In 2010/11, I lost three people close to me in the span of six months.  Two to natural causes and one to depression.  Needless to say, it was not an easy time for Allen’s mental health.  And it didn’t get easier for nearly five years.

All three deaths were unexpected.  One of those people got admitted to the hospital with chest pain on a Friday and died on a Sunday.  One was found dead in their bed.  The other was suicide–and that’s always a shock.

It’s funny to say any death is unexpected or shocking for several reasons.  One, aren’t we all slowly dying from one thing or another?  If it’s not a disease, injury, or illness, age will eventually get us all, right?  Two, how can you not expect that a person will eventually die?  And three, I’ve had people close to me fight a losing battle for months or years with one thing or another–and I was still shocked when they died.  As though I expected an exception to be made to the rules or something.  We live.  Things happen for a while. We die.  That’s how the game is played.  Death shouldn’t be shocking.

But it almost always is.

Maybe that’s because I’m a big fatass who has made some truly questionable life choices in the past–yet here I stand.  Er, sit.  I’m a blogger writing a post after all.

Shouldn’t these people still be here if I am?

Life and Death are rarely fair or logical games.  The deck isn’t stacked in anyone’s favor.  Good or evil, kind or cruel, smart or dumb, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, this thing or that thing–Death doesn’t give a shit about your expectations.  It doesn’t care about arbitrary characteristics.  It comes for you when it comes for you.

That’s hard for those of us who expect to not lose people we shouldn’t have to lose.

So…in early 2011, I went into a grief spiral.  I didn’t get to say “goodbye” to any of those three people.  For better or worse, I didn’t get to tell them what they meant to me as a person.  What they contributed to my life.  I didn’t get to tell them that, regardless of history, I did, in fact, love them.

The hardest death was the suicide.  As I’ve mentioned, I have had a nearly lifelong battle with anxiety and depression.  The person who committed suicide had never had any known mental health issues before the suicide.  It was very unexpected, very sudden, and extremely shocking.  I had talked to this person on the phone.  It hadn’t been a good conversation.  There had been yelling and cursing and proclamations and fingers pointed and blame and laughter and…everything.  I had told them that I would never speak to them again–even to save my own life.  That’s how mad I was.  But this had been the way we had interacted for months.  It was normal for us.  This person committed suicide the next day.  I found out two weeks later.

I went into full-on mental health crisis mode.

From one day to the next, I felt so many things that I felt nothing.  Feeling everything and nothing is probably the worst part of grief.  You can’t process anything because you can’t separate one emotion from the other long enough to begin to move forward.

This went on for several months.  Then my therapist at the time told me, “It gets better.”  What a useless piece of advice.  WhenHow? When does it get better?  How do I help it get better?  What are the steps? Is it a sudden revelation like in the movies or do I slowly, bit by bit, start to feel things change? How do I recognize when things have gotten better?  When do I stop crying?  Actually, when do I start crying? When do I stop feeling depressed every day all day?  When do I stop having anxiety about the slightest noise? The slightest touch? When does every breath stop feeling like sandpaper in my throat?  How do I use my CBT to train myself to stop wondering if I’m the next person to succumb to depression?  How do I get back to being Allen now that my heart has been torn into three equal pieces?

How do I make sense of the fact that someone with no discernable mental health issues woke up one day and said…”fuck it”?

Every day when I wake up, I start the process of taking care of my mental health.  Day after day, I have to be cognizant of my feelings, my thoughts, my actions–and correct them so that they align with the way a mentally healthy person should be.  Some days it is easy or I don’t have to try at all.  Other days it’s a struggle to go from waking up to going back to sleep without imploding all while acting as though things are just fine so that I can have some semblance of “normal.”  But I manage.  I get by day after day.  And I’m grateful that I can.  But you’re telling me that someone who woke up depressed one day said: “I don’t ever want to feel like this a second time, so…”

Are you telling me that they were just weak?

How does it get better?  Nothing anyone could say or do would make any of this better.  So…I spent five years on edge, wondering if today was my day.  Wondering if I would lose my battle.  If my heart would ever be whole again.  If I would ever forgive myself for having that phone conversation.  If I could ever get over three lost opportunities to say: “Thank you for being part of my life.  I love you.  Goodbye.”

Around five years later, I woke up one day.  I waddled sleepily into the kitchen.  I went about my daily routine.  I started the coffee pot.  I found something in the fridge for breakfast.  I got everything together and sat down at the table and started to eat and sipped my coffee and drank a big cup of water.  Halfway through breakfast, I started to think about Halloween–it was coming up.  I thought about going to Spirit Halloween and looking at all of the decorations.  Maybe I’d go buy a pumpkin and carve one.  I love carving Jack-O-Lanterns.  And then it hit me.

I didn’t wake up wondering when things would get better.  I didn’t wake up and immediately check my mental health.

So…I stopped and set my fork down.  How did I feel?  Was I still mad at myself?  Did I feel guilty?  Did I feel confused?  I just felt sad.  But I also felt hopeful.  I could single out my emotions–understand how I felt.  I wasn’t overwhelmed with a million feelings and emotions at once.  I wasn’t in the middle of a battle with myself.  So…were things…better?

No.  They weren’t better.

They were different.

Three people I loved and who had had a profound impact on my life were gone.  Nothing would make that better.  Nothing could make that better.  Things didn’t get better.  Things had gotten easier.

That’s the thing about grief.  It makes things different.  And it’s a tough emotion to navigate, especially if you deal with mental illness.

So, no, things don’t get better.  They get easier.  Eventually. 

You just have to decide if you want to wait for eventually to come.  I’ll wait for eventually until Death decides that it’s going to take me–because I won’t go easy.  I’m a pretty competitive person, after all.

I gotta go.

Until next time…

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8 thoughts on “It Doesn’t Get Better – Reflections on Grief

  1. This is a great post, Allen. Thank you for sharing that with us. I really love your take that it doesn’t get better, it gets easier. Most of us with mental health issue will struggle with them all of our lives. Nothing will ever undo the hurt and loss and abuse and pain that we’ve felt–it will always be there and you’re right, it won’t get better. I don’t think anyone ever looks back on the pain of their past at any point and says, “Yea, that’s better.” That’s not how pain works; pain is painful.

    But it does get easier to deal with, to cope with. The pain become manageable. And honestly I think that’s better than the pain getting “better.” Because when you lose people you care about, it should make you sad. It should hurt, because losing loved ones–especially suddenly–is painful. If someone is stabbed, no one expects them to look back on it and be like, “Yea, having that knife jabbed into my flesh really wasn’t so bad, now that I think about it.” That would be strange. I think it’s strange when people don’t feel sad when they think about lost loved ones.

    I wasn’t surprised by any of my grandparents’ passing. Both my grandmothers had cancer and my grandfather had severe dementia. I lost my first grandmother almost fifteen years ago, it wasn’t a shock, I saw her before she died and told her I loved her. And it still hurts when I think about it. I still have regrets of not spending more time with her, of being so guarded with myself while she was here. I cry about it, still, to this day. And I think that was the best case scenario of losing a loved one I could have hoped for–time and opportunity and ability to say the right things before it was too late.

    And it’s still not better.

    Anyone who thinks it will ever be otherwise is either a liar or naïve, or maybe even a sociopath.

  2. Powerful stuff, my friend. I don’t know which is worse: a quick unexpected death or one you can (sort of) prepare for. My Dad died when I was 22 after a cancer diagnosis and 6 months of treatment. Mom died 8 years ago completely unexpectedly during surgery. Both are devastating in their own way. But suicide is a whole different ballgame. It’s devastating in a whole different way. My best friend’s son killed himself a couple of years ago and many days, the grief is just as fresh for her now as it was then. I do not suffer from depression, but it runs in my family. It is painful to watch someone you love battle those kind of demons. It’s even worse to watch them lose that battle. I’m glad you’re still here fighting the good fight. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Allen, this was powerful and I hope cathartic as well! You touch on so many important things in your post. The first thing that jumps out at me is that sometimes mental health issues aren’t obvious. Some people are much better at hiding their true thoughts and feelings than others. We are not mind readers and unless and until someone opens up, we can’t “just know.” Unfortunately, for some, it is that first suicide attempt or completion that is the first time we’re made aware that this person was struggling with their mental health. And that is such a fucking mind fuck! I’m so sorry you had to experience that with your friend/loved one. The point is, this person didn’t just go from mentally well to mentally unwell in a day. This person hid it and that’s on them. That doesn’t mean I don’t have all the compassion in the world for this soul, it just means that what they did was no one else’s fault. Maybe they simply didn’t know how to reach out for help, but again… not anyone’s fault.

    The other point that you make so well is that we don’t get to bypass grief. It is one of those things that we can’t go around, we simply have to go through in order to get to that new “normal”, that sense that while everything is different, we still have our life, and more and more, we stop feeling everything or nothing. We can smile and laugh and hope again. Yes, we miss our loved one/s, that doesn’t diminish, but life demands that at some point we get on with living. As it happened with you, it sort of sneaks up on you. The third thing is that we each have to learn how to manage our struggles, whatever they may be, even when they feel overwhelming. That means reaching out, that means admitting that we are only human. That each of us is worthy. That is hard. Again, Allen, your post is as real as it gets! Your sharing this is going to help someone else make sense of what they are going through. We may or may not know who that person is, but I feel it in my bones that this person will read what you wrote and it will be their saving grace! So thank you for writing this, Allen! Now I’ve gone on way too long! I’ll be thinking about what you’ve written for a very long time and for those I know will benefit from your wisdom, I will direct them here! Amazing post! A great big hug to you, blog buddy! Mona

    1. You brought up a good point about mental health issues not always being obvious. Later, I came to the realization that obviously there was depression at play with the suicide, but this person just never mentioned it and hid it well. Which, knowing this person, I should’ve come to that conclusion sooner. It was harder to understand how it went from no one knew what was going on to “oh, they’re dead now”. I know everyone handles their mental health issues differently and we all deal with different levels of shame about it (though we shouldn’t). Not everyone will be as open and brutally honest about it as I’d like…we’re all fighting battles other people don’t always know about. Wish it wasn’t like that, but here we are.

  4. I don’t think grief ever gets better…. we just learn ways to deal with it. And you’re right, no matter the circumstances, death always shocks us. I lost my father when I was 15 to a massive heart attack. I was shocked, stunned and numb. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him, miss him and wish he could have known me as an adult. I lost my mother 4 years ago to Non Hodgkins Lymphoma. She was an active, healthy, 10 days from her 91rst birthday woman who walked 3 miles every day. She was diagnosed and dead in 21 days. I shouldn’t have been shocked, stunned and numb… but I was. And not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, miss her and wish she was still driving me crazy. But I can get through the day without crying now… and that’s progress. With grief, that’s all you can ask.

    1. I’m sorry for your loss, friend. And I totally understand. Death, whether we expect it or not, really throws a person into a spiral. But, we pick ourselves up, get throw a day, two days, a week…and eventually we learn to be some version of our normal selves again. Life can be good again, but it’s never the same.

      1. Those we love leave holes in our lives when they pass. We can lead full lives, but they’re never quite filled…
        Very sorry for your losses as well. Suicide is heartbreaking. So many what ifs.
        😰

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