Grief is one of those things that everyone experiences at one time or another in their life and yet, grief is also an emotion not often spoken about.
Talking about grieving makes us uncomfortable and so we avoid discussing things that make us feel uncomfortable. We don’t talk about mental illness easily either. Imagine the double agony of grieving for a loved one with a mental illness? For many of us admitting to feelings of grief can make us feel selfish, fragile and weak. After all, our loved ones haven’t died so we can’t really be suffering, can we? In actuality, living with loved ones with mental illness can be challenging on many levels and facing our own feelings is part of the journey. We are grieving the loss of potential, the loss of good health, the inability to affect change and often, the awareness that someone we love will struggle daily throughout their life. We worry about our own fragility. If it could happen to our loved one, it could happen to us. Often caring for a loved one can be very demanding. There is little we can do sometimes and we can easily get caught up in the emotional roller coaster of our loved one. But how bad can it be? Surely, we can manage and just deal with it. We feel weak if the mental illness of our loved one is making us ill. So we don’t discuss that either. We fear judgements and comparisons from others and so we grieve in silence and isolation. The irony is that expression of grief is healing and will actually make us stronger and more resilient.
We understand grief when we can make sense of it; when we can relate to it on our own terms. Grief seems reasonable and understandable when we can rationalize the feeling. We make comparisons of how we would feel in the same situation when in reality we can never feel what someone else is feeling and we secretly hope we will never have to understand. To understand would mean we are suffering the same grief and we don’t want that. No one would dispute the feelings of grieve that are experienced when someone loses a loved one to death. If that death is from a long illness, tragic accident or death of a young child, we can empathize – we can imagine what that grief must feel like. In essence we hopefully will never really understand because we cannot truly understand what we haven’t experienced ourselves. But we can certainly relate to how this must feel.
We don’t relate the same way when referring to someone with mental illness. We hear judgments that the person should get help, and more frequently that they should just suck it up and move on. Imagine if your loved one died in a car accident, would it be ok for me to say “They shouldn’t have been driving anyways” or “No one else in the family ever died in a car accident” and “So what? People die all the time. Just get over it and move on.” Sounds cruel and ridiculous, doesn’t it? But we do it all the time when we are referring to mental illness challenges. It took me a long time to fully digest that my daughter is not ill because I divorced her father. She would have been ill anyways because her brain and her body are predisposed to it. Just like someone who is diagnosed with diabetes is predisposed to diabetes. Did eating too much sugar contribute? Of course! So did my divorce compound things for my daughter but the divorce itself did not cause her illness.
Grief can come in many forms with one thing in common. Grief strikes when there is a significant loss in our lives. It’s that empty, shocking, gut-wrenching feeling of having to accept something we don’t want to accept. Grief results from the longing to have what we had before and not just from a death. Grief comes when there is no replacement. No replacement will rekindle the unique relationship that was lost to you. That’s how it can feel when you have a loved one with a mental illness. You will never rekindle what you previously shared and they will never be the same again. They will be forever changed and so will you. We grieve for who they were before their illness and we grieve for the lost relationship we will never get back.
For many the grief they are experiencing is the loss of their own identity. Am I still a good mother if my child has a mental illness? Friends and family criticize; the mental health system blames some circumstance for triggering the illness. What if we have a child with diabetes? Do we receive the same judgment, shame and blame for a situation that is not our fault? No, we do not. But for some reason, it’s acceptable to blame a divorce on the mother of a child that is suicidal.
Grief strikes when we cannot make meaning of it;; when we cannot see any reason for what has happened. It seems senseless and that senselessness makes us angry because it isn’t fair. Perhaps you have been struggling for years with trying to understand your child’s problems, researching, and making professional appointments, only to be told that you are to blame and there are little or no services available. If my child was diagnosed with diabetes, and the doctor said it was my fault for feeding her sugar and there was no insulin available for 2 years, would that seem right to you?
We avoid discussing mental illness grief because we don’t know what to do. What can you do to help someone who is grieving the loss of wellness of a loved one? Your support and friendship seems to be of little help. And so we don’t discuss and pretend it doesn’t exist. Grief continues to grow in silence.
I have been there. I didn’t know how to cope and suffered for 2 years with depression trying to suppress my deepest sadness. I didn’t experience a death but I lost the healthy child I thought I had; the healthy child I so desperately wanted and thought I deserved. I felt ripped off, incredibly angry and overcome with gut-wrenching sadness. Because I did not learn to cope with my grief or even allow myself to feel any grief at all, I numbed my sadness and pretended it didn’t exist. Until my sadness took over and turned to depression which took 2 years to overcome and which still today, looms very nearby if I am not careful to take care of myself physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Grief needs to be expressed. The sadness needs to be expressed. Expression of your darkest feelings brings healing and resilience. Without grieving, the isolation, anger, resentment grows and will ruin your happiness and suck the joy out of your life.
Grief builds resilience. Not grieving builds depression.
We all want to be happy and joyful – that is common to all. So let’s learn to express our grief and learn from it. We need to understand the grieving process (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) whether a loved one has dies or whether they have a mental illness, the grieving process is the same. Although I could argue that grieving mental illness is more insidious since the person is still with you every day. There is no finality or closure that there is when someone dies.
How can you use what has happened to you to guide your life forward?
Here are 5 things I have found that have helped me grieve and live:
We need to accept that the grief will be with us for a long time and may creep up on us when we least expect it.
We need to stop comparing our lives to anyone else’s life.
We need to find simple joy and happiness in our everyday lives.
I am slowly beginning to find peace with my child’s illness and my grief. In fact, I am starting to understand how important my own understanding is in her journey to wellness. She has begun to find peace with her illness. We look at life differently now. We celebrate often and for no reason other than the fact, she is having a good day. She has taught me to persevere even when things are hard because that is what she faces every day. I never thought I would say this but I am grateful for the wisdom, compassion and resilience my daughter’s illness has taught me. I have learned more about compassion and empathy than I had ever expected.
I am a better person because of my grief.
In loving compassion,
For more information on my program “Supporting Families with Mental Illness”, please visit my website https://www.karenhannacoaching.ca/programs/support-families-living-mental-illness/