I will never forget that moment in the doctor’s office, when he explained to my then teenage daughter that she had cancer. It felt like an enormous black hole was about to suck me into a vortex of pain and fear, and at the same time I remember swiftly rearranging my thoughts and my face, forcing myself to be strong.
The next few months were challenging to say the least, but thankfully, and cutting a long story very short, after some complex operations, the cancer was completely cut out and my daughter was given the all clear. She was going to be ok.
We had hardly had time to gather ourselves together, when my father needed major heart surgery, suffered complications and then began a slow physical decline. And then he died. Shortly after dad’s funeral my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive ovarian cancer. I became her carer for the next year, her last. It was a bittersweet time, but she died in our local hospice almost exactly a year after my dad.
Then I crashed and burned. I was physically and mentally exhausted, as well as grieving.
These days many of us will be experiencing, or be alongside someone who is experiencing depression and possibly grief as a result of the Covid Pandemic. There’s a lot more written about mental health and grief, although it’s still a very difficult thing to navigate. I’m going to share a few really important principles I’ve learned through my own experience but I’m also signposting you to more specific support by the experts, whether you’re the one suffering or trying to support a partner, family member or friend.
Depression and grief, how are they similar and different?
Depression is regarded as a low mood that continues for a long time and affects everyday life. It can have many causes. Grief is much more complicated; it includes low mood and many more symptoms and the cause is the loss of a loved one. Grief and depression overlap and the principles I’ve learned would apply to both.
It’s ok that you’re not ok
This is the title of a book, more about that later, for the moment if you’re suffering take it as permission to be “not ok” for however long it takes.
We live with so many pressures in our media-hyped culture and the reality is that life isn’t always glossy, happy and wonderful, sometimes it sucks!
Megan Divine, author and grief counsellor who encountered personal tragedy herself as a result of the death of her husband, writes: …the truth about grief: loss gets integrated, not overcome. However long it takes, your heart and your mind will carve out a new life amid this weirdly devastating landscape. Little by little, pain and love will find ways to co-exist.”
Until you find yourself emerging just remember: it’s ok that you’re not ok.
Do what you need to do
We are all different and your experience of depression or grief or whatever it is you’re going through is unique to you. Just as people experience love in different ways, grief is a very personal, individual experience of loss and pain, there isn’t a formula to describe the process. Do what you need to do.
Try to connect with your partner (and other loved ones)
My husband told me that when I was suffering from depression and grief it was like living with a black hole, I sucked the life and joy out of everything. I couldn’t help it, it was the reality of grief for me. Metaphorically I wanted to live in a cave and lick my wounds with minimal contact with others but I also recognised that grief can be a very self centred experience, which is really hard on our loved ones.
I couldn’t change how I felt but I made an effort to talk as often as possible, to tell him what was going on inside, how raw and empty I felt. I often felt angry towards those who came close (especially those expressing sympathy and condolences) because I didn’t have the energy or emotional capacity for social niceties. Understanding my inner world helped my husband a little. We fumbled our way through conversations and both tried to be patient with each other. I was amazed at how kind he was, he just kept giving and giving without getting anything back from me for a very long time. I believe that making the effort to connect and talk, even with stumbling words, helped us stay connected.
How to help a grieving partner or friend…
Most people are uncomfortable with grief, depression and mental health issues generally and that leads them to say or do things without thinking. Much will be kindly meant, but it’s easy to be unhelpful. It’s tempting to rush and look at a list of do’s and don’t’s but it’s really important to understand two things, which underpin them all:
Grief and the associated pain and loss are not something to be fixed
You can’t give solutions, cheer people up, make people feel better and help them ‘get over it’! Fixing even feels offensive to the grieving person. Telling them that “everything happens for a reason” or that “God will bring something good from this” are not helpful things to say, particularly in the early, very raw period.
A person will, in time, find a way to learn to live with their loss and it’s their journey to take. Don’t try to fix, instead notice when you find yourself wanting to fix and nip it in the bud.
Be there and acknowledge the reality
Show up, listen and hold the person’s emotion even if your words are fumbling and awkward:
“I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say but it is really sad and hard…”
“There are no words to make things better, this is awful. I’m here for you.”
“I want to give you space, but I’m also worried about you, so I’m just checking how you are…”
Video from Megan Divine on ‘How to help a grieving friend (3 mins)’
Check out her website: refugeingrief.com
Other sources of help and support
I cannot recommend Megan Divine’s book highly enough. She offers a profound new approach to grief and it’s written in an empathetic, very real style and will give you great insights and a lot of practical help, whether you’re suffering grief yourself, or supporting someone you care for.
Mind — the mental health charity offers a wealth of information and support. There’s a helpful A‑Z of mental health conditions and much more on their website.