feelings of inadequacy when unmet. Should you find yourself supporting someone who is mourning, try swapping “I just want you to be happy” with “what can we do today to crack a smile?”

My final thoughts on grief? It is a convoluted state of mind that is exhausting in its intricacy. It is disquieting, isolating, and above all else, a rude awakening to life’s impermanency. It is also life’s greatest resistance training for the resilient cardiac muscles in our hearts; an evolutionary call to action that gives impetus to renewed understanding and enjoyment of life’s ephemerality.

When someone you love dies, a part of you dies with him/her.

There is no return to normalcy, simply the reconstruction of a new reality. What’s normal anyway? Your world becomes a mosaic constructed with the shattered pieces of the past – gilded and adorned with the silver linings of happy moments collected along the way.

“It doesn’t get easier. You just get better at dealing with it.”

Dana Fletcher

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